Zuni vs Japanese — More than just a coincidence?

Searching up language mysteries or weird coincidences, chances are, two languages would pop up. Spoken in Arizona and New Mexico, Zuni is considered by many linguists and anthropologists as a language isolate, a language with no established genealogical relationships with any other language. However, one anthropologist, Nancy Yaw Davis, has picked up some possible similarities between Zuni and one other language, spoken across the Pacific, in the Japanese archipelago. Japanese.

In a book The Zuni Enigma, published in 2000, she described the various cultural similarities that occur in both Zuni and Japanese, making a stunning proposition that, if actually true, could transform our understanding on the relatively modern “rediscovery” of the Americas. Making such an ambitious claim, just how true is it? Here, we would explore the language and a bit of genetics side of things, although the book does go into some cultural symbolism, origin myths and craftsmanship or artisanal stuff.

On the surface, this claim does not sound too far-fetched. After all, established patterns of human migration across history seemed to agree on humans crossing from Northeast Asia to North America through Alaska. However, this does not quite explain how languages evolve to be more closely related, or distantly related to one another. So, how did this similarity arise? Was there actual evidence of Japanese influence on some North American languages?

Firstly, let’s explore the main arguments put forth by Davis in the linguistics front. Davis proposed that both Japanese and Zuni are subject-object-verb languages, making them rather similar in word order. However, this word order is shared with Hopi and Keresan, as well as pretty much almost half of the languages spoken globally. Given that this word order is arguably the most common one, this argument would lend little weight to the stance as a whole.

One more compelling argument is the linking of possible cognates between Japanese and Zuni words. Here, we would have to be more specific in the period proposed when Japanese was allegedly introduced to Zuni. In the book, Davis theorised that Japanese Buddhist missionaries traveled to Mexico during the late Heian period, around the late 12th century CE. This period would correspond to when Early Middle Japanese was spoken, and that possible introduction of cognates would have similar sounds derived from these words.

Many sites have noted the Zuni word for clan or society is kwe, and the Early Middle Japanese word is kwai. However, dictionary entries point towards annodinne in Zuni, and that kwe is more rather observed as a suffix, such as Suski:kwe for the Coyote Clan. The Zuni word for Rain Priest, shiwani, is allegedly shawani in Early Middle Japanese, although I am unable to find a corresponding kanji or reconstruction of these words. The patterns of these cognates are rather erratic, scattered in societal or animist religious lines. With the Zuni people having a history stretching back centuries to millennia, the identification of such cognates as evidence of possible Japanese influence, as late as the 12th century, is rather suspicious.

Reconstructions for Zuni words like these are either scarce or non-existent, most probably due to the sparse data for the language, and that Zuni is a language isolate. Linguists like Newman also noted that establishing relationships between Zuni and other languages on the basis of cognates or comparative linguistics often presents weak arguments, which are pretty much unconvincing. In fact, Newman’s study on cognate sets was widely regarded as the most clearly articulated hypothesis on how Zuni may be related to other languages.

However, when we look closer at the grammatical structures of Zuni and Japanese, we see parts where this proposition starts to fracture. Even if we do not expect Zuni and Japanese to be rather identical in terms of syntax and lexicon, major inconsistencies in grammatical features would present dubious arguments in how the languages evolved, and how one language influenced the other. Japanese is not known to have conjugations for the dual, and neither does it really have a singular-plural distinction, but Zuni has conjugations for the singular, dual, and plural. Another pointer would be the pronoun systems in both languages, which are remarkably different from each other, even when comparing using Old or Early Middle Japanese.

A more complete study would not only explore the particular similarities between Japanese and Zuni, but also the possible surrounding languages that could have also interacted with one another. A starting point could be Keresan, Hopi, and Papago-Pima, the languages from which Zuni had a considerable number of loanwords from. Given possible interactions between the Zuni and these other peoples, the Japanese should have also introduced some of their words to these people as well. However, this interaction might be considered a tad too speculative, but given the scarcity of convincing historical evidence, understanding a bit on the bigger picture might be a feasible start.

Davis also cited an incidence of type B blood rather similar between Japanese and Zuni, as well as a shared incidence of cases of a rare kidney disease. This observation is what it most likely is, an observation. While these statistics do make it seem that the relationship between Japanese and Zuni is more than just a coincidence, there should be mention of possible environmental factors in common that could contribute to these observations. Should such a factor be found, it could present possible convergence in some bits of human evolution. However, the theory that the Japanese first landed in the 12th century in America would suggest that these evolutionary things would have to occur in the past 60 generations to establish a more concrete association. This time frame would be considered extremely fast by geneticists.

To conclude, the Zuni presents an interesting case of possible convergence in cultures, but the proposition of relatively recent Japanese influence in language and genetics does seem extremely far-fetched, despite the evidence presented. Readers would need to approach this with an open mind, and read up on the genetics perspectives, or other languages, to formulate their own opinion. Some sites around to appear to fully support or sensationalise the shaky-at-best link between Japanese and Zuni, and these should more or less be approached with caution or a grain of salt. This coverage also presents the need to critically evaluate the presented evidence, which may not necessarily be convincing. Until more convincing or concrete evidence is presented in academia, I do hope that this post has served to somewhat debunk this rather outlandish hypothesis.

Further Reading

Newman, Stanley. (1958). Zuni dictionary. Indiana University research center publications (No. 6). Bloomington: Indiana University.

Newman, Stanley. (1965). Zuni grammar. University of New Mexico publications in anthropology (No. 14). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico.

Newman, Stanley. (1996). Sketch of the Zuni language. In I. Goddard (Ed.) Handbook of North American Indians: Languages (Vol. 17, pp. 483–506). Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.

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