Nahuatl word formation

Campbell, R Joe campbel at
Fri May 2 03:46:35 UTC 2008


   One of features of Nahuatl that makes it fascinating to us is
the wealth of metaphors captured in its word formation.  Words like
"acitlalin", 'dewdrop' (atl [water] - citlalin [star]) catch our
attention, please us like a well-formed phrase, and even make us
want to find more of them.

   One source of assistance in appreciating Nahuatl word formation
is J. Richard Andrews' _Introduction to Classical Nahuatl_ (either
the first edition or the revised edition).  It also presents us
with suggestions for analyses of words which should make us stop
and consider where sober analysis ends and where dubious
suggestions begin.

   One example is the suggestion that "te:na:nquilia:" 'he answers
someone' is derived from a source stem no longer extant, "*na:nca"
'to act in the manner of a mother'.  Most people would not object
to the idea of a productive stem which does not occur
independently (if there is no stem "xel(-li)", we might have a
difficult time accounting for "cuaxeltic", "xexeltic", "xelihui",
and "xeloa").  (A side remark: I am very wary of phrases like "no
longer" in the discussing the structure of a grammar, since I am
afraid that the user is *really* thinking of the historical
development of the language, rather than the grammar as it exists
at a given point in time.)

   "*na:nca" leaves us with two problems:
1) we have no pattern of derivation to arrive at "te:na:nquilia:".
When we have derivations like "pi:tza" 'blow' > pi:tztli 'whistle,
something blown' > "nipi:tzoa" 'I use a whistle, I whistle', where
the processes are seen as parallel to the same processes in the
formation of other words, we have support for our trust in the
hypothesis, but here it is lacking.
2) the semantic stretch between "mother" (i.e., act in the manner
of a mother") and "answer" *might* bear some weight if that link
were evident in other places in the language, but without that
support, one's willingness to believe fails.


   Another example is the suggestion that "te:lpo:chtli" is derived
from or related to "po:ca" 'it smokes'.  Obviously, there are many
Nahuatl words with the string "po:ch" involving the application of
smoke, the act of incensing.  ...but where is the semantic bridge
between "youth" and "incense".  I admit that there may be one and I
would be happy to hear of credible evidence.


   These two examples are intended as an introduction to my main
topic:  "ohuihcan" 'dangerous place' (and many other examples
involving danger and difficulty).  In his first edition, Andrews
presented these words as being derived from an obsolete verb
"*ohuia" (note that I have abandoned long vowel marking).  There
was no implication that "ohuia" might be divisable then, but in the
revised edition, the source for the well populated family of
"ohuia" word is "ohhuia" (ohtli-verb suffix) 'to be like a road,
to present danger'.

   Again, I can imagine that this is a possibility, but there is no
evidence elsewhere linking 'road' and 'danger'.  Further, there is
no *clear* evidence of a "-huia" intransitive suffix meaning 'be'.
(One possibility: "coyohuia" 'they howl' [they are like coyotes])

   It is very interesting that the element is no longer "ohuia",
but "ohhuia".  While much of the material in Andrews' books rests
heavily on Carochi's grammar, his belief in the 'road' / 'danger'
relationship (without supporting parallels) motivates changing the
shape of the data.  He points out that Carochi does not show a
glottal stop.  But he changes his image of what the date is because
it fits his theory (based on a tightly stretched semantic
relationship).  Granted, there is only one occurrence of a relevant
piece in Carochi's grammar (f53v).

   Obviously, I believe that when we describe the morphology of a
language, we should err on the side of caution.  If we stretch the
semantic bridges too far, the overall description is fragile and I
worry about the expenditure of all that time on something too
easily collapsible.

   What do y'all think?



p.s. references to Andrews are below...


Andrews, revised edition

p. 441
          ohhuihca =  it is in the manner of a thing that has become
          dangerous/difficult; i.e., with difficulty, with danger

p. 574
          ohhuia = to be like a road; i.e., to pose a danger;
          to be dangerous/difficult
          Carochi does not show a glottal stop closing the first syllable

p. 579
          ohhuiti = to have a road; i.e., to be in/face danger
          Carochi does not show a glottal stop


Andrews, first edition

p. 31
          In certain instances, the source verb is obsolete:
          ohuihca* = with difficulty [Class C pret theme:
          -(ohuih)0-.  Compare the co-derived adjective ohuih,
          "it is difficult"]

p. 32
          The adverbials in *ca* may be negated by this procedure:
          ayohuihca* ~ aohuihca* = easily, without difficulty

p. 257
          Occasionally the source verb is no longer used: ohuih = it
          is difficult [Compare (ohuih-0-ca*-yo*)-tl, "difficulty,
          danger," and (ohuih-0-ca)-0, "with difficulty," both from the
          same preterit theme.

p. 322
         Itlah ohuih i*pan mochi*huaz.
          = Something dangerous will happen to him.

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