The trouble with ‘Welcome’: On the incommensurability of interactional rituals

An influential tradition in linguistics has it that languages are, in some important sense, communicatively equivalent: anything that you can say in one language, you can say in another (modulo trivial lexical differences). I think this formulation is attractive to some because, apart from combatting racist claims about ‘primitive languages’, it deals a blow to certain understandings of linguistic relativity, which has long been a source of controversy.

There are many ways, however, in which any two given languages are not communicatively equivalent, as most people who have spent time living in two significantly different language communities will probably tell you. Part of the discrepancy here is that claims of communicative equivalence frequently focus on the ability to translate propositions of the “The cat is on the mat” variety, whereas the subjective sense of the non-equivalence of languages stems in part from the fact that certain interactional uses of language in one language have no clear counterpart in the other. One domain in which this is particularly clear is in that of interactional micro-rituals.

Let me illustrate this point in terms of the translatability of “thank you” between English and Nanti, an Arawak language of the Peruvian Amazon I have worked with. Nantis, like all human beings, perform acts for each other, and give each other gifts. Unlike speakers of English (and numerous other languages), however, Nantis do not express their gratitude by employing a routinized micro-ritual that makes use of a fixed expression like “thank you”. When I first started living in the Nanti communities, I was struck by what seemed to me to be the nonchalance with which Nantis accepted gifts, which seemed to me (since I was raised to expect SAE thanking micro-rituals) to border on a tremendous lack of enthusiasm for the gifts they frequently received from their kin and friends. I soon realized, however, that what mattered to Nantis was substantive reciprocation — that’s how they expressed their appreciation for gifts and services — and not a thanking micro-ritual. In a significant sense, then, there is simply no way to say “thank you” in Nanti. And this is not because Nantis are not considerate (they are extremely so) or unappreciative of favors done on their behalf, but simply because Nantis just do not employ a routinized micro-ritual based on a discursive formula to express gratitude and appreciation.

Let me now turn to a very public example of the translational knots into which one can tie oneself if one attempts to translate an interactional ritual from one language into another which lacks that ritual. In the late 1990s, the municipal government of Iquitos built a nice archway over the highway just outside the airport, designed to welcome people arriving in the city, and to bid farewell to those departing. As one can see in the image, the main part of the archway on is in Spanish, with two little extensions that feature a translation into English and another into Iquito. (For the political background on the surprising presence of prose written in a highly endangered indigenous language on this archway, see this post.) The correspondence in meaning between the Spanish and English is quite good, but as we shall see, the correspondence between the Spanish and Iquito is quite poor. The point I wish to make is that this discrepancy does not reflect any deficiency on the part of the translator, but rather, reflects the fact that the Standard Average European interactional micro-ritual represented on the arch has no direct counterpart in Iquito society.


Let’s take a closer look at the prose:

Spanish: Bienvenidos a nuestra tierra. ‘Welcome to our land.’ (my translation)
English (on the archway): Welcome to Iquitos.
Iquito (on the sign): Kishwara Kiníí.
Iquito (cleaned up): Quí-sihu+raa quí-níiya ‘I am visiting my land.’

We see that some liberties have been taken with the English translation — but certainly there would have been no difficulty rendering it more faithfully. The Iquito ‘translation’ however, seems to fall quite far from the mark. (The cleaned up version employs the official Iquito orthography; ‘+’ represents a high central vowel.) Right off, we see that the Iquito sentence seems to be using the wrong person — first person instead of second — and thus is not directed to the arriving traveller. Then we note that it implies that the arriving person is actually *from* the Iquitos area (‘*I* am visiting *my* land’), which runs counter to our expectations about the appropriate recipients of acts of ‘welcoming’. And finally, the sentence doesn’t have the right illocutionary force — it’s simply an observation, and doesn’t perform an act of welcoming.

The oddness of the Iquito translation here basically stems from the fact that there is no generic interactional micro-ritual of ‘welcoming’ in Iquito society, and no corresponding discursive formula (e.g. ‘bienvenidos’) for carrying out the ritual. This is not to say there are no welcoming micro-rituals at all, but rather that there is no all-purpose one. The one welcoming micro-ritual that I have seen in regular use is the expression: Tiquiaar+’+! Ajiít+qui! ‘Enter! Sit down!’, when a visitor shows up at the door of a house. But crucially, this is not a general welcoming ritual, but one tied to a particular interactional context. Consequently, there is no micro-ritual for welcoming someone to a place as large as a city or a ‘land’. To be clear, when someone shows up in an Iquito community, the residents can of course, be welcoming — by, for example, expressing pleasure at the arrival of the visitor or attending to their needs. The point is simply that there is no generic interactional micro-ritual for welcoming someone that employs some lexical homologue to ‘Welcome!’.

Contrast the Iquito situation with the Standard Average European micro-rituals of welcoming, which can be deployed in a very wide range of contexts:

Welcome to my home!
Welcome to Austin!
Welcome to Earth!
Welcome to the real world.

