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.

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.

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.

I was recently using the facilities in Epoch when I spied the following graffito: “‘people’ is the plural of ‘stupid’”. There are many things to admire about this pithy cynicism, but there is a specifically linguistic angle from which it can be appreciated, which jogged my memory about an erroneous etymology I recently saw for a Matsigenka word.

Despite the adage that to explain a joke is to ruin it, clarity on this point is essential for what follows: ‘stupid’ is an adjective, and in English, at least, adjectives do not have a plural form. Furthermore, ‘people’ is a noun, whereas ‘stupid’ is an adjective — and the plural form of an adjective (if one exists in a given language) is not, generally speaking, a noun. In other words, there is no way that ‘people’ could be the plural of ‘stupid’. In a way, then, the graffito lamenting the stupidity of the masses is itself stupid (even if it is deliberate), which I find quite charming, as if the cynic is winking at his or her own complicity in the situation being lamented.

The connection with Matsigenka etymology comes in the form a footnote to a paper (PDF) on Matsigenka religion by Dan Rosengren, in which he remarks, regarding a class of spiritual beings:

Saangaríte, which is a plural form of saankari, is usually translated as “the pure ones” which as a rule is conceived of in a moral sense as synonymous with “the good ones.” … Since saankari also is used to describe clean water it is here suggested that it is the visual rather than the moral quality that is referred to. Clean water cannot be seen and neither can the saangaríte.

To be clear about what Rosengren is saying, he identifies saankari as an adjective (“used to describe clear water”) and then claims that saangaríte is the “plural form” of this word. (I have my doubts, btw, about the long vowel in saankari; I suspect it’s just stress. It’s not important, really, but I spell it with a short /a/. Also, the surface g in saangarite is due to allophonic post-nasal voicing, and I replace this with the underlying /k/.)

What I found humorous about Rosengren’s etymological proposal is that it unintentionally repeats the error that gives the above-discussed graffito its linguistic edge. That is, while sankari is an adjective (according to Rosengren), sankarite is a noun, with the consequence that whatever the relationship between sankari and sankarite may be, the latter is certainly not the plural of the former, contrary to Rosengren’s claim. In fact, sankarite is not plural at all, but rather, is unspecified for number, as are all Matsigenka nouns which are not overtly plural marked (with the plural suffix -egi, or the collective plural -page).

But Rosengren certainly is correct in noting a connection between the two forms — let’s see if by applying a little knowledge of Matsigenka grammar and comparative Arawak linguistics we can figure out what it is.

Let’s start from the beginning. In Matsigenka, and most of the related Kampan languages, adjectives ending with the syllable ri are generally derived from verbs. In this case, the verb root in question is sank ‘be invisible, be transparent, not be visible’. An example of the use of this verb is given in (1).

(1) Komaginaro isankanaka.
‘The Woolly Monkey disappeared from sight.’ (e.g. by brachiating away into the foliage).

I’ve also heard a causativized form of the verb used to mean ‘erase’ (i.e. make invisible), as in (2).

(2) Posankanakero kaseta.
‘Please erase the audio cassette.’

In any event, one can derive from the intransitive verb root sank the adjective sankari ‘invisible, transparent’ which can be applied to clear water and glass, as well as to non-visible entities. This, it would seem at first glance, is the origin of the sankari.

But things aren’t quite that straightforward. The single biggest puzzle is that sankarite is a noun, whereas the element sankari that Rosengren identified, is an adjective. Moreover, Matsigenka does not exhibit a deadjectivizal nominalizer.

I think the best clue regarding the correct etymology of sankarite involves the final syllable of the word te. As it turns out, cognates of the morpheme -te surface in other languages of the Arawak family as an animate noun class marker. In other words, this morpheme indicates that the noun to which it is affixed is, in general, a living thing. A particularly clear example is the morpheme -ite, found in Tariana (Aikhenvald, 2003, p.93-4).

If this is correct, then, the animate noun class marker -te would have to be suffixed to a noun, meaning that sankari must be a noun, not an adjective, as Rosengren suggests. Fortunately, as it turns out, we can reconstruct a deverbal nominalizer -ri for Proto-Kampan (the language from which Matsigenka descended). This nominalizer can still be seen in certain forms in Matsigenka, such as matsikanari ‘dark shaman’ (cf. matsik ‘bewitch’) or shigatsiri ‘satellite’, from shig ‘run’. (It is a curious fact that the deverbal nominalizer and the deverbal adjectivizer have the same form, but the generalization is quite clear.) If this is correct, then the sankari in sankarite is not an adjective meaning ‘clear, invisible’, but rather a derived noun meaning ‘clear, invisible thing’.

If we now consider the full form sankarite, we conclude that the name of this class of spirit beings stems from a form meaning, roughly, ‘invisible living things’, or perhaps more evocatively ‘invisible beings’. Which is, as it turns out, a pretty good description of sankarite!

Works Cited

Aikhenvald, Alexandra. 2003. A grammar of Tariana. Cambridge University Press.

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.


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