The Understanding Footprint.

My wife and I are about a quarter of the way through Richard Powers’ The Overstory, and we are agreed that it is one of the oddest and most interesting novels we’ve read — we have no idea where it’s going (except that trees will be involved), but we’re eager to get there. My interest at the moment, however, is linguistic. This sentence grabbed my attention for obvious reasons:

She walks in silence, crunching ten thousand invertebrates with every step, watching for tracks in a place where at least one of the native languages uses the same word for footprint and understanding.

Anybody know what Native American language fits that description, and what the word in question is?

Comments

  1. (This probably goes without saying, but if you’ve read the book: no spoilers, please!)

  2. Let me guess. The story is about the top parts of trees…

  3. marie-lucie says:

    Does the author seem like the type of person likely to be familiar with actual indigenous languages rather than with popular articles about “language X has a word for ….”? Sometimes a word which seems to have an unusual combination of meanings is actually two or even more homophonous words,

  4. Are you sure it’s not just a word-play? Footprint is what appears under one’s standing.

  5. Stu Clayton says:

    Feats of understanding. Feets, don’t fail me now !

  6. Footprint is what appears under one’s standing.

    My grandmother (born 1896, London) had a phrase: under-can-stumble.

  7. Impression?

  8. Trond Engen says:

    D.O.: Are you sure it’s not just a word-play? Footprint is what appears under one’s standing.

    And the native language English? Good idea.

    But it wouldn’t surprise me that much if some language used the same word for “footprint” and “understanding”. We use position metaphors like ‘stand’ to describe our position in the multidimensional space of ideas. ES’ ‘impression’ is another image that has left its mark all over the place. A third angle may be “point of view”, while some would support “foundation, grounding”. From the lofty and aetheric to the earthly or basic, thought about thought is metaphors all the way down.

  9. Does the author seem like the type of person likely to be familiar with actual indigenous languages rather than with popular articles about “language X has a word for ….”?

    Richard Powers is one of those authors who loves researching a topic he wants to build a novel around, and he is a master at slipping in the important information without making readers feel they’re stuck in a seminar. My wife and I are learning a lot about plant life (and absorbing Powers’ evident indignation about what humans are doing to it) without ever feeling lectured at. I doubt he’s “familiar with actual indigenous languages” in the sense that you are, but I’m also pretty sure he wouldn’t just take the word of a popular article. I strongly suspect he ran into a reference to such a word in his research and tucked it away for use. I guess if nobody here knows the word (and if you don’t, who will?) I’ll try writing him and asking. I’ve generally gotten answers back from authors I’ve contacted out of the blue.

  10. Let me guess. The story is about the top parts of trees…

    I imagine that will come into play, but so far the word has only occurred in the title. He has, however, slipped the word understory into the text a couple of times (the context makes it clear what it refers to).

  11. I do hope the Overstory will turn out to be an overarching metanarrative that falls out of the trees onto postmodernists’ heads…

  12. Could s/he be alluding to understanding one’s carbon footprint?

  13. “I’ll try writing him and asking.”

    Not until you finish the book, of course, in case the answer is on page 700.

  14. Excellent point!

  15. Powers’ excellent The Echo Maker is titled for a translation of a native word for crane. I’d guess he’s the type who would take the issue seriously.

  16. Since he roots his claim ‘in a place,’ can you tell us where she is walking?

  17. I do hope the Overstory will turn out to be an overarching metanarrative that falls out of the trees onto postmodernists’ heads…

    The Dropbear of Literary Theory. Clearly a topic of interest to the philosophy faculty of the University of Wallamaloo. I shall ask Professor Bruce for his views.

  18. Since he roots his claim ‘in a place,’ can you tell us where she is walking?

    The Pacific Northwest.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    There are a lot of languages in that area, even whole language families!

  20. Sure, I was just hoping someone might happen to know. I’ll write Powers after I finish and add an update about what I learn.

  21. Yeah, I was kind of hoping she was in Illinois, someplace with a limited number of native languages. Which was ridiculous, because Hat would’ve been on top of it if so.

    But, no, Pacific Northwest doesn’t narrow it down enough to make amateur online research feasible.

  22. Well this makes me realize I haven’t read a Richard Powers novel for many years! Here goes, I hope this one isn’t too emotionally excruciating right now.

  23. Not Amerind, but amusingly enough Finnish has a near-match in a one-feature minimal pair: jälki ‘footprint’; järki ‘intellect, ration’.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    JP: That is just the kind of thing I thought it might be, identical or near-identical words linked by chance rather than by etymology.

  25. I read an interesting paper a while back about the power of accidental homophones (and to a lesser extent, polysemies) in the comparative method. The chance that two or three meanings in a variety of languages are expressed by identical words (within one language, not necessarily across languages) is small, and we can assume that they were also homophones in the proto-language. From these we can infer regular correspondences across fairly remote pairs of languages without having to reconstruct intermediate forms.

  26. Accidental homophones are an unpleasant fact of life for historical linguistics. They are rare, but they are there, and you don’t know that they are there until a new piece of evidence comes in.

  27. The paper is designed to show that accidental homophones within a language can be very pleasant and powerful evidence indeed. There are many examples, all drawn from Niger-Congo languages, of which this is one of my favorites.

    The word dùŋ means both ‘bite’ (v.) and ‘extinguish’ in a few Kwa languages, specifically in Chumburung, Krache, Nawuri, and Gondja, all belonging to the North Guang subgroup of the Potou-Tano group of Kwa. This cannot be borrowing, for nobody would borrow a word in two such disparate senses, so the coincidence is reconstructible at least to proto-North Guang. (As m-l has pointed out, the Romance suffix re- is widely used in English in the sense ‘repeated’, but not in its alternative meaning ‘thoroughly’, as in Spanish frijoles refritos ‘thoroughly fried beans’, often mis-etymologized as ‘twice-fried beans’.)

    What is more, the word dùm has both senses in Tula and the word num (tone unknown or lacking) has both senses in Bijogo. But the first language is Adawaman and the second Atlantic, and so only distantly related to Kwa. This pushes the coincidence all the way back to proto-Atlantic-Congo at least, and immediately establishes sound-laws directly between both Tula and Bijongo on the one hand, and at least these North Guang languages on the other, without any need to reconstruct any intermediate forms.

  28. Sound correspondences, not sound laws; this tells us very little about if the original PA-C form was #num or #duŋ or perhaps #ɗuŋʷ or even #domoŋ.

    (It is a very crafty argument regardless, I admit.)

  29. marie-lucie says:

    Sound correspondences have to come first, sound laws (of change) can wait until further data.

  30. The paper says “correspondences”; I oversimplified.

  31. Frijoles refritos are, in fact, fried boiled beans. So at least they’re cooked twice.

  32. Yeah, I don’t think the English calque refried beans would have caught on so easily if the beans were not indeed twice cooked.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    *lightbulb* Abgeröstet!

  34. Trond Engen says:

    (It is a very crafty argument regardless, I admit.)

    Yes, but even these are less forceful the simpler the form and the more generic the meaning. I’ve mentioned Scand. å and French eau as a chance pair of vrais-amis. Add the interjections of surprise, Scand. å and French ô. Now we have a double pair of homonyms that even sound the same in a distantly related language.

  35. marie-lucie says:

    Trond: the interjections of surprise, Scand. å and French ô .

    I wonder if the (optional) French spelling reforms have changed Oh! into ô, which used to be used before a term of address in a Greek or Latin mythological context: Ô Apollo! and the like. (As also in the Alice books: O mouse!).

  36. Trond Engen says:

    Probably not. I first wrote ‘Oh!’ and then for some reason changed it.

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