What we see then, is a lack of correspondence between SAE welcoming micro-rituals and those in Iquito society. I do not know the details of the story behind how the Iquito text wound up on the arch, but I can make an educated guess: a city official charged with obtaining the (non-existent) equivalent in Iquito to “Bienvenidos a mi tierra” located an Iquito speaker and asked him or her to translate it. The Iquito speaker, put on the spot by the important official, thought furiously about how to satisfy the official’s request, and came up with a rough calque based on the similarity between venir ‘come’ and sihu+ráani ‘visit’, thereby giving quí-sihu+raa ‘I am visiting’ as an equivalent for bienvenidos ‘welcome’. This got the Iquito speaker out of a tight spot, and the official left happy, with something to put on the new arch. But really, the Iquito speaker was in an impossible situation: that of coming up with a discursive formula for a type of micro-ritual that simply doesn’t exist in Iquito society.

If the observations of colleagues working in other societies is any indication, the incommensurability of SAE micro-rituals like the ones I’ve been discussing here with those found in small-scale societies is actually the norm. Why might this be? If we reflect about the interactional distribution of welcoming and thanking (and we can throw in saying ‘please’), it’s fairly clear, I think, that these micro-rituals are primarily employed in interacting with non-intimates. The existence of these rituals is in part an artifact of our need in large-scale societies to constantly maintain superficially amicable short-term relationships with strangers and near-strangers. In small-scale societies, on the other hand, the need to grease the wheels of interaction with non-intimates is minimal, and consequently, the micro-rituals developed to deal with non-intimates are absent.

The obvious next question is whether small scale societies give rise to broad classes of interactional micro-rituals not found in large scale ones, which involve discursive formulas that are as difficult to translate into SAE languages as SAE formulas are to translate into Nanti and Iquito. So far, my best guess concerns forms of requesting and inviting that are highly inexplicit, and do not call for any overt acceptance or rejection by an interlocutor. For example, in Nanti society, people employ the expression Aityo oburoki (lit. ‘There is manioc beer.’) to invite someone to a manioc beer party. This constitutes an invitation, but not one that requires any kind of response, thereby allowing the recipient of the invitation to avoid committing to attend or rejecting the invitation. I’m not sure that there is a discursive formula in English which both constitutes an invitation and yet permits the invitee to be totally non-committal in response. Certainly this can be achieved by elaborating on the invitation (“Hey, no pressure, but we’ve got some manioc beer, and if you want, y’know, you can come — but hey, only if you want…”) but that’s not quite the same. In Nanti society, there are numerous interactional micro-rituals like Aityo oburoki which allow interactants to make requests and offers in such a way as to avoid social embarrassment, which I could see as advantageous in a small close-knit society in which it is important for neighbors and kin to get along. I’d be interested to know if other people have found similar micro-rituals in other small-scale societies.

In any event, I think that these micro-rituals nicely illustrate that language use becomes routinized in particular cultural-interactional niches for particular social-actional ends, resulting in conventionalizations of linguistic form for which it may be difficult to find cross-linguistic communcative equivalents.


Of tobacco spirits and tobacco changelings: The etymology of seripigari, Part III

In previous posts (here and here) I have worried the Matsigenka word seripigari ‘shaman’ in an effort to arrive at a decent etymology for the word. I ultimately concluded that the term was originally a compound: seri ‘tobacco’ + pigari ‘seer’, where the head of the compound is a nominalized form of the verb pig ‘hallucinate, see visions’.

Having arrived at what I find to be a fairly satisfactory conclusion to the etymological puzzle presented by seripigari, I now wish to throw a serious wrench into the works: some Matsigenkas, instead of saying seripigari, say seripegari. Moreover, as Chris Beier noted in a comment to my first post on the subject, if we look in the first published dictionary of Matsigenka, Pio Aza’s 1923 Vocabulario español-machiguenga, we actually find the seripegari variant and not the seripigari variant.

At this point, I must admit I find the occurrence of the seripegari variant to be quite mysterious, although I have three hypotheses about the form. Before I go into these in detail however, I want to observe that cognates of seripigari/seripegari are to be found in all the Kampan languages, suggesting that the term is an old one, and probably reconstructs to Proto-Kampan, which I estimate was spoken some 750-1000 years ago. So its important to keep in mind that the history of this term could be quite complex, and it will probably not be possible to lay this issue to rest until a great deal more historical work has been carried out on the Kampan family.

There are two basic ways to account for the Matsigenka facts. The first is to assume that the seripegari is essentially the Proto-Kampa form, and that seripigari is an innovation that has spread to certain dialects of Matsigenka. The second is to assume the converse: that seripigari is the original form and that seripegari is the innovation.

So, the first idea for accounting for the seripigari ~ seripegari variation is that the original form of the term in Proto-Kampa was, in fact, seripegari, and that in some varieties of Matsigenka, there was a sound shift from /e/ to /i/. We know for a fact that some Kampan varieties (e.g. certain varieties of Ashéninka) systematically experienced this very change, which suggests that we are on the right track. However, we find the form seripigari even in varieties that did not experience the systematic sound change, such as Nomatsigenga and Matsigenka itself, which raises a problem with the sound change analysis.

