Monday, March 25, 2013

Timpanogos and Numic borrowing

Today’s Ute Word of the Day is nukwi [nuˈkʷi], a verb that means ‘flow, run’. It is typically used to describe running water. I have always thought that the name ‘Timpanogos’ had this word as one of its elements, but now I’m not completely sure (I’m still pretty sure). If ‘Timpanogos’ is in fact from Ute, it would break down as: tïm(-pi) ‘rock’ + pa(a) ‘water’ + nogo-tsï ‘running’, yielding tïmpanogotsï “rock water running”.[1]

The differences between nukwi and nogo are pretty standard Numic stuff. In all of the Numic languages there is some indeterminacy regarding the quality of the vowel found in the first syllable of words like nukwi; sometimes it’s heard as [u], and other times it’s heard as [o]. So the variation between nu- and no- is expected.

The variation between the voiceless stop [k] and the voiced fricative [ɣ] (which I’m writing as g in the practical orthography) is also found in all of the Numic languages and has been grammaticized in some of them as verbal aspect, with one alternant signifying progressive or durative and the other something like momentaneous.

The variation between wi and final o is also not uncommon and is found in Central Numic (Timbisha, Shoshone, Comanche) as well as in Ute. I assume that o is the result of coalescence of wi, so wi should be considered the older form. The w, which really is just lip-rounding on the k, is in turn the result of coarticulation from the preceding u. This means that the form nukwi would have originally been *nuki. Central Numic has just this form (usually written nukki) with the more generic meaning ‘run’.

The suffix -tsï is probably an active participle suffix with a function similar to that of English -ing. It has various forms in Ute: -tï, -rï, and -chï/-tsï, with the latter variant found following a stem-final i. So ‘Timpanogos’ lines up very neatly as a word that comes from Ute.

However, all of its parts are also found in Shoshone (Central Numic). The word for ‘rock’ in Shoshone is tïm(-pi), just as in Ute; the word for ‘water’ is also paa, and the word for ‘run’ is also nukki (as discussed above). Shoshone also has a verbal suffix -tï, with a meaning similar to that of Ute. (The Shoshone -tï doesn’t have -tsï as one of its variants, however.) So the name ‘Timpanogos’ could also claim a Shoshone origin, though the claim isn’t perhaps as strong.[2]

This hints at a larger problem encountered by those of us working with Numic languages. Historically, there was extensive contact between speakers of neighboring Numic languages, and as all historical linguists know, one of the results of contact is borrowing. In this case, it is perfectly reasonable to assume borrowing between Shoshone and Ute. It is well established that the Goshutes, who speak a variety of Shoshone, interacted regularly with the Utes around Utah Lake. But how would we know that such borrowing took place? As I’ve shown above, all of the elements of the name ‘Timpanogos’ are present in Ute and Shoshone. While I think it most likely that ‘Timpanogos’ is a Ute word, I can't be 100% sure. And this isn’t the only case; ask me sometime about Panguitch and sego lilies.

[1] It probably referred to the Provo River rather than the mountain itself, but that’s just my opinion.

[2] One thing strengthening the claim (if only by a little bit) for a Shoshone origin of ‘Timpanogos’ is the fate of syllable-final nasals in Ute. In Ute, syllable-final nasals (like the m in ‘Timpanogos’) were lost; the word for ‘rock’ is actually tïpwi. (The w of tïpwi is the result of coarticulation from ï. Really.) If ‘Timpanogos’ came from Ute, it must have done so before the loss of syllable-final nasals. Alternatively, the word is actually from Shoshone, which has not lost syllable-final nasals.

UPDATE (31 March 2014): I’ve been meaning to get to this update for quite a while now. I was reminded not long after publishing the original post that Northern Ute still retains syllable final nasals that southern Ute varieties have lost, so tïm-pi ‘rock’ is a perfectly reasonable Ute word and pretty much clinches the case for the Ute origin of Timpanogos.

UPDATE 2 (21 August 2014): I was browsing the Domínguez/Escalante journal (edited by Ted J. Warner and translated by Fray Angelico Chavez) this morning and came across the name that the expedition members gave to Utah Valley: Valle de Nuestra Señora de la Merced de los Timpanocuitzis. What was interesting in the context of this blog post was the name ‘Timpanocuitzis’. The verb stem nokwi is clearly visible through the Spanish spelling conventions and provides an extra data point regarding the variation between nogo and nukwi I discussed above.

I love being a linguist.


  1. That's funny that you posted this article yesterday. Just today on a walk home I was wondering about the etymology of the word "Timpanogos." I'm kind of a linguist myself, and have developed an interest recently in Ute, and all the main sources could tell me about the word is that it comes from "timpu" rock and "panogos" canyon. I already knew the word "pa" water so I guess that would make sense. I hope to hear more. Toghoyaqh!