This post arises from a conversation I had yesterday with R. Joe Campbell, who is one of the world's great Nahuatl scholars as well as an amazingly knowledgeable and kind man, whom I have had the great fortune to get to know when I lived in the US. Joe is working on a major analytical database that analyzes the morphology of all of the words in Alonso de Molina's dictionary. For that reason he is extremely interested in finding out how all of the thousands of Nahuatl words in the dictionary can best be analyzed. This often leads to interesting questions.
The question of today's debate is this: Is the Nahuatl adjective istāk that names the color white, derived from istatl the noun meaning "salt"; or is the noun 'salt' derived from the adjective 'white'?
The question is relevant because it has ramifications for how we understand some basic things about Nahuatl grammar.
In Nahuatl there is a clear tendency for color words to be derived from nouns that describe something with a particular color. This is of course very common in the world's languages: "orange" being an obvious example of this in English. In Nahuatl, many color names like are similarly derived. The word chichiltik "red" is transparently derived from the word chilli "chili", and the color word tlīltik "black" is derived from the word tlīlli 'ink/soot'. Indeed in modern Nahuatl, one can productively derive new color terms by using the suffix -tik which produces an adjective with the sense of "like X". So nēxtik "like ashes" can mean 'grey', cafēntik "like coffee" or chocolatik "like chocolate" can mean "brown". And sometimes color words are even borrowed from Spanish with the -tik suffix, so that azultik is used for 'blue' in several dialects that I have encountered.
This -tik suffix is generally regarded as a kind of participial form where the -k is the preterit ending describing a completed action, and the -ti- morpheme is related to the intransitive version of the causative (sort of like an inchoative) that means 'to become' (e.g. in tlākati "to be born" composed of tlāka "human" and -ti). This means, interestingly, that apparently denominal adjectives in Nahuatl are in fact deverbal, since the noun has to be "verbed" before the adjective can be derived. Many other adjectival verbs are derived from verbs using only the preterit ending -k, forexample tomāwak 'fat', and chikāwak 'strong' respectively derived from the inchoative verbs tomāwa 'to become fat' and chikāwa 'to become strong'.
But not all denominal adjectives have the -tik ending, and nor do all color words. Notably the word for 'white' istāk , does not, but seems to have a simple -k suffix that is added to the stem ista- 'salt' producing the same effect as the -tik suffix. Other tik-less adjectives are xokok 'sour' (related to xokotl 'fruit'), kokok 'spicy' (related to kokoa 'hurt'), sesēk 'cold' (related to setl "ice" or to sēwa ''be cold ). This challenges us to think about how the derivational process works in these cases, where the noun does not seem to have been verbalized before derivation, but where the denominal adjective nevertheless carries the preterit marker -k.
Joe's proposal for how to deal with this is that the noun has indeed been verbalized, but that the verbalizing morpheme has been deleted. His argument goes like this:
There is another verbalizing suffix in Nahuatl which is -ya, and it also gives an inchoative meaning 'to become X' or 'to make x Y'. For example from the adjective itztik 'cold' (maybe related to the noun itztli 'obsidian'), one can derive a deadjectival verb itztiya 'to become cold', and then one may form a participle with the preterit suffix -k so we get itztiyak 'cold' (but in a sense of "cooled down", implying that it was hot before). There is also such a verb derived from istatl 'salt', namely istaya 'to become salty'.
So what if, Joe proposes, there is a grammatical rule that allows the -ya- to be deleted, so that itztik really is a shortened form of itztiyak, and istāk really is a shortened form of istayak. This would explain the seemingly non-verbalized adjectives derived from nouns.
My argument is that this assumption is unnecessary, and in fact contradicted by the etymological evidence regarding the words for 'white' and 'salt' in Nahuatl.
Let me give a bit of theoretical context for my disagreement:
Nahuatl is of course a Uto-Aztecan language, and to understand the history of words one should not look only at the productive derivational processes in the language, but also at other related languages to reconstruct the deep history of the language.
Nahuatl did not emerge as a fully formed context-free grammatical system of generative processes that derive words through well-defined rules from a well-defined set of lexical items. Rather, it developed gradually and incrementally through phonological and grammatical alterations caused by speakers interacting with each other, borrowing from each other, and imitating each others ways of using the language. It is simply unrealistic to expect to be able to explain all vocabulary through synchronic grammatical processes. Rather we should invoke the historical process to explain the anomalies and irregularities that all languages have.
Let me now describe how the Nahuatl words for salt and white relate to the same words in other Uto-Aztecan languages.
Northern Tepehuán: ónai
Here we see that all the Uto-Aztecan languages have the word 'salt' derived from a single root that can be reconstructed as *ona. Nahuatl is the only Uto-Aztecan language to have a word for salt from a different root. This is not odd of course, Nahuatl could for example have borrowed its word for 'salt' from another language, or have innovated it from some other root.
