Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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Orin D. GENSLER, Mekelle University, Ethiopia

There would seem to exist two homonymous words qәl in Amharic:
(a) a noun meaning ‘gourd’ (not in Ge’ez, but widespread in Ethiopian languages in this meaning)
(b) an emphatic grammatical particle appearing in several constructions: [exx. from Leslau 1995]
• ərsu qəl-u he himself (p. 59)
• bäyyä-qəl, əyyä-qəl separately, apart (146)
• s-irəbäw qəl-u (yəbälall) when he is hungry (he will eat) (670)
• X-m b-ihon qəl-u even if it is X; as for X (683)
• b--m qəl-u even though (684-85)

Can these two qәl’s be connected via grammaticalization? At first glance this would seem improbable, even bizarre: grammaticalization paths do not normally start from ‘gourd’. But qәl also means ‘head’, by an unproblematic metonymic extension: ‘gourd’ and ‘head’ have a similar shape, size, and hard but breakable exterior (cf. also English ‘he’s off his gourd’ = ‘he’s out of his head, crazy’); a rough parallel exists in Indo-European, where one source of words for ‘skull’ is ‘shell’ (Buck 1949:212-14). And a grammaticalization from ‘head’ to an intensive-reflexive particle (‘he himself’) is a normal path of change crosslinguistically (Heine & Kuteva 2002). Indeed, in Amharic the ordinary word for head, namely ras, undergoes just this change, i.e. ras-u ‘he himself’, lit. his-head (Leslau 1995:58). The grammaticalization path is then:
gourd → head → emphatic particle.
As far as I know, this grammaticalization has not been noted before (unmentioned in Abinet’s 2014 PhD dissertation). Of particular interest is the fact that two different words with the same meaning ‘head’ (ras, qәl) seem to have undergone parallel grammaticalization to an intensive particle.