Thursday, May 22, 2008

African influence on native Nicaraguan languages!

...and I bet that got your attention, if you're the sort of person who reads this blog.

Ulwa is a language native to the eastern highlands of central Nicaragua, and now spoken mainly in Karawala on the Atlantic coast. It belongs to the small Misumalpan language family, along with Miskito; an interesting characteristic of this family is the position of nominal possessive affixes, which may be suffixed or infixed depending on the word's syllable structure. The Miskito kingdom had a longstanding relationship with the British, as a result of which English Creole is widely spoken on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast; both Miskito and English have influenced Ulwa, as has Spanish of course. You can find a nice dictionary and a brief grammar at the Ulwa Language Home Page.

Anyway, the Ulwa word for "east" turns out to be mâsara. I'm sure some readers will already be thinking of Maghrebi Arabic/Berber mâṣəṛ (from Arabic مِصْر), with reflexes in a variety of West African languages along the lines of masara - meaning Egypt! Unfortunately, a second glance reveals that "west" is mâ âwai, suggesting that maybe mâsara is some kind of compound with . , sure enough, turns out to mean "sun", while sara means "origin". So much for that idea; but what a good example of how a coincidental lookalike can emerge. I can't find any similar way to explain the word for "God", though - which is Alah...

So what about that African loanword I promised? There really is at least one, but it is somewhat less exciting. "Peanut", in Ulwa, is pinda. This word, referring to a post by Polyglot Vegetarian, appears to derive from Kikongo m-pinda, and was borrowed into English as pindar (various spellings) before being ousted by peanut. So this word may have been mediated by English, but is of clear Kikongo origin - sensibly enough, given that peanuts themselves come from Africa. If you want more African loanwords into Caribbean Native American languages, try Garifuna - where the word for "man" is a Bantu loanword.

7 comments:

bulbul said...

Pf, cheater :) Bantu > some Caribbean creole > Garifuna.

Lameen Souag said...

Actually, it probably was direct in the case of Garifuna - they are partly descended from slaves who escaped from shipwrecks (http://www.stanford.edu/group/arts/honduras/discovery_eng/history/migration.html), and I don't know of any Caribbean creole that's borrowed the word for "man". In Ulwa, of course, it would probably have been via a creole.

bulbul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bulbul said...

Makes sense, such a basic word is more likely to be a remnant of a substrate than a borrowing. But in that case, wouldn't you expect more Bantu borrowings?

David Marjanović said...

Is peanut perhaps a folk etymology?

MMcM said...

David Marjanović:
I can't get the vowels to work well enough. Both the pea and nut similarities were noticed by the earliest Europeans, before they'd taken them to Africa. The combination pea-nut first shows up in an Englishman's report of a visit, and may not even refer to Arachis. Aside from that, it's in the early 19th century in New York City. And there doesn't seem to be much evidence that peendar had made it that far north. The competing name seems to be ground-nut, which is still sometimes used in England, and occasionally ground-pea. So I think you'd need strong evidence, like a text from that time and place explaining peander as pea-nut.

David Marjanović said...

I see.