tirsdag den 11. februar 2020

Introducing: The Nahuatl Space Project

In this blogpost, I want to introduce the research project that I am currently engaged in: The Nahuatl Space Project. This is a project I will be writing more about over the next year, since me and my colleagues will be carrying out fieldwork in Mexico all through 2020. 
Landscape in Mexico, just lying there, looking great. 

The aim of this project is to understand how speakers of different Nahuatl dialects use grammar in different ways to refer to spatial relations, and to see whether some of those differences are related to the fact that they are spoken in very different environments. The thing is, that previous studies have demonstrated that speakers of different Mesoamerican languages have similar preferences when it comes to how they describe space and spatial relations, and that the general preference is to use features of the environment rather than oneself as the anchor when describing such relations. For example speakers of European languages often prefer to use themselves as the anchor for describing spatial relations (leading to frequent statements a long the lines "no, no, I meant my left!" when both speaker and addressee interprets the term "left" with themselves as the center). But speakers of Mesoamerican languages tend to solve this problem by using elements in the environment as the center, leading to statements "go uphill from the tree, then turn towards where the sun rises". Linguists working with this refer to this as a preference for allocentric rather than egocentric framing. But the studies showing this preference in Mesoamerican languages, studied other languages (Maya, Zapotec, Mixe, Otomí, Cora, among others), and not Nahuatl.

It makes sense that people who until recently used to live in vast open landscapes, also may have a tendency to navigate using the features of the environment rather than the symmetric layout of street grids and pedestrian-crossings and intersections. But given how different the landscapes inhabited by Nahuatl speakers are, then it also makes sense that they have to choose which features of the environment are the ones that are notable enough to serve as landmarks. And given that we know that for Mesoamerican peoples certain landscape elements tend to be particularly important (mountains, caves, springs, old trees) it becomes clear that we can probably learn something about how Nahua people experience the relation between humans and the landscape by studying how they refer to it linguistically. And in doing so test whether Nahuatl, whose speakers arrived late in Mesoamerica and a language that has now been in contact with Spanish for 500 years, has the same preference for allocentric spatial descriptions as the other Mesoamerican languages. And perhaps to find out whether and how the landscape can influence our ways of speaking and thinking about space.

That in short is the point of the Nahuatl Space Project.


Our Methods:

We are using a set of methods that have been used for previous studies of spatial language in languages from Mesoamerica and many other regions. They include a set of experiments, a and a number of different ethnographic methods (interviews, conversation, observation and participation in everyday activities) and a geographic method which consists in creating a map of Nahuatl-speakers' knowledge of the landscape they live in.

The experimental methods we use have been developed by psycholinguists who study the how language interacts with the mind. Spatial thinking is an extremely important function of the human mind, and since human languages differ quite a lot in how they describe spatial relations this raises the question of whether these differences may also reflectdifferent ways of conceptualizing space. To study this psycholinguists at the Max Planck Institute for psycholinguistics developed a set of experiments to test the relations between differences in spatial grammar, differences in describing spatial relations and spatial cognition in a scientific way. The primary kind of experiment is called a director-matcher game.
Example of a photo from one version
of the Man-Tree director-matcher game.

Such a game requires two participants: A director who sees an array of photos (e.g. pictures of a man and a tree) and has to communicate which photo they are looking at to another person, the matcher, who has the same array of pictures and has to find the right photo using only the verbal description. The director usually has a number of different options for framing their description of the photo (e.g. "the man looks this way and stands to the left of the tree"; "the man looks this way and has his left hand towards the tree"; "the man is west of the tree looking south", "the man is towards the river from the tree and looks downhill" etc.), and they have to chose one that the matcher is likely to understand. And it is usually the case that the director and matcher quickly find a strategy that works well. It is also usually the case that other speakers of the same language tends to choose the same strategy, while speakers of other languages may tend to use another. 

So by using this game we can see how Nahuatl speakers in different places prefer to describe spatial relations, whether they prefer egocentric or geocentric framings. The most likely is that in each community there will be a good deal of variation, some speakers using more egocentric framings and others using more geocentric ones. Our hypothesis is that people who have more experience walking around in the landscape will be more likely to use geocentric framings, and people who have more experience with activities that require egocentric orientation (e.g. reading, driving) may be more likely to choose egocentric framings. And we also think that probably people who speak more Spanish than Nahuatl will be more likely to use an egocentric framing. So in order to analyze the results we need to know about the kinds of activities each speaker spends most time doing, and about whether they speak mostly Spanish or Nahuatl.

Finally, we want to see whether the choice of specific geocentric framings is motivated by different ways of using and living in the landscape. Perhaps farmers who farm a terrain with a steep incline are more attentive to slopes than drivers or people who work in offices, perhaps people who live in dense jungle with few sight-lines are more attentive to the the arrangements of objects on the ground, or perhaps fishermen are more attentive to the coastline or the waves, or the sun's path. This requires us to hear how people actually speak about the landscape and spatial relations when they are going about their everyday business. So to understand more about the way Nahuatl speakers in different places experience the land we will participate with them in daily activities in the landscape, we wil interview people about their experiences (for example stories of places they have visited and how to get there), and we will elicit place names and make a map of the different places known by the speakers and what kind of places they are (are there any special resources, any dangers, any sacred sites etc. [we will of course ask the community's permission to include any sacred sites in the final map, and the community will get the map when we are done so they can use it as documentation of placenames and local geospatial knowledge]) Using GIS we will then create a map of local landscape knowledge using GIS, and we can use that map to understand more about how people interact with the landscape, and whether this knowledge influences their choice of orientation strategies in the experiments.

To carry out this investigation we need an interdisciplinary team, and we have a great team. Apart from myself, my good friend and colleague Ditte Boeg Thomsen will be in charge of the experimental study, Sociolinguist and Nahuatl-speaker Guillermo Garrido Cruz will be in charge of the sociolinguistic aspect of the study, and Gabriela Citlahua Zepahua and Adán Sánchez Rosales, who are both Nahuatl-speakers and alumns of the Intercultural University of Veracruz will assist with the ethnographic study and with those tasks that require native speakers. Additionally we will be assisted by a team of student interns, who are helping us out for course credit and research experience - but whose assistance will be crucial to be able to do all the work we want to do in the short time we have.



Our Fieldsites: 

We will be working in four fieldsites, and plan to stay about two months in each location.

Tequila, Veracruz

Our first field site is the municipality of Tequila in the Zongolica region of central Veracruz. This is a region with several hundred thousand Nahuatl speakers spread out in the different municipalities of a mountainous sierra. The elevation is from 1500 to 3000 mtrs above sea level, and the climate is that of a temperate montane cloud forest, though logging has drastically reduced the amount of forest there in recent years. The Nahuatl dialect spoken here is in my opinion a central dialect (though it has some traits of an eastern substrate which has caused previous scholars to classify it as eastern). At 1800 mtrs of elevation Tequila is located in a strategic location as the gateway community both to the communities in the high sierra and the lower and warmer coffee growing regions, and Nahuas from both of these regions have to pass through Tequila on their way to the city of Orizaba. There are no other indigenous languages currently spoken in the region, though some loanwords suggest a possible Totonac presence in the past. It is of interest that Tequila is located in such a way that there are prominent hills to the East, West, North and South, but also a general upward slope along a north-south, with the low-lying regions being located to the East and North of the community.

In Tequila we will be collaborating with the Universidad Veracruzana Intercultural, which has a campus there - the same campus where the world's first Master's program taught entirely in Nahuatl is based.

