17 October 2008

Ancestral zoonyms

The names of animals (or zoonyms) provide us with all kinds of clues about our ancestors, especially if we study them in connection with anthropological data. And it also works the other way round: etymological studies benefit from anthropology. An excellent example of this type of research is Xaverio Ballester’s Zoónimos Ancestrales (Biblioteca Valenciana, Valencia, 2006). In his book, Ballester analyses a series of zoonyms and reaches interesting (sometimes surprising) conclusions. In many cases, the animals have names related to kinship: they were called “mothers” or “grandparents”. An example of this is the Spanish word comadreja (English weasel), from the word for mother (madre in Spanish). There are many more examples, but normally they are not so easy to recognize. In other cases we see the effect of a taboo applied to a given animal, and the substitution of the original name for another (an example of this type of linguistic phenomenon can be seen in this post: The name of the bear). In general, all these terms, coined in a given culture and conditioned by its ideology (religious thoughts, mythology, etc.), are an important indication of the possible chronology of a dialect's vocabulary. Some zoonyms, for example, are only understandable in the context of a hunter-gatherer society (like the ones in Paleolithic Europe or in some areas of the world today); others originated in the notional world of the farmer, or the shepherd. Ballester's zoonyms are an open door to our remote past. They are indeed ancestral. Another interesting aspect of this book is the fact that, applying this combination of etymology and anthropology, Ballester is also able to refute some generally established assumptions about animals in antiquity, e.g. the ones about horses in connection with Indo-Europeans. I personally think that his chapter about horses will become a classic in historical linguistics. On the whole, Zoónimos Ancestrales is a highly interesting and readable book. I strongly recommend it.

A weasel.

I have also read a review of Xaverio Ballester's book: José Manuel Pedrosa, ¿Lenguas y mitos indoeuropeos? ¿Indoeuroafricanos? ¿Paleolíticos? ¿Neolíticos?, in Culturas Populares, revista electrónica 5, 2007. J.M. Pedrosa is an expert in literature and anthropology, and in his review, which is favourable in general, he shows some mistrust towards the methods of reconstruction used by linguists. He makes a considerably accurate description of the Paleolithic Continuity Theory and compares it to the traditional approach, based on the comparative method. In both of them, he sees the same problem: linguists tend to narrow down the scope of their study to a given geographic area or group of genetically related languages, and do not see the wider picture of global, intercontinental connections, like the ones the anthropologists have discovered by comparing the folklore of the various continents. I must say that this criticism is partly true, but I think the comparison between the traditional IE model and the Continuity Theory (CT; I also call it the Hybridization/Continuity Model) is a bit unbalanced. The comparative method is a couple of hundred years old, and it is possible to judge its achievements and shortcomings from many perspectives. However, the CT has only just started to be developed. Many of its proposals need to be debated, discussed and tested. One of the main elements of the CT is, precisely, the idea that most of the traditional constraints of historical linguistics, both chronological and geographic, must be abandoned or redefined, a real leit-motiv in Mario Alinei’s writings. In this sense, the proposals made in the context of the CT are not so different from Pedrosas’s approach. But it must be said that, even though authors such as Alinei and Ballester do not see language as a collection of rules or a field for systematic reconstruction, and are keen to include data from other disciplines, the process of language contact or diffusion is not the same as the transmission of folktales across human societies. They have things in common, and, as I said before, the study of the anthropological material is essential for the historical linguist, but there are important, essential differences between these processes.

A kite, another animal mentioned in Ballester's book.

Pedrosa also points out the fact that in many cases, the linguists who use anthropological data in their studies show some inaccuracies in their analyses, sometimes because they apply concepts which are obsolete, or dated. Obviously, it is impossible to be an expert in everything, and I find it very useful that an anthropologist revises some aspects of what the non-anthropologists write about this discipline. This is part of the normal process of a multidisciplinary approach. Pedrosas’s criticism refers to linguists in general, and some of his remarks are interesting, especially his emphasis on the idea that long-range, intercontinental connections must be taken into account. But this argument can easily be reversed: very often, it is anthropologists (or archaeologists, geneticists, or non-historical linguists, etc.) who use obsolete linguistic concepts. Pedrosa is an example of a non-linguist who is at least trying to have an updated knowledge of the newest proposals in historical linguistics, and that is very positive.

I will end this post with a quotation from Pedrosas’s review: (p. 14): “Zoónimos ancestrales me parece un libro comprometido, arriesgado, valiente, provocador, que rebate de modo convincente algunos de los puntos más obviamente débiles de las teorías indoeuropeístas convencionales (…), que contribuye a poner en cuestión viejos mitos científicos o quizás pseudocientíficos, sobredimensionados y sobreexplotados (los del ‘indoeuropeísmo neoliticista acuñado a partir del XVIII), que era y es preciso revisar, y que abre caminos y escruta horizontes que en el futuro comprenderemos no del todo (eso desde luego) pero sí mejor”.

NOTE: Pictures taken from Fotonatura.org.
Credits: picture of the weasel,
author: Vicente Díaz Martín; picture of the kite, author: Juan Pablo Fuentes Serrano.

Last Edit: 20th October, 2008

1 comment:

JoseAngel said...

Let me propose a couple of interesting zoonyms, or pseudo-zooonyms...

ANIMAL, the hyperonym of zoonyms, in principle to be associated with "air", "breath" or perhaps "having the spirit of life".


MAN, perhaps related to other Indo-European roots having to do with "thought".

Oh well, just thinking aloud... and trying to twist the definition of "zoonym".