Folk etymologies in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a great place for the collection of folk etymologies. If you are interested in toponomy (the study of the history of place names) and unusual explanations and myths surrounding place names, then Ethiopia could become your field of research.

Let me first say a word on the term “folk etymology”, as it is understood in the linguistic literature. I quote here a definition by Laurie Bauer:

‘Folk etymology’ or ‘popular etymology’ is the name given to a process of reanalysis. Speakers of a language, expecting their words to be partly motivated, find in them elements which they perceive as motivating the word, even where these elements have no historical presence. (1)

In folk etymology, speakers make a guess about the history of a word because they see a similarity (in sound and meaning) to some other word they know.

An example from English is the word crayfish, which goes back to the Old French word escrevisse (Modern French: écrevisse) (2). When the word was borrowed from French, English speakers interpreted the second part of the word …visse as meaning fish (and it was then also pronounced this way). This (wrong) interpretation was facilitated by the similarity of the sounds but also by a perceived similarity in meaning (escrevisse and fish both refer to animals in the water). Another example for a folk etymology is the reinterpretation of hamburger, which originates in the German word Hamburger ‘someone/something from Hamburg’ (i.e. Hamburg + -er). Although hamburgers are not made of ham, English speakers interpreted the word as consisting of ham plus burger and then created words such as cheeseburger, veggie burger etc. in analogy (3).

Let me now turn to some Ethiopian folk etymologies, more precisely, to examples from the Kambaata and the Baskeet area in South Ethiopia. While the European examples given above were (re-)interpretations of loanwords, it is the (re-)interpretation of place names that seems to be very common in Ethiopia.

A Kambaata example

I came across my first unusual folk etymology when I started to work on (and in) Kambaata in 2002. One of the first things that was explained to me (after the explanations about the origin of the eucalyptus tree and the differences between bananas and enset plants (4)) was the etymology of the name Hambarrichcho. Mt. Hambarrichcho, alternatively pronounced as Mt. Ambarrichcho, is a mountain massif in the centre of Kambaata.

The Hambarrichcho massif in Kambaata

The Hambarrichcho massif in Kambaata

People interpreted the name of the mountain as originating from the phrase ambar ichcho ‘the bracelet has eaten (it)’, which consists of the Amharic word ambar ‘bracelet’ and the Kambaata verb ichcho ‘it has eaten’.

The story of how this mixed Amharic-Kambaata phrase came to be the name of the mountain is roughly as follows (I don’t remember the exact details!): A king living on Mt. Hambarrichcho married a virgin who was quite thin. She was then fed very well and when she came bigger and bigger, a metal bracelet (ambar) that she wore and never took off started to cut deeper and deeper into her wrist. One day an Amhara man (the tax collector?) came to Mt. Hambarrichcho, saw the woman’s deformed arm and pointed at it. She told him: ambar ichcho ‘the bracelet has eaten (it)’. And the Amhara used (interpreted?) this phrase as the name of the mountain and consequently, the Kambaata referred to it in this way.

I was confused about this weird story. That didn’t make sense!! First I questioned the logic of the story: Why should an Amhara person name the most important mountain in Kambaata and why should the early Kambaata not have had a name for it? Where is the semantic connection between an “eating” bracelet and a huge mountain? Then I tried to explain why this etymology didn’t make sense from a linguistic point of view. But my arguments were of no avail! The Kambaata people I talked to defended their folk etymology with great fervour (5). And finally I gave in.

[Non-linguistic readers, please feel free to skip the next paragraph:] Here are some linguistic arguments (morphological arguments) why the etymology is not plausible: (i) The element –ichch in Hambarrichcho is a singulative morpheme, i.e. an element that encodes that a noun has explicit singular reference; see, for instance, Kambaata ‘Kambaata people’ > Kambaatichchu ‘(one) Kambaata man’, woshata ‘dogs’ > woshichchu ‘(one) dog’. The singulative morpheme is also found in some other Kambaata place names, e.g. Shiinshichcho. (ii) The final vowel –o in Hambarrichcho is a vocative case morpheme, i.e. an element that marks a noun has an address form/citation form/name. The name of the mountain can be inflected like all other nouns in the language and marked for eight different case forms: as the subject of the sentence it become Hambarrichch-ut (e.g. Hambarrichchut abbata ‘Mt Hambarrichcho is big’), as the object of the sentence it becomes Hambarrichch-uta (e.g. Hambarrichchuta xuujjoomm ‘I have seen Mt. Hambarrichcho’), as the source noun in a sentence it becomes Hambarrichch-oochch (e.g. Hambarrichchoochch fanqalloomm ‘I returned from Mt. Hambarrichcho’) etc. (iii) Although Kambaata can combine nouns and verbs to form names (e.g. Salfaago (male name) < salfa ‘row’ plus aag– ‘enter’ plus vocative –o), the input of these complex names are nominal and verbal stems like it– ‘eat’, not full verb forms like ichcho ‘it has eaten’. (6)

