squashes and spoons

David Costa pankihtamwa at earthlink.net
Tue Aug 29 04:12:45 UTC 2006

>> The etymon in question means 'spoon' in every Algonquian language that has
>> it. Except for Miami. There it means 'squash, pumpkin'.
>> However, it apparently can have the latter meaning occasionally when it
>> appears as a final, as in Menominee /wi:nE:mEhkwan/ 'squash'.
> By "final", you mean that it appears as the head or base noun of a compound?
> So Menominee /wi:nE:mEhkwan/ means that a 'squash' is a wi:n type of spoon?
No, what I mean is that Menominee /-E:mEhkwan/ is only found as part of
derived nouns, with roots or 'initials' preceding it. In other words,
Menominee /-E:mEhkwan/ is not an independent word. Menominee /E:meskwan/
'spoon', however, is an independent word.

(Incidentally, that /sk/~/hk/ correspondence within the 2 Menominee forms is
irregular and unexplained.)

> What does the wi:n part mean here?
Not sure what the /wi:n-/ part means; the primary meaning of Menominee
/wi:n-/ as an initial (a root) is 'dirty', which doesn't seem to apply here.

>> It's simplest to assume it meant 'spoon' in Proto-Algonquian and simply kept
>> that meaning everywhere except Miami, where it shifted to 'squash, pumpkin'.
>> I assume this is simply because in some places and at some times the most
>> common spoons were gourds. (Tho there's also evidence that the Miami used to
>> make spoons out of shells.) It's an easy semantic jump to make.
> From the historical perspective, that would be simplest, because it would
> relieve us of the need to tie Proto-Algonquian to squashes.  The latter, if I
> recall correctly off the top of my head, are supposed to have been widely
> adopted as cultigens in eastern temperate North America about the middle or
> later part of the first millennium AD (somebody correct me if I'm wildly off
> here!), which would tend to bring Proto-Algonquian down to about that time if
> the 'squash' meaning is primary.
Not really. That's too recent for Proto-Algonquian. I usually hear figures
of 2,500-3,000 years BP for Proto-Algonquian, and most reconstructions have
the language either in Canada or close to it.

> From the pragmatic semantic perspective, however, it seems much simpler to
> jump from 'squash' to 'spoon' than from 'spoon' to 'squash'.  To extend the
> meaning of a natural item to apply to a technical implement made from it is
> sensible.  Extending an implement term to refer to the natural item seems
> shakier.
Not positive I agree, but I think that's trumped by two things; (a) like I
said it's a tad troubling (to me, at least) that 20+ Algonquian languages
all made the squash -> spoon shift, and only one (and a half) kept the old
meaning; and two, as you point out, there's the problem that it's far from
clear that the Proto-Algonquians would have known about gourds. Proto-
Algonquians were probably too far north (certainly further north than
Proto-Siouans) and way too early to know about gourds, but they would of
course known about spoons. If the word meant 'spoon' originally, all one has
to posit is that ONE language (two if you count the Menominee final) shifted
the word for 'spoon' to the plant with which they made spoons, which doesn't
strike ME as terribly implausible.

To me the archaelogy takes precedence over a semantic shift that's thought
to be implausible yet which only really took place in Miami and, partly, in
Menominee. And the supposed implausibility of a shift of 'spoon' -> 'squash'
is the most solid evidence I've seen so far for arguing that this word meant
'squash' at the PA level.

> If we didn't have to worry about squash cultivation being too recent,
But we do. That's the problem.

> I think the simplest explanation for the pattern you have described would be
> that proto-Algonquians cultivated squashes and used them for spoons.
Why is that simpler than assuming that the Proto-Algonquians lived too far
north for gourds but made spoons out of other things anyway?

> The squash term was immediately extended to include the 'spoon' implement.
> Later, they spread widely, especially into northern lands where squashes could
> not be grown.
Except there's no reason to think Proto-Algonquians started out in a place
where squashes could be grown. The northwest Plains is one place that's
mentioned (Montana, around there), another is Ontario.

> They substituted other materials for making spoons, but kept the 'squash' term
> to designate the functional implement.  At this stage, the Algonquians still
> spoke nearly the same language and were still talking to one another all
> across their territory.
Welll..... except there's not a lot of evidence to think that state of
affairs ever obtained. It looks a lot more plausible that PA emerged from
the Plateau region onto the northern Plains and essentially moved east,
dropping languages as it went. There's no particular reason to think that,
say, the Proto-Arapahoans and Proto-Eastern Algonquians were ever in

> The universal 'spoon' meaning became primary, and suppressed the original
> 'squash' meaning even where squashes were still grown.  In most dialects where
> squashes were topics of conversation, other terms were coined to designate
> 'squash', but in a few such as Miami and Menominee the original meaning was
> retained, at least in fossil constructions.
But I don't think the time depth and geography will make this work. Or at
least, they make this a MORE complex solution than just reconstructing it as
'spoon'. Which to my mind removes the motivation not to do so.

> In the Siouan languages I've looked at, the terms for 'spoon' are all over the
> map.  Many are semantic extensions or compound constructions meaning either
> "buffalo horn" or "mussel shell".  That is, the implement term is apparently
> based on a prior natural object term, not the other way around.
Well, as an anecdotal example from Illinois (a Miami dialect), the animate
noun /eehsa/ means 'mussel', but its inanimate equivalent means 'spoon made
of a shell'. (But that's not the normal Miami word for 'spoon'.)

>> It's interesting to ask whether ANY Proto-Siouan word for 'squash' can be
>> reconstructed on the basis of Siouan languages that weren't next to
>> Algonquians -- like, say, Crow, Mandan, Biloxi, Tutelo. If not, maybe it was
>> a new concept.
> I wouldn't expect to find a genuine Proto-Siouan word for 'squash', because I
> think that Proto-Siouan is considerably older than the widespread adoption of
> squash cultivation.
And Proto-Algonquian is probably at least as old. (And considerably further
from the area where they'd know about gourds.)

>>> So there is nothing preventing it from being a loan into proto-Algonquian,
>>> whenever that was.  That's an important piece to know.
>> True, but that'd be at a *very* deep level, and who knows where they would
>> have been geographically that far back.
> It would be about as deep as Algonquian itself is, or deeper.  But exactly how
> deep that is in years, and the geographical and chronological constraints
> placed on Algonquian by the technology indicated by the term, is the big
> question here.
Does anyone have a guess for the time-depth of Proto-Siouan?


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