mandag den 29. marts 2021

Something fishy about michis and topotes

A catfish, a moustache, 
Courbet's L'Origine du Monde,
and a feline.
What do they have in common

This blogpost explores the origin of the Nahua word(s) for "fish". It is well known that the general nahua word for "fish" is michin. The root mich- is for example found in the name of the state Michoacán, meaning "place of fish-owners", likely referring to the P'urhépecha fishing traditions in lakes Pátzcuaro and Cuitzeo. 

*Tepo: A Southern Uto-Aztecan word for fish

But michin is not the only word for "fish" in Nahuan. Certain Nahuan varieties have a different root in that meaning - namely those spoken in southern Veracruz state: In Mecayapan the general word for fish is toopoh, in Zaragoza it is tupuh.  This form has generally been explained as a loanword from the language called Sierra Popoluca, Zoque de Soteapan or Soteapanec, a language of the Mixe-Zoque family spoken i a town few kilometers from Mecayapan. In Soteapan Zoque the word for fish is tɨɨpɨ. People from Mecayapan are known to have close relations with the Zoque-speakers of Soteapan, and Mecayapan Nahuatl does have some significant signs of contact influence from Zoque (for example it has an inclusive/exclusive distinction in the first person plural, found in Soteapan Zoque, but not in any other Nahuan variety). The Nahua word also looks like a borrowing, in Nahuan languages the majority of nouns take the absolutive suffix -tl or -tli, but toopoh is part of a small class of nouns that do not take the absolutie suffix (this class is larger in Eastern Nahua than in Western Nahua). Some scholars have also argued that all Nahua words with *p are likely borrowings since UA *p tends to become lost in Nahuan (though this is not correct when you look at the details). So it would make complete sense if Nahua speakers of Mecayapan had borrowed the word for fish from their Zoque speaking neighbors. 

But I don't think they have. I think the borrowing went the other direction from Nahua to Soteapan Zoque. The reason is this: There are no clear cognates of the Soteapanec word in other Mixe-Zoque languages, but there are cognates in other Uto-Aztecan languages.  

Within the Mixe-Zoque family, the oldest word for fish is the one that has been reconstructed as *ʔaksa. But this seems to have primarily kept in the Mixean languages, whereas the Zoquean languages seem to have several different words for fish. 

Mixe-Zoque: *ʔaksa - fish
Mixe: ʔahkʃ - fish
Soteapanec Zoque (Popoluca): tɨɨpɨ - fish
Zoque de Chiapas: punu - fish
Zoque de Texistepec - wo'n
Zoque de Chimalapa - koke
Oluta Mixe - ko'ke

As seen above, Soteapanec is alone with the root tɨɨpɨ, though perhaps the pu syllable in the Chiapas Zoque word punu could related to the -pɨ part, and the Texistepec word wo'n could be related to punu. 

But in Uto-Aztecan languages we see the following forms, that appear cognate:

Tubar: tepó - catfish
Southeastern Tepehuan: batoop - fish
Mecayapan Nahua: toopoh - fish
Zaragoza Nawa: tupuh - fish
Colonial Nahuatl: topohtli - Poecilia spp small fat freshwater fish

Tubar was spoken untill around 1900 in the Northwestern state of Chichuahua, very far from speakers of Mixe-Zoque languages. Southeastern Tepehuán is spoken in southern Durango, also very far away, in Tepehuán we can explain the form as derived from the prefix ba- "water" and a root toopo "fish" - since tepehuán languages often drop the final vowel in Uto-Aztecan forms with the shape CVCV. We also see a form in classical Nahuatl recorded by Sahagún in the Florentine codex (book 11 fol 66): the fish topohtli is described as a small fat freshwater fish. The name topohtli has entered Mexican Spanish as topote, a fish that is appreciated for its culinary value, but now unfortunately endangered. Topohtli may refer to species of Poecilia and perhaps also Dorosoma petenense. Based on the presence of the root in Tepehuán and Tubar we would be justified in reconstructing it for Southern Uto-Aztecan. I would suggest reconstucting as *tepó, identical to the Tubar form, since Eastern Nahua frequently assimilates a vowel e in penultimate syllables to harmonize with the vowel in the subsequent syllable giving topo as the expected reflex of *tepo. Topotli in colonial central Nahuatl looks like it has been a loan from eastern Nahuatl, into classical Nahuatl. 

Several Uto-Aztecan languages (perhaps including Nahua) will lengthen a vowel that is is in the penultimate syllable when the final syllable is stressed. The meaning may have been simply "fish", then applied specifically to catfish (often seen as a proto-typical or abundant fish) in Tubar, and to small abundant edible fishes in Eastern Nahua. So we should probably also reconstruct *tepoh as "fish" in proto-Nahua, and *topoh as fish in proto-Eastern Nahua. 

