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.