Google earth 3D view of Tequila Municipality within the Sierra de Zongolica (© Google Earth)

Tancanhuitz, San Luís Potosí

Our second field site is the municipality of Tancanhuitz in the Huasteca region of San Luís Potosí. This is a really interesting place, because the municipality is divided between speakers of Teenek (the Mayan language historically called Huasteco) and Nahuatl. The two groups live close together and there are many people here who are trilingual in both of the indigenous languages and Spanish. Teenek communities are in the western part of the municipality and Nahuatl speakers towards the East.

At about 200 mtrs above sea level, the climate is lush subtropical jungle, with relatively low rolling hills. Towards the west southwest the terrain rises into the Sierra Madre, but otherwise there are no clear large scale incline of the landscape in the region.

Google Earth 3D view of Tancanhuitz municipality, Cuatlamayán and Piaxtla in the center (© Google Earth)

Huauchinango, Puebla

In the fall of 2020 we plan to work in the area surrounding Huauchinango in the North Puebla Highlands. The Nahuatl variety spoken in this area is very close to that spoken in central Mexico at the time of the Spanish invasion (the variety documented in most colonial source), and probably originated as migration from Texcoco in the 12th or 13th century. We plan to work in a community called Xaltepec which is located next to the lake Nexapa (a recent lake made by a hydroelectric dam in the 20th century). The landscape is mountainous and at an elevation of about 1300 meters above sea level. The Nahuas here combine fishing and farming, so they may have some interesting ways of navigating on the lake and orienting around it. West of the lake the altitude falls on the macro level while there is no obvious incline axis at the more local level (there are prominent hills northwest and southwest of the lake). Historically Nahuatl has coexisted with Totonac and Otomi in this area.

Google Earth 3D view of Lake Nexapa, with the town of Xaltepec on the west bank Papatlazolco on the north bank (© Google Earth).


Tatahuicapan, Veracruz

We plan to end the fieldwork in Southern Veracruz in the community of Tatahuicapan. Here the landscape is completely flat, except for the extinct volcano Volcán de Santa Martha and the Nahuas here also combine fishing and farming - but fishing on the ocean and in the salt lagoon Laguna de Ostion. The Nahua communities in this area make up one of two Nahua groups on the coast, the other being the Nahuas of the Michoacan coast. The fact that they live in close proximity to the ocean implies a lot of interesting possibilities for how they may orient themselves and how orientation may be encoded linguistically.

Google Earth 3D view of Tatahuicapan and Pajapan, with the Volcán Sta Martha in the center and the Mexican gulf to the east (© Google Earth). 

We are just about to go into the field with our research team, and I will post further updates on the project as we progress.

torsdag den 12. september 2019

An evaluation of the Nahuatl data in Brian Stubbs' work on Afro-Asiatic/Uto-Aztecan



I have previously written about how, in the 16th century Franciscan friars believed that St. Thomas the apostle had visited Mexico and preached Christianity to the natives 1500 years before the arrival of the Spaniards, and that the Indians themselves were descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel. The Franciscans saw similarities between Indigenous religion and Christianity that they explained to themselves in this way. Today such a belief of visits from the Ancient Near East to Mesoamerica is not common among Christian denominations, but it is found today among the Latter Day Saints (also known as Mormons), whose sacred book, the Book of Mormon tells that four Hebrew tribes made it to the Americas. Where their prophets wrote the original Book of Mormon on metal plates in a language named "Reformed Egyptian". LDS scholars have, over the years, invested much time and energy in trying to find external evidence in support of the account given in the Book of Mormon, both through archaeology and linguistics. 
Front page of the work under review.

Usually, I would follow Jay S. Gould in considering scientific inquiry and religious confession to be non-overlapping magisteria, and that as long as scholars keep their religious beliefs out of their scientific inquiries then they can believe whatever they want. But sometimes this is not so easy, and this blogpost is about one of those times.

In this blogpost, I analyze the use of Nahuatl data, in Brian D. Stubbs self-published manuscript “Exploring the Explanatory Power of Semitic and Egyptian in Uto-Aztecan”. This work compares Proto-Uto-Aztecan with Semitic and Egyptian and seeks to find signs of ancient contact between early near-eastern and Egyptian peoples and Uto-Aztecan speaking Native Americans. It finds a lot of such signs, in fact more than 1500 Uto-Aztecan forms that Stubbs’ claims are cognate with Semitic or Egyptian forms.

Now, far-fetched proposals of relations between languages that are never known to have been in contact and which defy the conventional view of world history are a dime a dozen. I have already described Denison’s attempt to show that Nahuatl was an“Aryan language”, and Turkic nationalists frequently look to Nahuatl when seeking to explain their belief that all languages descend from the Turkic “SunLanguage”. Usually, I would say that it is better not to give too much attention to far fetched claims of long distance contact across the Atlantic, and better not to waste one’s energy trying to debunk them since they are usually not playing a game in which the scientific rules and methods of historical linguistics even apply. But one thing makes this proposal different: Namely the fact that Brian D. Stubbs is a well-esteemed expert in Uto-Aztecan historical linguistics with many important publications to his name, not least his monumental catalogue of Uto-Aztecan cognate sets (Stubbs 2011). This he is in addition to being also, apparently, a member of the LDS church. This makes for an interesting conundrum, because it both gives us an apriori reason to believe in the validity of his claims because of his expertise, and an apriori reason for doubting it, because of the fact that his claim is clearly meant to validate the narrative of the Book of Mormon, and his own religious belief. (it is certainly taken as such validation by other LDS members and publicized as such

I have a great deal of respect and esteem for Stubbs’ previous Uto-Aztecan comparative work, but the claim of ancient trans-Atlantic contact, even disregarding any potential religious motivation behind it, is a sufficiently extraordinary claim, for it to require inordinately extraordinary evidence in its favor, before it can be accepted.

C.S. Lewis coined the term ‘bulverism’ to describe the kind of argument in which one simply assumes that one’s opponent in a discussion is wrong, and then proceeds to explain to him the psychological mechanism that must have led them astray. If we want to avoid making ourselves guilty of bulverism, we cannot simply say “oh this is just religious crack-pottery” and leave it at that. We have to actually show, that Stubbs’ work in this case does not follow what is expected from rigorous linguistic scholarship, and that its conclusions therefore cannot be accepted as valid.
The manuscript is 444 pages and includes some, 1500 proposed cognates, so it would require quite a lot of effort to analyze all of it, so instead I will limit my analysis here to Stubbs' treatment of Nahuatl. Nahuatl being of course my field of specialization, and the area where I will be most likely to see weak spots in his argument and catch any methodological blunders.

Previous Reviews: Roberts, Elzinga and Rogers

I am not the first to analyze or review Stubbs' Semitic/Uto-Aztecan work. It has been previously reviewed by three Brigham Young University linguists all specializing in Native American languages: Dirk Elzinga, John S. Robertson and Chris Rogers. It does appear, though, that my review here is the first written by a linguist who is not affiliated with the LDS-owned BYU, and not published in a LDS related journal. 

Published in the "Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saints faith and scholarship", the review by John Robertson, a specialist in the Maya language, is enthusiastic and overall accepting. Robertson concludes that he "cannot find an easy way to challenge the breadth and depth of the data". 

