Volume 13, Issue 3
  • ISSN 2210-2116
  • E-ISSN: 2210-2124
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Some North American indigenous languages have names for ‘common nighthawk’ ()’, ‘robin’, and ‘bird’ that are strikingly similar phonetically and have served to advocate long-distance genetic relationships among language families. While the Algonquian proto-form for ‘nighthawk’ has a rather straightforward pedigree, this is not the case for Siouan languages. Despite their phonetic resemblance, the ornithonyms for ‘nighthawk’ in half a dozen Siouan languages are unrelated; some are mimetic innovations and others are borrowed. This article analyses how and why ornithonyms are problematic in the application of the comparative method, a reality that affects the validity of long-distance claims, and offers alternative ways to deal with this issue. While ornithonyms can be inherited and undergo all the regular sound changes (or not) like other words, they are also problematic in many respects. First, they can be onomatopoetic and imitate the cry or call of the bird in question – a feature that accounts for their cross-linguistic similarity. Second, they can undergo mimetic reshaping or become lexically contaminated based on phonetic similarity with other ornithonyms or words with which they are associated culturally. Third and last, they can be borrowed internally or externally. However, despite these comparative pitfalls (i.e., that some phonetically similar forms in a language family are not cognates), the analysis shows that our understanding of ornithological nomenclature can be enhanced by considering elements of ornithology, mythology, ethnographic knowledge, sayings, and puns pertaining to birds.


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  • Article Type: Research Article
Keyword(s): Algonquian; comparative method; onomatopoeia; ornithonyms; Siouan
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