[ Magnus Pharao Hansen ]
| guest column |
I recently encountered a surprising claim in a book called “Our Sacred Maíz Is Our Mother: Indigeneity and Belonging in the Americas“, by Roberto Cintli Rodriguez. The claim is that Nahuatl and Hopi are so closely related that people who speak one will also be able to understand the other.
Rodríguez notes that this claim is contrary to everything linguists would have to say about the relation between the two languages, but states that a Nahuatl speaker he calls Maestra Cobb has talked about an experience when she was able to understand words spoken in Hopi by Hopi elders. While no linguist can of course say that his Mtra. Cobb is wrong about her own experience, we can certainly suggest that if it is true it is such an exceptionally odd occurrence that it would normally require more than anecdotal evidence for others to accept.
From a linguistic point of view, the claim is similar to an English speaker stating that she understood spoken Greek without having ever heard the language before. The saying “it’s all Greek to me”, is meaningful exactly because this does not usually happen (that is ever). The distance between Nahuatl and Hopi, whether measured in miles between the two current speech communities, or in years since the last common ancestor, is about the same as the distance between English and Greek. The father of empiricism, David Hume once wrote that “”A wise man … proportions his belief to the evidence” (repeated by Carl Sagan as “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”).
In the following I will compare Nahuatl and Hopi to demonstrate just how extraordinary the claim made by Rodríguez’ and Mtra. Cobb is. Since, I don’t know Hopi myself, I will take phrases and words from Milo Kalectaca and Robert Langacker’s 1978 “Lessons in Hopi” and compare them to their Nahuatl equivalents.
Lets start with 10 basic vocabulary items:
Of these ten only two are close enough that a person knowing the word in either Hopi or Nahuatl might reasonably be expected to guess the meaning of the word in the other languages: “I” and “man”. Of the other words, four more are in fact related (“moon”, “corn”, “water”, “star”), but are so far from each other in sound that it would be very surprising if someone was able to guess the meaning of the related word in the other language. The last 4, are not related at all but come from separate roots: probably for these one of the languages language borrowed their terms from another unrelated language.
Now lets compare actual sentences: The grammar of the two languages is also very different.
“What is your name”:
Hopi: Um hin maatsiwa? (literally: “you how be.named”)
Nahuatl: kenin timotoka? (literally “how you.name.yourself”)
Here, Hopi has three words, Nahuatl has two, the only words that seem related arethe words for “how” – but I am not in fact sure they are. Certainly a person speaking one language but asked in another, would only be able to guess the meaning from the context, in the same way that we might guess that someone speaking a foreign language is presenting themselves if we see them shaking hands and saying the same thing to various people. One would be understanding the context, but not the words (this is of course how we all learn our first language, without a dictionary).
“She is eating”
Hopi: Pam tuumoyta (literally. he/she/it is.eating)
Nahuatl: (yeh) tlakwa (literally. he/she/it something-eat)
Here we see that neither the third person singular pronoun or the verb “to eat” seem related. In Nahuatl the pronoun can be omitted, but in Hopi it cannot.
Here we see another very big difference between Hopi and Nahuatl:
maana tiyot tsotsoona “the girl kisses the boy”
girl boy kisses
tiyo maanat tsotsoona “the boy kisses the girl”
boy girl kisses
In Hopi the subject of the sentence usually comes first, the object second and the verb last. Nouns have a special object-form, (the ending in -t) that makes it possible to see if a noun is object in a sentence.
In Nahuatl the same sentence can be said in any of the following ways:
kipitsoa in piltontli in ichpokatl
kisses.it the boy the girl
kipitsoa in ichpokatl in piltontli
kisses.it the girl the boy
in ichpokatl kipitsoa in piltontli
the girl kisses.it the boy
in piltontli kipitsoa in ichpokatl
the boy kisses.it the girl
in piltontli in ichpokatl kipitsoa
the boy the girl kisses.it
But regardles of the order of the elements in the sentence the sentence can mean either “the boy kisses the girl” or “the girl kisses the boy”. The order of the words is irrelevant, and there is no specific object or subject form on the nouns that lets us see what role the noun has in the sentence. Only intonation and context allows us to decide whether the sentence means that the boy or the girl does the kissing. Also, the Nahuatl verb has the prefix ki– which marks that the object is third person singular, i.e. “he/she/it”. This is a very big difference in the way that the grammar of the two languages works: Hopi is a language with fixed word order and grammatical case marking on nouns, Nahuatl is a language with free word order and grammatical marking on verbs. Additionally of course, none of the words in this sentence are related or even look like each other.
The last example I will give is:
“I see you”
Hopi: na ung tuwa
Here Hopi has three words and Nahuatl has one, and in fact two of the elements are related the verb for “to see” in Hopi is tuwa and in Nahuatl itta – but they are in fact related; and the word for “I” in Hopi na, is in fact related to the Nahuatl prefix for the first person subject ni-. But even though the elements are related, I have a very hard time imagining that any Nahuatl speaker or Hopi speaker will be able to understand the meaning of the word in the opposite language.
So I would say that while Rodríguez’ friend Mtra. Cobb may have been able to guess the meaning of a sentence in Hopi, or perhaps have heard some words of Hopi before that allowed her to understand some parts of a sentence, it seems highly unlikely that she would – and even more unlikely that a random Nahuatl speaker would be able to understand a random Hopi speaker, much less to converse.
But in the end it is of course an empirical question that can only be answered by carrying out the experiment.
I have always wanted to go visit Hopi, and I have Nahua friends who I am sure will be happy to come with me to meet their distant cousins up there.
* This column originally appeared on the blog of Dr. Magnus Pharao Hansen. It is reprinted here with permission.
Dr. Hansen is an anthropologist and linguist with a broad set of interests in what it means to be human – including language, culture, history, politics and evolution and how they interrelate.
In his research, Dr. Hansen studies the indigenous languages and cultures of Mexico and their history and the relation between lives, language and politics. His 2016 dissertation “Nahuatl Nation“, was about the political roles of the Nahuatl language in Mexico and beyond. His current research project studies the uses of Nahuatl among Mexican-Americans and Chicanos in the US Southwest and how it relates history and cultural heritage to ideas of race and genetic ancestry.
Follow Dr. Hansen’s blog “Nawatl Scholar”
Interested in Indigenous Mexican languages? Check out “Totacho: Our Way Of Talking” available on Amazon.com. In it, I detail the major influence that the Nawatl language has had on the “Spanish” spoken by Chicanos and Chicanas in the Southwest.