Yale to Offer Cherokee Course.

Miranda Wollen writes for the Yale Daily News about a welcome new course offering:

Yale has informally offered Indigenous languages as part of the University’s curriculum for over seven years through the Native American Cultural Center and the Directed Independent Language Study program, but this fall marks the first time that studying one will fulfill the language distributional requirement. Patrick DelPercio, a Cherokee language instructor at the University of Oklahoma, will join the University’s faculty to teach a lecture course focusing on Cherokee language and culture.

“Other home speakers can take heritage language classes at Yale, but not Indigenous students,” Director of Undergraduate Studies of Linguistics Claire Bowern told the News. “Particularly for Indigenous students, it seemed very out of place that one can do one’s language requirement by studying languages from all around the world… except the Indigenous languages of the Americas.” […]

Bowern noted that the limited documentation and archival material which exists on Native peoples is often held within the walls of the very institutions which have historically excluded those communities. She pointed to the Belonging at Yale Initiative’s emphasis on curricular reform. “We don’t want to lock things up in archives and make it difficult for the communities whose cultural heritage they are to have access to those materials,” she explained.

I once wanted to learn Cherokee; it’s probably too late for me, but I’m glad Yale is now offering it (and I’m pleased to feature Claire Bowern, once a fellow linguablogger, at LH again).

Unrelated, but this is driving me crazy and I’m hoping some learned Hatter can help: I’m trying to find the Greek original of the Chrysostom prayer that includes this passage in the Church Slavic version: “и да не на мнозе удаляяйся общения Твоего, от мысленнаго волка звероуловлен буду.” I’m citing it from Последование к Святому Причащению, under “Молитва иная, иже во святых отца нашего Иоанна Златоустаго, 2.” It’s translated here as “lest I stray far away from Thy flock, O Master, and become caught by the wolf of souls” and here as “that I may not by long abstaining from Thy communion become a prey to the spiritual wolf.” But even though his Opera Omnia from Migne’s Patrologia Graeca are online, I have failed to locate anything that corresponds to ‘second prayer for communion/Eucharist’ (I tried googling [Χρυσόστομος προσευχές για τη θεία κοινωνία]). Any assistance gratefully received!

Update. Xerîb has found the Greek original, which can be seen (with parallel English translation) here under ΕΥΧΗ Γʹ (Ἰωάννου τοῦ Χρυσοστόμου) [THIRD PRAYER of Saint John Chrysostom]: καὶ ἵνα μή, ἐπὶ πολὺ ἀφιστάμενος τῆς κοινωνίας σου, θηριάλωτος ὑπὸ τοῦ νοητοῦ λύκου γένωμαι. Excellent detective work!


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Once upon a time when I were an undergraduate in New Haven (maybe it was fall of ’85?), I took a seminar vaguely about the use of language in Amerind cultures in the anthropology department, but eligible for linguistics-major credit, taught by the late Keith Basso (1940-2013, there’s a wikipedia article on him …), who did his fieldwork on linguistic topics among others primarily among the Western Apache.* But there was no extra option to get actual instruction in the language. Prof. Bowern’s remark sort of implies without actually confirming the existence of current undergraduates whose “home language” is Cherokee, which … strikes me as interesting-if-true.

    *At some point around then I read some of Whorf’s more cosmic/speculative work about Hopi, but I think I probably just found it in the library out of general curiosity and it wasn’t actually assigned for or even immediately relevant to any actual class I was taking.

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    As to the unrelated question: (1) it does occasionally turn out to be the case that some works of a Greek patristic writer have survived only as translated in other languages (there was an assumed-lost work by St. Irenaeus of Lyons, I think, that was almost certainly written in Greek but turns out to have survived only in an early Armenian translation, and here’s a para-Biblical book that has survived only in Slavonic or “Old Bulgarian”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2_Enoch); and/or (2) it is possible given the liturgical context of the prayer that the Slavonic prayer might just conceivably be the work of Pseudo-Chrysostom. Who unlike the real historical Chrysostom may have been capable of original composition in Slavonic and even conceivably lacked the ability to write in Greek? It’s also of course possible that a prayer extant in the Greek manuscript tradition but not there attributed to Chrysostom might have acquired such an attribution in translation.

  3. Well, rats. I figured if anyone knew the Greek it would be you, so I’ll file this in the Pseuds Corner. Thanks!

  4. There is an Oratio Secunda on that site, but I’m not finding any wolves in it.

  5. UMass used to offer an introductory class on Chatino. This page offers an introduction to the tonal system. It looks quite harder to learn than, say, Vietnamese.

  6. There is an Oratio Secunda on that site, but I’m not finding any wolves in it.

    Yes, when I found that to be an abomination of desolation I fell prey to the sin of despair.

  7. Among the Ivies, Dartmouth was founded specifically “for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land in reading, writing and all parts of Learning … as well as in all liberal Arts and Sciences; and also of English Youth and any others.”

    So you would think they’d be teaching one or more Indigenous languages. They do have a department of Native American and Indigenous studies, and I could be looking in the wrong place, but I don’t think they offer any Native languages.

  8. @ Martin. “So you would think they’d be teaching one or more Indigenous languages.”

    The aim of “the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes…” was to americanize them as far as possible and in the endeavor to attain that goal their languages, cultures, beliefs, and so on were deprecated.

    So too in the American Indian boarding schools run by the Federal government (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Indian_boarding_schools).

  9. I’m sure Martin knows that perfectly well, but now — a couple hundred years after the founding, when the americanization project has been abandoned with shame and rending of garments — you would indeed think they’d be teaching one or more Indigenous languages. But that’s hard work.

  10. It’s hard work, and there are a lot fewer teachers available for a lot fewer languages.

    U of Arizona, by the way, offers multi-year courses in Navajo and Tohono O’odham. U of Oklahoma has the same for Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and Kiowa. U of Wisconsin at Madison has the same for Ojibwe.

  11. Denver’s Greek church uses this wolf-phobic prayer in Preparation for holy communion. Presumably, the Greek text, either original or back translated, should also exist somewhere.

  12. Search on the string θηριάλωτος ὑπὸ τοῦ νοητοῦ λύκου γένωμαι on this page (original text on the left, Modern Greek translation on the right). (Short comment because I am on the road.)

  13. Addendum: The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has an easier site to use here (with English translation, too—search for noetic wolf).

  14. Oh, thanks! “from thought wolf beastcaught will-be” DOES look like a translation from Greek….in turn possibly a translation from something.

    Is θηριάλωτος normal Greek?

    Cf. https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Звероядина in Russian or LXX Exodus 22:31 in:
    καὶ ἄνδρες ἅγιοι ἔσεσθέ μοι. καὶ κρέας θηριάλωτον οὐκ ἔδεσθε, τῷ κυνὶ ἀπορρίψατε αὐτό.

    (not to be confused with θηριόβρωτος – Gen 44:28 καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ὁ εἷς ἀπ᾽ ἐμοῦ καὶ εἴπατε ὅτι θηριόβρωτος γέγονεν καὶ οὐκ εἶδον αὐτὸν ἔτι καὶ νῦν – or with θηρόβορος)

  15. noetic… ;-(

  16. Chrystostom uses νοητὸς λύκος ‘noetic wolf’ in his Homilies on John, no. 59 here, near the end of paragraph 3 in column 326 of the Greek:

    Ἔστι δὲ ἐνταῦθα καὶ νοητὸv ὑποπτεῦσαι λύκον.

    Hic potest etiam spiritualis lupus intellegi.

    Here also we may suspect a spiritual ‘wolf’ to be intended.

    Chrysostom is commenting on the general significance of λύκος ‘wolf’ in the words of Jesus, in John 10:11-12:

    Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός· ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλὸς τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ τίθησιν ὑπὲρ τῶν προβάτων·
    ὁ μισθωτὸς δὲ, καὶ οὐκ ὢν ποιμήν οὗ οὐκ εἰσιν τὰ πρόβατα ἴδια θεωρεῖ τὸν λύκον ἐρχόμενον καὶ ἀφίησιν τὰ πρόβατα καὶ φεύγει καὶ ὁ λύκος ἁρπάζει αὐτὰ καὶ σκορπίζει τὰ πρόβατα

    I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.
    But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.

  17. Actually, i am not sure if I understand the exact shades of Greek νοητὸς.

    “Spiritual” is an (intentionally) vague word: some immaterial, poorly describable but clearly important part of human being and experience, often spoken about particularly as capable of being corrupted or elevated or enlightened. In other words, something that matters.
    Of course in this context the word is uninformative – what other wolf can be meant in a prayer?

    Maybe noetic is more specific.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    The admittedly-recondite word “noetic” appears with some frequency in English translations of Orthodox liturgical texts, presumably because the translators think that no more common English word appropriately captures the semantic scope of the underlying Greek (or perhaps Slavonic-from-Greek etc.) word.

    Congratulations to those who found what hat was seeking – my earlier post had not been meant to affirmatively claim that no Greek text existed, only to point out that it would not be particularly surprising if one didn’t. But apparently one does.

  19. “Slavonic-from…”

    In Russian it means “thought” as in “thought experiment” (Wiktionary translates it as “mental”, this is not accurate. It is just “existing in thoughts”) and likely came from Slavonic – though it easily could be formed from мысль “[a] thought” in modern Russian.

    Having this said, it also could mean (but does not mean in modern Russian) “thought about”, “imagined” – if you derive it from the verb. Maybe it is what it means in Slavonic.
    мыслити / мыслить is “to think”.


  20. Thanks very much, Xerîb — you’re a champ!

    In Russian it means “thought”

    But it’s not Russian, it’s Church Slavic. This site gives parallel translation; “да не на мнозе удаляяйся общения Твоего, от мысленнаго волка звероуловлен буду” is rendered as “для того, чтобы не оказаться мне похищенным духовным волком, если я далеко уклонюсь от общения с Тобой.” You can’t use Russian intuition to read Church Slavic texts any more than you can use modern English intuition to read Chaucer.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    FWIW, my impression is that Dartmouth’s original theoretical goal of educating what we might now call “indigenous” youth never really got off the ground back in the 18th century. But if it had, I assume that languagewise it would have given them competence in Latin and Greek, not merely English. You probably didn’t need to go to college to pick up English (or perhaps French, if you retreated northward), given the assimilationist pressures present by then for virtually all indigenes left in New England.

  22. Good point.

  23. @LH, of course, and I don’t claim otherwise.

    But given what is Church Slavonic, finding an answer better than “a translation of νοητὸς” may be not a very trivial matter.

  24. Very true.

  25. Stu Clayton says

    spiritualis lupus

    I see no good reason to make such heavy weather about “noetic wolf” (there was a 1958 film “Brain Eaters” with Dr. Spock). Soul/spirit/mind – distinctions alive today only in Catholicism and other mystical movements.

    The wolf-of-souls metaphor is traditional in religious circles. Here are some old and new versions:

    15 Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.

    Savage wolves have always dogged the church, but in modern times they seem to be a dime a dozen. So long as they are roaming around biting and consuming saints we have an obligation to sound the warning.

    The Didache had some simple tests to identify a false prophet (if he stays more than two days or asks for money, 11.5–6)

    For the mother, said Tetty, the feeling is one of relief, of great relief, as when the guests depart.

  26. there was a 1958 film “Brain Eaters” with Dr. Spock

    Which reminds me of They Saved Hitler’s Brain (“The film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gives They Saved Hitler’s Brain a rare rating of 0%”). Mach schnell, mach schnell!!

