Thursday, August 24, 2017

*-min-: an Algonquian morpheme that went global

American English was born in the clearing of the eastern woodlands, where British settlers encountered native Americans mostly speaking Algonquian languages. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of Canadian French. If either language can be said to have a native American substratum at all, it's Algonquian. This substratum is hardly conspicuous, manifesting itself almost exclusively in loanwords. If the Algonquian languages had vanished without record, as most of the pre-Indo-European languages of Europe did, could anything at all be said about their morphology on the basis of this influence?

It turns out that there's at least one bound morpheme that shows up in quite a few loanwords: *-min- "berry, fruit". But it manifests itself more clearly in French than in English, where it has been obscured by a number of irregular developments.

Today, French barely survives in the upper Midwest; but before Jefferson's purchase of the Louisiana Territory, France claimed the whole of this vast area, and attempted to back up its ambitions with a handful of missionaries and settlers. There, up among the Illinois near Peoria, French speakers encountered two quite unfamiliar fruits, and adopted their names from the Myaamia-Illinois language:

English missed the chance to borrow a local term for the pawpaw - the English word derives from papaya, a fruit originating much further south - but adopted a reflex of the same word for "persimmon", along with several other terms containing this. Unfortunately, most are fairly obscure (although no more so than "asimine"), and no two show the same form of the morpheme:
  • persimmon; cf. Virginia Algonquian putchamins (Smith), pushenims (Strachey), apparently reconstructed by Siebert as pessi:min (cf. Skeat 1908; although that looks rather implausible given the Illinois form).
  • hominy (because it's made from corn); cf. Virginia Algonquian ustatahamen (Smith), vshvccohomen (Strachey) and other forms.
  • chinquapin (a kind of chestnut); cf. Virginia Algonquian chechinquamins (Smith), checinqwamins (Strachey).
  • saskatoon (a berry); cf. Cree misâskwatômin ᒥᓵᐢᑲᐧᑑᒥᐣ.
  • pembina (a kind of cranberry); cf. Cree nîpiniminân ᓃᐱᓂᒥᓈᐣ.
The prospects are not that encouraging, but combining the English and French evidence, an alert etymologist just might be able to spot the *-min- morpheme, and hence guess that Algonquian had head-final compounds. Thankfully, in North America, such hyper-speculative substrate chasing is hardly necessary; Algonquian is a fairly well-documented family. In other parts of the world, though, such approaches may occasionally prove effective.


Languagehat said...

Fascinating! As a copyeditor, I have to add this nitpick: "nîpiniminân" in the final example should be italicized.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Thanks, well spotted - fixed it now!

Anonymous said...

In other parts of the world, though, [hyper-speculative substrate chasing] may occasionally prove effective.

Going off of this: should we perhaps therefore assume that English or some precedessor also at some point absorbed a substrate that had an ending *-mVn instead for aromatic plants? as reflected in cardamon, cinnamon, cumin, jasmine; with some assimilations / simplifications maybe also chrysanthemum, saffron, thyme; perhaps even almond

(which is to say: you can probably see how precarious identifying substrate morphology is when we don't already have the facts)

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Precarious indeed! Although in fairness, cardamom ends with an m...

H.D. Miller said...

Speaking of nitpicking, Southeast Missouri, where you find the remnants of Paw-Paw French, isn't the "Upper Midwest." It's really the South. Much closer to Arkansas than Iowa.