Sunday, September 25, 2011

Serpent and egg

While working on my dissertation, which partly involves what has come to be called Mississippian culture (ca. 1000-1700 CE), I have been investigating iconography and archaeology linked to this culture. Some of you may have heard of or seen the Serpent Mound of Ohio, dating from ca. 1050 CE (see diagram of it below):

While many archaeologists still debate its actual meaning, I have found an interesting correlation between this image and the Biloxi language, a dormant Siouan language once spoken in the Lower Mississippi Valley. In Biloxi, the word for 'star' is iNtka (the N here represents nasalization of the prior vowel /i/), which literally breaks down to iNti 'egg' + -ka 'ATTRIB' suffix, or a suffix meaning 'like/somewhat', thus 'egg-like'. This correlation between a star and an egg is intriguing.

And what does a star, or egg, have to do with a serpent? Well, in the Mississippian world, a world which the Biloxis were once part of, a serpent, or, in particular, a rattlesnake, was associated with rulership or monarchy, much like the cobra was associated with ancient Egyptian pharaohs and the dragon was associated with the ancient Chinese emperors. Further, the serpent was associated with the Underworld. Ideas of the Underworld and Above World were associated with priests or otherwise powerful people who had access to esoteric knowledge not generally available to the common people. The association of a serpent from the Underworld to an egg, representing the stars (heavens), or the Above World, is thus powerful imagery for Mississippian aristocracy, who, along with priests, had knowledge of all things in the Underworld, the Above World, and the Earth in between. (This imagery, by the way, goes back probably well even before the Adena cultural horizon of Ohio, ca. 500 BCE-200 CE.) A good look at the Ohio Serpent Mound diagrammed above thus appears to show a serpent, or snake, perhaps giving birth to creation and the universe in the form of an egg, a creation to which any great ruler in the form of a God-Monarch would wish to align themselves.

But the story doesn't end in Ohio. Look at the topmost photo below of an image at the Blythe Intaglios in the desert of southern California associated with the Mojave peoples (perhaps among others):

Note anything similar to the Ohio Serpent Mound, such as the apparent snake with coiled tail and large head, or perhaps wide open jaw expelling an egg? (Unfortunately the dating of these intaglios is unclear, but currently they are placed between 1000-1500 CE.) If this correlation between two monumental depictions of a serpent and egg on two ends of the North American continent holds, this would suggest the apparent migration of a Mississippian cultural icon to the California Southwest, proving long-distance transcontinental trade and the long-distance migration of Mississippian cultural elements well into the West.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Migration of a Word?

We all know that geese and other types of birds migrate, right? But words can also migrate from place to place. For example, several similar-looking words for 'goose' appear in several Native American languages of the Gulf Coast and Southeast: Natchez (isolate) laalak, Tunica (isolate) lálahki, Yuchi (isolate) shalala, Chickasaw (Muskogean) and Mobilian Jargon (Muskogean trade language or pidgin) shalaklak, and Karankawa (isolate) la-ak. Farther west, in California, there are: Yana (Hokan) laalaki, Nisenan (Maiduan) lalak, Mutsun (Ohlonean) lalak, Rumsen (Ohlonean) lalk, Pomoan (Hokan) lala, and Southern Sierra Miwok (Miwokan) langlang. Such long distance similarities are often attributed to onomatopoeia(1), which may indeed be the impetus for its origin, but "some resemblances are remarkably precise even if one allows for onomatopoeia" (Haas 1969). And the story of the migration may not end in the Americas: what's even more intriguing is that in the Vogul (Uralic) language of Central Asia there is a similar word for goose, lak. To stretch things even further, in Persian (Farsi), the word laklak means 'stork,' a bird appearing somewhat similar to a goose.

Is this linguistic proof of migration from Central Asia to North America, down along the Pacific coast of California and across to the Southeast? It is hard to say, but it is interesting that the similarity of these words for 'goose' extends in such a fairly well defined geographical pattern down western and across southern North America. Certainly it might indicate a well defined trade and communications network between the West Coast and the Southeast perhaps via the Colorado and/or Gila and Rio Grande Rivers. The term's origin may well extend right over into Siberia and Central Asia, perhaps leaving a linguistic footprint of one possible former route of human migration. More research needs to be done on this.

(1)onomatopoeia: refers to a word or name representing the sound or noise made by an object; in English, for instance, cocka-doodle-doo is onomatopoeic for the sound a rooster makes (the equivalent of which is ku-ku-ru-ku in Spanish).

Haas, Mary. 1969. The prehistory of languages. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Exodus Lost

I would like to recommend this book written by my friend Stephen Compton. Here is my review of it:

Exodus Lost is a page-turner for anyone interested in anthropology and history. I highly recommend this fascinating, educational read by a scholar refreshingly willing to think "out of the box."

This book can be ordered through Amazon and is also available for Kindle.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Biloxi 'moon' and Chinese 'star'

It sometimes happens when you study different languages of the world that what seems to be a strange coincidence pops up, which then leads me to wonder if it REALLY is coincidence or due to some ancient connection. The Biloxi word for 'moon' and the Chinese written character for 'star' is a case in point.

I have analyzed the Biloxi word for 'moon,' nahinte, into its component parts as (i)na 'sun' + (h)iNte 'egg,' thus 'sun-egg.' (The Biloxi word for 'star' is iNtka, which I analyze as iNte 'egg' + ka 'like' (attributive), or 'egg-like.') The association of moon or star with egg seemed odd at first until I began learning Chinese writing and found that the (Simplified) Chinese character for 'star' 星 (xing1) incorporates the character for 'sun' (top) and 'seed/seedling' (bottom) (Lee 2003: 133). There is not much difference semantically between egg and seed, since they both convey the idea of a container for offspring or dissemination (and thus creation).

What does this mean? I'm not sure, except that I can't help but think that this may be more than mere coincidence. Creation narratives (often called 'mythologies' in our Western world, minimizing the validity of anything not originally written down) often show similar themes across Eurasia and the Americas. Could this link between moon, star, and egg/seed represent some ancient cultural belief that may have originated in Central Asia? Were stars considered the 'eggs' or 'seeds' of creation of the Universe?

Lee, Philip Yungkin. 2003. 250 essential Chinese characters for everyday use, Vol. 1. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
I'm back!

After a long hiatus of being quite busy with Ph.D. program research and projects, I am back. It has been an exciting year of language study. I got up to the second level of intermediate Uyghur. Unfortunately, I cannot go any further, since KU does not offer advanced-level Uyghur courses. (Perhaps a trip to Xinjiang or Kazakhstan is in order?) I have also started taking Mandarin Chinese lessons through a private tutor--my first foray into studying a tone language!

As for my student status, I am now Ph.C. (Ph.D. Candidate), more popularly known as ABD (All But Dissertation). This after completing three Field Statements, three parts of a Comprehensive written exam plus an oral exam/Dissertation Proposal Defense. Now I begin writing the dissertation, which is titled, "The Lower Mississippi Valley (LMV) As A Language Area." Essentially I am comparing the LMV language contact area ca. 500-1700 CE, researching evidence of contact among the several languages of the area, including Biloxi, Tunica, Atakapa, Chitimacha, Natchez, and Choctaw/Chickasaw. (The LMV can be compared to better known language contact areas, or Sprachbunds, such as the Balkans area of Europe, South Asia, Norteast Africa, and the Amazon.) I will also incorporate some archaeological and narrative evidence into the language contact research.

More on this as things evolve!