  27. Ο νοητός λύκος is a modern Greek song and album available on youtube. Googling Ο νοητός λύκος also brings up the lyrics, which mention Chrysostomos. There is what looks like an analysis at http://philologoi.mes.sch.gr/files/eleutheriou_tsagkarakh.pdf

    I wonder if it might refer to the knowing wolf?

  28. J.W. Brewer says

    For those who thought the problem with the “Hitler’s Brain” movie was that it just wasn’t tasteless enough, the turn-of-the-Eighties SoCal punk-rock scene was there to help you. (I’m not aware of any learned patristic commentary on this text.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_usUySEjXyQ

  29. Ah, the Angry Samoans! I don’t know if Robert “Dean” Christgau counts as patristic, but he called this song “brutal and ludicrous.” (That wasn’t a complaint, or at least not entirely; he gave Back from Samoa, the record it appears on, an A.) Apparently some of them, at least, are still touring. Mind you, I preferred the Dead Kennedys, but the Samoans were no poseurs (unlike, say, Fear).

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    @hat: apparently in certain quarters that particular song carries so much cachet (above and beyond other entries in the AS ouevre) that when one of its co-cwriters (maybe he did all the lyrics – I dunno) published a quasi-memoir many decades later it was blurbed as “The literary debut from the esteemed rock critic, university mathematics professor, and composer of ‘They Saved Hitler’s Cock’.”* I do not personally think of Christgau as a patristic writer, and not just because he doesn’t (AFAIK) write in Greek … https://www.greggturner.com/

    *FWIW, the topic of his dissertation after he took a break from punk rock to complete his doctorate was “Stabilization of Hybrid Control Systems in the Presence of Feedback Delays,” so I guess more of an “applied” guy than a “pure” guy.

  31. Huh, and here I thought if anyone knew any AS song it was “Get Off the Air.”

  32. J.W. Brewer says

    @hat: Well, decades later it turns out that Hitler was perhaps more of an evergreen/universal topic than Rodney Bingenheimer and his show on KROQ, although I was in the early Eighties aware of that show even though I’d never actually heard it and was living on the other side of the country a (per google maps) 2,700+ mile drive from KROQ’s transmitter.

  33. Νοητὸς λύκος -This made me chuckle, as for some reason it immediately brought ‘innerer Schweinehund’ to mind.
    @drasvi -θηριάλωτος -my helpful answer is ‘I really don’t know’, but as it seems to be first attested in the Septuagint, I would bet a modest amount of money it was coined to translate the equivalent word in Hebrew (which means something like ‘torn apart’); especially as the translators would have been motivated to try and retain the concise, formulaic feel of the original. (‘נְבֵלָ֧ה וּטְרֵפָ֛ה’ -‘θνησιμαῖον καὶ θηριάλωτον’,Leviticus 22:8 and elsewhere). On the other hand, there are a few compounds in -άλωτος attested early on, and as a compound it’s unremarkable and could well have existed before this.

  34. John Cowan says

    The aim of “the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes…” was to americanize them as far as possible and in the endeavor to attain that goal their languages, cultures, beliefs, and so on were deprecated.

    But the aim was a failure, for no “Youth of the Indian Tribes” attended Dartmouth until recent times. I think that text must have been in the nature of a grant application. It is known that the Earl of Dartmouth never gave them a penny; unfortunately this became known too late for the trustees to change the name.

  35. David Marjanović says

    Νοητὸς λύκος -This made me chuckle, as for some reason it immediately brought ‘innerer Schweinehund’ to mind.

    Oh, this is perfect.

  36. Robert Everett-Green says

    Okay, this is absurdly long for a comment, but may be of interest: an article I wrote for The Globe and Mail about trying to learn some of the Ojibwa language…

    Near my house in west Toronto, an age-old path now known as Indian Road cuts across the city’s grid toward Lake Ontario. Two years ago, the sign at the road’s northern end was covered over with a marker of identical shape and font that read Mikana Anishinaabe – Trail of the Ojibwa. City workers removed the sign within days, but the indigenous activists who put it there had made their point: that the land had an identity in language long before Europeans arrived.

    Seeing the unfamiliar words attached to a street I cross or walk down every week, it struck me that I didn’t know the first thing about the language original to the place where I’ve lived for three decades. That seemed wrong, or at least inexplicable, so I started to find out – not to play at reclaiming something that was never mine, but to get an idea of how this land looks and sounds in the Ojibwa language, Anishinaabemowin.

    I met the pair who relabelled Indian Road: Susan Blight and Hayden King, originators of Ogimaa Mikana (Leader’s Way), an ongoing project that has indigenized the names of several Toronto sites. They aren’t fluent in Anishinaabemowin, but want to be.

    “When I was growing up, I always knew people who spoke the language,” said Mr. King, a Ryerson University politics professor who is Beausoleil First Nation from Chimnissing on Georgian Bay. “But I wasn’t talked to a lot in the language. It was kind of an adult thing. It always seemed to me as a kid that it was a very funny language, because people were always laughing when they spoke it.” He started learning seriously as an adult, initially by jotting phrases his grandmother said, on his PalmPilot.

    Ojibway talk was also adultsonly in Ms. Blight’s household at Couchiching First Nation in Northwestern Ontario, where her grandparents, who experienced residential school and a Catholic orphanage, spoke the language only with each other. “I can’t say categorically why they didn’t teach their children the language,” she said. “I just know the intense racism and pressure to assimilate that they lived through.” After her grandfather died, she started formal Anishinaabemowin studies at the University of Toronto, where she works at the university’s First Nations House.

    “I feel like there’s knowledge contained in the language about what it is to be Anishinaabe, about a way of seeing that’s contained in how we speak and how we describe the world,” she said. “It has taught me more about who we are than anything else.”

    The Anishinaabe language map covers a sprawling area around the Great Lakes and into Manitoba and the northern United States. The 2006 census found 30,255 Anishinaabemowin speakers in Canada, about 600 fewer than the previous census. Everyone I spoke with said that fluent speakers are mostly elderly. “I can converse,” said Anishinaabe broadcaster Wab Kinew, who is 33, “but that’s rare in my generation, and very rare in my kids’ generation.”

    The language is healthier in northern Michigan and Minnesota, said Mr. King, because reserves there tend to be larger and more populous, and because the U.S. government never actively tried to stamp it out. Those U.S. communities have become teaching hubs, noted for immersion camps and online resources such as the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary (OPD), as well as a raft of language apps and YouTube lessons.

    Anishinaabemowin is very action-oriented. You can express a complete thought in a single verb, fitted out with prefixes and suffixes that indicate who is doing what to whom, and when.

    “Everything that you say is 100per-cent action words,” said Helen Roy, an Odawa from Wikwemikong reserve on Manitoulin Island.

    Ms. Roy led a weekend immersion class I attended last summer at Alderville First Nation near Peterborough. Even the nouns, she says, have verbs inside, or verbal characteristics. For example, the root of bakwezhigan – bread – is a verb that means to cut a piece off. The key aspect of anything is what it does or what happens to it; in that sense, the language mirrors the motion and process of the natural world.

    Compare that to Adam’s first job in the Bible: to name everything, to spread nouns over the Earth. That name-centred orientation runs deep, for me at least, as I found every time I looked in the OPD for the name of something, only to be led to the actions underlying the word.

    Adam was also given dominion over everything he named. That hierarchy of beings shaped colonialist relationships with the land, and treaties with the Anishinaabe, which were written in English. Small wonder that an indigenous language so attuned to natural flow and movement had trouble finding words for the concept of fencing a piece of land and calling it someone’s property.

    “I would say the language contains very strong teaching about humility, about your place in the world, and about the Anishinaabe world view of nothing being hierarchical,” says Ms. Blight. “Everything’s on an even plane, from rocks to people to chiefs, and everybody’s contribution is worth listening to.”

    There’s also a total lack of gender: no he or she, nor any gendering of objects, as in French. The key distinction is between the animate and the inanimate. A rock can be animate, and spoken about just like a living being, and that can seem beautiful and profound – but a car can be animate too. A pot is animate, but its lid is not, which seems just as arbitrary as the French designation of the heart as masculine and the throat as feminine. Whatever the rationale, the binary distinction means a doubling of inflected verb forms throughout the language.

    Anishinaabemowin also has a fourth-person mode, used to indicate an animate being beyond the third person. That’s useful for keeping track in a language with loose sentence structure and no pronouns as such, but it, too, compounds the number of inflected verb forms.

    I tried learning from books, including Patricia M. Ningewance’s excellent Talking Gookum’s Language , but that seemed an odd way to approach a tongue that is primarily oral. So I went to some drop-in evening classes run by elder Alex Jacobs at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto.

    The first time I joined the small adult group around the table, the person beside me scribbled a few words in Anishinaabemowin for me to read out about myself, by name, place of origin and clan – in my case, makwa, or bear, honorary patron of the clanless. We all introduced ourselves that way at the start of each class, placing ourselves in relation to the land and other people – a kind of teaching, in the way you greet others.

    At those classes, we mostly divided into pairs and read printed dialogues to each other, with corrections to our pronunciation from more fluent speakers. It was daunting and sometimes hilarious to attempt very long verbs that bristled with prefixes and suffixes. But I liked the feel of the blunt syllables, and of the earthy tones that seemed to lie farther back in the throat than English.

    In You’re So Fat !, linguist Roger Spielmann’s book about Ojibwa language and discourse, I found a two-language transcription of an elder’s tale. The English version was a simple repetitive story about a man out in the bush who dreams about a bear, and an old woman who warns him that because bears fast for months at a time, his dream means hunger ahead. But in Anishinaabemowin, the rhythmic repetitions of energetic phrases somehow magnified the peril, till I could feel how this man would soon be looking starvation in the face.

    I also attended some online language sessions on Spreecast, the interactive video site, including one led by Alo White, an elder from Naotkamegwanning First Nation on Lake of the Woods, about how to sing in Ojibway while playing a drum.

    “You have to breathe along the drumstick,” he said in English, apparently referring to the way his words seemed to glide across the beat. “Sing like you’re crying, like you’re asking for something from the Great Spirit.” People were trying it out, haltingly, and the musician in me was thinking, “I can do that!” – although, as a Zhaganaash (white guy), I didn’t dare join in with something so connected to rituals I don’t practise. Mr. White segued smoothly from song instruction to straightup teaching, about how to treat each other and the land. It was all of a piece: The language holds the teachings that the elders share.

    In another Spreecast, about learning indigenous languages, Coast Salish teacher Khelsilem Rivers, founder of the Skwomesh Language Academy in Squamish, B.C., said he isn’t interested in language apps, CD-ROMs or anything that involves working from English translations. Fluency is impossible with “that English brain controlling things.” Full immersion is the only way, he said, with the urgency of one whose community of 3,500 people retains only a handful of those fluent in its language.

    I heard the same thing from Christi Belcourt, a Métis visual artist who recently held a longweekend immersion camp for young people at her house in Espanola, near Sudbury. No English was spoken; elders such as Mary Ann Corbiere used speech, drawings and direct demonstration to show how to make bannock or talk about the growth cycle of maple trees.

    “Not knowing the language, you feel like you have something missing inside,” Ms. Belcourt said. “I’m now 100-per-cent convinced that immersion is the way to go.”