I didn’t pay much attention to the folk etymology of Hambarrichcho until I started to work on (and in) Baskeet.

Three Baskeet examples

In Baskeet, I also encountered folk etymologies about different place names, most notably about the origin of the word Baskeet itself. Baskeet speakers see a historical relation between the word baskit (tone LH) and baskeet (tone HH). Baskit is the name for a sorghum variety with white seeds.

When I heard this folk etymology, I tried to talk my consultants out of it (I can already see you anthropologist readers cringe …). But like the Kambaata speakers couldn’t be convinced that their Hambarrichcho-etymology was not very likely, the Baskeet speakers also didn’t see any problem with their folk etymology of Baskeet. On the contrary, they defended it with fervour.

The first question that I asked myself was: why would any group choose to be called after a random variety of sorghum? Sorghum is an important plant in Baskeet – but not more important than e.g. barley, both from an economic and a religious point of view. And baskit is just one variety of sorghum (mos) but not even the most significant or emblematic variety. From a linguistic point of view, the etymology did not strike me as very plausible either. There is an important difference in the tone pattern (Baskeet HH vs. baskit LH) and in vowel length (i vs. ee). Rather than relating Baskeet to a sorghum variety, I venture the hypothesis that there might be a historical relation to the words bas (H) ‘bush’ and keetts-i (LH) ‘house’. – Of course, this hypothesis also remains speculative.

Interestingly, some weeks ago when I was researching the terms used to refer to Baskeet in the literature, I found out that another linguistic had been presented the same etymology when she worked on Baskeet in the 1990s:

“… the native speakers identify themselves as Basketo, claiming that this was originally the name of a kind of sorghum which is typical of the area.” (Azeb 1995: 1) (emphasis mine) (6)

The baskit/Baskeet-etymology is thus definitely not an explanation that was triggered by my pestering questions – what a relief ;-)

Another folk etymology presented to me concerns the origin of Laska (tone LH), i.e. the name of the administrative centre of the Basketo Special Woreda.


The town of Laska

According to native speakers, the name of the town is related to the verb lask– ‘mow down, kill in large numbers’. The Laska settlement is said to have received its name after a massacre in the area. I couldn’t find out what the circumstances of this massacre were nor when it took place and I am inclined to interpret this etymology also as an ad-hoc etymology just motivated by the phonological similarity of the place name and the verb ‘mow down, kill in large numbers’.

The third Baskeet example that I’d like to present is a river name. At the border between Baskeet and Gayl (i.e. the Galila Woreda of the South Omo Zone) there is a small river called Iginto (tone LHL). The origin of the river name is said to go back to a border conflict between the Baskeet and the Gayl people. When the conflict was resolved and the people said nu igintisto ‘let us make peace, let us be reconciled’ (igint– (tone LL) ‘make peace, be reconciled’), the name of the river separating the two countries is said to have become Iginto (8).

What makes folk etymologies so popular in Ethiopia?

I am really puzzled by the heated discussions I had with native speakers about the historical origin of place names. It seemed very important for them to stress (and convince me) that their explanations were historical truths and shared knowledge of the speech community. (I, of course, felt challenged and tried to present linguistic counterarguments that weren’t that convincing either.)

I would really like to know why place name etymology is such an important topic in Ethiopia (in South Ethiopia, at least) (in Kambaata and Baskeet, at the very least).

