The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, October 29, 2012

What's in a Name? Or, Why You Should be Cautious in Comparing Languages...

While driving out the the field the other day, one of the archaeologists with whom I am working asked what the linguistic connection was between Cachuma - a place name from Santa Barbara County - and Kuuchamaa - a similar-sounding place name from San Diego County.

I didn't know the origin of Kuuchamaa, but it is the native name for Tecate Peak, an important sacred mountain that is the spiritual center for the Kumeyaay peoples of southern California and northern Mexico.  Having read up on it, I still haven't a clue as to what the word means, but it is the name of both the place, and of a culture hero - a wise and powerful shaman - said to have once lived in that place*.  The translation of the word appears to be hard to come by, so I am at a bit of a loss.

Cachuma, however, is a bit easier.  Cachuma is the English bastardization of the Spanish bastardization of the Inezeno Chumash word Aqitsumu, meaning "constant signal", which was the name of a village located in the Santa Ynez Valley, near the current location of Lake Cachuma.

So, while Cachuma and Kuuchamaa seem similar at first glance, one appears to be the actual Kumeyaay word, while the other is a rather tortured telephone game version of an Inezeno word.  Now, there could still be some linguistic connection between them, but that seems somewhat unlikely, as Aqitsumu fits in perfectly well with the Chumash language family**, and Kuuchamaa, as far as I have been able to tell (though I am a bit shaky on this) seems to fit in well with the Kumeyaay language, a dialect of Diegeno, part of the Yuman language family.  So, there is no reason to assume a connection, despite superficial similarities.

The words, though similar, refer to different types of things (a sacred mountain/person's name and a village), and there is no reason to assume that they would have similar meanings.  What's more, the version of Aqitsumu that bears the most resemblance to the Kumeyaay word, Cachuma, is also the version that is most divorced from native pronunciation.  Further, the names come from two unconnected languages.

There is, in short, no reason to think that these words are in any way connected, and some reason to think that they are not.

What is interesting about this is that there is no reason to assume a linguistic connection between two groups of people who were separated by only a few hundred miles of space for centuries.   Pseudoscientific language comparisons are often employed by people who wish to show a connection between two completely unrelated groups of people.  It is a favorite approach of those who see the ancient Isrealites landing int he Americas, the Celts taking over parts of the midwest, Medieval Japanese explorers settling Mexico, or Egyptians colonizing South America (yes, there are people who believe every one of these things).

The method is as follows:

Step 1: Find a few words (or sometimes even one) from two languages that have even a superficial similarity

Step 2: Claim that the link between these two populations is proven

Step 3: Ignore everyone who actually knows what they are talking about when they point out that you are a fool.

But, as illustrated, even in a case where two words are both used as placenames, sound extremely similar, and are from groups separated by only a few hundred miles, there is still reason to doubt a connection.  Keep this in mind whenever your wacky neighbor claims that some vague language similarities prove that the native people of New Jersey were actually descended from a clan of Bavarian sausage-makers.

*Kuuchamaa appears to be a manifestation of a messianic religious concept that appeared throughout southern California either shortly before or around the time that the Spanish arrived.  Whether the Kuuchamaa version of the story is the origin for the others, represents a merger of the messianic story with another older religious tradition, or else a spontaneous manifestation of a similar story, I do not know...nor does anyone else as far as I have been able to tell.  It's neat that even after well over a century of research, we still have some mysteries like this to explore in California.

**Chumashan languages were, until recently, thought to be part of the Hokan language family, but that view has now been largely discredited.  As a result, Chumash is an oddity in that it has no known related languages (similar in this respect to the Basque language of Spain) and exists as a linguistic island alone on the California coast.  While this is speculative, some researchers have posited that Chumash may be the last version of the original Native Californian language family, as the other languages in California appear to have come in from elsewhere.  While intriguing, this idea remains speculation until such time as physical or paleolinguistic evidence can be found to back it up.


Lynn said...

Even similar words in Spanish and English (two languages obviously closely related) may have different meanings. To assume that two words from languages that may or not be related have the same meaning seems to go way beyond the available data.

Anthroslug said...

Good point as well.

I also like a point that friend of mine (who has a Masters degree in linguistics) made: the number of unconnected cognates between any two languages will depend on the number of phonemes within the language. So, Polynesian languages (which have a small number of phonemes) have a huge number of apparent cognates with an unrelated language with more phonemes - say, for example, German.

So, if you aren't systematically studying the languages, and are instead just comparing words to look for matches, you are going to be way, way off.