    My own weekend immersion experience was mixed. Setting up my tent on the traditional powwow grounds at Alderville last summer, I prepared myself to be flung into a deep lake of the unfamiliar. But most of the weekend was spent in English, as Ms. Roy, a retired teacher of Anishinaabemowin at Michigan State University, explained her “soundbased method” of learning, according to which each basic sound has an inherent permanent meaning. “Every sound is a full sentence,” she said – a fairly radical advance on any verb becoming a complete statement. Knowing these components, she said, we could figure out word meanings, dispense with translated lists, and study easily with people of different knowledge levels.

    It sounded exciting, though when I tried to use her system to puzzle out new words, I didn’t really get to their effective meaning, or have any more success at remembering them. Even words I thought I knew had a way of sliding out of memory – they were all so very far from any of the European language paths available to me through English.

    I found it fascinating to discover how words are built in Anishinaabemowin, from germs of meaning nestled inside. “One of my favourite words is akinagegoo ,” says Christi Belcourt, “which means ‘everything,’ and begins with the acknowledgment of the Earth – ‘aki’ – within that.”

    As for new words, Anishinaabemowin resists borrowing from other languages, preferring to form new words from old. The word for car comes from a verb meaning to drag something or pull a sled. Mazinaatese , which is what you see at a cinema, comes from a word meaning an image flying quickly in the light. Sometimes neologism seems like an Ojibwa sport, played to witty extremes by whoever started referring to coffee as the mouthfilling makade-mashkikiwaaboo – literally, black liquid medicine.

    I had to keep reminding myself that dictionaries offer just one view, no more definitive than that of elders from different dialect areas. “Fluent speakers often carry different understandings, teachings and knowledge of word-origins, and this diversity is an important part of the language,” poet and thinker Leanne Simpson writes in her book, Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back . She cites at least two different etymological understandings of debwewin, or truth: “what my heart tells me” and “a person casting his or her knowledge as far as he or she can.” Both point toward the personal, as if to say that each person’s truth has its own validity.

    Ms. Belcourt’s grandparents spoke Cree, but she lives on traditional Anishinaabe territory, so she decided to learn that language instead of her own (both are part of the Algonquian language group). Chelsea Vowel, a Métis lawyer from Lac Ste. Anne, Alta., who now lives in Montreal, speaks Cree with her children and participates in “language nests,” an intergenerational approach developed by Maori teachers in New Zealand. But she told me she, too, would gladly adopt the language with the largest number of local speakers.

    “If I had the option in Montreal to learn the Mohawk language, I would take that, even though it’s a completely different language,” she said. “I think it’s important to learn even a little of the language of the territory you’re in, and we’re at the point where we have to promote all our languages, because they’re all in trouble.”

    Back in my neighbourhood, walking down Mikana Anishinaabe toward Niigaani-gichigami (Lake Ontario), I’m surrounded by my native English tongue. I can’t imagine some great power taking it away from me, or preventing my children from speaking it. That tragic experience belongs to others. But perhaps I can support indigenous languages just by knowing more about their ways and their beauty and, in the process, get a better understanding of my neighbours on this land.

  37. Interesting, thanks! And don’t worry, there’s no tax on long comments. But this is pure-dee bullshit:

    Ms. Roy, a retired teacher of Anishinaabemowin at Michigan State University, explained her “soundbased method” of learning, according to which each basic sound has an inherent permanent meaning. “Every sound is a full sentence,” she said – a fairly radical advance on any verb becoming a complete statement.

    Why do people like Ms. Roy feel the need to invent and propagate this kind of thing? Actual grammar and meaning is hard enough.

  38. Stu Clayton says

    “Everything that you say is 100per-cent action words,”

    That sentence must be untranslatable, since it contains the word “is”, which is not actionable (even in the legal sense).

    I’m finding it difficult to imagine action words in “100per-cent”, that’s how hide-bound English makes me. Perhaps “you want to buy a concert ticket but everyone else has bought them all”.

  39. J.W. Brewer says

    On the one hand, interest in a particular culture is typically the most obvious motivation for trying to learn the language associated with that particular culture; on the other hand, you should in principle be able to master a particular natural human language without first buying into all the nationalistic/particularistic/mythologizing BS its latter-day political advocates may tend to mouth.

  40. Stu Clayton says

    That’s an unconvincing alternative. In principle or not, I don’t see what you would become master of if you don’t “buy into” at least something – the food, the music, talking about these etc. What mastery is that, when you can speak proper but don’t know or care what you’re speaking about ?

    All talk and no clue makes Jack a dull chatbot.

  41. PlasticPaddy says

    A very good motivation for learning a language (or anything else) is not being battered. Unfortunately, due to the ban on corporal punishment, this motivation is no longer generally available.

  42. Trond Engen says

    Hat: Why do people like Ms. Roy feel the need to invent and propagate this kind of thing? Actual grammar and meaning is hard enough.

    And how was she able to do that for 39 years before retiring from Michigan State University? The answer may be political. I won’t go that way.

    But how did she get invited as an instructor at a weekend immersion camp if her linguistic theory is transparent bullshit, her language of instruction is English, and her method is unlikely to have taught anybody anything ever? Maybe the community of language instructors is so small that they can’t afford internal conflicts over minor issues like linguistic theory and pedagogical efficiency. Plus, having a native speaker instructor may be worth some inconveniences. She could well be a very good model speaker outside of the classroom setting.

  43. David Marjanović says

    That sentence must be untranslatable, since it contains the word “is”, which is not actionable (even in the legal sense).

    Yeah. As far as I understand, languages like that have heaps of stative verbs instead of, say, predicative adjectives.

    But more generally, just imagine the opposite of bureaucratic German: “why noun when you can verb” instead of “why verbiage in the face of the possibility of nouns”.

    Why do people like Ms. Roy feel the need to invent and propagate this kind of thing? Actual grammar and meaning is hard enough.

    Perhaps it helps her as a mnemonic. But if so, it’s quite unlikely to help anybody else as a mnemonic: learning vocabulary is hard enough without first having to learn how one particular person thinks – or, more likely, how she rationalizes it a posteriori.

  44. Trond Engen says

    Me: I won’t go there

    But I might go elsewhere. I’m reminded of my daughter’s experience with Xhosa instruction in South Africa. Not for the peculiar theories, but because it’s a well-respected university offering classes in a local heritage language with no apparent intention of producing actual competence in the language, let alone deeper linguistic understanding. The criteria for success must be something else.

  45. a well-respected university offering classes in a local heritage language with no apparent intention of producing actual competence in the language

    I might speculate that this follows an older European model, where you take, say, classroom French, taught using la-plume-de-ma-tante methods, but you only gain practical competence by then living in France for a while. I wouldn’t be surprised if some teachers think that it’s mostly their classroom instruction which produced that competence.

  46. “Perhaps it helps her as a mnemonic.” – or maybe it was inspired in some way by morphology of the language….

  47. During my 6 years as in-house editor (“publications specialist”) for the Univ. of Hawai’i Center for Korean Studies, I enrolled as an auditor in Korean classes, whose other enrollees were almost entirely of Korean heritage, who had heard lots of spoken Korean from their mothers and grandmothers while growing up. To prevent heritage speakers from enrolling for easy As, the teachers screened them individually by asking each one in Korean to sit down when they appeared at the office door. If they understood enough to sit down, they were bumped up to 102, or maybe 201 after a few more oral questions and answers in Korean.

    My 101 class focused entirely on grammar and orthography, precisely what the minimally conversant enrollees who were bumped ahead most needed. (The only other student in my class who knew what an adjective was was an older non-Korean journalist.) I had no problem with grammar and orthography and, in fact, had an advantage by being a kind of a heritage speaker of Japanese. But second-year classes were increasingly dominated by heritage speakers who had learned conversational skills outside of class, mostly in their home kitchens and dining rooms, so I dropped out after 202 and wrote a memo to the Korean language department head, a man whose scholarship and temperament I much respect (he had done fieldwork in Micronesia after the war, where he did much of his elicitation in Japanese). I suggested that the Korean program had it all backwards, teaching grammar to beginners who needed to become conversant, while teaching conversation to speakers who most needed grammar and spelling.

    I remain convinced that classrooms are the worst place to learn languages unless you just need to decipher written documents. In fact, my favorite sociolinguistics professor used to claim that prisons were the best place to learn foreign languages, because the incentive structure was rather compelling and inescapable.

  48. David Eddyshaw says

    Rocks are, in point of fact, inanimate gender in Ojibwe. But then the whole account is exoticising nonsense.

  49. Trond Engen says

    Unusual, but I don’t agree. There’s romanticizing, but it’s the romanticizing of heritage speakers reclaiming their heritage. There’s the mystification (“egalitarian”, “action-based”), but I’ll let that pass as pointed expressions to help students see the basic grammatical structure. It’s also written in a world where studies claiming correlation between grammatical gender and equality, and between verbal systems and productivity, are published in leading scientific journals. There’s the observation that a poetic device in one language might not work in another. All in all it’s an interesting account of the experience from a layman’s point of view.

  50. David Eddyshaw says

    Good points.

  51. Well, I already told that I have always loved to exoticise people, and contact with those exotic people (like speakers of English) only made me exoticise Russians too:)

  52. @Joel: Suum cuique. I generally prefer learning languages from books, understanding the grammar, and then to go out and talk. But that may be because I’m a nerd and morphology and syntax are the most interesting parts of language to me 🙂

  53. David Eddyshaw says

    I’m not hostile to exoticism, at least up to a point. I think that love of the exotic is probably there somewhere in the motivation of everyone who tries to learn a foreign language for anything but strictly utiltarian purposes – perhaps even more so, in the case of those who actually succeed in doing so to any significant extent.

    But the reality is always more interesting than the fantasy, and if the fantasy stops you seeing the reality, it’s pernicious.

    I strongly suspect that trying to learn your heritage language because you think it will give you a mystical connexion to your ancestors is not going to lead to much real progress, although it might help you over the threshold until you get to the point of finding better reasons as you go on.

    At any rate, love of the exotic is certainly greatly preferable to hatred of the exotic.

  54. jack morava says


    Early 20th-century entomologists incorrectly concluded that the evolution of the glandular terminal disk was a function of xenophily, following its discovery in myrmecophilous larvae…

  55. Stu Clayton says

    prisons were the best place to learn foreign languages, because the incentive structure was rather compelling and inescapable.

    Many years ago I saw a TV interview with an old French politician/publicist (can’t remember the name) who spoke almost accent-free, high-tone German. During the interview he mentioned that he learned it in concentration camp.

    Where there’s a will, there’s a Wilhelm.

  56. By the way, Afro-Asiatic -t- symbolises the Female Principle in cosmos.

  57. David Eddyshaw says


    This means, of course, that we must prefer Ehret‘s reconstructions to Orel’s, as the latter lack the necessary morphic resonance.

  58. Instruction in English reminded me discussions in Kazakhstan of the plan to teach several subjects in Kazakh schools in English.

    They (critics, that is) named as one of reasons why this is absolutely impossible that students don’t really know English.

  59. Robert Everett-Green says

    Dave Eddyshaw says: Rocks are, in point of fact, inanimate gender in Ojibwe.

    In point of fact, no, unless we’re using dictionaries that don’t agree with each other – not an unlikely scenario in a language zone where authority attaches not to a page but to fluent-speaking elders. According to the most widely-used Ojibwe dictionary, asin (rock or stone) is an animate noun :


  60. David Eddyshaw says

    I was going by Bloomfield’s description of Eastern Ojibwa.

