Amateur Amerindian Philology: Place Names

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Amateur Amerindian Philology: Place Names

Postby sirgregory » Wed Aug 28, 2019 10:12 pm

Recently I came across a reference to "Chenango County, New York." This caught my eye because -nango is a distinctive and very common ending for place names in Guatemala and Southern Mexico. Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, Chichicastenango, etc. Many of these places are predominately Mayan and Quetzaltenango is also known by its Mayan name, Xela. Best I can tell these -nango forms are from Nahuatl (Aztec).

According to Wikipedia, Chenango is an Oneida word meaning "bull thistle." There are several places with this name in North America, including one as far south as Texas.

My limited understanding of the Amerindian linguistics is that the languages are numerous and quite diverse, with even geographically proximate tribes often showing great linguistic distance. This, along with the geographical distance from New York to Mesoamerica, would suggest the -nango similarity is likely coincidental (or a remarkable borrowing). But there is one linguist Greenberg who sorts the Native American languages into three (very broad) macro families. Greenberg's work is not well-regarded by most linguists (since Greenberg never provided detailed reconstructions to account for common origin and divergence), but it makes some sense from an anthropological perspective (i.e., it seems to correspond to the human migrations that have been reconstructed from archaeology, population genetics, etc.)

Most linguists concerned with the native languages of the Americas classify them into 150 to 180 independent language families. Some believe that two language families, Eskimo–Aleut and Na-Dené, were distinct, perhaps the results of later migrations into the New World.

Early on, Greenberg (1957:41, 1960) became convinced that many of the language groups considered unrelated could be classified into larger groupings. In his 1987 book Language in the Americas, while agreeing that the Eskimo–Aleut and Na-Dené groupings as distinct, he proposed that all the other Native American languages belong to a single language macro-family, which he termed Amerind.

Historical linguists also reject the validity of the method of multilateral (or mass) comparison upon which the classification is based. They argue that he has not provided a convincing case that the similarities presented as evidence are due to inheritance from an earlier common ancestor rather than being explained by a combination of errors, accidental similarity, excessive semantic latitude in comparisons, borrowings, onomatopoeia, etc.

However, Harvard geneticist David Reich notes that recent genetic studies have identified patterns that support Greenberg's Amerind classification - the “First American” category. “The cluster of populations that he predicted to be most closely related based on language were in fact verified by the genetic patterns in populations for which data are available.” Although this category of “First American” people actually also interbred and eventually contributed the majority of genes to both the Eskimo-Aleut (60%) and Na-Dené (90%) populations.[8]

One counterintuitive aspect of determining linguistic relationships is that many legitimate relationships look like a real stretch, especially since the common sound shifts like p/b/f or t/d can disguise the similarity. You really have to squint to see some of those Indo-European cognates for isolated word pairs, yet the sheer breadth and volume of the similarities is ultimately convincing. Conversely, you can get words that look really similar in isolation but end up being false positives. Place names seem like a particularly interesting thing to look at since the names often persist even long after a language becomes supplanted.
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Re: Amateur Amerindian Philology: Place Names

Postby Speakeasy » Wed Aug 28, 2019 11:10 pm

Fascinating! Many (many) years ago, at at time when I was serving in the RCN, based at Halifax, Nova Scotia, whenever I had some free time (which was a rather rare occurrence), I would jump into my VW Beetle and tour the province’s small villages, the coastline, and what have you.

During one such tour, I came across the rural community of Musquodoboit Harbour which, according to the local post office, was so-named by the original French visitors/settlers to the region as an approximation of the native Mi’kmaq word Moosekudoboogwek or Muskoodeboogwek (you can just see the link to the French interpretation in the “quo” and the “boit” spelling).

Following the American Revolution, Loyalists settled the region and retained the community’s name and spelling. However, with time, and the arrival of settlers from Scotland and Germany, the pronunciation of Musquodoboit changed. Anglophone visitors to the region, like myself, are often mystified by the current pronunciation, which places a very heavy emphasis on the "dob" followed by a very quickly uttered "'t" replacing the "boit", yielding something akin to Muska-DOB'it. This pronunciation is additionally confusing to French-speaking visitors who, on seeing the written form of the name, would tend to place the emphasis on the last syllable, "boit" and pronounce it as "bwa". Although I have absolutely no idea how the original Mi’kmaq word was pronounced, I would not be too surprised to learn that the French rendition of it (spoken as a Francophone would tend to do) was reasonably close to the Mi’kmaq pronunciation.

But wait, there's more! Let me tell you how the "Grand Teton" mountains (now pronounced Grand TEETON) got their name. Well, it seems that ...
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Re: Amateur Amerindian Philology: Place Names

Postby Deinonysus » Wed Aug 28, 2019 11:45 pm

False cognates are quite common. You could probably find some pretty good false cognates between any two languages. Off the top of my head:

  • The English word "he" sounds like the Hebrew word for "she". The English word "who" sounds like the Hebrew word for "he". The Italian word "ma", meaning "but", sounds like the Hebrew word for "what". I promise you this is all extremely confusing.
  • The Japanese word for "name" is "namae". Completely unrelated.
  • The Indonesian number two is "dua", completely unrelated to any similar Indo-European words including the Italian "due" or Czech "dva". And the Indonesian word for name is "nama", completely unrelated to the Japanese "namae"! But it is related to the English word "name" because it's taken from Sanskrit.

But probably the most famous false cognate of all is from the indiginous Australian language Mbabaram:

Word for "dog"

Mbabaram is famous in linguistic circles for a striking coincidence in its vocabulary. When Dixon finally managed to meet Bennett, he began his study of the language by eliciting a few basic nouns; among the first of these was the word for "dog". Bennett supplied the Mbabaram translation, dog. Dixon suspected that Bennett hadn't understood the question, or that Bennett's knowledge of Mbabaram had been tainted by decades of using English. But it turned out that the Mbabaram word for "dog" was in fact dog, pronounced almost identically to the English word[citation needed] (compare true cognates such as Yidiny gudaga, Dyirbal guda, Djabugay gurraa and Guugu Yimidhirr gudaa, for example). The similarity is a complete coincidence: there is no discernible relationship between English and Mbabaram. This and other false cognates are often cited as a caution against deciding that languages are related based on a small number of lexical comparisons.

Here's an interesting documentary about the quest for the "nostratic" language family, linking together what are now thought to be many unrelated families. I believe Dr. Greenberg is interviewed or at least mentioned (I haven't seen it in a while).

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