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?


  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.

  37. Seungoh Ryu says

    I war just reading that part this morning and it made me pause. Trying ti locate a clue landed me here. Just a wild guess, it might be from a native american language…? Anyway, I took it in the context of there being things in this world that may be truly understood through physically being there and taking one leisurely tread after another through the long thread.

  38. John Cowan says

    Etymonline says that oh is common PIE, as indicated by its appearance as a in Old Irish, Sanskrit, and Quenya. (Well, they don’t mention the last, but it’s clear-cut.)

  39. “O Best Beloved,” from Just So Stories was a deliberate Hindi-ism.

  40. I am just now reading the Overstory and very curious if you ever found an answer to your question? As someone who spends time tracking, i.e. seeing (“reading”) and following footprints and other sign of the activities of creatures: an activity we all once engaged in when we were indigenous people, it could make sense that seeing footprints could equate to understanding.

    And what did “O Best Beloved” mean, then in Hindi?

  41. No, I’m afraid I didn’t!

  42. David Eddyshaw says


    The Niger-Congo homophones paper seems sadly unavailable at the moment. (Kusaal has the cognate dum “bite”, corresponding regularly even to distant Swahili uma (from *luma), but not the sense “extinguish”. The etymon is certainly ancient in the “bite” sense, at any rate. Some Gur words for “snake” are based on it; the Kusaal word waaf isn’t, but probably arose as “long creature.”)

    I have to say on first principles that borrowing or inheritance of the actual etyma are by no means the only possible explanations of cases like that.

    Hausa, for example, is completely unrelated to Kusaal genetically, but Kusaal tʋm “work”, “send” corresponds to the Hausa derivationally-related pair aikata “work”, aika “send”; the Kusaal derivationally-related verbs na “join” and naae “finish” both correspond to Hausa gama “join, finish”; Kusaal wʋm “hear, smell, understand (a language)” corresponds to Hausa ji, and so on. Conceptual connexions like these are not givens and are far from obvious; these are surely Sprachbund effects. Most of West Africa is essentially one huge Sprachbund.

    The paper perhaps addresses this. It sounds interesting.

  43. I have to say on first principles that borrowing or inheritance of the actual etyma are by no means the only possible explanations of cases like that.

    Yes, I had the same reaction.

  44. David Marjanović says

    Realize: 1) make real; 2) come to understand.

    German realisieren has had sense 1) ever since it was introduced. Lately it has also acquired sense 2), and this is universally blamed on borrowing from English.

  45. John Cowan says

    Okay, I take the point. Perhaps the author did too, as the paper doesn’t seem to have been published anywhere else and is definitely not in either or the Internet Archive.

    However, I do have another interesting method I learned about from a paper on something else altogether: B. Khrishnamurti’s paper “Areal and Lexical Diffusion of Sound Change” (Language 54:1, 1978).

    I haven’t read the paper closely yet, but this is an attempt to reconstruct the family tree of a group of six South-Central Dravidian languages. (Reconstruction of the upper levels of Dravidian is a mess and involves the same family names used with different meanings by different scholars, but here I am talking about the group including Telugu and its nearest relatives, also known as South Dravidian II.)

    The comparative method tells us that Gondi branched off first, then Koṇḍa, then Proto-Kui-Kuvi, then Pengo, and lastly Manḍa. (Telugu separated from the rest before they began to break up.) Khrishnamurti decided to look at just one thing: the sound-change called apical displacement. This is a metathesis between a vowel and a following alveolar or retroflex consonant, creating consonant clusters in the onset, which did not exist in Proto-Dravidian or even Proto-South-Central. It is a change that has proceeded word-by-word and to different extents in the different languages, and as such is a typical instance of diffusion.

    So he collected 569 words that could exhibit apical displacement or not and for which he had evidence from at least two languages. He was able to reject 241 as being rule-governed and so irrelevant for his purposes. Then he considered the six languages pairwise and counted the number of words that were sound-changed in both languages, treating that as a measure of proximity. He then applied multidimensional scaling and saw how the languages clustered: hey presto, it reproduced the results of the comparative method.

    In 1983, he and others followed up this paper with one that chose 63 cognate sets from the 328 survivors of the previous paper. He then enumerated the 132 possible binary trees for six languages (the sixth Catalan number; these numbers are named after Eugène Charles Catalan, not directly after the language!), and found the total number of changes required to account for each cognate set on each tree. Obviously, the further you can push a change up the tree, the lower this total will be.

    The total score for each tree is the sum of the scores of all cognate sets, and the tree with the lowest total score is the winner. Wuddaya know, the comparative-method tree appears again! And all from just one lexical change! Amazingsauce.

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve had methodological headaches over the subclassifying of Western Oti-Volta. Weird hardly-documented-at-all Boulba/Notre is clearly off on its own, but the rest is a beautiful pattern of criss-crossing isoglosses, some of which are natural enough (like the loss of glottalised vowels) that coincidental independent change is perfectly plausible, but some of which can really only have come about by changes percolating between distinct languages, as far as I can see. On first principles that’s probably not astonishing, given the high rate of multilingualism in the area. (And uvular r seems to have done the same thing in Europe, anyway.)

  47. Lars (the original one) says

    realisieren — I haven’t encountered the second sense for Da/Sw realisere/realisera, but now I’ll have to keep an ear out for it.

    (Danish uses Det gik op for mig, literally ‘it went up for me,’ for telic ‘I realized it’ — atelic is more likely Det kan jeg godt se = ‘I do see that.’ Swedish will have förstog with sentence-level telicity markers if needed).

  48. Lars (the original one) says

    The comparative method tells us that Gondi branched off first, then Koṇḍa, then Proto-Kui-Kuvi, then Pengo, and lastly Manḍa — from what? What was left when Manda split off? Inquiring minds want to know.

