Genealogy, Philology and Connections to Antiquity
The Ellis Theory of Amerind Relations

Uruk, Iroquois, Uruguay - Related Native American Words and Peoples

What I am about to put forth for your consideration is purely a theoretical hypothesis. I require more in-depth research, better organization of facts, and input from learned scholars to be standing on firmer ground with my theory. I humbly ask that you follow me on the train of thought that has led me to connect three branches of Amerindians to each other on either side of a continent and across the equator.

To begin with, I must first define for you two vocabulary words that will be important to your perusal of this document.

Amerindian: Any member of the peoples living in North or South America prior to the arrival of Europeans.

Agglutinative: This is a term used to describe languages that add affixes to the base of words to form a single meaning. For example, an agglutinative language might contain a single word that encompasses the meaning: man-who-sails-in-boat-downriver.

The Big Idea
Recently, I was having a conversation with my husband about various tribes of Native Americans. We began to speak about the Iroquois. All at once, saying the word Iroquois out loud, it struck me that I was basically saying the same word as Uruguay. Say the two words out loud for yourself to see how they are related. Within a moment, it hit me that both of these words appeared to contain the phonetic element Urok, which was once the phonetic spelling of Yurok - the name of a Native American tribe inhabiting Northern California.

My accompanying map shows the locations of these three elements in my theory. As you can see, they are spread as far apart as they possibly could be. But, in my experience, linguistic evidence can bridge enormous gaps and provide startling clues and evidence of the relationship between seemingly unrelated peoples. My husband and I quickly turned on our computers and began to feverishly research, looking for a trail that could possibly make sense of what I had noticed about these three words. I didn't have much faith that I would find anything. At the same time, I did have that funny feeling that I might just have stumbled across something worth looking into.

A Tale of Three Peoples
Who were the inhabitants of Uruguay?
Uruguay and its northwestern neighbor Paraguay are located in the lower eastern portion of South America. The word Paraguay is derived from a word in the Guarani language spoken by the natives of this region, meaning from a great river. There is a tremendous river in this region called the Parana River, which produces the world's greatest amount of hydroelectric power.

Uruguay is also a Guarani word, the meaning of which has been a puzzle for linguists for hundreds of years. The Uruguay River is one of the main features of this country. Some have suggested that the word derives from the presence of a small bird called the "Uru", plus the element 'gua', meaning place of, plus the element 'y', meaning water. In other words, river of the Uru bird. Others have suggested that the word is derived from 'arugua', meaning snail, and 'y', meaning water. This would give us the river of snails.

To me, the important thing to notice here is that both regions are named after water features of some kind. Guarani is an indigenous language of South America, and belongs to the Tupi-Guarani sub-family, which is the second largest family of Equatorial languages in terms of its geographic extent. It is classed along with Arawakan, the most widespread of all of the Andean-Equatorial languages. At this point, I ask you to say that word, Arawakan aloud to yourself and simply note what it sounds like, and keep it under your hat.

Who were the Iroquois?
The Iroquois Indians inhabited the region that was to become New York state along another tremendously powerful river - the St. Lawrence River. Iroquois is not actually a tribe, but rather, a confederation of multiple tribes speaking languages with a common ancestor. These tribes include the Kayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca. The language of the Iroquoian confederation is classified under the broad classification Hokan-Sioux.

As with the word Uruguay, there is historical debate as to the derivation of the word Iroquois. The spelling of the word is clearly French, but as with many of the Native American tribes, the words that they used to identify themselves were heard by European ears and phonetically transcribed using the spelling of the hearer. In the case of the Iroquois, the early French explorers would have been hearing something phonetic along the lines of Ur-uk-wah.

It has been hypothesized that this was a word the French learned from the Iroquois' enemies, the Huron (Wyandot), and it was meant as an insult, meaning black snakes. It has also been suggested the French may have applied the word Iroquois to these people after hearing a tribe called the Haudenosaunee saying the phrase hiro kone, meaning I have spoken.

I would suggest that whether there is any truth in either of these explanations, they are missing the point. They do not go deep enough to explain a root or original origin for the meaning of the word Iroquois.

Who were the Yuroks and Karuks?
All the way on the other side of the United States, in a remote region of northernmost California, the Yurok and Karuk tribes were neighbors. Like the peoples of Uruguay, Paraguay, and the Iroquois Confederation, they lived along powerful rivers. Yurok is an important word for us to zone in on here.

I first encountered this word in the fascinating book, In the Land of the Grasshopper Song by Arnold and Reed. This biographical account details the years during which the authors lived among the Karuk Indians between 1908 and 1909, and in this book, the Yurok Indians are referred to as the 'Uroks'. Additionally, the Karuk Indians are referred to as the 'Karoks'. Over the course of time, these two tribes have come to spell their names 'Karuk' and 'Yurok', and I am making a point of this to demonstrate how spellings can shift over time and obscure pronunciations and root words.