Published in "BYU Studies Quarterly", the review by Dirk Elzinga (a Uto-Aztecanist) is what I would call lukewarm, concluding that though the proposal looks like normal crackpottery at first glance, the authority and expertise of the author means that it merits further attention. 

Published  in the "Journal of Book of Mormon Studies" in 2019, the review by Chris Rogers, an expert in historical linguistics and the Xinka language of El Salvador and also a professor of linguistics at Brigham Young University, is much more critical. 

Rogers points out some serious flaws in the work: Primary of these is that it does not stick to the established bilateral method of comparing languages with languages and proto-languages with proto-languages, but that it frequently cherrypicks so that a form in any Semitic or Egyptian variety can be compared with a form in any Uto-Aztecan language. As has been demonstrated time and time again this multilateral method hugely increases the risk of mistaking chance resemblances for cognates, and makes it possible to prove virtually anything. As Rogers’ points out since any two languages can be expected to have between 1% and 3% chance cognates, if we add additional languages to the comparison the risk rises incrementally as well. This means that once Stubbs is comparing 30 Uto-Aztecan languages with at least three Semitic and Egyptian varieties (actually more, including at least Egyptian, Coptic, Syriac, Hebrew, Aramaic) the number of expected chance similarities far exceeds the 1528 proposed cognates. He also notes that Stubbs does not adequately explain non-matching segments (in fact no explanation at all is given in most cases), and that he does not adequately account for other potential explanations of the similarity (such as onomatopoeia). These general criticisms seem absolutely valid to me, now on having reviewed Stubbs' work myself.

In a response to Rogers’ review published as a pdf on the academia.edu site, Stubbs defends himself by stating first of all that Rogers has misunderstood his intent: He is not trying to prove that Uto-Aztecan and Semitic/Egyptian are genetically related, but that his claim is rather that proto-Uto-Aztecan was a mixed language that acquired a major portion of its vocabulary and grammar from speakers of these Afroasiatic languages. Therefore, it seems to follow, he does not need to follow the strict methods for demonstrating long distance relationships. As for the charge of cherry picking, he claims that it is only natural that some forms borrowed into the proto-langage survive only in some of the daughter languages. This is perhaps true, but he apparently does not recognize, or address, the fact that this practice leads to a much higher risk of chance resemblance being mistaken for cognates, that is, random noise being mistaken for a signal. Furthermore, it cannot simply be assumed that a given form in a daughter language is a retention just because it looks like something in Hebrew, it has to be demonstrated that it is not an innovation in the individual language. 

Though I can see why Rogers though that Stubbs was arguing for a genetic relation given Stubbs presentation of the evidence, I wish Rogers had realized that Stubbs’ claim was in fact a proposal of language contact. Because it really is a more problematic claim.

It is problematic because there is no accepted method for demonstrating borrowing or contact induced changes, and consequently no method for falsifying them. Systematic sound laws do not apply in the transfer of elements of one language to another, a language may borrow many words or few and change them in fairly random ways as they are adapted to the borrowing language's phonology, and there really is no good way to disprove a claim about a form in one prehistoric language being borrowed from another. This is why linguists normally would never even entertain the idea of a scenario of borrowing, unless there is independent evidence suggesting probable historical contact between the two languages. In this, case there is exactly zero independent evidence of contact between Ancient Semites or Egyptians and Uto-Aztecans…except for the Book of Mormon. 

So by presenting his hypothesis as a claim of ancient contact and language mixture, Stubbs is in fact making a claim that cannot be methodically falsified. When working outside of historical disciplines, such a claim is usually called pseudoscientific, but in a historical discipline such as this, we can only strive to classify it either as convincing or unconvincing given the presented evidence. 

Analysis

So, to the evidence: In the following I will assess as many examples as I could find of Stubbs using Nahuatl data to support a claimed cognate set. I am not looking at those parts where he uses Nahuatl as one language among many to support a PUA reconstruction, but only those where Nahuatl is the only support for a claimed relation across the families. Grantedly most of his comparisons are to his own reconstructed proto-Uto-Aztecan forms, but he does on many occasions reach into Nahuan and compare Nahuan forms directly with forms in individual semitic varieties. Looking closely at these examples will give us feel for how Stubbs handles linguistic data - and specifically whether Stubbs' claim that dipping in to the individual languages is justified because these forms are retentions, is itself justified.  

Shadow:
šwt ‘shade, shadow’ > Nahuatl seewal-li ‘shade’
This example illustrates several problems. First is the fact that semitic and Egyptian roots are triconsonantal, whereas Uto-Aztecan roots almost always are CV or CVC roots. This means that from the outset when comparing a form across the languages you have to ignore all the vowels and look only at the consonants. This of course raises the number of potential cognates on the Uto-Aztecan side quite a lot since you can ignore basically half of every word. Secondly, Stubbs argues that all Semitic sibilants (three different ones) are reflected as *s in Uto-Aztecan. So again, this kind of merger, raises the number of potential cognates on the Semitic side. So now we have quite a large pool of potentially cognate words in each of the language families, the only thing needed for a chance resemblance to appear is if two of them have the same meaning. The greater the number of potential cognates, the greater also the chance for a semantic match or near match. Usually when demonstrating a genetic relation only words with the exact same meaning are accepted, since if we now also relax the degree of semantic fit we require, then the risk of chance resemblances increase even more. Here, the fit seems to be quite good, superficially. Because though Classical Nahuatl seewalli refers to 'shade', it does not do so etymologically. The etymology points to an original meaning of "a cool place", or "something that has cooled down". We know this, because it is composed of four different morphemes. The morpheme see ‘cold’ and the verbal formant –wa form the verb seewa ‘to be cold’, the –l suffix is an old passive form, and the –li ending is the absolutive suffix. So the word in Nahuatl is analyzable into mono-consonantal roots each with a distinct meaning that comes together to become ‘cold place’ which is then extended to also mean ‘shade’, and the analysis is not at all compatible with the proposed Semitic cognate which is a triconsonantal root.

Bow/Rainbow
šmrt ‘large bow’, pl šmrwt > -samaaloo-t of Nahuatl koo-samaaloo-tl ‘rainbow’
This example also shows the problems mentioned above, of neglecting to analyze the Nahuatl word into its roots. What is basically being compared here is šmrt with smlt, this can only be done because Stubbs decides that Nahuatl ko- is a prefix that can be removed, and because he neglects to remove the final –t which *is* a suffix and *should* be removed. But ko is not likely to be a prefix, indeed the likely historical analysis of the Nahuatl word is kosa-ma-l-o-tl, where the kosa- root is found in the word for yellow kos-tik and the word for becoming yellow kosawi, and the word for necklace koskatl. So he should compare šmrt with ksml, but that doesn’t look very much a like at all. Then there is the problem of semantic stretch, he is comparing two words that are related in English “bow” and “rainbow”, but why assume that this is a natural semantic connection? Nahuatl has other words for the weapon, and no word for the architectural feature, the Nahuatl word does  not appear related to the shape at all, but rather to the color, and Nahua myth compares it to a snake not a bow.    


Reed
 twr ‘reed’ > Nahuatl tool-in ‘cattails, reeds’;
This actually seems reasonable to me since I would probably reconstruct Nahuatl toolin as coming from an earlier form along the lines of tawri. But still we are only matching three segments out of five, which means the risk of chance resemblance is high.