  61. That sentence must be untranslatable

    i don’t see why, even in a mechanical word-replacement vision of what translation is. (and even taking the sentence literally, word by word, rather than understanding “action words” as the conventional elementary-school gloss of “verbs” that it clearly is)

    and because i thought the exercise would be fun*, here’s one way a hypothetical purely verb-based** lect whose word order maps cleanly onto english could do it:

    [Everything that] [you say] [is] [100percent] [action words]
    [persist in time: 3pl-inanimate-habitual-complete-obj] [speak: 2sg-human-habitual-process-subj] [assemble: 3pl-abstract-habitual-process-condition] [build: 3pl-abstract-habitual-complete-condition] [speak: 3pl-inanimate-momentary-process-obj]

    * (20 minutes later) it was!
    ** modified for person, number, type of actor, two flavors of temporal quality, and role

  62. Last spring, I excitedly joined a 3-session online class through Northwestern University, taught by a faculty member, about the Native American history of the area. Similarly to Ms. Roy, the professor presented a number of basic facts that I knew to be outright wrong. Unfortunately I don’t remember details now. I skipped the other two zooms.

  63. I’m looking forward to reading Pekka Hämäläinen’s Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America when I get the chance. Hämäläinen is a real historian, not a popularizer, and the excerpts I’ve read are brilliant. Here’s a sample review (from Publishers Weekly):

    “Oxford University scholar Hämäläinen (Lakota America) delivers a sweeping and persuasive corrective to the notion that “history itself is a linear process that moves irreversibly toward Indigenous destruction.” Reorienting the history of the Western Hemisphere away from “European ambitions, European perspectives, and European sources,” he focuses instead on the “overwhelming and persistent Indigenous power” that lasted in North America from 10000 BCE until the end of the 19th century. Throughout, Hämäläinen highlights the agency, resilience, diversity, and kinship of Indigenous peoples…. Skillfully shifting across regions and time periods…. Revelations abound…. This top-notch history casts the story of America in an astonishing new light.”

  64. >from 10000 BCE until the end of the 19th century. Throughout, Hämäläinen highlights the agency, resilience, diversity, and kinship of Indigenous peoples…

    History IS written by the victors.

    And I don’t mean Westerners. I’m dubious of “persistent Indigenous power” rather than a multi-millennium succession of turnovers of power from one group of elites to another, generally through violence. The book sounds romanticized starting with the very concept.

    But it’s unfair to judge a book by its blurb.

  65. Yes, it’s unfair to judge a book by its blurb, and I already said Hämäläinen is a real historian, not a popularizer. If you want to read excerpt from the actual book to judge for yourself, Joel’s posting from it at Far Outliers. I don’t know what you mean by “History IS written by the victors.”

  66. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes: given that “indigenous” here just means “not European invaders and their descendants”, to talk of “overwhelming and persistent Indigenous power” that “lasted in North America from 10000 BCE until the end of the 19th century” doesn’t seem to mean much more than “there were people there before the Europeans came, and had been since 10,000 BCE.”
    “Overwhelming power” seems particularly difficult to attach any reasonable meaning to. Overwhelming who? Overwhelming what?

    Still, as you say, a silly blurb does not mean that the book itself must be silly.

    [EDIT in the light of Hat’s comment: the snippet from Joel’s site seems basically to say that resistance to the invaders was more vigorous and probably more deliberately coordinated by the disparate groups of resisters than it has been made to appear in retrospect, and that the invaders’ ultimate victories only look inevitable in hindsight. Interesting enough …]

  67. J.W. Brewer says

    Obviously you can characterize every conflict between indigenous group A and indigenous group B as one where “indigenous power” emerged victorious. Even the ones where indigenous group A’s victory was become it had worked out a better trading relationship with some group of European incomers and thereby obtained firearms or other superior foreign technology from them.

    But yes, the notion that the indigenes were not doomed passive victims from the first moment the first European stepped onshore is an important one. Perhaps the technological edge that made the outcome seem (in hindsight) inevitable did not fully emerge until the 19th century, when firearms were supplemented with the railroad, the telegraph, various bits of agricultural technology, and the improvements in trans-Atlantic travel which (combined with then-prevailing political/historical/economic circumstances in Europe) made it feasible for the settler populations of the U.S. and Canada to import arbitrarily large numbers of “reinforcements” as they pushed their control further and further west.

  68. I regret having posted the PW blurb in a misguided attempt to give a quick idea of what the book was about; I should have known people would seize on the blurb and argue with it. To me, the idea of a large-scale account of American history centered on Native Americans instead of the invaders who displaced them, by a historian who has proven his ability to do excellent work on a smaller scale, is exciting. YMMV.

  69. The more I know of the situations in the Far Outliers excerpt, the greater the romanticizing hyperbole sounds.

    Hämäläinen’s summary:
    >Nearly simultaneous Indigenous rebellions… brought English, French, and Spanish colonists near their breaking points. Shockingly, Native Americans had rolled colonialism back in different corners of the continent… forcing colonists to reconsider their ingrained ideas about Native peoples.

    Hämäläinen’s examples:
    1) Virginia
    > unable to decide what to do or how to live with their Native neighbors, fell into a civil war [Bacon’s Rebellion] that nearly pulled the colony to pieces.

    Wiki believes that roughly 300 men were engaged on the colonial side, of a population of 40,000. 23 people died. Is that “nearly pulling the colony to pieces”?

    Bacon’s Rebellion was the first self-assertion by colonists against an imperial policy that treated Indigenous peoples with a small measure of respect as independent if unequal subjects, with some rights that must be respected.

    Here’s Wiki on the outcome of Bacon’s Rebellion:
    >In order for the Virginia elite to maintain the loyalty of the common planters in order to avert future rebellions, historian Alan Taylor writes, they “needed to lead, rather than oppose, wars meant to dispossess and destroy frontier Indians.”

    I would note that this is Hämäläinen’s second example in support of his thesis about colonial “rollback” as an impact of “near simultaneous Indigenous rebellions”, and there’s not really an Indigenous rebellion to point to. There were a handful of escalating reprisals over specific incidents. Nor was there was colonial rollback. An internal squabble over how much oppression would be allowed ended in total victory for the colonists’ exterminationist goals, and the collapse of native aspirations to remain (unequal) participants in settled Anglo-Virginia.

    2) Hämäläinen’s Massachusetts
    >Traumatized New Englanders, consumed by Indian wars [King Phillip’s War], believed that their god was displeased with them. They turned against one other, denouncing neighbors, relatives, and those who were generally suspect as witches [Salem witch trials].

    Many colonists did indeed believe god was displeased with some aspect of their behavior every time anything bad happened, plague, war, poor harvest. But do serious historians believe the Salem witch trials were the sign of a colony “near its breaking point”? Was the Inquisition a sign of Spain falling apart?

    The rebellion here too ended in Indigenous annihilation–the Pennacook going out of existence, the Wampanoags and Narragansetts nearly so. The native threat in Connecticut and Rhode Island was ended once and for all, and further settlement could proceed without worry. The war may have pushed back the sparse northern frontier for a decade, but this is hardly a sign of a colony nearly pulled to pieces. The primary northern protagonists, the Androscoggin, were expelled from Maine, so it was more “demilitarized zone” than Native reconquest.

    Bottom line, I just don’t think it’s honest to describe a pattern of Indigenous attack, colonial decision to annihilate the attackers and then Indigenous annihilation as “Native Americans… forcing colonists to reconsider their ingrained ideas about Native peoples.”

    I do like the idea of “centering Native Americans”. But a more factual approach to celebrating Indigenous power, advancement and culture through the lens of violent conflict would be to stress that for several centuries they gave as good as they got. European settlers generally won because there were just so many more of them. A raid on towns that left 200 settlers dead was erased by the next two ships’ arrival, while the massacre of 200 Narragansett was a grave blow to the existence of the tribe.

    Richard White’s Middle Ground about three centuries of Native history in the Great Lakes region, focused on peaceful and violent interaction and native agency, seems much more useful.

  70. DE,

    It’s interesting that for you, as for me, the initial, triumphal passages of the excerpt evoke “more deliberate coordination… than it’s been made to appear in retrospect.”

    But Hämäläinen dispels that notion at the end, writing that these rebellions weren’t coordinated, just “structural” to the number of generations each group had passed in a lopsided, accommodationist posture. He doesn’t even suggest any relationship between events in Virginia and Massachusetts.

    The instinct to write wheezy celebrationist rhetoric leads to deception.

  71. David Eddyshaw says

    West Africa was historically protected from large-scale European invasion and land expropriation by the fact that West African diseases were far too nasty for the Europeans, in a sort of War of the Worlds scenario* (and the opposite of what happened in the Americas, where the great majority of the indigenous population died of introduced diseases within a century or so.)

    Also by the fact that what the Europeans wanted (huge numbers of slaves) could be gained on the back of agreements with local rulers, who were themselves much better organised and capable of defending themselves against the Europeans than almost anybody in the Americas.

    This didn’t really change until the late nineteenth century, by which time European technological superiority was overwhelming and conquest was driven by intra-European rivalries, with Africans just in the way of the damage. Most of the European involvement in West Africa after the end of the slave trade made no sense at all economically from the European point of view, which is why they eventually withdrew with relatively little armed encouragement to do so (and after a relatively short time, too: Houphouët-Boigny saw the French when they first came to his village, and he saw them go; Bawku, where I used to live, was under British rule for 53 years altogether.)

    I imagine that in a parallel universe where the Europeans had failed to colonise the Americas when they did, the nineteenth century would have seen a Scramble for the Americas, but in this case with much the same outcome for the unfortunate locals. The Americas would have proved to be economically viable conquests.

    * SPOILER! (Sorry.)

  72. PlasticPaddy says

    It really depends on what kind of parallel universe you are talking about. To obtain your outcome
    (1) Turks, North Africans, Chinese, Japanese and other seafarers, as well as Europeans would have to refrain from colonisation AND technology transfer to the Americas;
    (2) Developments towards centralised civilisations capable of effective resistance in Central and South America would have to cease or break down before the Europeans start their scramble (the Mayans were capable of effective resistance but were not centralised).

  73. David Eddyshaw says

    Laurent Binet’s Civilisations is apparently about the Inca conquering Europe. (I haven’t actually read it, having a low tolerance for parallel-universe stories, and mainly mention Binet in order to give yet another plug to his altogether brilliant La Septième Fonction du langage, a novel replete with Hattic interest. And, come to think of it, a bit parallel-universe-y, dealing as it does with the murder of Roland Barthes. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds …)

  74. By focusing on indigenous agency, Indigenous Continent offers a very valuable corrective, but I agree with Ryan that the author tends to lapse into triumphalism, and the chapter-summary passage I cited about the aftermath of three major widely dispersed outbreaks of violent conflict and social turmoil in the late 17th c. is among his most tendentious such lapses. His actual accounts of what happened in the three regions is far better, although his coverage of Virginia is perhaps the weakest of the three. The same tendency can be seen to a lesser degree in his earlier books that I read and blogged passages from, The Comanche Empire (2008) and Lakota America (2019), but I think he overreaches most when he tries to pull threads together for a whole continent. I’ll go back and blog a bit more about the Pueblo Revolt, which I think he covers well.

    The book about the Asante-British war also highlighted bad decisions by all sides in the conflict.

