The squirrel-less are guilty

Courtesy of Loanwords in the World’s Languages ed. Haspelmath & Tadmor (Mouton de Gruyter, 2009) comes one of the most amusing etymologies I’ve ever seen.

In his contribution on loanwords in Ket, Edward Vajda describes the historical background of how speakers of Yeniseic languages first encountered Russians through the latter settlers’ demand for a tribute of furs. Due to these pressures, many Yeniseic speakers sought to avoid contact with Russians, and Russian loanwords before the Soviet era are fairly limited. But the Ket also showed a predilection for coining their own words for new concepts from native Ket material instead of borrowing foreign words.

Vajda ultimately drops this little gem: The concept ‘guilty’ was interpreted in Ket as saʁan, derived from a combination of native Ket sa’q ‘squirrel’ with the case marker -an ‘without, lacking’, since someone without furs to pay their tax was ‘guilty’ or ‘at fault’ in a legalistic sense.

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