On the other hand, if we compare certain forms in Matsigenka with those in the closely-related language Nanti, we do see some /i/:/e/ correspondences: ponchoheni ‘bird sp.’ (Nanti), ponchoini ‘bird sp.’ (Matsigenka); pomerintsih ‘take pains doing something (v.)’ (Nanti), pomirintsi ‘work hard (v.)’ (Matsigenka); taheri ‘tree sp.’ (Nanti), tairi ‘tree sp.’ (Matsigenka). The curious thing about these correspondences is that they appear to be idiosyncratic. That is, they do not seem to be the result of regular sound changes, as it does not appear possible to identify an environment that correctly predicts the alternations. In conjunction with data from other Kampan languages, we can identify the sound change in these idiosyntractic cases as /e/ to /i/ in Matsigenka, but the reason for the sound changes in these isolated instances remains quite mysterious to me. (One possible explanation for this situation is the Matsigenka references may be mixing forms from more than one dialect, in such a way that obscures the systematicity of the sound changes.) So, examples like this seem to give credence to the idea that Matsigenka has undergone some irregular /e/ to /i/ changes, which could account for the seripigari form in Matsigenka, despite the fact that Matsigenka has not undergone a systematic /e/ to /i/ change. However, if we accept the idiosyncratic sound change hypothesis, we would be forced to hypothesize an identical idiosyncratic change in Nomatsigenka, which is not particulalry plausible.

Another possibility is that the current distribution of seripigari and seripegari in Matsigenka is due to language contact among Kampan languages. For example, one possibility is that the occurence of the seripigari variant is a result of relatively recent language contact between Matsigenka and Ashéninka speakers, which has resulted in the displacement of the hypothesized hisotrically prior Matsigenka seripegari variant. This is not as crazy as it might first seem. I have noted, for example, that the Ashéninka word shirampari ‘man’ has displaced the Matsigenka word surari ‘man’ in parts of the Lower Urubamba River valley. I believe that the primary language contact occurred in the Picha River basin (which is an affluent of the Urubamba), where some Ashéninkas resettled in traditionally Matsigenka territories in the 1970s and 1980s to escape the violence of the Shining Path in their home territories to the west. From there, its seems that shirampari spread from Matsigenka speaker to Matsigenka speaker. I’ve heard the word in use as far east as Cashiriari, the uprivermost Matisgenka community on the Camisea River, which is quite far from the Picha Basin. (Note also that there is intense interaction between Nomatsigenga speakers, who also use the seripigari form, and Ashéninka speakers.) In certain respects I think this is a nice explanation, in that it tidily explains why there are two variants of the word in use by Matsigenka speakers. However, we would really need a lot more information to confirm or falsify this hypothesis. At the very least it would be nice to have isoglosses for the two variants. Any records about the date at which seripigari began to be used by Matsigenkas would also be helpful.

Note that if either of the two preceding explanations is basically correct, we would need to completely rethink the etymology of seripigari/ seripegari. Following the reasoning in my previous post, I would need to locate an intransitive verbal root peg that is consonant with Kampan ideas about shamanism to serve as the basis for the nominalized head of the compound.

When we do so, however, the options are not particularly promising. The best is peg ‘become invisible’, but Matsigenka shamans are not particularly known for becoming invisible. However, we find that in Ashéninka, the word peyari, which is cognate to Matsigenka pegari, means ‘spirit’ (lit. ‘fantasma’)(Payne 1980, p103). So plausibly, the compound seripegari originally meant something like ‘tobacco spirit’. The problem I see with this term is that it would seem to have originally denoted not the shaman, but rather his spirit helpers. Semantic shift is certainly a possibility (consider, for example, the multiple senses of ‘leech’ in traditional European medicinal practice, where the term applied to both the invertebrate and the person who employed them for curing), but I beginning to feel like I’m stretching here.

It is interesting to note, in this regard, that in Payne’s entry for sheripiyari ‘curandero, hechicero’ (healer, witch doctor) (p. 126), he actually proposes the etymology sheri ‘tobacco’ + peyari ‘fantasma’ (ghost, spirit). So even in Ashéninka we run across a mismatch in the vowel quality between the synchronic term and its supposed components under the etymology we are presently considering. Its possible that there is a tidy historical explanation for this discrepancy, but at this point I am beginning to feel that the semantic and phonological difficulties piling up for the Proto-Kampa *seripegari hypothesis render this option unattractive, even if we appeal to language contact processes.

So I think that the most plausible hypothesis at this point is that the Proto-Kampa form was indeed *seripigari and that the seripegari is an innovation in Matsigenka. The question, then, is why such a change has occurred in certain Matsigenka dialects. It would be nice if there were any evidence of dissimilation phenomena in Matsigenka that could account for this, but I have not come across any signs of such a process. Another possibility is that some Matsigenkas have reanalyzed seripigari as seri + pegari on semantic grounds — a kind of Amazonian eggcorn that subsequently gained currency as a kind of folk etymology. For this hypothesis to have much chance of being correct, we would need to have evidence that ‘transformation’ plays a prominent role in Matsigenka conceptions of shamanism. There is actually some evidence for evidence for this, as Allen Johnson notes (pdf):

In the Matsigenka conception a seripigari works by changing places with his spirit helper (or counterpart, or double) among the unseen ones. Working only at night, the seripigari drinks ayahuasca and climbs the ladder or notched pole to his platform (menkotsi) in the roof beams of his house. According to Shepard (1990: 32), the seripigari’s counterpart simultaneously drinks ayahuasca and the two trade places, occuping each other’s bodies. The spirit is now present in this world to help treat those who need his powers.