Son/Child
 Hebrew bεn ‘son’; pl: bəneey3‘children (of)’ > Nahuatl *konee 'child, offspring’:
This one is a far stretch phonologically with only the –n being a direct match between the two forms. Stubbs argues that PUA *kw may be correspond to Semitic *b, but konee doesn't come from a proto-form with kw (As Stubbs notes Nahuatl is one of the only UA languages to keep PUA *kw as kw). In fact I think it probably comes from the PUA root *kumCa reconstructed by Stubbs (2011) as meaning "husband" and as "male".  

Serpent/Twin
Egyptian qrђt ‘serpent’, Egyptian qrђ ‘friend, partner’ > UA/Nahuatl koŋwa ‘snake, twin’
Here it is certainly interesting that both Egyptian and Nahuatl have a word that means both snake and a human friend/partner/twin. Within Uto-Aztecan, Nahuatl is to my knowledge the only language that has this double meaning of the word for snake, and thus the double meaning cannot be reconstructed for PUA. 

And the phonological form is quite far from each other: really there isn’t even a single segment that can be considered a direct match between the two languages. One has to accept Stubbs’ complicated sound correspondences where multiple Semitic/Egyptian segments match a single segment in Nahuatl and in which vowels are irrelevant, and consonant segments can dissappear. In this particular instance, he has to insert an n to get an nw cluster that can correspond to rђ, and to get this n into the word he cites a 1976 paper by Joe Campbell with which I am very familiar (it is about Hueyapan Nahuatl, which is my main expertise among Nahuatl varieties). First of all, Campbell does not in fact argue that there is a historical /ŋw/ in any variety of Nahuatl, he only makes the argument that synchronically there can be posited an underlying hypothetical *ŋw phoneme that explains some irregularities in the grammar. Joe has confirmed to me several times that he did not mean to make a historical argument, but was only making a synchronic phonological argument in the style of the structuralism of the 1970s. Secondly, Joe does say that the hypothetical ŋw element is found in the word ko:wa, but he is talking about the verb ko:wa “to buy”, not the noun ko:watl “snake”. So it is a completely different unrelated word. The reference to Joe’s article to justify the claimed medial /ŋw/ is both a case of special pleading, and of misusing another scholar’s work in doing so.

Crocodile
The Egyptian Crocodile God Sobek
(photo Hedwig Storck, WikiCommons)
Egyptian sbk ‘crocodile, the crocodile-god Sobek’ and Classical Nahuatl sipak-tli ‘crocodile’.
Here again we have a good superficial likeness with actual near match of all three consonants – and Stubbs’ further argues that in Egyptian the voweling matches the Nahuatl form as well. We need to abstract, of course, from the fact that elsewhere the comparisons is between Nahuatl and Hebrew, Nahuatl and Maghrib Arabic, Nahuatl and Aramaic, and here Nahuatl and Egyptian (which is not even a Semitic language but related in the much larger Afro-Asiatic family).

Aztec crocodile god Cipactli,
from the Codex Borgia
The problem is that we cannot reconstruct this word for crocodile for proto-Uto-Aztecan, because no other Uto-Aztecan language has a documented cognate of the word sipaktli. There is a possibility that the word could be related to the Corachol word for caiman háaxi, where the first syllable likely means "water". The second syllable -xi could then be cognate to the si- syllable of sipaktli (and in fact the pa- syllable could be cognate to the ha- syllable of corachol, the order of the elements in the compound simply reversed). This would make sipaktli a likely compound word, in which case it cannot match the Egyptian triconsonantal root at all.  




Wine-skin/Prickly pear
"Hebrew nebεl ‘skin-bottle, skin’ in the common phrase of Hebrew nebεl yayin ‘skin of wine’; Syriac nbl3/3n’bl > Classical Nahuatl no’palli ‘prickly pear’ often used to make alcoholic beverage"; 

Here we have an ok phonological match (though it unexplainedly ignores the Nahuatl Saltillo segment), but a very bad semantic match. 

The Nahuatl word nohpalli quite simply does not mean prickly pear, it refers to the opuntia cactus, the prickly pear of which is called noochtli. Nohpalitl, also refers specifically to the edible ear of the cactus. Though mostly eaten as a fruit, the noochtli was used to produce a kind of fermented beverage called noochoctli. But the nohpal cactus is only tied to alcohol production in this very indirect way. Allowing this span from wineskin to cactus with a fruit used occasionally for fermented shows an very high degree of semantic latitude, and a cavalier approach to translation since nohpal is *not* the prickly pear or the part of the plant used for fermentation. 


Bury/Tamal
Semitic ṭmn > Aramaic ṭmr ‘hide, bury’ > Nahuatl tamal-li ‘tamale’
Stubbs argues that the Semitic root *tmn had the “references to ‘cooking underground or under ashes’ …which in Post-Biblical Hebrew also meant ‘put in an oven’” He makes the final l- in the Nahuatl fit by noting that “Aramaic changed n > r, as it often does (ben ‘son’ > bar ‘son’)”. 

But again, he doesn’t take the time to analyze the Nahuatl word, which does indeed come from a verb that can be reconstructed as *tɨma with the meaning “cook with steam/bake under ground”. But the final –l in tamal, is not a part of the root but a suffix, it is as mentioned before an old passive that is used to derive deverbal passive nouns, so a tamal is analyzable in Nahuatl and means “something steamed”. So again we have only two consonants apout of three (or if counting the vowels two segments out of five) that actually match. 

Perfective prefix
Semitic perfective with wa- Nahuatl perfective with o-.
Stubbs notes that in some Semitic verbs a perfective can be formed by adding the prefix wa- and removing the last vowel of the verb. This is indeed quite similar to what happens in Western Nahuatl dialects, where an o- prefix and the loss of the last vowel creates the perfective of one verb class. But, this is limited to Western Nahuatl dialects, the Eastern dialects have neither the o- prefix nor the dropping of the stemfinal vowel in any verb class (they use a –k or –ki suffix instead). The vowel-dropping in preterit forms cannot be reconstructed for proto-Nahuatl, but is an innovation in the Western Branch. Karen Dakin has argued that Western Nahuatl ot the o- prefix as a borrowing from the corachol perfective prefix wa-. And it probably also shouldn’t be reconstructed for proto-Nahuatl.  So here we have a pattern that is superficially intriguingly similar, but once we know a bit about Nahuatl historical developments it disappears entirely.

Climb up/on top
Semitic rkb ‘mount, climb up on’ > CN tlakpa-k ‘above, on top’
Again Stubbs compares a triconsonantal root to a multimorphemic Nahuat word. The tla- in tlakpak is a prefix, that was originally ta-, and the root ikpa comes from the PUA root *kupa ‘hair’ or ‘head’ and has come to mean “top”.  The root rkb ‘mount climb up’ is not a very good match for kupa ‘hair/head’.

Quail
Hebrew śәlaaw ‘quail’, pl:salwiim; Syriac salway ‘quail’; Arabic salwaa ‘quail’; Samaritan šalwi > UA *solwi ‘quail’: CN sool-in ‘quail’; Mn sowi’ ‘pigeon’.

Here we have something that is superficially interesting again. But we have to note that ' reconstruction of the UA term combines the Mono word for "pigeon" with the Nahuatl word for quail to get an almost exact match for the Semitic word. But he has missed the obvious cognates in Corachol, namely Huichol xïau “codorniz” and Cora sa’uh. These forms, I reconstruct for proto-Corachol as *sauri, which is also the ancestral form for the Nahuatl word sool-in. Then we end up comparing slw with swr (if we admit the correspondence u/w), and we would have to posit a metathesis to sustain the argument.   