    I try to blog less from new books for fear of publisher complaints, but so far only two authors have asked me to remove all my blogposts from their books: one about the role of British Indian troops in wars elsewhere (esp. Africa, the Middle East, and Europe), and the other about German commerce raiders in WW1, both eminently appropriate as Far Outliers. If DE or somebody else can point me to a good book about the role of Senegalese troops throughout the French Empire (incl. Dien Bien Phu), I would be happy to read and blog about it. My late brother was a history professor who wrote his dissertation about Japan-Africa relations before WW2, a fascinating but largely forgotten history.

  75. I once wanted to write a novel in which Malian fleets succeeded in reaching the New World in the early 14th century, and West Africans wound up creating a mixed civilization in America and keeping Europe subdued and backward.

  76. David Eddyshaw says

    Now that blurb makes me wish you’d written it …

  77. David Eddyshaw says

    If DE or somebody else can point me to a good book about the role of Senegalese troops throughout the French Empire (incl. Dien Bien Phu)

    I only wish I could. I have actually met (as patients) some elderly Burkinabé veterans of the French wars in Indochina. They would lie in the bed at attention when I came round, the same way as old Brit Tommies.

    I’ve often thought that for them it must have been like being conscripted to go and fight on Mars, though on reflection, Vietnam might have seemed less exotic to them than France.

  78. It does. I’d read it.

    Did you refer to the fabled voyage here recently? I only recently learned of it, and I can’t think where else it would have popped up. It’s a pretty fascinating maybe, that could have changed trajectories. I imagine something more like Mali in the role of Spain, with Spain, Portugal and Holland as the piratical states that historically preyed on peninsular interests in the New World.

  79. Did you refer to the fabled voyage here recently?

    I don’t think so; I’ve been fascinated by it ever since I learned of it many years ago, but I don’t think it’s come up here.

  80. David Marjanović says

    It hasn’t. Evidence: I had no idea of it.

  81. > Vietnam might have seemed less exotic to them than France.

    You’re probably right, but I’d be curious to hear your pro and contras.

  82. David Eddyshaw says

    No deep reasoning behind it, except that Europeans (and their American descendants) often don’t realise just how weird our contemporary (urban) culture is, compared with other times and other places. An outlier …

    Mind you, being in an occupying army probably isn’t the best way to appreciate (or not) a foreign culture anyway.

    I know too little about the geography of Indochina to guess whether a man used to farming in the savanna would find it more or less exotic than la belle France. At least it wouldn’t be as cold, I suppose …

  83. > At least it wouldn’t be as cold

    Vietnam would be a lot wetter though. And if the comparison were 50’s rural southern France? But the railroads were extensive and cars pretty common.

    I have no sense of how small town architecture might compare. Is Burkina a land of mudbrick? French stone might feel somewhat familiar. I have not the faintest idea what towns in Vietnam were like. Would any aspects of Islamic architecture in BF share Mediterranean elements?

  84. David Eddyshaw says

    Is Burkina a land of mudbrick?

    Yes, at least as far as the villages go. Round thatched mud huts, just like in the picturebooks.

    The savanna and Sahel boast some pretty impressive mud mosques, too.


    is probably the most famous, but there are a fair number of less spectacular ones about too (even as far south as Ghana, along the line of the old trans-Sahara trade routes. Trade and Islam are intimately linked in West Africa to this day: if you’re a long-distance lorry driver, it’s useful to have a Muslim-enough identity you can adopt when necessary.)

    There are a good number of Muslims in Burkina, and some Mossi kings have been Muslims, but most people are not; the Mossi ruling clans traditionally formed a quasi-feudal mounted military aristocracy, and unlike some such aristocracies could actually fight*; they saw off the jihads in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It used to be said that Ouagadougou was the northernmost city in the Sahel where you would have no trouble getting an alcoholic drink.

    * At one stage the Mossi actually sacked Timbuktu.

  85. Yeah, if your primary building form is round, France is not going to look familiar.

    Wiki clocks BF at 64% muslim. Does that involve some exaggeration, pushing syncretists into the category or were you focusing on Mossi people?

  86. The ongoing Indian wars probably were probably a significantly more important factor in the leadup with the Salem witch hunts that is usually appreciated. Some historians have criticized the governor for heading to Maine to lead the military campaign, rather than dealing with the witch hunt crisis that was happening around Salem Village,* but the reality was at the time the fighting in the North was probably considered a much more serious concern. Moreover, the colonials generally thought of the indigenes as demon worshippers,** and the proximity of a sizeable population of non-Christian enemies was was not something that the colonists’ largely British-derived culture was prepared for. As discussed by Mary Beth Norton in In the Devil’s Snare, the people of the colony felt that the Devil was actively at work in the area, and that zeitgeist was part of what contributed to the witch craze. Bearing this out, in fact, the first people accused of witchcraft were two Indian (not African, in spite of frequent inaccurate media portrayals) slaves.

    * Unlike Salem Town, which has reveled in its history as the site of the actual witch trials, nearby Salem Village (the actual center of the witch hunt activity, where the accusations began) quietly changed its name to Danvers. In fact, as pointed out by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum in Salem Possessed, tension between the Salem Village and Salem Town groups was probably another faction that contributed significantly to what happened. Part of this conflict was also explicitly religious. The groups largely attended different churches, and there was a push to build a new church for the Salem Town congregation right in what had previously been the Salem Village’s parish territory. The possible expansion of a rival church, just when other putatively Satanic forces seemed to be on the offensive, pushed some of the folk of Salem Village more and more toward paranoia.

    ** Although largely forgotten today, the meme that the New England Indians had been devil-worshippers persisted into the early twentieth century. It shows up to varying extents in some of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories—most prominently in “He.” It is generally considered one of Lovecraft’s worst stories; however, while the story is pretty racist, it’s notable that the Indians are not actually the villains; the title character, an Anglo, turns out to be much worse.

  87. i, too, yearn for the lost hattic novel!

    and one quibble:
    centralised civilisations capable of effective resistance

    i’m not sure whether to call this a non sequitur (in the most literal sense) or an oxymoron.

    the largest and most centralized states in the hemisphere, complete with standing armies, fell to the invaders with remarkable speed (2 years for the aztec empire; 10 for the key cities of the inka empire, though extending control to the full territory took another 30ish, because mountains). many other polities resisted far more effectively and for far longer – in a number of cases, including the haudenosaunee in my neck of the woods, holding much of their traditional territory for more than a century after the start of colonization and remaining an important military and political force for even longer. these, however, were neither centralized nor states.

    that shouldn’t be surprising. empires, in particular, by their very structure have subject peoples who are generally recruitable into efforts to overthrow them (as the conquistadors found). and all states, by their very structure, have a center of power that can be targeted and removed to eliminate them or render them ineffectual.

  88. PlasticPaddy says

    I would guess that some degree of centralisation would have been necessary to coordinate the military and economic efforts needed to deal with mobile invaders backed by states with deep pockets and an initial technological advantage. Of course, you are right that the way the Inca and Aztec empires were organised (too much concentration of power and responsibility in the Emperor, too little integration of subject peoples) made them more vulnerable than the decentralised Mayans.

  89. John Cowan says

    authority attaches not to a page

    The idea that authority ever attaches to a dictionary is a superstition.

    I should have known people would seize on the blurb and argue with it.

    While I am at it, I will object to the historian:popularizer opposition: the best popularizers are historians.

    Laurent Binet’s Civilisations is apparently about the Inca conquering Europe.

    Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch is a layered alternate-history story: a world civilization closely related to (if not the same as) ours is about to collapse irrevocably until the temporal researchers of Pastwatch learn that it is possible not only to observe but to change the past, and they create a hybrid Spanish-Caribbean empire in Columbus’s time — after discovering that a previous version of Pastwatch had redirected Columbus from trying to reclaim Constantinople for Christianity, with the result that Christianity and Islam wear each other out and open Europe (and eventually the whole world) to conquest by the Tlaxcalan Empire. Pastwatch I concluded that a slavery/genocide world empire was better, if that is the word, than a mass-scale human-sacrifice empire like Mesoamerica; Pastwatch II in turn decided that it could do better than either.

    creating a mixed civilization

    Surely Africans would have spread their diseases to Americans with equal or greater thoroughness than Europeans. Pastwatch II makes sure that the people sent into their past carry a retrovirus providing communicable immunity to the worst of the Old World diseases.

    these, however, were neither centralized nor states

    While the Haudenosaunee polity was certainly never a Weberian monopoly-of-force state, it was far more state-like than anything in the future U.S. territory than anything since the fall of Cahokia. For that matter, the U.S. was not really a Weberian state until the late 19C, and is still not a fully centralized state.

  90. David Eddyshaw says

    Wiki clocks BF at 64% muslim

    Seems much too high*, but yes, I was indeed focussing on the Mossi (and I’m personally only familiar with the eastern part of Burkina.)

    Western Burkina certainly is more Muslim; it’s the part where the usual interlanguage is Dyula rather than Mooré. The actual Dyula people are Muslim traders; their language is part of the Bambara-Mandinka continuum.

    * Really any demographic statistic from countries in that region needs to be taken with a large grain of salt. (Census? What census?) Muslim sources also tend to overestimate Muslim numbers, presumably in a spirit of optimism.

  91. Surely Africans would have spread their diseases to Americans with equal or greater thoroughness than Europeans.

    So what? Unless you’re suggesting that the diseases would have wiped out the Americans entirely, the fact that the locals got sick in large numbers does not in any way preclude the development of a mixed civilization.

  92. David Eddyshaw says

    The diseases I originally had in mind were falciparal malaria and yellow fever, which between them killed off most (literally) Europeans settled in West Africa within five years in premodern times; but yes, basically.

    River blindness seems to have been transmitted to the Americas from Africa along with slavery, though its insect vector in the New World is not the aptly named Simulium damnosum.

  93. Knowing next to nothing of the history of India and the Raj in particular, it still seems amazing to me that the British managed to conquer to some degree, a country such as India—large, populous, dense, and experienced in war.

    I’m also keeping in mind that “conquer” means different things in different places. You may be able to control the central power, but not have enough resources to directly control more local polities. Probably many Indians and Africans never even met a European during the era of colonization.

  94. David Eddyshaw says

    There are more Europeans in West Africa now than there ever were in the colonial period. The Brits in particular were experts at doing a lot with remarkably few personnel.

    When it came to military escapades they used local levies very extensively: Lugard’s conquest of the Sokoto Caliphate was largely effected with African troops. They adopted a similar approach in civil administration.

    Although there was some ideological backing to the typical Brit system of Indirect Rule, a lot of it was sheer practicality – how do you hold down an empire with so few actual foreign personnel?

  95. I love the opening of David Arnold’s TLS review of Courting India: Seventeenth-Century England, Mughal India, and the Origins of Empire, by Nandini Das:

    By November 1616 Sir Thomas Roe, the first English emissary to the Mughal court, had endured two long, frustrating and largely unprofitable years in India. Seeking the imperial farman, or decree, that would secure trading rights for the fledgling East India Company, he had been ignored, rebuffed or toyed with by the emperor Jahangir. On his arrival at Surat, on the Gujarati coast, Roe had proudly announced himself as the “ambassador from a mightie king”. Now, marooned in Ajmer in Rajasthan, and stricken with dysentery, he could barely stand or lift his pen. Yet, impelled by curiosity and duty, he bestirred himself to attend the spectacular departure of the imperial army for war in the Deccan. Having only paltry gifts to offer the emperor, and acutely conscious of more adept European rivals, Roe could only watch in wonderment at the extraordinary wealth and power of the Mughals on display – the jewels, the cloth of gold, the stately tents, the plumed horses, the 600 elephants, and Jahangir adorned “as if wearing all the fabled wealth of India on his body”. Roe understood wealth, if seldom seen in such profusion. What unnerved him was the danger of losing his own identity, of being absorbed and assimilated into a world he could barely comprehend.