Under this analysis then, Matsigenkas have reanalyzed the proto-Kampan seripigari, originally meaning ‘tobacco seer’, as seripegari ‘tobacco changeling’, or the like. At this point, this is the best hypothesis I have for explaining the seripigari ~ seripegari that fits the historical facts for the Kampan family. However, I strongly suspect that further historical work on the Kampan family will reveal complexities I have yet to understand, so I expect to be writing a Part IV post in a couple of years…


Shepard, Glenn. 1990. Health and healing plants of the Matsigenka in Manu, Southeastern Peru. Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley. Ms.

Payne, David. 1980. Diccionario Ashéninca – Castellano. Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

Snell, Betty. Pequeño Diccionario Machiguenga – Castellano. Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

Kampan Dilemma

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about a dilemma which has been bothering me more and more over the past few months. The dilemma concerns the name to use for the sub-branch of the Arawak language family that I work with, which includes Ashéninka, Asháninka, Kakinte, Nanti, Nomatsigenga, and Matsigenka. At this time, one encounters two different names for this family in the scholarly literature: `Pre-Andine (Arawak)’ and ‘Kampan’ (also ‘Kampa’ and ‘Campa’). Unfortunately, each name suffers from certain drawbacks which make me wish there was a good alternative, but I am very hesitant about inventing a third name. My decision thus far is to use ‘Kampan’, but I remain somewhat uneasy about this choice. Let me explain.

First, what’s wrong with ‘Pre-Andine’? Basically, the problem is that the history of the term makes it very ambiguous what set of languages one is referring to by the term. The term was originally coined by Paul Rivet for a proposed grouping of Arawak languages that encompassed what are now commonly known as the Kampan and the Pur\’us branches. The best known languages of the latter branch are Yine (Piro) and Apurinã (Ipurina). Later, Yanesha’ (Amuesha) and the Harakmbet family were added, and each subsequently removed. As David Payne showed back in 1991, however, there is little evidence to support even the grouping together of the Kampan and Purús languages. All recent classifications treat the Purús branch as coordinate with the Kampan branch within Southern Arawak. Similarly, Yanesha’ was removed from Pre-Andine, and is now sometimes grouped with Chamicuro. Those who retained the term `Pre-Andine’ employed it for this successively dwindling group, until only the Kampan languages remained, rendering `Pre-Andine’ coextensive with `Kampan’.

So, my basic objection to `Pre-Andine’ is that it was initially coined to denote a grouping that includes the Kampan branch as a subgroup, which, as far as I’m concerned, renders its use to denote only the Kampan group as rather suspect. Perhaps worse, from the perspective of scholarly communication, one can never be sure without further investigation, when someone uses the term ‘Pre-Andine’, which version of ‘Pre-Andine’ they have in mind. With or without Amuesha? With or without the Purús branch? Its a mess.

But I think I understand why some people prefer ‘Pre-Andine’ to ‘Kampa(n)’ — the latter term carries with it some political baggage that renders it somewhat unattractive. In the early colonial period ‘Campa’ was used by the Spaniards to refer to all the, well, Kampan peoples. Since then, however, the term has come to be used principally in relation to the groups that are also known as the ‘Asháninka’ and ‘Ashéninka’. In the last few decades, however, the political leadership of these groups have expressed that they find the term ‘Campa’ derogatory, and have been successful in getting many outsiders to adopt the ethnonyms ‘Asháninka’ and ‘Ashéninka’ instead (see this post for some discussion of the politics of ethnonyms in Peruvian Amazonia).

As a result, linguists scrupulously avoid using ‘K/Campa’ to denote individual languages, but many continue to use it to denote the sub-branch of Arawak to which these languages belong. As far as I know, there has been no complaint about this sub-branch-level use of the term ‘K/Campa’, but I could easily imagine such complaints arising. So, what to do, if one does not want to fall back on ‘Pre-Andine’?

Sure, one could invent a new term, but except for a small group of linguists who prefer ‘Pre-Andine’, most linguists, and Arawakanists in particular, know and use the term ‘K/Campa’ for the family in question. I fear it would only confuse matters to introduce a third term. And as a junior scholar, I feel that I am in an especially weak position to suggest a new term. So thus far, I have kept using ‘Kampan’, but somewhat uneasily. What I see as the ideal resolution to this issue would be to ask the assembled political leadership of the, uh, Kampan peoples what they think should be done about the name of the sub-branch. Such an endeavor would be logistically difficult, but not entirely impossible. I’d be interested to know if other readers have faced dilemmas of this sort, and how they have dealt with it

Of tobacco seers: The etymology of seripigari, part II

In my previous post on the etymology of the Matsigenka word seripigari ‘shaman’, I argued that a number of proposed etymologies for this word were flawed in crucial ways. In this post I propose an alternative analysis that I believe better fits the linguist facts.

