Thursday, October 12, 2017

Shoes in Songhay and West Chadic: towards an etymology

The proto-Songhay word for "(pair of) shoes, sandals" is *tàgmú (Zarma tà:mú, Kandi tà:mú, Gao taam-i, Hombori tà:mí, Kikara tă:m, Djenne taam, Tadaksahak taɣmú, Korandje tsaɣmmu). It is evidently related to a less widely attested verb *tàgmá "step on" (Zarma tà:mú, Gao taama, Hombori tà:mà, Djenne taam). (Velar stop codas are lost in all of Songhay except the Northern branch, leaving behind either compensatory lengthening or a w; see Souag 2012.)

In Hausa, the word for "shoe, boot, sandal" is tà:kàlmí: (borrowed directly into the Songhay (Dendi) variety of Djougou as tàkăm). Within Hausa, this likewise corresponds to a verb tá:kà: "step on". The two-way similarity is striking, but if there was borrowing, which way did it go? A cognate set in Schuh (2008) casts some light on the question.

Hausa belongs to the West Chadic family, in which the best comparison to Hausa "shoe" seems to be Bole tàkà(:), with no obvious cognates within its own subgroup, Bole-Tangale (Ngamo tà:hò looks similar, but Ngamo h seems normally to correspond to Bole p, not k.) For "step on", however, Schuh points to a potential cognate set in a slightly more distantly related West Chadic subgroup, Bade. In this subgroup, we have Gashua Bade tà:gɗú, Western Bade tàgɗú, Ngizim tàkɗú which Schuh analyses as *tàk- plus an unproductive verbal extension -ɗu supported by Bade-internal evidence, eg tə̀nkùku "press" vs. tə̀nkwàkùɗu "massage". Within Bole-Tangale, one might speculate that Gera tàndə̀- is cognate, but Gera seems to be known only from short wordlists, so that would be difficult to show.

So the comparative evidence provides some support for the idea that Hausa tá:kà: "step on" goes back to proto-West Chadic. If tà:kàlmí: "shoe" could be regularly derived from this verb within Chadic, then the answer would appear clear: Songhay borrowed it from Chadic. However, while Hausa frequently forms deverbal nouns with a suffix -i: (Newman (2000:157), there seems to be no plausible language-internal explanation for the -lm-. In Songhay, on the other hand, a suffix -mi forming nouns from verbs (sometimes -m-ey with a former plural suffix stuck on) is reasonably well-attested: Gao (Heath 1999:97) dey "buy" vs. dey-mi "purchase (n.)", key "weave" vs. key-mi "weaving", Kikara (Heath 2005:97-98) kà:rù "go up" vs. kàr-mɛ̂y "going up", húná "live" vs. hùnà-mɛ̀y "long life". A shift *-mi to *-mu seems natural enough, especially since a few Songhay varieties actually have reflexes of "shoe" with a final -i in any case; so the Songhay form looks kind of like it could be **tàg "step on" plus deverbal -mí̀. To top it off, deverbal noun-forming suffixes in -r- are widely attested in Songhay, and Zarma attests a combined suffix -àr-mì: zànjì "break" vs. zànjàrmì "shard", bágú "break" vs. bàgàrmì "piece of debris" (Tersis 1981:244). If we treat the Hausa form as a borrowing from Songhay, we can then analyse it as **tàg "step on" plus deverbal -àr-mí. But before we get carried away, we should note that within Songhay there's no motivation for analysing the -mu / -mi in "shoe" as a suffix; the verb and the noun differ (if at all) only in the final vowel.

So what to make of all this? So far, the scenario that suggests itself is something like the following:

  1. Songhay borrows a verb *tàk "step on" from West Chadic (or vice versa?).
  2. Songhay internally forms a deverbal noun *tàk-mí "shoe" (there is no reconstructible contrast between *k and *g in coda position in proto-Songhay), alongside a variant *tàk-àr-mí.
  3. Hausa borrows this as tà:kàlmí:.
  4. Songhay replaces *tàk with a denominal verb formed from "shoe" (which becomes internally unanalysable): *tàgm-á. This step has possible internal motivations: in most of Songhay, final velar stops disappeared leaving behind only compensatory lengthening on the preceding vowel, and the resulting form tà: would have been homophonous with the much commoner verb "receive, take".
  5. Djougou Dendi, a heavily Hausa-influenced, somewhat creolized Songhay variety spoken in Benin, borrows the Hausa form as tàkăm.

Further Chadic comparative data may yet turn out to bear upon this etymology, but one thing seems clear: these two families have been affecting each other for a long time.


David Marjanović said...

Fascinating. And I have to say, Schuh is uniquely qualified to step into this field...

Etienne said...

Darn. David beat me to it: this is fascinating, and I actually wondered whether "Schuh" was the scholar's real name...yet another example of truth being stranger than fiction: in a novel about academia, for instance, any editor would demand that a scholar quoted as an authority on the etymology of a word for "Shoe" not have a name with the meaning "Shoe"...

When you say of Djougou Dendi that it is "somewhat creolized", what exactly do you mean?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

The coincidence of names really is rather amusing. Russell Schuh was an excellent scholar of Chadic, who documented a remarkable number of northern Nigerian languages; his site, , is worth a look.

The Dendi of Djougou and Kandi has dropped definiteness marking suffixes, regularised its 2Pl pronouns into 2Sg+Pl across the board (and added Pl suffixes to all free plural pronouns), reduced verbal noun-forming morphology to a single clitic, and remodelled its mood-aspect-negation system into combined Subj+MAN paradigms on an areal model similar to Hausa. These changes are unheard of in Songhay varieties spoken closer to the mainstream Songhay area, and comparison with Niger Dendi suggests they took place quite rapidly.

David Marjanović said...

Has the site been updated since 2009? The links to have succumbed to link rot. I hope the research money didn't run out.

Guillaume Jacques said...

"The coincidence of names really is rather amusing." In the same vein, there is of course "The Thompson language" by Thompson and Thompson,

Etienne said...

Lameen: thanks for your reply. I would not call this set of features diagnostic of creolization, but then, some creolists might, with the exception of the last one (Hausa-like S + MAN system), which simply looks like plain 'ole outside (Hausa) influence.

David: my first thought was that the research money did run out. There is indirect evidence pointing in that direction: in the long obituary (to be found at: we are told that Hausa instruction was discontinued at UCLA in 2009, and that as a result he ended up teaching a number of new undergraduate courses.

*SIGH*...It's a depressingly familiar pattern in Academia today: Courses, indeed entire programs, relating to various real languages and cultures (Modern and Ancient alike) are marginalized or eliminated even as the University's PR Department keeps producing increasingly Orwellian-sounding slogans in support of "pluralism" and "multiculturalism" and as the Department of human resources hires more "diversity consultants"...

Guillaume Jacques: Yet another example of truth being stranger than fiction. I suppose that it could get worse. Yes, really: if Terrence Kaufman's co-author of a certain book on language contact, herself a Salish scholar after all, grew interested in the language, what would the result be? Hmm...I can see it already ("Thomason's reevaluation of the Thompsons' analysis of Thompson: a review").