  49. David Marjanović says

    The total score for each tree is the sum of the scores of all cognate sets, and the tree with the lowest total score is the winner.

    So he reinvented phylogenetic analysis all on his own. 🙂

    And uvular r seems to have done the same thing in Europe, anyway.

    Among many other cases – Spanish and Basque have been spending the last 2000 years making their sound systems more similar.

  50. John Cowan says

    What was left when Manda split off?

    Yes, I probably should have written “leaving only Proto-Pengo-Maṇda”. It turns out, based on the multidimensional scaling, that those two are closer to each other than any other pair.

    So he reinvented phylogenetic analysis all on his own.

    Well, arguably it was invented by Lachmann and his manuscript stemmatics back around 1820, though he had to count his errors by hand.

  51. David Marjanović says

    Likely. Hennig still counted his by hand in 1950 through 1981.

  52. Jordan Chaney says

    Could it be from Shawnee language? The character in that section of the story is from Chillicothe, southern Ohio where the Shawnee lived. Chillicothe itself is the Shawnee (Algonquin) word for “town”.

  53. I came here also because of that Powers’ sentence. I live in the Pacific Northwest and I track animals (for science, not hunting) and I love the quote. I wish Powers would explain.

  54. Hat: Did you finish the book, and did the tops of trees come into it, or the footprint/understanding equivalence?

  55. Well, sure the tops of trees came into it, but there was nothing further about the footprint/understanding equivalence — it was just one of those one-off riffs, and I’m starting to think it was just one of those “I read this cute factoid somewhere and it’s too good to fact-check” things. Powers was researching trees, after all, not languages.

  56. John Cowan says

    accidental homophones

    I have a proper citation and stable link now: Konstantin Pozdniakov and Guillaume Segerer, “Regular homophones: a tool for semantic typology and for linguistic reconstruction”, Africana Linguistica 25, pp.231-279. This is a Gold Open Access journal, so all the articles are freely available.

    «i>I’ll try writing him and asking

    So go for it. Hopefully Powers still remembers or has a record of it.

  57. David Eddyshaw says

    Thanks, JC!
    It’s conceptually quite an interesting paper.

    The idea that their database could provide some way of controlling against arbitrariness in comparing semantically similar forms as potential cognates is interesting, and they pique my own interest by mentioning several familiar African polysemies, like “nose-breath-life” where e.g. the Kusaal word for “life”, nyɔvʋr, is in fact a transparent compound of nyɔɔr “nose” and vʋr “alive”, while the derived verb vʋ’ʋs is “breathe, rest”, and “eye-seed”, where the Kusaal nif “eye” belongs to a noun class almost all of whose other members refer to either animals or seeds (though in Kusaal, also sʋnf “heart.”)

    They seem to be on much more dodgy ground in leveraging unexpected homophones to prove cognacy. A lot of their examples to prove the point are drawn from close-knit groups already known to be related, like Bantu, and even when tempted beyond it some are from established Volta-Congo cognate sets, as with their ash-ear-three set. “Three” and “ear” undoubtedly began with the same consonant in proto-Volta-Congo, for example (e.g. Kusaal tan’, tʋbʋr) and they could have added tʋm “send” as another one with impressive cognates right across the family. As it happens, the “ashes” word is reconstructable to proto-Oti-Volta, and also begins with this consonant: *tam- (e.g. Kusaal tampɛligim, where the second component is “whitened”), versus *tʊ́b- “ear.” Meeussen’s proto-Bantu reconstructions have *-to “ash” and *-tú “ear”, and I wouldn’t be astonished if there were proto-Volta-Congo forms lurking somewhere at the back of this which were actually not homophonous but have become so secondarily in some daughter languages.

    When they try to go beyond clearly related groups it begins to look very dodgy.
    The “bite/extinguish” one has a nice table with lots of gaps for either “bite” or “extinguish”, and no actual case where the two are homophones in any one language: several differ in the actual initial consonant itself.

    They propose that the similarity of various Dogon and Atlantic “nose” words resembling kin to the word kin “live, be” in the (presumably) Volta-Congo language Kimba demonstrates an actual shared root. But as they demonstrate themselves with (different sets of) homophones for “tooth/name” in Chadic and some supposed NIger-Congo languages, this method is no more immune to chance resemblances than any other kind of mass comparison technique. And in this case it seems vastly more likely that Kimba is more closely related to its Benue-Congo neighbours than to Dogon or Atlantic. What happened to this “kin” word in all the other languages round those parts? Why is there no trace of it except in this language? Why did the authors pick KImba here, and out of how many other potential languages, with a word for “nose” or “be” less useful for their purposes?

    I have long since concluded that with a nice diverse group of related languages (e.g. “Gur”) if you can’t find a good lookalike of any random short root in some language of the group, you just haven’t looked through enough dictionaries yet.

  58. David Eddyshaw says

    In fact, when it comes to proto-Volta-Congo initial *t, we’re relatively spoilt for choice: there’s *tɪ́- “tree”, too, e..g Kusaal tii-g (“Gur”), Samba Leko (“Adamawa”), Gbeya te (“Ubangian”), Swahili m-ti (Bantu) … even Bijogo ŋu-te (“Atlantic”) perhaps … (I’m open-minded …)

    I have to say that the ashes/ear/three set, as extended by me to ashes/ear/three/send/tree, immediately suggests that English is part of Niger-Congo too: cinders, o-tology, three, send, tree … all significantly containing alveolar consonants before the stressed vowel (generally the root vowel, in English>.) I think this is every bit as convincing as the “bite/extinguish” comparison, myself. English may be part of Scandi-Congo after all.

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