I believe the key insight we need to improve our etymology of seripigari is that the -ri nominalization involved in the derivation of seripigari derives an agentive nominal. This means that were seripigari derived from the transitive verb pig ‘intoxicate’, the resulting nominalized form would denote some sort of ‘intoxicator’, i.e. someone or thing that intoxicates others. However, this is problematic for two reasons. First, this does not make much sense in terms of the meaning of the form seripigari, since the shaman generally does not, in general, intoxicate others with, say, tobacco, but rather intoxicates himself. Second, and more problematic from a morphological standpoint, transitive nominalized forms generally exhibit a morpheme corresponding to the object person marker in the verb form. An example of this phenomenon is given by the deverbal noun shintarorira ‘parent of a female child’, derived from the transitive verb shinto ‘have a female child’, where the morpheme -ro corresponds to the object of the verb.

These facts strongly suggest that the verb root visible in seripigari is not a transitive root, but rather, an intransitive one. If we then look at the set of phonologically plausible instransitive candidates, one leaps out as being especially compatible with the role of a shaman, piga ‘hallucinate, have visions’. The corresponding -ri-nominalized form would be pigari ‘hallucinator, seer of visions’ — I’ll use gloss the shorthand gloss ‘seer’.

If this reasoning is correct, the seri ‘tabacco’ of seripigari did not originate as a verbal argument of a verb that subsequently underwent nominalization, but is instead the non-head element in a NN compound, where pigari ‘seer’ is the head. One of the very nice consequences of this analysis is that it resolves the absence of a person marker corresponding to the referential NP seri that we would expect to see if seri originated as a verbal argument. If this analysis is correct, the original meaning of seripigari was ‘tobacco seer’, by which we would understand, presumably ‘one who sees visions by means of tobacco’. Note, incidentally, that once we analyze seripigari as a compound, which we are forced to if we stipulate that the verb root in question is the intransitive piga, then we are freed from many of the difficulties posed by semantic role restrictions forced upon us by assuming that seri originates as a verbal argument. (Note that seripigari is not a synthetic compound (e.g. ‘truck driver’ or ‘window washer’), and indeed, I am not aware of any synthetic compounds in Matsigenka.)

In my next and final post on the etymology of seripigari I will discuss an additional complication I have not yet discussed, but at this point I want to reflect on whether the etymology I have proposed gives us any greater insight into the cultural significance of Matsigenka shamans. Certainly the new etymology suggests that tobacco played a major role in shamanic visions at the time that the compound was formed, a hypothesis that fits with certain ethnohistorical facts. Shepard and Yu, for example, report that ayahuasca, a hallucinogen used in many parts of the Amazon basin as a component of shamanic practice, was introduced in at least certain Matsigenka areas as late as the 1950s. Although ethnographers have tended to project ayahuasca use by Matsigenka shamans back into the distant past, the fact that Matsigenka shamans are refered to as ‘tobacco seers’ (seripigari) rather than ‘ayahuasca seers’ (kamarampipigari — NB: this is my own nonce coinage) supports the idea that ayahuasca use by Matsigenka shamans may be a relatively recent innovation, going back, perhaps, little more than a century. Some ethnobotanists that I have talked with have suggested that the ‘traditional’ medicinal practices documented among Amazonian peoples may in fact have been significantly shaped by the effects of the Rubber Boom, and that widespread use of ayahuasca in Amazonia may in part reflect a sharing of shamanic practices among Amazonian peoples in response to the ravages of that era. If this hypothesis is correct, the term seripigari is an indication of the previously more prominent role of tobacco, rather than ayahuasca, in inducing visions in Matsigenka shamanic practice.

Tobacco, intoxication, and many happy returns: The etymology of seripigari, Part I

Little did I realize when I first started writing about Matsigenka etymology that there is quite a little etymological cottage industry among cultural anthropologists who study Matsigenka society — especially those focusing on matters related to Matsigenka spirituality/religion. Personally, I suspect that this etymological tradition all began with seripigari ‘shaman’. That is, the word seripigari — the shamans themselves are, of course, blameless. The word seripigari exhibits a degree of semantic compositionality that I think appeals to many scholars’ imaginations. One can immediately spot two roots in the word — seri ‘tobacco’ and pig ‘intoxicate, poison’ (or so it seems) — and as it so happens, tobacco intoxication plays a major part in Matsigenka shamanism. How cool is that? The word therefore appears to have a simple etymology, and I have a hunch that this etymological coup has made Matsigenka specialists optimistic about etymology as tool for understanding Matsigenka spiritual and religious beliefs. (See for example, my discussion of proposed etymologies for matsikanari ‘dark shaman’, here, and sankarite ‘invisible being’, here.)

It turns out upon closer inspection, however, that seripigari is full of etymological traps for the unwary, and even poses some interesting challenges for the etymologically savvy. Since the etymological speculation surrounding this word shows how subtle etymological work can be, and how tricky it is to use it as a tool for cultural analysis, I want to examine in some detail one particular etymological discussion of seripegari, in a paper by Dan Rosengren (download the PDF here). In my next post, I will propose an alternative analysis.