    As Nandini Das argues in her beautifully crafted and deeply engaging account of Roe’s mission, the proud Englishman, clinging to his English dress and English tongue, was troubled by how easily “Mughal grandeur could wipe out other allegiances and identities”, so that all that remained “was the shell of an actor playing a role, one whose ultimate end was to confirm another’s power”. As he stood watching the army depart Roe could see the travel-tarnished English carriage that he had gifted to Jahangir transformed by the skill of Mughal craftsmen into a ratha, or chariot, for the emperor’s son to ride in, with Roe’s coachman, decked in Mughal finery, riding on the box. Were the English, so eager to establish their place in the world, destined to remain mere supplicants and powerless petitioners?

    If only!

  96. Modernizing Japanese industrialists were very heavily invested in East Africa during the early 1900s. They needed Egyptian cotton for their mills; they needed British experience in colonial administration (esp. indirect rule) for their newly acquired colonies of Taiwan and Korea; and they wished to emulate how Cecil Rhodes managed to make South Africa British as they sought to make China their own industrial backyard.

    The Anglo-Japanese alliance in 1902 gave them inroads in China and allowed them to take over German colonies in China and the Pacific in 1914 (but they had to give the China colonies back).

    After Japan defeated Russia in 1905, Ethiopia and Japan developed close relations. Ethiopians saw Japan as a model for how to resist becoming colonies of the European powers, while Japanese saw Ethiopia as an inroad to African markets.

    When I looked up the names of various British administrators who came and went during the Asante wars, I found that the same few top administrators had served at posts all over the Empire, not just Africa: Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand.

    This thread has drifted a long way from Cherokee at Yale.

  97. David Eddyshaw says

    A lot of these men were extremely competent. Even Lugard, the main proponent of Indirect Rule as a system, horrible person though he was, was extremely effective at achieving what he set out to do.

    As an antidote to Lugard, another highly competent but rather better man:


  98. @PlasticPaddy @JC:

    part of what’s so fascinating about the haudenosaunee is that (from what i’ve read) they mounted such a successful and extended resistance to colonization without extending the very limited authority delegated to war leaders into other aspects of the polity’s life.* i don’t think it makes sense to talk about that kind of structure in terms of centralization, though i can see an argument in the other direction.

    also, as in many polities***, war leadership was apparently the widest-extended authority but also the most limited. all the more so because it seems to have relied for its operation on the power of persuasion rather than on effective control of the legitimization of violence and the legitimization of resource distribution (to my [post-weberian] eye the two irreplaceable elements of state-ness, alongside centralization).

    i’d argue that what made the confederation not a state of any kind (unlike cahokia, from what i understand** of what’s known about it) is that it was structured with multiple decisionmaking sites and multiple (collective and individual) decisionmakers overseeing different areas of life and operating at different scales, that did not operate as harmonized elements of a single concentrated structure (as the supposedly separated & balanced powers do in madison, hamilton, et al’s 1787 parody of haudenosaunee practice). in that kind of structure, there is no centralized or institutional arbiter of legitimacy for either violence or distribution, and so no state.

    by contrast, i’d say that the 13 colonies had created a classic situation of contested/dual state power by the early 1770s at the latest, when the british no longer maintained effective control of those legitimization processes (starting with resource distribution). no state is ever airtight or entirely uncontested, and centralization can never be complete (which is why i like a minimalist definition), but the u.s. established effective centralized control of the legitimization of violence and resource distribution very quickly – by the 1790s at the latest (with the suppression of shay’s rebellion and the whiskey rebellion being key indicators of both, and clearly understood as such at the time).

    i don’t know nearly enough about the 15th/16thC maya to know what if any of this applies there.

    * and to my eye, because they did not.
    ** mostly from graeber and wengrow.
    *** typically, but i think not invariably, non-state ones.

  99. David Marjanović says

    the supposedly separated & balanced powers

    In a common-law jurisdiction, where precedent is legally binding, judges legislate from the bench whether they want to or not…

  100. I once wanted to write a novel in which Malian fleets succeeded in reaching the New World in the early 14th century, and West Africans wound up creating a mixed civilization in America and keeping Europe subdued and backward.

    By the way, if anyone is inspired by that description and wants to give it a try, go for it — I’m never going to write it, but I’d love to read it.

  101. Trond Engen says

    The sheer number of ships Mansa Musa talks about makes the whole story suspect. On the other hand, he told it at a time when voyages deep into the open sea, especially the Western sea, was not yet the mark of an expansive empire, so why make up that as a way to impress the court in Cairo?

    What is known about West African seafaring at the time? If they did long distance sailing, I would have expected a flourishing trade as far as there was water along the coasts — say between Senegal and Angola. I’d also expect the West Africans to reach Morocco and Portugal and establish trade routes before launching even a modest fleet for exploration of the Atlantic.

  102. The sheer number of ships Mansa Musa talks about makes the whole story suspect.

    Oh, come now. Virtually every ancient account of everything exaggerates numbers.

  103. And not even ancient. If someone told you proudly “The fish was *this* big” (holding out hands to an improbable extent), would you conclude they hadn’t actually caught a fish at all?

  104. Trond Engen says

    Yes, I know. It could easily e.g. be ships carrying 1000 men with provisions instead of 1000 ships carrying men and 1000 more carrying provisions. And as I said, why make up exploration of the Atlantic in 1324? That’s why I want to know more about West African seafaring.

  105. Trond Engen says

    I mean, I really want it to be true. But it’s not a good sign that the Cape Verde Islands were uninhabited before the Portuguese came.

  106. David Eddyshaw says

    The West African coastline doesn’t offer much in the way of natural harbours: Dakar and Lagos are about it, and Lagos only after its bar was dredged. Much of it is the sort of beaches that gave premodern sailors nightmares about dread lee shores. The great West African rivers mostly don’t have particularly navigable estuaries, especially not in the case of the greatest of them all, the Niger. The Senegal and the Gambia rivers do, though.

    It’s not accident that the historical links of West African trade before the European incursions were across the Sahara rather than by sea.

    I imagine that a West African empire would only have had much chance of creating an ocean-going fleet if it was in control of the Senegal area, but of course Mansa Musa was indeed in control of it.

    (Mostly plagiarised from Fage.)

  107. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Aren’t the fish that were *this* big always the ones that you didn’t catch?

  108. David Marjanović says

    It’s not accident that the historical links of West African trade before the European incursions were across the Sahara rather than by sea.

    Wüstenschiff “camel”

  109. Aren’t the fish that were *this* big always the ones that you didn’t catch?

    Good point; I withdraw the analogy.

  110. What do you want to be true? A one-off, one-way voyage towards South America without a reasonable theory based in geography or oceanic navigation doesn’t really require prior settlement of the Cape Verdes.

    If you want it to be true that Mansa Musa’s predecessor had a coherent and reasonable theory of the globe that resulted in a voyage with a good chance of reaching South America and returning successfully, based on the boating technologies and navigational understanding available to them, but failed because of bad luck, I don’t think even Mansa Musa’s tale suggests anything of the sort. The story as handed down is that his predecessor met his fate by pursuing a ridiculous bit of whimsy.

    If I had to guess, I’d suggest a middle ground. The reasonable basis for the previous mansa setting off was probably rumors of the Cape Verdes themselves, not South America. But they missed a target that their craft might have reached, and went careening off the edge of the ocean.

    What might have happened if they’d reached and settled the Cape Verdes seems like the jumping off point for plausible contra-historical fiction.

  111. Trond Engen says

    David E.: The West African coastline doesn’t offer much in the way of natural harbours: Dakar and Lagos are about it, and Lagos only after its bar was dredged.

    That’s what I imagined to know, at least for the coast from Nigeria to maybe Liberia, but I thought perhaps there were more harboury coastlines in the more rugged countries in the West.

  112. I believe there’s ample evidence that Henry the Navigator took advantage of a trans-Mediterranean increase of knowledge about boating, cartography and navigation, with Jewish middlemen, that had been a few centuries in development, which West Africans could have shared in developing and using, as they were part of the cultural milieu. But setting aside the question of whether there may have been some premature and ill-founded voyage (and indeed there may have been other rumors of one), it seems extremely unlikely that advances were made in West Africa in the necessary fields of knowledge but then lost for 150 years. That knowledge accreted slowly, and moved across porous state and cultural borders. It’s not that I don’t think they could have done it. It’s that I don’t think they could have kept it to themselves.

  113. Trond Engen says

    @Ryan: Good points. I think I want a middle ground sense too, but maybe more like testing technology and navigational skills by venturing farther and farther off shore That may well be combined with sighting the Cape Verdes and equipping an expedition to explore the land. Those who first saw land in the west wouldn’t necessarily know that it was an African island and not the other side of the ocean.

  114. Trond Engen says

    Yeah… Morocco and the Corsar states would be technologically ahead of the Christian kingdoms and might conceivably have had fleets going far off shore in the 14th century. They did go far north in Europe.

  115. Much of it is the sort of beaches that gave premodern sailors nightmares about dread lee shores.

    Yes, sailing to windward/against the wind really only got figured out by the Vikings — and they preferred at best to sail across the wind. (Odysseus was always getting blown downwind, which is why he had so much trouble getting home.)

    Kon-Tiki had to be towed about 80km off-shore by the Peruvian Navy, clear of the on-shore diurnal wind, and clear of the Southward counter-current.

  116. sailing to windward/against the wind really only got figured out by the Vikings

    That’s a factlet I’ve ‘known for ever’. (Possibly I read it in Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki book.) But I’m having a hard time finding reputable evidence.

    This wiki on ‘Keel’ (but without a citation) says the needed (Viking C6th) technology gave rise to “the first word in the English language recorded in writing”. Really?

    This on Lateen rig (with citations) says the Eastern Mediterranean C2nd BC had the right potential sailplan to do more than bowl along before the wind. But without a keel, you’ll just get blown sideways.

    Independently, Polynesian sailors could sail at best about 70 degrees off the wind, by making each of the two hulls long and straight with squared sides.

  117. Robert Smith, The Canoe in West African History. The Journal of African History 11(4):515–533, 1970 (jstor):

    A fundamental distinction suggested by the early accounts of the Guinea Coast is between those people who ventured in their canoes upon the open sea and those who confined themselves to the rivers and lagoons. Pieter de Marees, for example, writing of the Gold Coast traders who visited the Dutch ships in the roadsteads at the beginning of the seventeenth century, observes that ‘the people that dwell within the land, can hardly brooke the seas… but their rowers and pilots that bring them aboord, are hardie enough, and never are sicke, by reason of their daily using to the seas’. The people of Senegal in the same century fished up to ‘three, four and five leagues to sea’ and were ‘expert and able swimmers’, while on the Coast of Malaguette (modern Liberia and Ivory Coast) the local traders came out to the ships in their canoes and were ‘very expert swimmers and divers’. But it was on the Gold Coast that the inhabitants seemed most at home on the sea, being accustomed ‘to pass over the bars, and carry their goods and provisions along the coast’. The Mina were ‘the fittest and most experienced men to manage and paddle the canoes over the bars and breakings’, while the sailors of Axim and Winneba navigated their craft ‘over the worst and most dreadful beating seas’. Later writers such as Snelgrave echo this praise of the sailors of the Gold Coast. By contrast, the peoples further down the coast avoided the open sea. Norris noted that for landing at Whydah, the European ships took with them canoes from the Gold Coast manned by Fanti crews. Similarly, Adams writes that vessels trading at Popo, Whydah, Ardra, Badagry and Lagos:

    ‘require one or two canoes, and a set of canoe-men, both of which are to be obtained at Cape Coast… the canoemen, in number twenty-one, receive mostly wages and subsistence during the time they are employed. The surf on this line of coast being very heavy, and the natives never passing it, either for the purpose of fishing, or trade, and boats being at all times unavailable for the purpose of communicating with the shore, renders a canoe, and canoe-men of the above description indispensable.’