Both Yurok and Karuk are words belonging to the Karuk language. They describe the neighboring relationship of these two tribes on the land. 'Karuk' means upriver, and 'Yurok' means downriver. So again, the rivers the people live on are being used to describe the inhabitants of the region. I was thrilled to discover that, like the Iroquoian languages, the Karuk language is classified in the Hokan-Sioux family of languages. This leaves us with two peoples, living 3000 miles apart, speaking similar tongues.

It is interesting to note that the Yurok language is not a Hokan-Sioux language. It is related to Wiyot, and both of these are called Algic languages (relatives of Algonquian languages like Ojibway and Cree). On the east coast of the United States, the Algonquians and Iroquois were neighbors speaking unrelated languages. On the west coast, we have a similar situation with the Karuks speaking an Iroquoian-type language and the Yuroks speaking an Algonquian-type language. In both cases, we have neighboring tribes, living in big river country, not speaking each other's languages. We also have, running through this story, tribes becoming known by the names applied to them by their neighbors.

The Agglutinative Clue
Only a portion of the world's languages use the practice of agglutination. The following is our checklist for which of our three languages in this theory are agglutinative:

Are they agglutinative?

  • The language of the Karuks? Yes
  • The languages of the Iroquois? Yes
  • The Guarani languages of Uruguay and Paraguay? Yes

So we now know that there is an important common thread between these three languages, spread out over the continents of North and South America. At this point, I was determined to look for any possible related words within these three languages.

Common Words
At this point, I felt I had discovered that water was important enough to both the Karuk Indians and the peoples of Uruguay and Paraguay to become major defining words for these various tribes. My research indicated that the 'uk' or 'ok' element in Karuk words for themselves and their neighbors meant river. Internet research also indicated that the element 'y' provided the river element in Paraguay and Uruguay. I decided to see what I could find out about an Iroquoian word for 'river'. Unfortunately, due to lack of Internet documentation, the only hint I have managed to uncover is that the word 'ohio' means fine or good river in the Iroquoian language family. I don't feel confident saying that the 'oh' is the same as the Karuk 'ok', though k and h are often linguistically interchangeable. I would be very grateful to an Iroquois language expert for any clarification they may be able to give me on this subject.

I decided to investigate some other common words, and had several exciting findings. No doubt, you will be surprised to discover that our 'English' words tapioca and jaguar are actually Guarani language words. I think this is quite a testimonial to the fact that the Tupi-Guarani languages were once spoken all over this side of the world. When I further investigated the word 'jaguar', I discovered, somewhat surprisingly, that this word relates to the Guarani word for 'dog'. The following table will show you the words for dog in Guarani, and, the Iroquoian languages of the Onondaga and Seneca peoples.

English Guarani Onondaga Seneca
Dog Jagua Ja:hah Ji:yah

When I investigated the word for 'sun', I discovered the following similarities:

English Guarani Onondaga Seneca Mohawk Karuk
Sun Kuarhay Gahgwa Kahkwa Karahkwa Kuusura

The above were the immediate similarities I discovered. Many of the words were not at all similar, but when I see a word for something as important as the sun bearing some similarities across numerous tongues, I feel it is worth noting. Over time and over distance, words alter as a language is carried by the people who speak it. Tribes that once lived as a single people fall out of contact with each other when migration occurs, and in isolation, the mother language diversifies into a pool of new, different, yet similar, tongues. At this point in my research, I began to feel slightly more confident that there could very well be an ancient connection between the three players in my theory.

The Spanish Element
Terrible things happened in South America when the Spanish conquistadors arrived, killing off untold numbers of people, both through the intentional weapon of violence and the unintentional one of disease. I cannot think of the actions of these explorers without repugnance, but from an etymological standpoint, the inroads the Spanish language made into the linguistic scene of South and Central America are both fascinating and confounding.

I feel it is important for me to note at this point in my document that throughout my the perusal of this subject, a common Spanish word kept tugging unceasingly at my brain. This is the word, 'agua', for water. Agua derives from the Latin 'aqua', and looking at the words Paraguay and Uruguay, I kept remarking on the agua/ugua element of these words. I already knew that the Guarani definition of these country names contained their element of water. Here, I had the Spanish components again indicating water.

Did the Spanish hear the native peoples saying Paraguay, and allow this word to remain because it so easily translated to meaning 'by water' in their own tongue? How does this relate to ancient Latin, ancient Tupi-Guarani, and wind up with Karuk Indians using the element 'ok' (like Latin aq-ua)? This all may be purely coincidental. I may be grasping at straws. However, the many research trails I have gone down have taught me to take serious note of the little 'weirdnesses' one is struck with while they are studying. I make note of this here in case my readers may have some light to shed on this peculiar connection.

I would also like to note, in this section of my document, that the 'ok' element of Yurok is also found in the tribal names Miwok (sometimes spelled Miwuk), and Mohawk (which should probably be spelled Mowok, or Mowuk). Remember how the spelling of Yurok and Karuk has changed over time. The Miwoks certainly lived by big water in California. I have yet to research the Mohawks.

