LINGUIST List 11.1704
Tue Aug 8 2000
Disc: Etymology of 'Chicago' [Next to last post]
Editor for this issue: Scott Fults <scottlinguistlist.org>
dcosta, Etymology of 'Chicago'
Michael Mccafferty, Etymology of 'Chicago'
Message 1: Etymology of 'Chicago'
Date: Sat, 5 Aug 2000 06:47:30 -0700 (PDT)
From: dcosta <dcostasocrates.Berkeley.EDU>
Subject: Etymology of 'Chicago'
In regards to the discussion of the etymology of 'Chicago' offered
by Carl Weber, I think it is very important to offer observations
informed by actual knowledge of the Algonquian languages involved.
I'll start with Mr. Weber's observations one by one.
>/Sheka:kwa/ was the basic Proto-Algonquian form for 'skunk'. It can be
>further broken into identifiable 'urine' + animal marker. Whether or
>not this /sheka:kwa/ is the form that gave Chicago its name, as
>Algonquianist dictionaries record, has been contested in local
>scholarship by Dr. William Barry, founder of the Chicago Historical
>Society, and among others, the historians Andreas, Quaif, Blanchard,
Whatever historians say about the linguistic origin of this term, it would
be a good idea to acknowledge the origin of this etymology of PA
*sheka:kwa. Dr. Frank Siebert's 1967 article "the Original Home of the
Proto-Algonquian people" first gave this etymology. On page 21 of that
article, he says it comes from Proto-Algonquian *shek- 'urine' plus the
final *-a:kw- 'bushy tailed animal'.
>If an intelligent non-linguist layman would like an etymology based on
>breaking down the word, it would be: 'chic' (urine) + 'ag' (animal
>marker) which equals 'urine animal'. However, it must be kept in mind
>that 'urinating animal' is closer.
Why is that etymology closer? What is your reasoning for this?
>The end o in 'Chicago' I'll call a "vestigial stem extender" (or
>vestigial noun formative) - as it might be called in Algonquian
>linguistics. Three syllables. Chicago.
If 'Chicago' comes from 'skunk', and Siebert's etymology of Proto-
Algonquian *sheka:kwa 'skunk' is correct, the 'o' is only in the
English word. The /w/ is part of the final that means 'bushy-tailed
animal'. The final /a/ is a suffix that marks animate nouns. There is
no "vestigial stem extender" in this word, nor do Algonquianist
linguists use the term "vestigial stem extender".
>An earlier form, four syllables (but still really three if you give
>the glide its consonantal value) -- as seen in some of the earliest
>French maps -- could be summed up in <chicagoua>.
The piece being missed here is that 'ou' is how French recorders
spelled /w/, the reason for this being that FRENCH spells the /w/
sound with the letters 'ou'. Actually, in the earliest records French
recorders usually wrote /w/ in Indian languages with a symbol that
looks a lot like the numeral '8', but this is usually retranscribed as
'ou' later. The *problem* is that 'ou'/'8' is ALSO how the French
wrote /o/ and /oo/. It is entirely possible for <chicagoua> (or
<chicag8a>) to spell a three-syllable word.
>When the French first heard the word, they obviously had to have heard
>the word spoken in some particular language -- developing from the
>Proto-Algonquian language family roots. The root meaning of the word
>would have been understood over thousands of miles of navigable
>waters, among the related tribes. What particular language 'Chicago'
>is from (if the question is productive at all) seems to have been
>narrowed to the following: Ojibwe, Meskaakii (Fox), Miami-Illinois,
>Some of the forms (in all but Cree) of the intermediate languages:
Okay, first of all, almost none of these data are even correct. Let's restart
with accurate data, which ARE available. Looking at John Nichols' 1995
dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe, Ojibwe 'skunk' is /zhigaag/. 'Onion'
is /zhigaagawanzh/. The latter word is presumably a pejorative or
diminutive variant of the first.