    The Fanti canoe-men were, however, ‘thieves to a man’.

    Two possible lines of explanation suggest themselves for this distinction between seafarers and the rest. The first is geographical. On the Gold Coast, firm beaches, backed by relatively open and dry country, afforded easy access from the land to the sea, while the small promontories which jut out south-westwards from Axim nearly to Accra gave shelter from the prevailing wind and current to the beaches in their eastern lee. East of the Volta, moreover, lagoon systems roughly parallel to the coast, and networks of rivers offered alternative and less hazardous water communication and fishing. A second explanation may be sought in the early history and traditional origins of the different peoples. The Yoruba, for example, who have few references to the sea in their myth and legend, seem in origin to have been an inland people who settled near the coast only within the last four or five hundred years; though they made much use of canoes on their lagoons and rivers, it is unlikely that in precolonial times they ever ventured through the Atlantic surf on to the open sea.

  118. Some 700 years after Chrysostom, Euthymius Zigabenus wrote of an intelligible Pharaoh and an intelligible Goliath (as translated by Fr. John Raffan). In both instances, the adjective is νοητός and the meaning is “the devil.”

    Wikipedia has three entries for “Мысленный волк”, all of them titles. A song (2014, not great); a movie (2019, no comment); and a novel (2014; I read it in two days; LH finds it pretentious – see his latest).

  119. Yeah, I wanted to like it, and I may go back to it sometime, but it just didn’t grab me.

  120. Trond Engen says

    @Y: Thanks!

  121. Yes, thanks Y. I’ve finally clicked through from your link, and would just extend your quote with this one that goes beyond what I expected

    >from small fishing canoes carrying a crew if from one upwards, to canoes over 80 ft. in length and with a complement of 100 men or more.

  122. David Eddyshaw says

    Perhaps rather surprisingly given that the languages are all spoken hundreds of miles from the sea, and that there is nothing much in the way of rivers either for most of the year, a stem for “boat/canoe” is actually reconstructable to proto-Oti-Volta, viz *ŋàt-. Even more surprisingly, this looks tantalisingly similar to proto-Bantu *átò ‘canoe’ (proto-Bantu didn’t have initial *ŋ-.)

    The proto-Bantu reconstruction is from Chapter 2 of


    I must admit that I don’t really believe in this as a cognate (the tones don’t match, I have no other evidence for proto-Bantu zero corresponding to proto-Oti-Volta initial *ŋ, and some of the Oti-Volta words show irregular phonetic correspondences of a kind that suggests intra-OV borrowing. And two segments do not a convincing comparison make anyway … )

    Still, I like the idea of proto-NIger-Congo boats. Ideally, crossing the Atlantic and becoming Olmecs, why not. Millennia before St Brendan discovered America with his coracle.

  123. I must admit that I don’t really believe in this as a cognate

    Yeah. Is it regular for proto-Bantu suffix *-ò to be added to Proto-OV vocab? Or is that just a predictable inflection? And are there other proto-OV borrowings where initial *ŋ- got dropped?

    We really only have *-àt- vs *-át- and with different tones, as you say. With segments that short, we can reconstruct almost anything from proto-Basque, I would have thought. Not even as much coincidence as comal -> kumara.

  124. a stem for “boat/canoe” is actually reconstructable to proto-Oti-Volta, viz *ŋàt-. Even more surprisingly, this looks tantalisingly similar to proto-Bantu *átò ‘canoe’

    Could this have something to do with what Sutton calls “the African Aqualithic” (here and here, see also here)? That is, the framing of North to Central African population dispersals around the presence of many interlinked bodies of water and wetlands in the early and middle Holocene where the Sahel is now, followed by their disappearance.

  125. Thanks @Y The people of Senegal in the same century fished up to ‘three, four and five leagues to sea’

    So still in sight of land. Or at least in sight of cloud effects over the land from afternoon on-shore breezes.

    Sails were often used, [from the Abstract]

    So if you have a period of relatively stable weather with diurnal winds, those are friend to a coastal fisherman: set out before dawn on the dying off-shore wind; as the sun rises, the fish will be biting; return early afternoon on the on-shore wind. No need for fancy techniques/maritime technology to beat against the winds.

    Similarly for coastal trading: you can sail about 70° ‘sideways’ downwind. Set out before dawn at 70° (say Northwards); catch a few fish as you’re becalmed at lunchtime; continue at 70° (more Northwards) when the afternoon breeze fills in. You can make quite a distance along the coast.

    The Vikings also mostly hugged the coasts like that — although diurnal winds less reliable in those latitudes.

    The great achievement of the Polynesian navigators was to go hundreds of kms out of the sight of land. Anyway, with mostly small islands, the diurnal effect was very localised. The Polynesians could read bigger-scale weather systems, that would give them several days of winds blowing contra the prevailing.

  126. David Eddyshaw says

    Yeah. Is it regular for proto-Bantu suffix *-ò to be added to Proto-OV vocab?

    Yes, in a sense, although it’s the other way about: proto-OV roots are (C)V- or (C)VC-, at least insofar as they can be reconstructed, so it’s actually that proto-OV has regularly lost the final vowels of CVCV roots.

    This may be an artefact of reconstruction: in most modern Oti-Volta languages, there are no underlying vowel quality distinctions except in (monosyllabic) roots, prefixes and flexional suffixes, and all other vowels within stems can be treated as epenthetic. However, some of the Eastern Oti-Volta languages are exceptions (especially Waama), and I think this is because they have preserved original contrasts rather than created new ones. But I need to do a lot more work on this to be sure.

    Proto-Bantu itself seems to have had CVCV roots in nouns but CVC in verbs; however, this too may be an artefact of reconstruction. The book I linked to before has a chapter on this (Chapter 4.) The standard doctrine on these matters may be a mistake based on ignoring contrary evidence from Northwestern Bantu; people have become much less prone to ignoring Northwestern Bantu data than they once were, as the implications have sunk in regarding how it’s the most linguistically diverse part of Bantu and pretty certainly the area that the Bantu languages originally spread from.

    And are there other proto-OV borrowings where initial *ŋ- got dropped?

    No. But there are only a couple of dozen good cognate sets between proto-OV and proto-Bantu (in my opinion*) so that’s hardly surprising. As an actual correspondence it wouldn’t be implausible in itself: not only did proto-Bantu not have initial *ŋ-, but in proto-Oti-Volta it seems to have often been prosthetic, supplied automatically at the beginning of words that would otherwise have been vowel-initial. This is actually quite common as a synchronic thing in Oti-Votla languages (and elsewhere in West Africa too.)

    * That’s not the impression the literature gives, but the literature is misleading: no thoroughgoing efforts to find regular sound correspondences, so a lot of supposed cognates are really nothing more than lookalikes. Well, actually, there have been thoroughgoing efforts (notably by John Stewart) but not involving “Gur” languages, and also making what I reckon are some extremely dubious leaps in logic.

    Could this have something to do with what Sutton calls “the African Aqualithic”

    The only part of the linguistic side of it that I think is certain (or indeed valid at all) is the proto-OV reconstruction; it’s pretty much guesswork how old POV was, but the Oti-Volta languages are not nearly as diverse as the Indo-European languages, so my best guess would be something like 3000 YBP: so a lot more recent than that. On the other hand, the area was a lot more watery than now even three thousand years ago.

  127. January First-of-May says

    This is actually quite common as a synchronic thing in Oti-Votla languages (and elsewhere in West Africa too.)

    Also in some northeastern parts of Uralic (thus Nganasan), which isn’t exactly an area I’d have expected to be at all linguistically similar to West Africa. (Sadly perhaps a bit too far east to be proper Scandi-Congo.)

    The idea of a prosthetic sound at the beginnings of otherwise vowel-initial words is sensible enough, but the idea of that sound being /ŋ-/ is incredibly weird – presumably due to the cultural background of SAE languages where /ŋ/ in general is either extremely rare or at least never word-initial. I would never have expected that it happened twice.

  128. PlasticPaddy says

    If the ng had a glottal “finish”, I do not think it is so unnatural. I (and maybe other L1 English speakers?) could say c[SCHWA][GLOTTAL][AW] for “coo” in “cöordination”.

  129. the idea of that [prosthetic] sound being /ŋ-/ is incredibly weird

    Initial /ŋ-/ is very common in Polynesian languages [**]: the three dominating peaks in the NZ North Island volcanic plateau, Mount Tongariro, Mount Ngauruhoe, and Mount Ruapehu are a struggle for Europeans to pronounce. That first is To-nga-riro. Ngongotahā a town in the middle of it all.

    Ngaio Marsh actor and author. Nyree Dawn-Porter actor name Anglicised from Ngaire.

    So I’m not seeing anything weird.

    [**] In Hawaian, /ŋ-/ has evolved to /n-/. But in Māori, those two are different phonemes. Proto-Polynesian *taŋata ‘person’: Māori (and most languages today) taŋata; Hawaian kanaka.

  130. If the ng had a glottal “finish”, I do not think it is so unnatural.

    Good point. There are some West Yorkshire/Pennines dialects with si-ŋiŋ ‘singing’. The second vowel is more like /ʌ/.

  131. The idea of a prosthetic sound at the beginnings of otherwise vowel-initial words is sensible enough, but the idea of that sound being /ŋ-/ is incredibly weird

    Didn’t this happen in the (relatively recent?) history of some dialects of Nenets, e.g. Nenets ngarmiya from Russian армия? (As p. 578 here.) I do not control any Uralic facts whatsoever and would love to hear about the history of initial /ŋ/ in Nenets.

  132. David Eddyshaw says

    I had idly noticed for a long while that there were a good many cases in Oti-Volta where initial *s seemed to correspond to initial /ŋ/ in the Gurma languages, and shrugged it aside as just a curiosity, on account of it being such a thumpingly implausible correspondence phonologically. Then the penny finally dropped that the correspondence was (or strictly, had been) actually *s to zero, and that the /ŋ/ is/was prosthetic; this makes sense, as I had already noticed that non-initial POV *s corresponds to zero in Gurma (and in fact several other Oti-Volta languages have POV *s -> h throughout.) When the root begins with a diphthong with a high first element, you get the corresponding glide as the prosthetic consonant instead.

    So e.g.

    Yom sāāɣā “house”, Nawdm hààgá but Moba ŋààg̀;
    Mbelime sūdìfɛ̀ “navel”, Waama súrífā, Yom sərɣà, Nawdm hírgá but Moba ŋúlĝ.
    Kusaal sú’oŋ “hare”, Mbelime sòǹkɛ̀, Nawdm hɔ́mgá but Moba wònŋ̀, Gulmancema wùongā.

