God(ding): A Cross-Linguistic Puzzle
 
Dan Moonhawk Alford
17 May 2000

Saw that Stan and Cynthia Tennan visited Gary and Linda. His work on hand gestures behind Semitic writing is quite provocative, and nothing I can safely ignore given my own model.

Reminds me of how Cheyenne ma?he-o?o and Lakota wakan tanka both consist morphologically of the same morphs, tho reversed in order: "big/large/great" plus "animate/spirit/mystery" -- from which we get the translated "Great Spirit" and "Great Mystery".

Here's the puzzle: How can Cheyenne and Lakota share these same morphemes for "God(ding)" -- especially given the diversity found in Native American names, including "Dwells Above" (Chickasaw) and "Thinks Breath Creates" (Cherokee) -- when they're no more alike as languages than English and Chinese? They both came to the Great Plains from elsewhere, north or south, on the East Coast, possibly with at least one group having a different name. So how did these words wind up as kissing cousins of each other on the Plains, since they sound nothing like each other either?

The answer, I believe, was revealed in a book on Plains Indian Sign Language, where I found the gloss for "God" as 3 signs: "large" plus "medicine" (a spiritual meaning in Native America) plus "up!" In other words, this is the only example I've ever seen where a gestural language influenced a term in one or more languages for anything -- much less the concept of God(ding), which seems to be a kind of sina qua non lexical item in any language.