In Miami, /shikaakwa/ is both 'skunk' AND 'onion'. The French
missionary records make it clear that this word meant both things in
the 18th century. Miami /shikaakonki/ is the name for Chicago as
recorded in the late 19th and early 20th century. It's the locative of
the 'skunk/onion' word. /shikaakoki/ IS NOT A MIAMI WORD.
It's vaguely close to the Miami plural of the 'skunk' word, which is
/shikaakwaki/, but it's not that close.
The correct Mesquakie forms, as taken from page 47 of Ives
Goddard's 1994 edition of Leonard Bloomfield's Fox lexicon (Fox
is the same language as Mesquakie) are as follows:
(the vowels marked 'a:' here are the same as what's written 'aa'
elsewhere -- these are two alternate ways of marking long vowels.)
sheka:ko:he:ha 'little skunk'
The second word here is a diminutive of the first; the last one is
technically a diminutive of the second.
It should be pointed out that the final syllables of the last two words
are voiceless (whispered) in Mesquakie, and thus barely audible to
a non-speaker of the language. Thus, the Mesquakie 'onion' word
would sound like /sheka:ko:/ to Europeans -- just like 'Chicago'.
>Algonquianist scholars are not sure whether these intermediate forms
>are locatives (indicating place) or plurals.
This is simply not true. First, the data given here are incorrect. The
locative endings in Algonquian languages are not pronounced the same
as plural endings. To start at the beginning: the Proto-Algonquian locative
ending was */-enki/. The animate plural was */-aki/. After stems that
end in a consonant plus /w/, the /e/ of the locative merges with the /w/
to give short /o/. In Miami, the locative of 'skunk' is thus /shikaakonki/.
The plural is /shikaakwaki/. They aren't the same. They wouldn't be
the same for ANY of these languages. In Ojibwe, the locative would be
/zhigaagong/. The plural is /zhigaagwag/. In Mesquakie, the forms are
/sheka:koki/ for the locative and /sheka:kwaki/ for the plural.
>There are certain constraints in the locative vs plural uncertainty.
>Neither plurals nor locatives end in a vowel.
This is also incorrect. BOTH plurals and locatives end in vowels
in Miami and Mesquakie.
>Shikaakoki "on the skunk" is said to be rare in Algonquian and
>therefore probably not locative.
Except that */shikaakoki/ does not actually exist in any Algonquian
>The /shikaakonki/ form, with what I'll call "intrusive -n", has
>not been adequately explained.
No, there is NO 'intrusive n' here. The 'n' is found in the Miami,
Illinois, and Ojibwe LOCATIVES, only. The /n/ is *always* found in
the locatives in these languages. It is *never* found in the plural.
In Mesquakie, /n/ has disappeared preceding consonants (specifically,
obstruents). So the 'n' is missing in the Mesquakie locatives, but the
Mesquakie locatives are still not the same as the Mesquakie plurals.
There is no mystery about where these n's come from.
>Some of the problem is in the
>calligraphy of the source documents. In the roundhands and italics
>used in the writing styles of the late 1600s, the intended letter
>combination -ou- often looked very much like -on- when written
>quickly. It's on French maps.
Perhaps, but it's not going on here. What's going on here is a
disregard for the well-understood grammatical structure and phonology
of these languages. Scholars have been studying Algonquian extensively
for well over a hundred years. There is a huge amount of high-quality
data and research available on them. I strongly recommend both getting
accurate data and consulting linguists who actually study the languages
in question before trying to make etymological arguments.
David J. Costa, Ph.D.
Message 2: Etymology of 'Chicago'
Date: Thu, 3 Aug 2000 16:22:31 -0500 (EST)
From: Michael Mccafferty <mmccaffeindiana.edu>
Subject: Etymology of 'Chicago'
[This is a response to a summary posted as LINGUIST 11.1676 by
Carl Jeffrey Weber.]