    In a lot of Oti-Volta languages, /ŋ/ *only* occurs word-initially and as a result of simplification of clusters.like *mg *ng.

  133. David Marjanović says

    If the ng had a glottal “finish”

    Why would it?

    Didn’t this happen in the (relatively recent?) history of some dialects of Nenets

    It’s part of what separates Nenets from Enets, actually – following palatalization of [ŋɛ] to [nʲɛ].

  134. DE, what’s with the f:g correspondence in the ‘navel’ word?

  135. Trond Engen says

    So we are back to West African navel history?

  136. David Eddyshaw says

    So we are back to West African navel history?

    Indeed. We never truly left …

    what’s with the f:g correspondence in the ‘navel’ word?

    Sorry, I should probably have explained that. It’s not a phonological thing: the words are in different noun classes in the various daughter languages. The fu/i class is obsolescent in a lot of languages, and its former members have mostly been transferred to other classes, in this case the ga/si class. However, the Gulmancema word for “navel”, corresponding to Moba ŋúlĝ, is actually ŋúlūbū, where the /b/ is the regular outcome for non-initial POV *f.

    (POV in fact seems to have had no f/v contrast, and the actual realisation of *f was likely [v] or [β].)

    The d/r/l correspondences are regular (POV *r); the stem was POV *sur-.
    Western Oti-Volta has gone its own way, with a quite different etymon, as in Mooré yũ̀ugá, but the Buli word, sīuk, actually is the regular outcome of *sur-. modulo yet another shift on noun class. Western Oti-Volta and Buli/Konni shared a change of POV *Vr -> *Vy (where *y is [j], with furhter language-specific changes to *Vy.)

  137. Trond Engen says

    David E.: a change of POV *Vr -> *Vy (where *y is [j], with furhter language-specific changes to *Vy.)


  138. David Eddyshaw says

    Sorry. Last-minute editing and ran out of time.

    In Western Oti-Volta and Buli/Konni, POV *r after a short root vowel became *y, which I write for [j] in the Africanist manner.

    The resulting diphthongs were monophthongised in nearly all the individual languages, sometimes just with the quality of the original vowel, sometimes with fronting. In a few cases there is even free variation: Kusaal, for example, has both li and lu for “fall”, which is cognate with e.g. Nawdm luur, Mbelime dodi and Waama dori. Buli deri “warthog, pig” and duok “pig” come from the same stem in different noun classes, cognate with e.g. Kusaal dɛ̀ɛg “warthog”, Moba dūōlg “pig”, Mbelime dōdīkɛ “warthog” and Waama doribu “warthog.”

    (In Buli deri the r belongs to the sg noun class suffix: this actually also began with POV *r, but r is the regular outcome for geminate *rr in Buli. In WOV the class suffix always kept *r unchanged, so you get e.g. Buli noai “mouth” but Kusaal nɔ̄ɔr.)

  139. John Cowan says

    The oval-shaped letter in modern Korean writing is /ŋ/ in syllable-final position but zero in syllable-initial position (every Korean syllable must have an initial letter). I cannot decipher from the thicket of indications in Wikipedia what state of affairs this used to represent.

  140. Palauan also adds an ŋ before initial vowels. Blust, Reid, and Blevins and Kaufman all agree on a morphological origin, though they disagree on the details. Blevins and Kaufman state strongly that there’s no evidence for a purely phonological (“natural”) initial ŋ accretion anywhere, and conclude, “A constrained model of regular sound change eliminates the possibility of a regular sound change involving immaculate conception of nasal velar consonants before vowels with no apparent source.”

  141. David Eddyshaw says

    Evidently the “Evolutionary Phonology” of which they speak is of more evidential value than mere facts, which must never be allowed to detract from the glory of a beautiful theory.

    Possibly B & K would feel that *s -> ŋ is, after all, a perfectly natural sound change, entirely compatible with the purity of a “constrained model.” (Oti-Volta unfortunately has no handy particle of the form *ŋ- which can be press-ganged into service as an epicycle, On reflection, there is the third-person plural pronoun *ŋa for the re/a noun class, though: no doubt all Gurma speakers felt constrained to throw in a random “they” whenever a word was left without an initial consonant, so as to avoid frightening any passing linguists.)

  142. David Eddyshaw says

    To be slightly more conciliatory (though I find it hard to be patient with people who force facts to fit their pretty theories), this is not so outré in the light of some other things which are very widespread in the Oti-Volta languages, probably going back in some form to the protolanguage itself.

    To wit, there is very often variation between initial ɲ and ŋ͡m (on the one hand) and initial y ([j]) and w followed by a contrastively nasalised vowel, not only between related languages but sometimes even within a single language; Agolle Kusaal has the y w type, but in Toende Kusaal (according to Niggli) some speakers still actually have the nasals. And there is an entirely similar pattern of variation between related languages, where the initial ŋ of one language corresponds to a word beginning with a nasal vowel in another, e.g. Dagbani ŋubi “chew” but Kusaal ɔnb [ɔ̃b], So there is a sort of precedent for ŋ being, as it were, the nasalised equivalent of – nothing.

    Most vowel-initial non-clitic words in Oti-Volta languages that permit them at all are in fact nasalised, and the obvious assumption is that all such words have lost an initial *ŋ. However, there are too many exceptions for this to actually work, and there are a few cases which actually support fhe idea that even the nasalisation can be due to a now-lost prosthetic *ŋ (quite apart from the Gurma example.)

    (Happy to go into this in tedious detail given the slightest encouragement, but don’t say I didn’t warn you …)

  143. David Eddyshaw says

    Blevins’ actual book Evolutionary Phonology looks very interesting, in fact, judging by the blurb and reviews. I expect that she would not really claim that her theories rule out any real-life exceptions. I would not want to cast aspersions of Chomskyanism at a perfectly respectable linguist.

  144. David Eddyshaw says

    In fact, this paper of hers


    contains the passage

    In contrast to absolute phonological universals determined by universal phonetics or Universal Grammar, universal tendencies (also known as soft universals, statistical universals, or recurrent sound patterns) may be explained in terms of phonetic tendencies, including common pathways of phonetically based sound change. One of the central findings of Evolutionary Phonology (Blevins 2004, 2006, 2008) is that many claimed absolute universals are better treated as tendencies of this kind.

    So, evidently on the side of the angels.

  145. Trond Engen says

    From the Language Hat archives:
    On Blevins on Ongan and Austronesian
    On Blevins on Basque and Indo-European (with a reference to previous thread).

  146. David Marjanović says

    Possibly B & K would feel that *s -> ŋ is, after all, a perfectly natural sound change, entirely compatible with the purity of a “constrained model.”

    *s- > n- did actually happen in (the most dread) Arapaho, though evidently through enough intermediates that it must have taken a long time.

  147. David Eddyshaw says

    I should probably mention the Gulmancema loans from Arabic ŋandúna “world”, ŋàsílli “secret”, and (via a long pathway) ŋàlìfáangu “marabout, imam” …


  148. David Eddyshaw says

    And ŋálábádá “forever.”

  149. The Evolutionary Phonology framework was meant as a counterpoint to universalist explanations of sound patterns, such as OT. The underlying assumption is that the explanation for sound patterns should be sought in diachronic explanations, in particular known phonetic explanations; in this regard it’s an extension of the work of John Ohala.

    The general idea definitely puts it in the camp of The Good Guys. I have some quibbles with the presentation, and by the fact that it uses only perceptual phonetic explanations (following Ohala), ignoring articulatory ones. Plus, presenting any work as a “theory” or a framework risks dogma and stagnation. The general direction of it is completely sound and very purposefully evidence-based (as they say today). These quibbles apply to the book, published 20 years ago, and less so to her follow-up papers. This one and this one are good reads.

    Blevins’s phonology work is very meticulous, and I wouldn’t judge it by her long-range comparative work.

  150. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes, both worth reading, and by no means dogmatic in the bad paraChomskyan way I was thinking of.

    The general thesis, that it’s misguided to ignore diachrony in trying to make sense of synchronic sound rules, I enthusiastically agree with (which I’m sure will be a great relief to Prof Blevins.) The Sound Pattern of English has always struck me as a perfect paradigm of the pointless foolishness of doing exactly that.

    I think I can actually cast my own *s -> ŋ rule into this mould to some extent. The presumed initial *s -> zero, which Blevins actually cites as an example of an “unnatural” process, is the more “natural” inasmuch as most Oti-Volta languages actually only have [h] as an allophone of /s/, so it’s not unlike her French example. And the unnaturalness of ŋ as a prosthetic consonant is mitigated by the fact that in POV two out of the five nasal consonants were certainly allophones of glides, found before nasal vowels (vowel nasalisation was itself contrastive), and in fact even *n seems to have stood in this relationship to *l at one stage*, though prior to POV itself: so *m was at one stage the only nasal consonant without an oral-approximant opposite number, apart from ŋ .So in the context of a whole phonological system that worked that way, the occurrence of prosthetic ŋ becomes a lot more “natural.”

    In fact, I think ŋ was the nasal corresponding to ɰ…

    * Even now, /l/ does not occur before nasal vowels in any of the Oti-Volta languages that still have contrastive vowel nasalisation: a gap which seems quite arbitrary synchronically.

  151. David Eddyshaw says

    Though my basic reaction remains: “Unnatural? What-ever. It’s actually happened. Deal with it, bitches!”

    I like to think that William of Ockham would have been proud of me.

  152. Yeah, I don’t think repurposing the term “natural” is helpful.

    Anyway, rhinoglottophilia. Avestan, too, has *s > *h > n in some environments.

    An earlier discussion here brought up Samoyedic and other Siberian languages. In Tundra Nenets, ŋ-prothesis before vowels is productive for recent loanwords (Pystynen gives some examples in the discussion.)

  153. David Eddyshaw says


    Indeed. Mbelime and Byali have nasalised vowels after /h/ even in flexional suffixes, which is otherwise not a thing in Oti-Volta: contrastive vowel nasalisation is otherwise confined to root vowels. Disobligingly, Mbelime and Byali do not have nasalised vowels after /h/ in every context, though, and the cognates in other languages just have plain velar stops in those suffixes, so it’s not a question of simple preservation of nasalisation … so … two kinds of /h/ … it’s as bad as French … (though at least they actually pronounce it.)

  154. John Cowan says

    I think of natural in phonology as ‘easy to reach, commonplace’. Rennelese /l/ > /ŋg/ is “unnatural” in the sense that /l/ doesn’t usually go there, whereas /l/ > /r/ is “natural” because it happens all the time. Previous discussion.

    This is OED sense 2a, ‘ordinary; conforming to a usual or normal character’. A 1604 example is “We were come into a more convenient and naturall temperature”; obviously a very cold temperature is natural (‘in accordance with nature’) at the poles and a very hot one at the equator, but neither can be called ordinary.

    (I note that riding a surfboard with the left foot forward is called natural, whereas the opposite orientation is technically known as goofy(-footed).)

  155. Follow-up story on Del Percio and their background:

    They hadn’t been raised around Cherokee culture, but knowing that their family heritage did include Cherokee, Del Percio was compelled to learn more about it.

    “I was a nerdy little kid, and really interested in where I come from and understanding that better,” they said. By the age of 13, Del Percio was taking online Cherokee language classes through the Cherokee Nation. After just one class with a native speaker, “I knew I wanted to become fluent.”

    Eighteen years later, Del Percio is still pursuing their love for the language as a lector in the Department of Linguistics in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), the university’s first full-time faculty member in an Indigenous language.

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