Solution to a minor Omagua toponymic mystery?

In the context of work that I’ve been carrying out on 17th and 18th century Omagua society, I’ve come to be interested in the etymology of the names of Omagua communities mentioned in the Jesuit records of the period, including those found on Samuel Fritz‘ map (a not awful copy is available here). A brief inspection of these names as given in these sources (e.g. Zuruité, Iviraté, Yoaivaté, and Aruparaté) reveal that most of them appear to consist of a nominal root (e.g. zurui = /surui/ ‘catfish sp.’ or ivira = /ɨwɨra/ ‘tree’) and a suffix -té. What, though, is the suffix in question?

An obvious first guess for a Tupí-Guaraní (TG) specialist would be the suffix -eté, found in most TG languages, which expresses meanings like ‘true’ or ‘real’. This suffix surfaces, for example, in Paraguayan Guaraní word yawareté ‘jaguar’ (lit. ‘true jaguar’, to distinguish it from yawar which now means ‘dog’, due to semantic shift). And indeed one finds cognates to this suffix in Omagua, as in the word Omaguayete ‘true Omaguas’, recorded in Jesuit sources, which was apparently the autonym for the Omagua group that lived on the Upper Napo (see here for details). But for two reasons, it seems unlikely that the -te found in the toponyms in question is the same suffix. In the first place, meaning of the form that would be derived seems implausible and unmotived: why would the Omaguas wanted to have called their communities ‘True Catfish’ or ‘True Tree’? Second, the form of the suffix in Omaguayete doesn’t quite seem to match that of the toponyms in question, since in the former it appears to be -yete, but in the toponyms, -te. Even if one argued, as one might want to (see below), that the form of the suffix in the toponyms is underlyingly -ete, it is unclear why vowel hiatus would have been resolved by vowel deletion in the toponyms, but not in the name of the Omagua subgroup autonym.

By chance, however, I recently noticed that in at least one TG language, Parintintín, a suspiciously similar suffix, -ete, is used to derive derive river names (Betts 1981). One possibility, then, is that -te did the same thing in Old Omagua (it no longer does), and that the 17th and 18th century community names were ultimately river names. Nothing would be more natural, in fact: indigenous Amazonian communities very frequently take as their names the names of nearby small tributaries. On this view, then, -te was an endocentric derivational suffix that derived hydronyms. Whether -te derived forms that denoted rivers in general or small rivers is unclear at this point. Although every Amazonian language I’ve done substantial work with exhibits hydronymic derivational morphology like this, some languages exhibit two (or more) morphemes that distinguish the size of the river, while others don’t. For example, Máíhɨ̃ki distinguishes two sizes of river (-ya ‘river’ and -gaya ‘creek’), but Iquito exhibits only a single hydronymic derivational suffix (-mu).

There are two things that would need to be done to properly evaluate the hypothesis sketched out above. First, it would be good to see if there are tributaries in former Omagua territory that actually bear names with the -te suffix. Of course, there has been a lot of toponymic turnover since the 18th century, when the Omaguas were decimated by disease and Portuguese slave raids, and largely abandoned their former territories. Names of Quechua origin have probably replaced most of the older Omagua names, but some traces may remain. I don’t have maps on hand of the necessary detail, but my big 3,300,000:1 scale map of the Amazon basin reveals one such tributary, Puruté, suggesting that some progress could be made here.

The second issue to examine would be to see if other TG languages exhibit a hydronym-deriving suffix cognate to Parintintín -ete. This would help reassure us that the resemblance between the Omagua and Parintintín suffixes is not a chance similarity.


Betts, L. V. 1981. Dicionário Parintintin-Portugues Portugues-Parintintin. Cuiabá: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s