Understand/Grow
Hebrew hiśkiil, hiskal- ‘to understand, comprehend, make wise’ > CN iskal ‘to train’; CN iskal-ia ‘be discreet, prudent’.
Simeon's entry for Izcalia

Here we have something really bad. Namely an example of a massaged translation of the Nahuatl term that makes a large semantic stretch seem less problematic. Nahuatl iskalia does not mean "be discreet prudent". The intransitive iskali means “to grow” or "to revive" for example about plants that sprout. From this is derived the transitive iskalia that means "to make someone revive or grow" and which is used metaphorically in the sense of coming to one's senses for example after having passed out (used reflexively "make oneself revive"), and in the sense of nurturing and rearing a child to maturity (like one cultivates a plant). In Hueyapan one does respond to someone who says something silly by saying "ximoskali!", which is literally "come to your senses!". But is is related to reviving and coming back to life, and not to understanding or knowing. 

Molina's entry for Izcalia with no "prudence or discretion"
Stubbs' seems to have the "discreet, prudent" translation from the dictionary of Remi Simeon where "discreto, prudente" appears in a sstring of words used to translate iskalia (image inserted right). Simeon's dictionary is a derivative, mostly based on Alonso de Molina's dictionary, and interestingly the "discreet, prudent" doesn't appear as possible translations of the words in Molina's dictionary (image inserted). They were added by Simeon. The gloss "to train" for the putative word "iskal" is simply made up perhapos based on the metaphorical meaning of iskalia "to rear" a child. "Iskal" meanwhile, is not an actually existing Nahuatl word, since as I am sure Stubbs knows, all Nahuatl verbs end in a vowel. 

But of course when comparing one has to try to analyze the word's core semantics instead of the simply choosing one of the potential translations that you like best. Here the semantics simply doesn't fit, and instead of analyzing the word's meaning Stubbs simply cherry picks the two of Simeon's glosses that fit best with his Hebrew word. 

Select/Take
Hebrew(BDB) brr ‘to select, choose’: CN kwia / kwiya ‘to consider s.th. one’s own, to keep’; CN kwi-lia ‘to take s.th.’;

This is also an example of a massaged translation, because Nahuatl kwi means simply to take something, kwia is a derived verb that means "to wrap something" and kwilia is the applicative of kwi that means "to take something from someone". Simeon again has a meaning of kwia not found in other dictionaries, namely the meaning of "keeping something borrowed". This could be a potential contextual extension of the sense of "taking something", with the added -a, to signify that it is used transitively. But given that there is no other source for this usage than Simeon's dictionary, that is not very accurate, and often supplies extra translations based on unknown evidence, it seems a bad idea to pick this specific meaning to compare with Hebrew.   

Apart from this semantic mismatch, the only element that actually matches is the b/kw. The r segment matches neither the l in kwilia because this is the applicative suffix. The y in kwiya suggested by Simeon is spuriously inserted because if there was the preterit would be *kwix, but is in fact kwih. Hence the *y cannot be used to match the r in the semitic form. 

Pronominals
One of the really eye-catching pieces of data presented by Stubbs is the correspondence between the semitic pronominal prefixes and the pronouns of Classical Nahuatl. He notes that the Aramaic verb 'to be' parallels the Nahuatl pronouns closely, being 'ehwe "I am", tehwe "you are" and yehwe "he is". And he notes that Maghrib Arabic analogized the first person plural n- to become first person singular as in Nahuatl. Here, I reproduce Stubbs' table from page 335.  


This kind of paradigm is the kind that historical linguists love, because it is a kind of relation that is relatively unlikely to arise by coincidence. But though it may be unlikely to arise by chance, it is not impossible. In this case in fact very possible.

In their reviews, both Elzinga and Robertson catch on this example  as the most convincing piece of evidence. Rogers though mentions the table critically, by pointing out the problem that Stubbs is here comparing individual varieties, and not proto-languages. Here Rogers points out a problem that in fact invalidates this example: Again the Nahuatl forms represent innovations within Nahuatl not retentions of earlier PUA forms, and hence cannot be used as examples of contact allegedly taking place thousands of years before proto-Nahuatl emerged.

The reason Stubbs' compares with Classical Nahuatl instead of PUA, or even instead of proto-Nahuatl is clear: this particular pronoun system is *only* found in Nahuatl in the entire UA family, and consequently cannot be reconstructed for the earlier stage. In fact, we can show that it is an innovation in proto-Nahuatl by comparison with the forms found in Corachol. In proto-Corachol the paradigm was 1p ne-, 2p pa- 3p pu-. Stubbs himself in his catalogue of UA cognates reconstructs pu- as the third person singular pronominal in PUA. From a system similar to that found in corachol, Nahuatl switched the second person form, apparently adopting the ti- prefix of the first person plural, also as the second person singular prefix. It kept the ni- prefix and it dropped the third person prefix altogether since it was redundant. The pu- pronominal stem was in fact only kept in the third person pronouns which in proto-Nahuatl I reconstruct as *yeha from an earlier *puha. The initial PUA syllable *pu becomes *hɨ- in proto-Corachol-Nahuatl, then ye- in proto-Nahuatl and then e- in eastern Nahuatl (except in the pronoun because Eastern Nahuatl had changed the pronoun to yaha, and y- was only dropped before e). The original pronoun furthermore did not have the -wa suffix, which is an innovation in the Western branch of Nahuan (so quite late, after the split of proto-Nahuatl). Consequently, the forms of the Aramaic copula and Mahgrib pronominal prefixes are complete red herrings, they only compare to the pronouns of Western Nahuatl in the postclassic period (i.e. after 900 AD). 

Moreover, the Maghrib first person form n- is an innovation while in Uto-Aztecan it is a retention, and it is probably even a retention from a much earlier stage of language evolution in the Americas given that many other language families in the Americas have ni- as the first person singular pronominal. So really if we were to allege contact, it would suggest that Maghrib Arabic was influenced by Nahuatl (or another Native American language), rather than the other way round. But of course this is really just a coincidence, and not evidence of contact at all.

If we were to compare only the oldest reconstructible stages of the two languages we would get:

               Semitic          Proto-Corachol-Nahua
1.sg         '-                    ne-

2p.sg.      t-                    pe- 
3p.sg.      y-                   pu-/Ø-

1p.pl.       n-                  t-

2p.pl        t-                   se-
3p.pl        y-                  me-

Here, nothing at all is shared between the two systems. (I presented my preliminary reconstruction of elements of proto-Corachol-Nahua at the Friends of Uto-Aztecan meetings in Tepic in 2018 including the pronominal prefixes, the proceedings are forthcoming).

Starting from two systems that didn't actually share anything, Proto-Nahuatl swapped a previous 2p.sg prefix pa- to ti-, and the changed the form of the 3p.sg. prefix pu- to ye-, and Mahgrib swapped 1p '- to n-, and voilá: the systems align. 


In conclusion, the pronoun system that Stubbs compares with semitic is much too late for being evidence of a relation between PUA and Semitic, since it came into existence only several thousand years after the existence of PUA and the alleged contact between Semites, Egyptians and Uto-Aztecans. This is a case in which we can in fact show that similar pronominal paradigms have developed independently of each other. 


Conclusions: It’s a no from me

For all these reasons, I find the proposal to be very far from convincing. It seems to me that here, Stubbs is not at all doing the kind of careful comparative work that he is known for. The handling of Nahuatl data is highly problematic, with massaged translations that make words that have virtually no semantic link falsely appear to have the same meanings, with  apparently selective failure to pay attention to segmentation and morphological analysis in the Nahuatl, and inattention to other possible and plausible explanations even those found in his own previous work. 