Rosengren opens his etymological discussion of seripigari thus:

The Matsigenka shaman is known as seripigari, a word that is constructed from seri meaning ‘tobacco,’ piga, which is a concept with a complex meaning dimension, and the suffix -ri, being the third person male pronominal object, that is, ‘him.’ One common mode of translating pigagantsi (i.e., the infinitive of piga) is “to intoxicate” which would render seripigari “he who is intoxicated by tobacco” (cf. Baer 1992).

Rosengren, like his predecessors, correctly identifies the roots (well, mostly, the verbal root he refers to is actually pig, not piga), but then runs aground on the suffix -ri, which is almost certainly not the 3rd person masculine object marker, but is instead the homophonous deverbal nominalizer -ri. There are a number of reasons for reaching this conclusion. First, seripigari is a noun, whereas pig is a verb, so we need some kind of deverbal nominalization to derive a noun. Second, were -ri a person marker, then that would mean that seripigari is a verb. In that case, because of the way the verb class of pig `intoxicate’ and the way Matsigenka mood inflection works, the suffix following the root would have to be -i (realis mood, i-class suffix), instead of the -a (realis mood, a-class suffix) we seem to see, were we to consider seripigari a verb. (If anyone is really interested I can go into detail about Matsigenka verb classes.) However, if seripigari is a derived noun, we would expect an epenthetic a in that position, as we indeed find, because of a lexical phonological process that ‘repairs’ instances of phonotactically illicit syllable structure. And third, if seripigari were a verb, we would also expect to find a subject person marker corresponding to the referential NP seri, resulting in something like seriopigari, which we do not find. The evidence is pretty strong then, that -ri is a deverbal nominalizer, and not a person marker.

But what was Rosengren getting at by referring to pig as a “concept with a complex meaning dimension”? This becomes clear in the following passage:

Another possible meaning dimension is suggested by Shepard (1998: 331) who notes that pigagantsi also can be translated as “to return” which would render seripigari “the one who returns tobacco.” Shepard sees this return as a reference to the regurgitation of tobacco that the shaman has swallowed and then passes on to his apprentices who in this process acquire the same magical powers as their teacher.

The “complex meaning dimension” in question is simply a case of homophony involving the intransitive verb pig ‘return’ and the transitive verb pig ‘intoxicate’. To be clear, there is nothing profound or interestingly “conceptual” about this case of homophony, just as there is nothing profound in the homophony of the English words mine (possessive demonstrative) and mine (hole in the ground for extracting minerals). Nor is there anything really “complex” about the meaning of the words involved; neither are particular problems posed by their homophony — due to their different valencies, there is generally little difficulty in determining which of the two homophonous verbs one is facing in discourse.

As for Shepard’s highly creative etymology: it is, despite its cleverness, very unlikely to be correct. The basic difficulty with the “one who returns tobacco” etymology is that the verb ‘return’ would have to be used transitively for it to be correct. In English, of course, ‘return’ exists as both a intransitive verb and a transitive one: one can either say “MacArthur returned.” (intransitive) or “MacArthur returned his defective pipe.” (transitive). But the Matsigenka verb pig does not have both intransitive an transitive forms: it is resolutely intransitive. In order to use the verb transitively, one has to use the causative prefix ogi-, thereby deriving the verb stem ogipig, as in:

Nogipigakero pihachane.
`I returned your axe.’

Clearly, seripigari does not involve this derived stem. Moreover, since seri ‘tobacco’ is the thing being returned, we would expect it to be in object position, following the verb, rather than in subject position, preceding the verb. (This simplifies a complicated issue — we would also expect an object person marker.) So, Shepard’s etymological hypothesis is unlikely to be correct, but the stem ogipig makes a reappearance in this discussion, below.

But returning to his idea of ‘complex meaning dimension’, Rosengren continues:

I assume, though, that the receivers of the tobacco also could be the saangarite spirits who in mythical time gave the Matsigenka the tobacco and whom shamans now daily feed with tobacco smoke and syrup. Of the various possible translations of the word seripigari I do not believe that one necessarily is more correct than any other; the different translations rather reflect different aspects of the complex whole.

I can appreciate Rosengren’s generous pluralism, but I feel it is misplaced here. First, Rosengren refers to the different etymologies as different “translations”, which suggests to me that he conflates the common idea that multiple translations may be possible for a given word, with the fact that one may propose various etymologies for a word. This suggests that Rosengren has fallen prey to the Etymological Fallacy, the idea that the ‘true meaning’ of a word is uncovered by an analysis of its historical orgins (i.e. etymology). There is really only one “translation” for seripigari, ‘shaman’, despite the fact that there are multiple proposed etymologies (I’m glossing over some subtleties here, but what I’m saying is true enough for the purposes at hand). Second, if we are indeed talking about the etymology of seripigari, the noun was either derived from a given verb or it was not. At whatever historical point that derivation occurred, the individuals who derived and employed the word were thinking about either ‘intoxication’ or ‘returning’ (or what have you), and derived the word accordingly. Since the two concepts do not form any meaningful “complex whole”, the derivation would have been synchronically unambiguous, as difficult as it may prove for us to figure it out from our present vantage point.