Lastly, I would like to note one further peculiarity for your consideration. In South America, the Guarani-speaking peoples were neighbors of the Arawak Indians. The Arawak languages are referred to as Arawakan - the largest, most far-reaching branch of the Andean-Equatorial languages. When I say the word Arawakan aloud, it is only a slip of the tongue away from saying Iroquoian. Again, perhaps this is merely a red herring, but I cannot help but remember how the Yuroks got their name from the Karuks, and that one of the explanations offered for the name Iroquois is that they were given this appellation by their neighbors, too. I note this simply for your consideration.

Could it be true?
My research, up to this point, has confirmed that both the Karuks and the Iroquois spoke related tongues of the Hokan-Sioux languages. I have further discovered that these Hokan-Sioux languages contain words that bear a striking similarity to important words in the Guarani language of Uruguay and Paraguay. I have discovered that all of these peoples dwelt upon rivers and that water was such an important element to them that it may be present in all of these names. As stated above, the Tupi-Guarani language was one of the major tongues of South America, and is still spoken to this day by certain ethnic groups. But, could it be possible that the peoples of this Southeastern region of South America really ended up on the west and east coasts of North America?

I have discovered the following quote in a book by Patrick Manning, entitled Migration in World History:

"The distribution of subgroups within the Amerind language provides a clear and logical picture of the advance of human settlement into the western hemisphere. While the homelands of the six major subgroups of the Amerind can be identified from the evidence of language classification, there remains much work to be done in postulating the succeeding migrations from the centers to other regions of the Americas. The following rapid summary suggest some of the stories that remain to be told about migrations in the Americas from 15000 BP to 5000 BP (before the present date).

The North American language family eventually expanded to include almost all of North America, outside the highest elevations. From the homeland in or near the Columbia valley, one group moved eastward, splitting into those who emphasized the forests (later including the Algonquians) and those who emphasized the plains (later including the Sioux, the Iroquois and the Cherokee). Two other groups established themselves in California. Of these, the group now known as Penutian sent out migrants that became the Maya in Yucatan and the Choctaw and other of the northern Gulf of Mexico. Second, the group known as HOKAN sent out groups that settled both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Mexico."

We know that both the Iroquois and the Karuk spoke Hokan languages. The above quote tells us that Hokan-speaking peoples moved north, settling both the east and west coasts of Mexico. I have not been able to discover if experts have ever determined the true origin of the Hokan-speaking people, beyond that it was somewhere in South America, and that the people were speaking a language linguists refer to as Proto-Hokan. Wherever they came from, my research has now at least tracked the Proto-Hokan speakers making their way up either coast of Central America.

Map of Iroquois and Karuk Migration

My next thrilling discovery occurred when I found that California was simply teeming with Hokan speakers. In Baja, we have the Yuman languages, including Cocopa, Kumiai, Kiliwa, and Paipai (all Hokan tongues). Further north, we discover the Pomo people settling around the Bay Area, speaking their Hokan language. Linguists believe that the Pomos were inhabiting the region of Clear Lake as early as 7000 B.C. Moving still farther north, we discover the Karuk people speaking their Hokan language and living in the northwesternmost corner of California. Thus, we have discovered that the Hokan-speaking people migrated not only up the west coast of Mexico, but all the way up the west coast of the United States as far as the northern border of California.

When I turned my attention to the east, I found a similar trail. Though the Iroquois are thought of as the tribes of the eastern woodlands of New York state, experts believe that their earlier home was in the lower Mississippi valley. This is apparently owing to unusual cultural traits of the people. I would like to uncover more detail on this subject, but at the very least, we now have the Hokan speakers migrating up the east coast of Mexico, landing in Mississippi, and then making their way north to New York. Whether these journeys, on either side of the United States, took place mainly on foot or by sea, I have yet to determine.

What this research has left me with, then, is a big question: I have illustrated some of the similarities I have discovered between the Iroquois, Karuk, and Guarani languages. Could the Proto-Hokan language and Tupi-Guarani be from the same root, or even, basically, the same language? Could the Karuk and Iroquois people have come from the Guarani-speaking regions of Uruguay and Paraguay? I don't know if Amerindian experts already have answers to these questions, or if no one else has ever made this set of connections before. I need expert opinions and further research to continue to refine my own understanding of these cultures and languages.

I have learned that spoken language is the great recorder of forgotten history. The clues to some of the world's greatest mysteries are to be found in the words we speak. Only today, I was at the store with my husband, and noticed a shelf of Mexican baked goods. One of them was a small pineapple pie in a brightly colored plastic package. The package was labelled Pay. Pie is not a traditional food of Mexico, but in order to communicate the issue at hand, a Mexican baked goods company is opting for the phonetic spelling pay, pronounced pie in Spanish. This simple, humorous anecdote encapsulates how language and spellings adapt to meet new situations.

Could it be true that when the first French explorer heard the New York confederation of Indians referred to, he came away saying, "those are the people called Iroquois", rather than, "those are the Uruguay people"? Unlikely? Far-fetched? It may well be. The repetitive element of water appearing throughout my documentation of these three peoples may also simply be coincidental and may even prove to be linguistically incorrect. If you have special knowledge, answers, or research of your own to add here, I eagerly invite you to share it with me.