I should note, that since many of the reconstructions of proto-Corachol and proto-Corachol Nahuatl are my own and most of them yet unpublished, Stubbs cannot of course be faulted for not knowing or accepting them. But if anyone in the world would be equipped with enough knowledge to investigate the history of these forms in Nahuatl on their own, it is Brian Stubbs. And really, it don't seem that he has even tried to look into the immediate history of any of the Nahuatl terms he cites. He has just assumed that it was conservative. Investigating alternative explanations of one's data is of course a basic part of establishing a hypothesis in a rigorous manner. 

I am not equipped to evaluate Stubbs’ usage of the data from many of the other UA languages, nor the Semitic or Egyptian, but given how the Nahuatl is treated, it cannot simply be assumed that it is being handled well. I pass the baton to the next scholars to check how he handles the languages of their expertise, both Uto-Aztecan and Afro-Asiatic.

J. S. Gould also showed us that we all as scholars are prone to the error of conrfirmation bias. Dearly held beliefs, whether religious, political or theoretical, are likely to color our interpretation of data and dull our critical sense about our own conclusions. I think as a discipline, historical linguistics, because it relies on our ability to see intricate patterns that others have not yet seen, is more prone to our biases in interpretations than most other kinds of science. Really, I think historical linguistics is perhaps more of an art, though an art that should be approached with a scientific mindset. This proneness to confirmation bias of course no less affects me as an non-theist scholar with a distinct set of ideas about what happened in prehistoric Mesoamerica, than it does people of other diverse persuasions and ideas. But this is why these kinds of scholarly endeavors have to stand and fall on the evaluation of empirical data by people with different biases: we are all entitled to our interpretations, but no one is entitled to their own facts. 

What would be needed for a proposal like this to be convincing to me? First of all the question is, how much will be left once experts in different other languages involved weed out the infelicitous examples as I have done here. This sample suggests that quite little would be left after such a pass-through. But the next version of this proposal should also take some steps to remedy the basic methodological flaws:
  • I would very much prefer non-linguistic (that is archaeological or genetic) corroboration of ancient trans-atlantic contact before I would entertain the hypothesis of contact between Uto-Aztecan and ancient Afroasiatic languages as a reasonable explanation of likenesses between the languages. 
  • I would want a much more thorough description of the proposed borrowings, including vowels. Uto-Aztecans would have heard the semitic words with vowels, and borrowed them with vowels. So it is simply not possible to simply ignore the vowels as Stubbs does (exept when he finds one that accidentally fits). I would expect systematic vowel patterns for verbs, nouns etc. Also forms with partial matches, where only two of three consonants match, cannot be allowed.
  • I would want attention paid to chronology. When did the supposed borrowings take place? Already before proto-Uto-Aztecan? In that case all proposed borrowings must be reconstructible to  PUA and to which ever layer of Afro-Asiatic or Semitic one believes was spoken at that period. It is not reasonable to cherry pick forms from the individual daughter languages and claim that they are retentions when the may as well be innovations (such retentions can only be posited after the relationship is established).
  • As Chris Rogers’ points out a convincing proposal would in fact have much fewer correspondence pairs, of much higher quality, and preferably, they would be paradigmatically related. For example, what is closest to appear convincing for example is the pronominal forms, where the n, t- y- pattern looks highly intriguing (until you remember that the first person n- is pan-American and realize the y- doesn’t fit).

One thing that makes me uncomfortable is the fact that Stubbs worked on this simultaneously with working on his catalogue of Uto-Aztecan reconstructions. I cannot help but worry that the reconstructions of UA forms there, may be subtly compromised by Stubbs unconsciously trying to make them fit with his Semitic data. I will have to use it with a degree of apprehension in the future.

Texts Cited/Mentioned:



  • Elzinga, Dirk. 2016. "Review of Exploring the Explanatory Power of Semitic and Egyptian in Uto-Aztecan" in BYU Studies Quarterly. 55(4):172-176
  • Rogers, Chris. 2019. “A Review of the Afro-Asiatic: Uto-Aztecan Proposal”  Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 28, 258-267
  • Robertson, John S. 2017. "Exploring Semitic and Egyptian in Uto-Aztecan Languages".
  • Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 25: 103-116
  • Stubbs, Brian D. 2015. Exploring the Explanatory Power of Semitic and Egyptian in Uto-Aztecan. Grover Publications. 
  • Stubbs, Brian D. 2011. Uto-aztecan: a comparative vocabulary. By Brian D. Stubbs. Blanding, Utah: Rocky Mountain Books and Publications

fredag den 6. september 2019

Maestriah Ipan Totlahtol: The world's first MA program taught entirely in Nahuatl

In ichikawaltilis in masewalnemilistli tlen powi Anawak ipan Weyitlamachtiloyan in ik tlahtolkuepalistli iwan in tlahtolihkuilolistli ika masewaltlahtolmeh

"the strengthening of indigenous American lifeways in the University through translation, and writing in indigenous languages" (Miguel Figueroa Saavedra/Rafael Nava Vite)

The Tequila Campus if the UVI,
where the Nawatl MA-program will be based.

In this blogpost, I describe an exciting development that will definitely have a major impact on the future of the Nahuatl language. At the Universidad Veracruzana Intercultural (UVI, the intercultural university branch of the University of Veracruz) next academic year will  see the initiation of a MA degree program in Nahua Language and Culture, taught entirely in Nahuatl (or nawatl as they write it in the UVI).

The program is called Maestriah Ipan Totlahtol Iwan Tonemilis, and is accepting applications from Nahuatl-speaking students with BA degrees o begin studies in February 2020. Here is a link to the call for applications.

In 2013, I did field work at the UVI interviewing students and teachers and observing the ongoing practices of language revitalization in the university, and I have been peripherally involved as an occasional adviser for certain questions of curriculum development as the MA program has been designed. The MA program is part of a broader project to strengthen the presence of indigenous languages in higher education in the UVI. The UV  has already been the first and this far only Mexican University to accept BA theses written entirely in Nahuatl, but now it is planning to make it a requirement for the students of the new MA program to work in the language.

Veracruz is the Mexican state with the highest dialectal diversity of Nahuatl. There are three completely distinct dialect areas (Veracruz, Zongolica, Isthmus) and several divergent dialects. It also has one of the largest Nahuatl speaking populations numbering in the hundreds of thousands - and it has the highest rates of monolingual speakers. The UVI has regional campuses in the three Nahua regions (and one in the Totonac speaking region).

Students and faculty at the UVI
have been at the forefront for demanding
equal education rights for
nahua youths.
The program will offer courses in Nahuatl orthography and grammar, in Nahua culture and history, and in investigative methods among other things - all taught in the language, and with mostly Nahuatl-language literature.

This MA program is really exceptional and important for several reasons: 

First of all, in Mexico an elsewhere indigenous language and culture has usually been taught only as a subject - but the teaching itself is normally done in the majority language. In a haphazard ways some individual teachers have used indigenous languages as media of instruction when they are highly proficient themselves and have had students who are dominant in the indigenous language, but there have been very few experiments with using an indigenous languages as medium of instruction in organized systematic ways. So this is in itself a major step in helping not just Nahuatl, but all indigenous languages to work towards becoming equal languages with a full range of uses in the society where they are spoken.