Carl Jeffrey Weber
/Sheka:kwa/ was the basic Proto-Algonquian form for 'skunk'. It can be
further broken into identifiable 'urine' + animal marker. Whether or
not this /sheka:kwa/ is the form that gave Chicago its name, as
Algonquianist dictionaries record, has been contested in local
scholarship by Dr. William Barry, founder of the Chicago Historical
Society, and among others, the historians Andreas, Quaif, Blanchard,
If an intelligent non-linguist layman would like an etymology based on
breaking down the word, it would be: 'chic' (urine) + 'ag' (animal
marker) which equals 'urine animal'. However, it must be kept in mind
that 'urinating animal' is closer. The root is 'urine'. The end o in
'Chicago' I'll call a "vestigial stem extender" (or vestigial noun
formative) - as it might be called in Algonquian linguistics. Three
An earlier form, four syllables (but still really three if you give
the glide its consonantal value) -- as seen in some of the earliest
French maps -- could be summed up in <chicagoua>. Notice the
not-yet-vestigial stem extender -ou- (an unrounded glide) and the
following -a (the target vowel of the glide). The -a is the
single/animate gender marker. When the final -a was lost to speech,
the glide seems to have become a high unrounded back vowel which with
time and Americanization gave us the current o sound in the word. Four
McCafferty: The /-a/ of PA */sheka:kwa/ is an animate gender marker, but
there is no such thing in Algonquian linguistics as a "vestigial stem
extender." <chicagoua> is simply Miami-Illinois /shika:kwa/. The -ou- is
the way French writes -ou- as in "Oui!" If the final -o of the modern
place-name came from anywhere, it came from a misheard locative form for
this toponym--either Miami-Illinois or Fox--misheard by the French, by the
way, in the late 1600's. Let's leave "time and Americanization" out of
it. They get blamed for enough.
There's a still earlier form in the intermediate language (see
below). But this earlier form had lost ITS ending by the time the
French began writing the name <chicagoua> on maps.
When the French first heard the word, they obviously had to have heard
the word spoken in some particular language -- developing from the
Proto-Algonquian language family roots. The root meaning of the word
would have been understood over thousands of miles of navigable
waters, among the related tribes. What particular language 'Chicago'
is from (if the question is productive at all) seems to have been
narrowed to the following: Ojibwe, Meskaakii (Fox), Miami-Illinois,
McCafferty: Cree is out of the question. Ojibwe is very very unlikely.
There is no historical or prehistorical evidence either in the Chicago
Some of the forms (in all but Cree) of the intermediate languages:
McCafferty: All but the third form is wrong in one way or another.
Algonquianist scholars are not sure whether these intermediate forms
are locatives (indicating place) or plurals.
McCafferty: Absolutely incorrect.
In local scholarship, the
dominant (vs the dormant) view has never questioned that these forms
have been anything else but locative. Chicago's understanding of its
own name is that 'Chicago' means "at the Allium tricoccum". Because of
the bad smell, this plant -- a leek -- shared the word "skunk" with
the animal. Broken down even more, as here presented, 'urine' is the
root in 'urine animal', but 'urinating animal' is closer to the
McCafferty: I'm not sure what the point of this paragraph is.
(There are certain constraints in the locative vs plural
McCafferty: This makes no sense within the context of Algonquian
Neither plurals nor locatives end in a vowel.
McCafferty: Of course they do!! The person who wrote this article
obviously has not studied Algonquian languages.
Shikaakoki "on the skunk" is said to be rare in Algonquian and
therefore probably not locative.
McCafferty: This form does not even exist. Rare indeed!
The /shikaakonki/ form, with what I'll call "intrusive
-n", has not been adequately explained.
McCafferty: Huh? I've never heard of "intrusive -n." Maybe someone will
join in here.
Some of the problem is in the
calligraphy of the source documents. In the roundhands and italics
used in the writing styles of the late 1600s, the intended letter
combination -ou- often looked very much like -on- when written
quickly. It's on French maps. Whoever set the printing type from the
written notes even has LaSalle saying 'chicagon'. This no doubt has
McCafferty: u and o are indeed confused in the copying of handwriting.
307 Memorial Hall