Etymology of Words from Gestures – Sign Language

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There can be no attempt in the present limits to trace the etymology of any large number of words in the several Indian languages to a gestural origin, nor, if the space allowed, would it be satisfactory. The signs have scarcely yet been collected, verified, and collated in sufficient numbers for such comparison, even with the few of the Indian languages the radicals of which have been scientifically studied. The signs will, in a future work, be frequently presented in connection with the corresponding words of the gesturers, as is done now in a few instances in another part of this paper. For the present the subject is only indicated by the following examples, introduced to suggest the character of the study in which the students of American linguistics are urgently requested to assist:

The Dakota word Shante-suta—from shante, heart, and suta, strong—brave, not cowardly, literally strong-hearted, is made by several tribes of that stock, and particularly by the Brulé Sioux, in gestures by collecting the tips of the fingers and thumb of the right hand to a point, and then placing the radial side of the hand over the heart, finger tips pointing downward—heart; then place the left fist, palm inward, horizontally before the lower portion of the breast, the right fist back of the left, then raise the right and throw it forcibly over and downward in front of the left—brave, strong. See Fig. 242, page 415.

The Arikaras make the sign for brave by striking the clinched fist forcibly toward the ground in front of and near the breast.

Brave, or “strong-hearted,” is made by the Absaroka, Shoshoni, and Banak Indians by merely placing the clinched fist to the breast, the latter having allusion to the heart, the clinching of the hand to strength, vigor, or force.

An Ojibwa sign for death, to die, is as follows:

Place the palm of the hand at a short distance from the side of the head, then withdraw it gently in an oblique downward direction, inclining the head and upper part of the body in the same direction.

The same authority, The Very Rev. E. Jacker, who contributes it, notes that there is an apparent connection between this conception and execution and the etymology of the corresponding terms in Ojibwa. “He dies,” is nibo; “he sleeps,” is niba. The common idea expressed by the gesture is a sinking to rest. The original significance of the root nib seems to be “leaning;” anibeia, “it is leaning”; anibekweni, “he inclines the head sidewards.” The word niba or nibe (only in compounds) conveys the idea of “night,” perhaps as the falling over, the going to rest, or the death of the day.

Ogima, the Ojibwa term for chief, is derived from a root which signifies “above” (Ogidjaii, upon; ogidjina, above; ogidaki, on a hill or mountain, etc.). Ogitchida, a brave, a hero (Otawa, ogida), is probably from the same root.

Sagima, the Ojibwa form of sachem, is from the root sag, which implies a coming forth, or stretching out. These roots are to be considered in connection with several gestures described under the head of Chief, in Extracts from Dictionary, infra.

Onijishin, it is good (Ojibwa), originally signifies “it lies level.” This may be compared with the sign for good, in the Tendoy-Huerito Dialogue, Fig. 309, page 487, and also that for happy, contentment, in the Speech of Kin Chē­ĕss, page 523.

In Klamath the radix lam designates a whirling motion, and appears in the word láma, “to be crazy, mad,” readily correlated with the common gesture for madman and fool, in which the hand is rotated above and near the head.

Evening, in Klamath, is litkhí, from luta, to hang down, meaning the time when the sun hangs down, the gesture for which, described elsewhere in this paper (see Nátci’s Narrative, page 503), is executive of the same conception, which is allied to the etymology usually given for eve, even, “the decline of the day.” These Klamath etymologies have been kindly contributed by Mr. A.S. Gatschet.

The Very Rev. E. Jacker also communicates a suggestive excursus exegeticus upon the probable gestural origin of the Ojibwa word tibishko, “opposite in space; just so; likewise:”

“The adverb tibishko (or dibishko) is an offshoot of the root tib (or dib), which in most cases conveys the idea of measuring or weighing, as appears from the following samples: dibaige, he measures; dibowe, he settles matters by his speech or word, e.g., as a juryman; dibaamage, he pays out; dibakonige, he judges; dibabishkodjige, he weighs; dibamenimo, he restricts himself, e.g., to a certain quantity of food; dibissitchige, he fulfills a promise; dibijigan, a pattern for cutting clothes.

“The original, meaning of tib, however, must be supposed to have been more comprehensive, if we would explain other (apparent) derivatives, such as: tibi, ‘I don’t know where, where to, where from,’ &c.; tibik, night; dibendjige, he is master or owner; titibisse, it rolls (as a ball), it turns (as a wheel); dibaboweigan, the cover of a kettle. The notion of measuring does not very naturally enter into the ideas expressed by these terms.

“The difficulty disappears if we assume the root tib or dib to have been originally the phonetic equivalent of a gesture expressive of the notion of covering as well as of that of measuring. This gesture would seem to be the holding of one hand above the other, horizontally, at some distance, palms opposite or both downwards. This, or some similar gesture would most naturally accompany the above terms. As for tibik, night, compare (Dunbar): ‘The two hands open and extended, crossing one another horizontally.’ The idea of covering evidently enters into this conception. The strange adverb tibi (‘I don’t know where,’ &c., or ‘in a place unknown to me’), if derived from the same root, would originally signify ‘covered.’ In titibisse, or didibisse (it rolls, it turns), the reduplication of the radical syllable indicates the repetition of the gesture, by holding the hands alternately above one another, palms downwards, and thus producing a rotary motion.

“In German, the clasping of the hands in a horizontal position, expressive of a promise or the conclusion of a bargain, is frequently accompanied by the interjection top! the same radical consonants as in tib. Compare also the English tap, the French tape, the Greek, τυπτω the Sanscrit tup and tub, &c.”



MLA Source Citation:

Sign Language Among North American Indians Compared with that Among Other Peoples and Deaf-Mutes. 1881 AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 17 July 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/etymology-of-words-from-gestures-sign-language.htm - Last updated on Jan 5th, 2014


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