Secondly, the last time there was an intellectual tradition producing scholarly works written in the Nahuatl language was in the 16th century. The program will necessarily initiate a completely new intellectual tradition in Nahuatl, producing vast amounts of texts about many different subjects, and it will create a class of Nahuatl intellectuals who are able to work entirely in the language. I do not doubt that this will contribute significantly to producing a strong cultural revival in Nahua communities, as Nahua people will become able to talk about their own culture and future in new ways.

Thirdly, it will be a big push for Mexican indigenous language education in general - it will set the bar much higher than it has been untill now for which kind of public programs can be offered in indigenous languages. It will be a new source of highly educated indigenous skilled workers who can teach, interpret, translate, and offer language based services inside and outside their own communities. Hopefully similar programs will be created in other regions and for other indigenous communities.

Fourth, it will definitely produce new dynamics of linguistic change for the Nahuatl language as a whole.  The Nahuatl variety used by the UVI MA program will incorporate traits from the different varieties and create a new koinéization process as speakers interact with eachothers' dialects. I have already witnessed this process in Tequila as speakers of the divergent variety spoken in Ixhuatlancillo adopted language traits from the more populous dialects of the Zongolica highlands. The materials I have seen this far use many traits from the Huasteca dialect, but presents a mixture of traits from the different areas. It will be very interesting to observe how traits will spread between the regions, and how new registers are created.



Classroom in the Universidad Veracruzana Intercultural in Tequila,
where a group of students (most of whom are Nahuatl speakers)
are presenting work about the local agricultural practices in the language.
Presumably this kind of class will also take place in the new MA program.





tirsdag den 25. december 2018

Was the Voynich manuscript written in Nahuatl?

Excerpt of the text from the Voynich Codex
 showing the odd script.

Recently a number of papers by a group of botanists from Purdue University have proposed that the enigmatic Voynich manuscript which has so far resisted decipherment was written in Nahuatl in the 16th century.

The Voynich manuscript is a codex written on 16th century vellum paper, which clearly includes botanical illustrations, but also a number of baffling illustrations that seem to be cosmological as well as maps. The pictures are accompanied by writing in a mysterious script that has been subject to multiple analyses and decipherment attempts.

In this blogpost, I give my impression of the linguistics of the proposed decipherment of the Voynich manuscript as a kind of Nahuatl.

Excerpt from the 16th century Nahuatl language
herbal Codex Badianus showing the similarity of the illustrations
(Actually, I think the Badianus has much better illustrations.)
The scholars who have advanced the proposal that the codex is written in a form of Nahuatl are Arthur Tucker and Rexford Talbert and Jules Janick. They published their 2013 proposal titled "A Preliminary Analysis of the Botany, Zoology, and Mineralogy of the Voynich Manuscript "  in HerbalGram, the Journal of the American Botanical Council. With additional material published at their institutional deposititory.

Now, in 2018, Janick and Tucker published a book titled "Unraveling the Voynich" on Springer Press, which presents the entire argument in favor of seeing the Voynich  manuscript as a Mexican codex, written largely in Nahuatl - with some Spanish and Taino mixed in.


The Codex: 

Folio 9r of the Voynich Manuscript
showing a plant with odd shaped leaves.

The codex has 240 pages, some of which are wide fold-out pages. Analysis of the parchment has shown it to be from the early 15th century, made from calf skin. Most of the contents are illustrations of plants with small texts written in an odd script. Other pages are astrological charts, populated with little nude ladies who bathe and shower in odd tubs connected with pipes.

The first known owner was Georg Baresch a 17t century alchemist in Prague. Other owners seem to have been Emperor Rudolph II, Jesuit scholar and self-proclaimed decipherer of the egyptian hieroglyphs Athanasius Kircher. When the Jesuit society decided to sell the manuscript it was bought by Lithuanian bibliophile Wilfrid Voynich after whom it is named. Today it is housed in the Beinecke Library at Yale University where it is catalogued as "Beinecke MS 408", where it has been digitized and put online for anyone to inspect (located here: https://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3519597)

All of the pages have writing in the odd script, and in spite of a host of the world's quirkiest minds working to decipher it, it has still not been read.

Here is a chart of the symbols (from Wikipedia) - the correspondence with the Latin alphabet is only to be able to name each glyph with letters from A to B:


As mentioned the mysterious manuscript has been scrutinized by many of the world's quirkiest minds - the same type of mind that would spend a career seeking to prove that Basque or Burushaski are Indo-European languages - and they have produced an amazing gamut of different proposals: From codes and ciphers, or a hoax, or shorthand Latin, or glossolalia, or an East Asian language, and now, Nahuatl.

But most of these odd proposals have not been published as presumably(?) peer-reviewed edited volumes by Springer, so the Nahuatl proposal does merit serious attention. Especially given the fact that no Nahuatl specialists have been involved in the decipherment.

The Argument for Nahuatl: 

There are three main arguments used for identifying the manuscript as written in Nahuatl:

  1. The herbological part of the codex has similarities to Mexican herbological codices produced in the mid 16th century, and the botanists argue that many of the plants can be identified as new world species. And that a map of a city can be identified as "angelopolis" which they identify as the city of Puebla (de los Ángeles) in the state of Puebla. 
  2.  The proposed tl-letter looks like the first letter in
     this word tlanequilis from 
    an 18th-century Nahuatl testament.          
  3. The character  which is very frequent in the manuscript, is similar to a ligature character found in some Mexican codices representing the Nahuatl consonant tl. (It also sort of looks like the way I write capital H when I write my signature, and like how many people write a double l)                        
  4. The proponents argue that some of the plants can be identified by Nahuatl names, and claim that they can read some of the text in Nahuatl, using their identification of the glyphs with Nahuatl phonemes. 
I will look primarily at the third of these arguments, both because this is the actual claim to a decipherment. Arguments one and two can be true even if the language is not Nahuatl. All claims to decipherment of course rest on the degree to which they actually allow us to read the texts written in the script that they are claiming to decipher.

The main argument of the book is that the book contains elements of Nahuatl and new world flora, that it contains inspiration from the Jewish Kabbalah (which they claim was practiced among Franciscans in the New World), and that it refers to the city of Puebla de los Angeles which was founded by the Franciscan friar Toribio Benavente "Motolinia".

Nevertheless, an odd chapter by the linguist Fernando Moreira, looks at the readings and compares them with different Mesoamerican languages, finding that it doesn't really match any of them - and then proposes an undescribed Mesoamerican language which he calls "acolhuacatlatolli" (the Nahuatl word for "language of the Acolhua"). The Acolhuas were the Nahuatl-otomí ethnic group that lived in Texcoco. We know their language very well since most of what we today call "Classical Nahuatl" is in fact the Acolhua dialect of Nahuatl.  Moreira nevertheless, oddly suggests that it could have been a form of Popoloca (which is what Nahuas called all the languages they couldn't understand including at first Spanish).

So while the general argument of the book is that the language is a form of mixed Nahuatl-Spanish, the chapter by Moreira argues that it is not, and then introduces an unknown and undescribed language as a sort of deus ex machina that allows them to maintain the main parts of their hypothesis when the evidence is shown not to support it. In the rest of this blog post, I will argue based on the original proposal that it is Nahuatl or has a Nahuatl element, and not based on the alternative hypothesis that it represents an undescribed Mesoamerican language, nor the possibility that it represents a language spoken by space aliens who built the Mexican pyramids.