At present, I can only speculate about the reasons:

1. Could the folk etymology of place names be linked to the general Ethiopian tendency to attribute meanings to names and to choose (e.g. personal) names according to their meaning? Ethiopian personal names in many regions of the country have a translation that is transparent. Thus a typical conversation between an Ethiopian (ETH) and a European (EUR) in Ethiopia may go like this:

(ETH:) What is your name?
(EUR:) Yvonne.
(ETH:) What does it mean?
(EUR:) Nothing, it’s a name.
(ETH:) But your name MUST have a meaning!
(EUR:) No, it doesn’t. It’s just a name. It does not have a translation. At least in the modern language. (If you are a linguist, you try to elaborate a bit at this point.)
(ETH:) But why did your parents chose this name?
(EUR:) Because it sounded nice to them. / Because it was the name of my auntie. / Because I was born at a time when French names were fashionable.
(ETH:) (In despair:) But what is its translation!?

2. Could the transparent etymology of the name of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa (“New flower”), and other towns (e.g. Nazret named after the biblical Nazareth, Bahir Dar lit. “sea shore”) have motivated the search for etymologies of place names elsewhere in the country?

I am tempted not to interpret the establishment of an etymology as a way to establish (or demonstrate) ownership of an area because many places are not given an indigenous etymology but, for instance, an Amharic etymology. At the present moment, I am inclined to believe that reason 2, the transparent etymology of prominent Ethiopian towns, could be an important motivation to search for place name etymologies elsewhere in the country.

Feedback wanted

I have the (admittedly not quantifiable) impression that unusual stories about the etymology of place names and ethnonyms are very widespread all over Ethiopia. I hope there are some people (linguists, anthropologists, historians) out there working in Ethiopia that have some folk etymologies to share with me. Or if you are a native speaker of an Ethiopian language, let me know some folk etymologies from your area. Don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!

© Baskettoethiopia 2012
(1) Source: Bauer, L. (2006). Folk etymology. In: Brown, K. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics (2nd ed.). Vol. 3: 520f. Oxford: Elsevier.
(2) Example taken from Wikipedia.
(3) Example taken from Campbell, L. & M.J. Mixco 2007. A glossary of historical linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. P. 65.
(4) Here I have to send a greeting to my colleague Trudel! During our fieldworks, the origin of the eucalyptus and the difference between bananas and enset plants were explained to us sooo often that we wished to have (and wear) T-shirts saying “Yes, we KNOW that the eucalyptus was imported from Australia” and “Yes, we CAN distinguish between bananas and enset plants”. If nobody has taught you about eucalyptus trees and enset plants, PLEASE DON’T ASK US. Read this (or this scientific article) and this.
(5) In the meantime I have also come across Kambaata speakers who believe this etymology to be just a nice story but not as reflecting the real history of the place name.
(6) I am only aware of one single Kambaata compound noun for which (part of) an inflected verb form was the input.
(7) Source: Azeb Amha (1995). Case in Basketo. African Languages and Cultures 8, 1: 1-17.
(8) Note the tonal difference of the stems: Igínt-o (LH-) vs. igint– (LL-) ‘be reconciled’.


Update (6 June 2012)

I have just come across another etymology for the ethnonym Baskeet/Basketo in the literature. Roberto Sottile writes in his 2005 article (‘Definiteness, case and syntactic function in Basketo’):

According to the etymology proposed by Mettachew Fulaso – one of my language helpers – the name of the ethnic group and language derives from bas ‘forest’ < *bazz ‘uncultivated field/forest’ and *ket ‘house’ (cf. the Basketo noun keettsí ‘house’) literally meaning ‘forest house’. In this sense that term would seem to refer to the fact that apparently the ancestors of the Basketo originally settled over an area completely covered with forest vegetation and therefore they would have been indicated by their neighbours [sic!] as “the ones with the forest home” / “the forest dwellers”. (Sottile 2005: 177)

While this etymology seems much more appealing to me than the sorghum-etymology mentioned above, it is also problematic. Firstly, it remains unclear which reconstructions the starred forms (*bazz and *ket) are. Secondly, if the ethnonym goes back to Baskeet words, why should it have originated in a term used by the neighbours!? Thirdly, the second part of the word Bas-keet (H-H) cannot directly go back to the stem of keetts ‘house’ (L-H). Note the difference between t and tts (difference in manner of articulation and consonant length) and the tonal difference (H vs. L). One would have to find evidence for similar historical sound changes in other lexemes to back up this etymology.

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