Moreover, it is clear that Rosengren considers the “complex whole” in question to to be quite philosophically profound, and here we clearly pass from etymology to cultural analysis, by way of the Etymological Fallacy. Consider the following passage:

Associated with the word pigagantsi [a nominalization of the verb pig – LM] is gipigagantsi which, according to Snell (1998: 92) means among other things 1) to make one return to the place of origin, and to send back (to return). The shaman is, accordingly, also he who returns to the primordial conditions that initially was shared by all Matsigenka, i.e., humans and saangarite alike.

The form gipigagantsi is a nominalization of the verb stem ogipig ‘make return, return (transitive)’, the causativized form of the verb pig ‘return (intransitive)’, as evident in the definitions provided. In a leap that I have to admire for its sheer intellectual daring, Rosengren then concludes that because gipigagantsi `make return (nom)’ is “associated” with pigagantsi ‘return (nom)’ and because he associates the latter (mistakenly, see above), via his “complex whole” theory, with seripigari, that Matsigenka shamans return to mystical “primordial conditions”.

There are two obvious difficulties with this theory, however. First, as discussed above, there is no good reason to believe that seripigari is derived from pig ‘return’. This means that gipigagantsi is not “associated” with the form of pigagantsi to which seripigari is historically related, removing the entire basis for Rosengren’s mystical conclusion.

Second, and yet more problematic from the standpoint of linguistic analysis: even were gipigagantsi ‘make return’ and seripigari related to each other by virtue of being derived from the same verb (which they are not), this relationship would not justify the analysis of the meaning of one derived form on the basis of the meaning of the other derived form. One cannot ignore the fact that derivations in question alter the meanings of resulting forms.

To see this, consider the intransitive English verb ‘run’. From this we can derive an agentive nominal ‘runner’. We can also find a transitive version of the verb ‘run’, as in ‘run cattle’, that is historically related the intransitive verb. If we were to follow Rosengren’s method, we would then look at the meaning of transitive ‘run’ to give us insight into ‘runner’. For example, I might conclude that running athletes are associated with cattle farming. Or whatever.

Having argued against some of the proposed etymologies of seripigari, what can I propose in their place? As it turns out, seripigari presents some interesting challenges from a analytic standpoint, but this post is already long enough; stay tuned for my next post.

I want to close by remarking on the fact that the difficulties we see in Rosengren’s and Shepard’s analyses are evidence for the argument that Linguistics and Anthropology, as disciplines, suffer from their institutional estrangement. A modest understanding of historical linguistics and descriptive morphosyntax would have been sufficient to steer the two authors away from some highly inventive, but ultimately fanciful, etymologies. Unfortunately, most anthropologists, as far as I can tell, receive little training in linguistic anthropology, let alone linguistics, and thus remain unfamiliar with bodies of scholarship which could be very helpful to them. The intellectual marginalization of linguistics within linguistic anthropology, and the institutional marginalization of the latter sub-discipline within anthropology departments only exacerbates the problem, as these forms of marginalization mean that anthropologists must go far out of their way to learn about areas of linguistics which would enrich their work. It seems to me that the recent boom in documentary and descriptive linguistics is leading some linguists to a renewed interest in and openness towards Anthropology, but Anthropology’s disciplinary momentum seems to be carrying it further away from Linguistics. This strikes me as an unfortunate situation, but it is not clear to me what can be done about it.


Shepard Jr., Glenn (1998) “Psychoactive Plants and Ethnopsychiatric Medicines of the Matsigenka,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Vol.30(4): 321-332.

Snell, Betty (1998) Pequeño Diccionario Machiguenga – Castellano. Documento de Trabajo no. 32. Peru: Instituto Lingüístico de Verano.

Monosyllabic grunts: A comment on language and racism

It is hardly news by this point to most students of language that statements about language can serve as support for, or more subtly still, proxies for, racist evaluations of a people or sub-group. I recently came across an stunning example of this while browsing though The Jungle is a Woman, a sensationalist travelogue written by Jane Dolinger, published in 1955. The book focuses on Dolinger’s experiences while travelling through parts of the Peruvian montaña (hence my interest), or as the cover of the book has it: “The adventures of an American girl in the Green Hell of the Amazon”. The book is replete with mid-century tropes about the neo-tropics: piranhas, disease, and of course, “primitives”, which is where language comes into the story.

At one point, while staying in an Asháninka community, Dolinger runs into another indigenous group, which she characterizes as “Pre-Stone Age primitives”. However, its pretty clear from the photos included in the book that they are simply another Kampan group, probably a sub-group of Asháninkas that avoided interaction with mestizo society. Waxing ecstatic about these “primitives”, and in the course of suggesting connections with Neanderthals and Pithecanthropus, Dolinger writes:

Their language consisted of monosyllabic words to which they added unintelligible grunts.