The Problems: 

Ok, I am already going into the problems with the proposal. The most nefarious problem is that it is pseudo-rigorous -  that is it, it works hard to give the appearance of being rigorous scholarship while in fact it is not at all.  They cite lots of serious scholarship, and mostly they cite it correctly, but nevertheless all the citations are used only for circumstantial evidence. As soon as we look at the concrete examples and the readings they are unsupported by this evidence and rests on pure speculation - often uninformed speculation.

For me the best problem, best because it is so solid that it clearly invalidates the entire endeavor, is the fact that none of the proposed readings are valid - hardly a single one of the proposed words actually read like a bona fide Nahuatl word.

Many of them are completely alien to Nahua phonological structure. And to be honest I am surprised that the scholars haven't found it to be odd that a few of the letters are so frequent that they appear in almost all words - for example more than half of the proposed plant names (and names of the nude ladies they call "nymphs") start with the letter that they read as /a/ - that would be very odd in a natural language, unless the a was a very frequent grammatical prefix (which it isn't in Nahuatl).

The readings:
Table from Janick & Tucker 2018:141

Janick and Tucker produce a full set of proposed readings for the voynichese symbols given in two tables on page 141-142. I reproduce the first part of the table here to the right (non-underlined Latin equivalents are "tentative").

Following the tradition of comparing letter frequencies in decipherment proposals, the table also supplies the frequency of each symbol in the Voynich Manuscript and the frequency of the proposed Latin equivalent in a randomly selected Nahuatl manuscript.

It is odd that the proposed readings include both signs for single phonemes as well as sings for syllables câ (we are not told what the circumflex above the â is supposed to mean? Does it represent a saltillo?) and yâ/hâ (hâ is not actually a possible Nahuatl syllable).

It also seems that Janick and Tucker fail to realize that the letter u found after c and h in classical Nahuatl texts is not actually a vowel, but represent the sound of the consonant /w/ or the lip rounding in the phoneme /kw/. This is basic stuff, and why it makes no sense to seek to make a decipherment using a language that one does not in fact understand (Champollion knew this, and that was why he spent so much time studying Coptic and other Semitic languages).

Here are some of their readings of the names of plants.

First the one that seems to be their clou: the reading of the name of a cactus-like plant as <NĀSHTLI>. They argue that this reading resembles the Nahuatl name of the fruit of the nopal cactus which is nōchtli. And sure, it does look similar to that word. The -tli ending looks like the absolutive suffix, and the root NĀSH is superficially similar to nōch-, and the reading follows Nahua phonological rules. Nevertheless, a and o are different vowels in Nahuatl, and sh (x) and ch are different consonants - so only one out of three letters in the root of the proposed reading actually match, the others are "near matches" at best.

Other readings fare a lot worse. Look for example at these images proposals:





As is known to any serious student of Nahuatl, Nahuatl does not allow consonant clusters in the beginning or end of syllables, and also does not allow clusters of more than two consonants in the middle of words. Words like ichpchi or itlmamcho or itlmaca or itlmchi are not possible words in any dialect of Nahuatl.

It seems reasonable to expect more of a decipherment than for it to produce one near match and then a load of meaningless gibberish.

Some of the syllables or even sequences of two syllables that occur frequently in their readings do have potential readings - but this is only natural given that Nahuatl has a rather small phoneme inventory and therefore not many different potential syllables. For example they note that mā means "hand" and cui means "to take" and māca means "to give" - but given how short these monsyllabic sequences are and how frequent the elements are, it is simply a coincidence. When there aren't more letters, and the letters have been assigned Nahuatl equivalents, some sequences in the reading are bound to look like some sequences in the vast vocabulary of Nahuatl. 

The chance of random matches gets even worse when they admit the possibility of readings in Spanish and Taino and of weird mixtures of the two (unlike anything found in any colonial Document). Why for example, would a Nahua or Nahuatl speaker,  given that Nahuas were expert cultivators of agave, use the Taino word for agave "maguey" (in the mangled spelling <MAHUEOI>) and not the Nahuatl word metl?  


A Test: 

The best way to assess a proposed decipherment is of course by testing it on a piece of text and see what it produces, and if it is intelligible.

I tried such a test on a piece of text from the top of folio 28v, and below is the result. It is utterly unintelligible, it has only the vaguest resemblance to Nahuatl - and that is only because of the strong association between the /TL/ phoneme and Nahuatl. The phonology is alien to Nahuatl, allowing for example consonant clusters in the beginning and end of words, and failing to respect the Nahua phonological rules of assimilation. Nahuatl is of course a language that has few phonemes and a lot of a's and a lot of tl's and cu's and hu's and so does this proposed reading - but that is only because the decipherers on purpose have assigned those readings to the most frequent letters. Furthermore these letters are twice as frequent in this "language"  than they are in Nahuatl according to their own count - for example Nahuatl only has the frequency 4,7% for tl, whereas the Voynich has the frequency 10%. So what we get is a text that superficially looks like Nahuatl, but only to someone who doesn't actually know any Nahuatl.

Nevertheless, anyone who knows any dialect of Nahuatl will be able to see that the below is not Nahuatl, and that only certain words resemble Nahuatl because they have the sounds and endings that are frequent in nahuatl such as -tli and -câ (why do the decipherers add the ^ symbol above the a in the câ letter? They never explain what it is supposed to represent).

Following the proposed decipherment this text reads:
TLMCÂ CUAALL MAE  HUMOLL  MAHUMI CUATLI CHIMAEI
ITLMACÂI CUATLO MICHI CUATLMAE MAE TLMI CUATLMAECHI MAEA
MAE MACÂ MI MALL

Could it be Nahuatl or inspired by Nahuatl?

The language of the proposed reading clearly is not Nahuatl. It has only the most superficial structural resemblance to Nahuatl,  even if we were to admit the possibility of undescribed dialects. When we decide to read the most frequent signs of the script as their most frequent Nahuatl counterparts the text naturally comes to resemble Nahuatl. But since it violates the phonological rules expected of Nahuatl, and is entirely void of any recognizable grammatical structure from Nahuatl (we can't even see differences between verbs and nouns, much less actual grammatical morphology) this can safely be discarded.

A further argument against the plausibility of the background story of the proposal is historical: In mid-16th century Mexico anyone who would be able to produce a codex would also have been able to write it in proper Nahuatl - even Spanish friars (this was a requirement for being a priest in Mexico at this time). So, OK maybe they would want to invent a new script so that nobody could read what they had written about all those little naked ladies - but one would of course assume that they would then write intelligible Nahuatl. Otherwise why bother?

The Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis, also known as the Codex Badianus is an actual herbal manuscript which is known to have been written by Nahua scholar Martin de la Cruz in 1552 and later translated into Latin by another Nahua scholar, Juan Badiano. Nahua people in the 16th century were not only able to write intelligible Nahuatl, they were also able to translate it into Latin. And to boot the illustrations are much better, and allows easy identification of the different species - the Voynich plant drawings come across as crude by comparison. 

Finally, as I read the example it bothered me that there is a certain repetitiveness in the deciphered text, the same letters seem to occur very frequently in combinations with specific other letters. This is not usually the case for natural languages - but very frequent in something like glossolalia of the baby-speech "lalala balala malalaba"- type.

Some of the little naked ladies, these ones from folio 80r. 

Bibliography:

  • Janick, J., & Tucker, A. O. (2018). Unraveling the Voynich Codex. Springer.