Northern Tepehuán: tóha
Here Nahuatl again appears to be the odd one out, but in fact Nahuatl istak is cognate to the other Uto-Aztecan words for "white". What happened in Nahuatl is that when a word of the shape CVCV had the accent on the second syllable, then the vowel in the first syllable was weakened to the point of dissappearing - after which an prothetic i- was inserted infront of the consonant cluster: so Nahuatl followed this development: tòsá > tsa > itsa. "Oh, but that gives *itsa and not the desired ista", I hear you object. And you are right, but when the vowel syncope produces a cluster of certain consonants, the two consonants then switch places through a metathesis. This happens particularly with the cluster /ts/ which regularly metathesizes to /st/ after the syncope, perhaps to avoid confusion with the affricate phoneme /ʦ/. (Another example of this syncope with subsequent metathesis is the word for 'cave' ostotl which comes from Uto-Aztecan *tɨso through the process *tɨso > tso > itso > isto > osto). So while the word for salt in Nahuatl is not related to the uto-Aztecan root for salt, the word for white is related and clearly derives from the ancient root *tosa. Nahuatl also has another word derived from the same root, but without syncope and metathesis, namely tīsatl 'chalk'. Here we must assume that the proto language had two versions of *tosa distinguished by the placement of the accent, namely *tòsá "white" and *tósà "chalk" - the accentuated *ó developed into i, while the unaccentuated *ò was weakened and lost, producing the consonant cluster that subsequently underwent metathesis.
On this ground alone, even though it is not a very common process in the world's languages, we can conclude that the noun meaning 'salt' in Nahuatl is derived from the adjective "white", and not the other way round. At some point speakers of Nahuatl stopped referring to salt as 'ona', and instead started calling it "white stuff". And other speakers of Nahuatl liked this new way of talking about salt so much that they all began doing it, and eventually forgot the word 'ona' had ever existed.
This, however, also means that we still have to explain the -k ending, which then cannot really be considered a participial ending, as this would require the root to be verbalized.
Here comes my attempt at an explanation:
Whenever we learn a language, whether as children or adults, the main task is to observe and understand the different patterns of the language in a way that allows us to produce utterances that other speakers will understand. When we hear what others say, they can help us understand by using constructions that we have heard before, and that we can therefore be expected to understand. And when we speak we do the same to allow others to understand us. Irregularities hinder this process, and therefore we tend to over time convert irregular patterns to regular ones. This process is called analogy.
Speakers of Nahuatl have used a set of patterns to help themselves distinguish well between different parts of their language. The final segment of a word tends to give a clear hint to the listener about whether the word is a verb, a noun or something else. Nahuatl has two major open word classes: verbs and nouns (and then some minor closed word classes such as particles, and a small class of true adjectives). Because Nahuatl has very free wordorder, it is helpful to be able to recognize words as nouns or verbs by their phonological form.
Verb stems always end in a vowel, and this vowel is usually a, less frequently i, very rarely o, and never e. Most nouns end with the absolutive suffix that has the most frequent form -tl/-tli. Perfective forms, both verbal and participial (participals of cours ebeing sort of mid-way between verbs and nouns), end with -k or -ki.
In Nahuatl adjectives form an odd word class, since adjectives may be 'verby' either by being derived from verbs or by being participial forms of verbs. Others are 'nouny' and take nominal morphology (for example kwalli 'good' which originated a nominal form of the verb 'eat', and originally meant 'edible'). And yet others are neither verby or nouny (the ones we could call "true adjectives"): for example wēwe 'old', wēyi 'big'. Most adjectives however are verby participials ending in -k or -ki. This ambiguity, where a single class of words is a kind of irregularity that makes it harder for listeners to cognitively process utterances, because there is no overt mark associated with adjectives. This is the kind of situation that can cause processes of analogical change to kick in, by enforcing the dominant pattern on the irregular cases. The dominant pattern is that adjectives end in -k or -ki.
What I propose is therefore that the class of true adjectives was originally unmarked in the Uto-Aztecan languages, as is also the case in most of the languages today. But speakers of Nahuatl began to derive adjectives deverbally as participials creating a huge class of adjectives ending in -k. They then started gradually extending the -k pattern also to those true adjectives that originally ended in a vowel (and therefore looked verby) making them more recognizably adjective.
ista 'white' became istāk
yankwi 'new' became yankwik
yeti 'heavy' became yetik
koko 'spicy' became kokok
xoko 'sour' became xokok
yawi 'blue' became yawik
In processes of analogical change often the most frequently used words are the ones that are the last to become assimilated to the regular pattern. This seems to be exactly what we see in Nahuatl, as wēyi, kwalli and wēwe are among the most frequently used adjectives. Perhaps in the future they will become *wēyik, *kwallik and *wēwek.
It is interesting to think that perhaps istatl is not the only noun derived from an adjective: xokotl 'fruit' might originally have meant "something sour", and yawitl 'blue corn' might originally have meant "something blue". There is no word *kokotl in Nahuatl witha meaning similar to "something spicy" (kokotl in fact means "pimple"), but the word for chile in Corachol and other Southern Uto-Aztecan languages is kukuri where the -ri could well be considered equivalent to the Nahua absolutive suffix -tli. Perhaps Nahuatl used this same word *kokotl or *kokol in the meaning chile, before introducing the word chilli.
The point of it all is a reminder that even though Nahuatl is a language with an insane amount of productive morphology, where derivations can be stacked upon derivations, back and forth between the categories - that does not necessarily mean that everything can be (or should be) explained through synchronic processes and grammatical rules. Even as we strive to accurately describe the different grammatical processes that operate in the Nahuatl language, we must remember that it is not in fact the grammatical rules that determine how people speak, but rather, it is, the ways in which people speak that produce the rules of grammar.