The tremendously strange thing about Dolinger’s claim here is that Asháninka words (and those the Kampan languages more generally) are about as far as one can get from monosyllabic. In the first place, the Kampan languages all have a disyllabic minimum word requirement (unlike, say, um … English!), which means that there are *no* monosyllabic words in these languages. In the second place, these languages are headmarking and highly polysynthetic, which means that words in these languages can get to be *huge* (According to Payne (1981), words of up to 25 syllables are possible in Ashéninka).

Whatever Dolinger was hearing, then, we can be sure it wasn’t monosyllabic words. How then did Dolinger arrive at the description of this langauge as one composed of monosyllabic grunts? Was this just some post-hoc embroidering to make the “primitives” look, well, “primitive”? Or did the fact that she had already categorized them as “primitives” actually influence the way she heard the language? We’ll probably never know. But the connection in Dolinger’s prose between primitive language and cultural primitiveness, in the spirit of 19th century cultural evolutionary thought, is clear. Either way, it is worth noting that English much more closely approximates a language of monosyllabic grunts than Asháninka does (check out all the monosyllabic words in this post!).

I think this example does a great job in showing how students of language have a tremendous advantage when responding to racist discourse like that of Dolinger’s when compared to scholars in other disciplines: racist claims based on language are frequently incrediby easy to empirically debunk. And now that talk about language is becoming one of the last respectable redoubts of racism in the US, the role of linguists and linguistic anthropologists in countering nonsense of this sort is increasingly important.

References Cited

Payne, David. 1981. The phonology and morphology of Axininca Campa. Summer Institute of Linguistics

Close but no guan: adventures in Matsigenka etymology

My conversations with cultural anthropologists working in the Amazon Basin suggest that many of them view word etymologies as a way to get at deep or hidden cultural meanings associated with the referents of those words. There is something to this idea, but between the etymological fallacy and false etymologies, one can very quickly skate out out onto thin ice in using etymologies in this way.

I recently came across a mention of the Matsigenka word matsikanari, roughly ‘witch’ or ‘dark shaman’, in Allen Johnson’s Matsigenka ethnography (free expanded internet version here) that illustrates some of the difficulties that enthusiastic amateurs face when they attempt to draw on linguistics in ethnographic description and argumentation. Johnson analyses the word by segmenting it as follows: matsi + kanari, and provides the etymology ‘Man-Guan?’.

“Huh?” you may say. First some background: kanari is the Matsigenka name for the Blue-throated Piping-guan (Aburria cumanensis) a prized game bird among Matsigenkas. You can probably guess how Johnson arrived at the guess that matsi stood, in some way, for ‘man’ (‘human’ ?). The resulting image of the man-guan dark shaman is brilliant in its hallucinatory weirdness, but the etymology leading to it is, alas, false. Too be fair, Johnson’s question mark suggests some alarm bells must have gone off for him too.

There are two big clues that something is amiss with the given etymology. First, there exists a verb root, matsik `bewitch, hex’, which plays havoc with the proposed segmentation (matsik vs. matsi + kanari). Second, Matsigenka has very few noun-noun compounds, and those that do exist have a possessor-possessum structure (e.g. atava + panko ‘chicken’ + ‘house’ = ‘chicken coop’), where the head of the compound is the possessum. The fact that matsikanari does does not have this structure makes Johnson’s compound analysis unlikely. (Matsigenka does have numerous noun-classifier forms, which you can call compounds if you feel like it, but they are not noun-noun compounds.) Another big problem for the compound analysis is that matsi does not mean ‘man’, although matsigenka does mean ‘person’. Matsi is a word in Matsigenka, but it is a clausal negator (note the connection to the Proto-Arawak negator *ma).

The key to the correct etymology of matsikanari lies in recognizing the verb root matsik `bewitch, hex’, and in recognizing that the final syllable is the nominalizer -ri, making the matsikanari some kind of `bewitcher’ or `hexer’. The correct segmentation is probably: matsik (a) -na -ri, where -na is a morpheme that indicates malefactive repetition of the action indicated by the verb stem, and (a) is an epenthetic segment. We thus get `one who repeatedly and detrimentally bewitches’. Not as coolly otherwordly as a ‘Man-Guan’, but very informative as to the nature of matsikanari.

Yes — etymology fans might say — but what is the origin of matsik, and what can *that* tell us about Matsigenka concepts of witchcraft and the like? Fortunately for us, the etymon in question is included in David Payne’s (1991, p.394) paper on Arawak historical linguistics. What we learn there is that the Matsigenka verb matsik comes from Proto-Arawak mahtSi BAD. So, I suppose we can conclude that there was at some point in Arawak cultural history a connection between the notions ‘witchcraft’ and ‘bad’. Not too surprising, but certainly the historical facts make sense.

The moral here is that etymology is hard to do without detailed knowledge of the language and language family in question, and that relying on superficial similarities between words can quickly lead to false etymologies.

References Cited

Payne, David. 1991. A classification of Maipuran (Arawakan) languages based on shared lexical retentions. In D. Derbyshire and Desmond and G. Pullum (Eds.), Handbook of Amazonian Languages, Vol. 3. Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 355-500.