Food related words make for fun etymology, especially in Mesoamerican languages because Mesoamerican food is so delicious. I have previously dealt with the Nahuatl etymologies of the words for salt, avocado, chocolate and cocoa.
In this blog post, I will look at some food words in Nahuan and Coracholan noting what seems to be an intricate web of semantic changes between the languages. The words show changes of meaning that cross between general and specific terms, and between animal- and plant-based foods.
It is a common thing in the world's languages that words for food products shift their meanings to other foods, and that words for general types of food change their meaning to become specific, or words for specific foods become general. This is of course because we have a tendency to think in terms of staple foods, so that the name of whatever kind of food we eat the most tends to become the general term for food , or conversely, we tend to use the general term "food" to refer to the specific kind of food we eat the most (for example in Danish the general word for food "mad" when used as a count noun ("en mad") refers specifically to an open-faced ryebread sandwhich) .
In the history of English and Nordic languages we see for example that the English word "meat" is related to the Nordic word "mat" meaning "food", and that the word "meal" is related to the Nordic word "mel" meaning "flour", and that "flæsk", the Nordic cognate of the English word "flesh", means "pork". When I inquired for similar changes in the Historical linguistics Facebook-group it was pointed out that the Semitic root lħm probably meant "basic food", since the meanings of its modern cognates are "meat" in Arabic, "cow" in EthioSemitic, "fish" in Modern South Arabic [edit: thanks to Whyght], and "bread" in Hebrew.
Now, take a look at these sets of words in Nahuatl and reconstructed Corachol:
nohpalitl "nopal cactus" (Opuntia spp.)
*nakari "nopal cactus"
At first glance we notice that the root *naka looks similar in Nahuan and Corachol. In Nahuatl it refers to meat but also to two kinds of foods that both have an umami-like, meaty taste and texture - namely onions and mushrooms. In Corachol the root refers to another plant with an umami-like meaty taste and texture, namely the nopal cactus. So either, the root naka- originally referred to meat and was then extended to refer to meaty-plants, or else it originally simply meant "meaty food" (the kind that can carry a good meal all by itself) and was then in Nahuatl changed to refer specifically to animal meat. Either of these processes seem plausible.
Knowing a bit about the sound changes that have operated in Nahuan and Corachol we can see one more likely cognate: In Corachol initial w- often comes from a previous *p. And in Nahuatl e often comes from a previous *ai, and initial y- before e often corresponds to a previous *p. Knowing this, we see that Corachol wai "meat" is in fact a potential cognate of Nahuan yetl/etl "beans". No good etymology has been proposed for the Nahuatl root ye/e "beans" and Nahuan is alone among the Southern Uto-Aztecan languages in not having a cognate of the root *muni "beans". So here it seems as if Nahuatl has changed a word *pai (or *pa'i) previously meaning "meat" to meaning instead "beans", and dropping the original word for beans altogether. The semantic change from "meat" to "beans" may seem implausible at first, but I swear if you ever taste a thick, salty broth of ayocote beans the umami is so strong that you will be willing to bet there is bacon in there.
The Corachol root for mushroom *yekwáh seems related to the Uto-Aztecan root *pakuwa "mushroom" (reconstructed by Stubbs for Numic, Tepiman, Tarahumaran and Cahita). But we don't usually get the reflex y from PUA *p in Coracholan - only Nahuan seems to have y from *p. So maybe this word was loaned into Coracholan from Nahuan (where yekwa would be the expected reflex of *pakuwa, with the intermediate stage *yakɨwa), and then subsequently the root was swapped for nanakatl in Nahuan! (this is admittedly speculative, but the pattern fits).
This would make a scheme of semantic changes something like this:
|Model 1. Red is proto-forms, blue is Nahuan, and purple is Coracholan. It looks like Corachol is conservative and Nahuan innovative. (Photos from wikicommons https://commons.wikimedia.org.)|
But there is an alternative that may be preferable, because in the Northern Uto-Aztecan language group Numic naka- is the name of the bighorn sheep (which is presumably tasty). So perhaps the original meaning of naka was "bighorn sheep" which then in Southern Uto-Aztecan became "meat" which in Nahuatl and Corachol was extended to "meaty plants" and then in Corachol was fixed as "nopal".
And guess what? It turns out that wai "meat" in Corachol (and yetl "bean in Nahuatl") which must have come from something like *pa'i, may also originally have referred to bighorn sheep (Stubbs reconstructs *pa'a)!
But it is also possible that the original meaning of naka- was "meaty umami-tasting food", which for the Northern Uto-Aztecan hunter-gatherers came to refer proto-typically to the bighorn sheep, and came to refer to meat in Nahuan (but kept its connotation of meatiness in the words for onion and mushroom), and that it separately came to refer to the nopal cactus among the desert-dwelling Coracholan nomads.
|Model 3. Here the original meaning of naka is assumed to have been meat and meaty food, and Numic (in green) is assumed to have changed this to bighorn sheep.|
Interestingly, I have been able to observe a semantic change like this in process in Nahuatl: A couple of years ago when I was working in the Zongolica region a Nahuatl-speaking friend of mine pointed out that he was annoyed at how some people in the region had started using the word to:chin "rabbit" in the meaning "meat". He made fun of how they would for example say "tochin de puerco" (i.e. literally "rabbit of pig" ) in the meaning "pork".
Am I the only one who could eat a grilled bighorn sheep with mushrooms, onions, and beans right about now?