Reduplicated Algonquian Dinosaur Names
by G. A. Custer IV
Greasy Grass University
Frequently overlooked in Algonquian studies are Proto-Algonquian (PA) words referring to dinosaurs. This omission is chiefly due no doubt to the radical semantic shifts which this set of words has undergone in most of the Algonquian daughters; as a consequence, they are seldom even recognized for what they are. However, Bow-Legged Ojibwa (BLO) preserves these words as they apparently were in PA. Several terms unequivocally referring to dinosaurs were elicited from BLO informants while watching Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and sequels, in the context of the author’s eliciting BLO words for large animals generally. Given that BLO is an isolated and semantically conservative Algonquian dialect, we reconstruct for PA the dinosaur words of BLO; the table below gives BLO forms, forms and meanings of cognates in Fox, and finally PA reconstructions and meanings in BLO and PA.
| BLO Form
|| Fox Form
|| Fox Meaning
|| PA Form
|| BLO/PA Meaning|
|| ‘horned owl’
|| ‘pileated woodpecker’
|| ‘male tyrannosaurus rex’|
|| ‘ruffled goose’
Fox can be taken as representative of the semantic changes that the PA dinosaur words have undergone in the Central languages; the New England languages have replaced most of these terms, likely at the Proto-Eastern Algonquian stage, and comparative work in this regard has not yet concluded on the Western languages.
It is noteworthy that each and every PA form referring to dinosaurs shows reduplication; thus, it must be recognized that, in addition to well-known uses for showing pluralization, repetition and intensification, reduplication in Algonquian seemingly likewise serves a further function in the formation of specifically dinosaur names. The reduplication consists, in each case, of prefixing the stem syllable (either CV or CVC) to itself, schematically:
CV(C) → CV(C) + CV(C)
The reduplicated form is then followed by the usual -w- stem-former element and the -a ending for animate third person nominals. In the word for ‘male tyrannosaurus rex’, however, -w- is omitted; and in the first and sixth forms a connective -i- appears between the stem and the nominal ending.
From the above data we can mine the following root elements, and assign to them the following meanings in pre-PA:
ši:ʔ- ‘male tyrannosaurus rex’
The primary question, for comparative purposes, is whether or not these root elements had any meaning prior to the dinosaur names themselves. Several, such as ka:k- and ke:h-, suggest onomatopoeia or imitation of the vocalizations that the respective animals must have made. Others are perhaps related to known Algonquian roots. Pask-, e.g., as an alternation of PA root pašk- ‘burst’ may well refer to the dilophosaur’s habit of mercilessly spitting venom at its victim. Likewise, me:-, viewed as an augmentation of me- ‘hit, strike’, perhaps references the custom of the triceratops in charging its opponent with its great horns. Such analysis also may shed light on some of the frankly baffling semantic shifts that the PA dinosaur words underwent in Fox and other Central languages: if we take, e.g., a dilophosaurus to be an animal associated with bursting or spitting (root pašk-, noun stem paspaskiw-), then it is no great stretch to imagine how such a word might become applied to the ruffled goose, whose noisy and rapid emergence from the underbrush would have been well-known to speakers.
A secondary question concerning the time-depth for PA emerges, too: shall we push back the customary depth of PA to c. 65 million B.C.E., or shall we assume that certain species of dinosaurs survived in North America until at least 3000 years ago, the reputed depth of PA? The former seems unthinkable: the Algonquian daughters, even the divergent Western languages, are simply too close to one another to be 65 million years old. This option would require the most severe revision of our current theories about linguistic evolution in general and Algonquian in particular; many venerable reputations would be destroyed. Rather, we think that the second option must surely be the case; and given van der Fort’s recent discovery of remnant sauropods in the Amazon,1 we are even more confident in this conclusion.
1 van der Fort, J. S. S., “Mokele-Mbembe of the Americas: the Language of the Sauropod Dinosaur Family of the Ucayali River Basin,” in Biological Linguistics 25.189-272 (2010).