Florentine Codex Book 11 fol. 66

*musi - a Southern Uto-Aztecan word for ....what exactly?

So what about michin? What is the origin of this word for fish? 

It has a solid Uto-Aztecan etymology, since in several Uto-Aztecan languages of North-western Mexico a related word means "catfish". In Huichol/Wixárika the word is mɨxí "catfish", musít "catfish" in Eudeve , muusí "catfish" in Tarahumara. So here we have a solid relation between the Nahua word and words meaning catfish. So maybe the original meaning of the Nahuatl word michi was catfish too and tepo was fish, and then the tepo was gradually lost and michi became the general root for fish. 

But there is also another set of words that look like cognates to me they mean "moustache": Cora: mɨɨsí "moustache", Huichol mɨxíya "have a moustache",  Tubar himusír "beard". Corachol ɨ regularly reflects PSUA *u. The reason a catfish is called a "catfish" in English is of course exactly because it has "whiskers" or a moustache. The technical term for the Catfish's moustache is "barbel", of course related to the romance word for beard. Stubbs (2011) finds related forms meaning "beard" and "moustache" in Northern Uto-Aztecan languages as well, and he analyzes the word as having come from a combination of two roots: *mu- "mouth" and *suwi/*tsomi "hair". It seems clear that if we accept that analysis, already in proto-Southern Uto-Aztecan these elements had fused into a single root meaning "facial hair". 

But there is also a third set of terms, I consider likely to be related: Warihío: muhtsí "vagina"
Tohono O'odham muhs "vagina", Tarahumara muchí "vagina". Now, I have to admit that this could very well be considered another root entirely, a case of near homonymy, but there is a specific reason I don't. In Nahuatl, as she is spoken in the everyday usage, it is not uncommon to hear the words mistli "cat" or michin "fish" as euphemisms or slang terms for vaginas and vulvas. I don't think this usage is an historical pattern necessarily, but it does suggest a latent semantic or conceptual link between furry, whiskered animals, fish, and female genitals (think also of "pussy").

In these words, we see different forms of the sibilant *s some of them are affricated to *ts (and palatalized as Nahua ch). I believe that the UA sibilant had fortis and lenis variants, and that the fortis variant was realized as an affricate *ts. The fortis variant was found in syllables that carried the accent, but sometimes it remained in place after the accent had shifted. In this way *musí became corachol-nahua mɨtsí, when the pre-Nahua accent system reorganized itself the accent shifted to the first syllable, and the final syllable which was now weak dropped the final vowel and became mich. I believe that the blogger Ayac is correct in their suggestion that the -in absolutive suffix is a reflex of an old collective plural suffix (so fish were a substance encountered naturally in the plural). 

And finally, there is a fourth (smaller) set of potentially related terms, mean "feline": Nahuatl mistli, "cougar" and misto:n  "small feline", and Hopi: moosa "cat", which some consider a potential borrowing (Hill 1997). Hopi /o/ frequently corresponds to PSUA *u and Nahua /i/. We can see that the Nahuatl root mis- likely have had a as the final vowel, because if it were an *i, it should have palatalized when the final vowel was dropped. So this could be considered evidence that the "cat" root should be reconstructed as *músa, and not muusí. But this does not definitively preclude a relations, since the stress shift and the difference in vowel could be a derivational process. But we should probably consider the relation of this set to the other terms, quite tentative. 

And as a tiny post-scriptum, we might also add the Nahuatl word kimichin "mouse". I have always wondered why the word for mouse seemingly incorporates the word for "fish", but remembering that mice, like catfish and cats, have whiskers - it made more sense. Though, I still wonder what the ki- part is - maybe a cognate of the Uto-Aztecan word for "house" (which is otherwise not found in Nahuatl). 
A whiskered house rodent - kimichin.

PSUA *musí - moustache / 
Tarahumara (Norogachi/Brambila): muusí - catfish 
Ópata/Eudeve: musít - catfish
Huichol: mɨxí - catfish
Nahuatl: michin - fish
Cora: mɨɨsí - moustache
Huichol: mɨxíya - "have a moustache"
Tubar: himusír - beard
Warihío: muhtsí - vagina
Tohono O'odham: muhs - vagina
Tarahumara (Norogachi/Brambila): muchí - vagina

PUA: músa "cougar"
Nahuatl: mistli - feline
Hopi: moosa - feline

Nahuatl: kimichin - mouse