Mexican X Part IX: True Chiefs and False Friends in Texas
I live in South Texas, and one of the debates we bi-literate Texans have is whether to spell the name of our state “Texas” or “Tejas” when writing Spanish.
What is up with that “X,” anyway?
Let’s head back in time. Five centuries or so. The Red River watershed in Texas, Oklahoma Arkansas, and Louisiana was under the control of two loose “confederations”: the Náshit’ush and the Kadawdáachuh. French tongues eventually twisted these names into Natchitoches and Kadohadacho. English tongues butchered the latter, shortening it.
Other “Caddo” people lived farther south, between the Sabine and Trinity Rivers in what is now East Texas. They were known as the Hasíinay.
The etymology of the ethnonym is facinating. “Kadawdáachuh” means “true chiefs” in most Caddo languages. A “kadhi” is a leader. Their supreme god was Kadhi háyuh: “the leader above.”
(I know I’ve used the past tense repeatedly, but do understand that these people survived European conquest. Today the Caddo Nation is found in Oklahoma, with its capital at Binger. The different but interrelated Caddo languages have merged into a single tongue.)
The Caddo encountered Europeans for the first time in 1541 when the Spanish expedition led by Hernando de Soto passed through their lands. When asked by the Spanish, the Hasíinay used the word táyshaʼ (/t’ajʃaʔ/), meaning “friend” or “ally,” to describe the various nations in their confederation. (For those of you not familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet, that’s pronounced roughly “tie shah.”)
The Spanish applied the term to all the Caddo groups, adding an “s” for the plural (though the Hasíinay word was both singular and plural).
Now, if you’ve been following my MEXICAN X series (welcome to y’all newbies), you know that the “sh” sound existed in 16th-century Spanish and was written “x.” So, even in 1541, the lingering orthographic convention would have rendered that Hasíinay term “Taixas.”
A hundred years later we find the spelling Texas or Tejas, showing not only the evolution of /ʃ/ to /x/ (he aspirated “h”), but also a change from /ai/ to /e/. We’ll come back to that shift in a moment.
First, let’s double-check the use of the word during colonial times. The Mission San Francisco de los Tejas (“of the Tejas”) was completed near the Hasíinay village of Nabedaches (home of the Nabáydácu people) in May 1690, in what is now Houston County. The mission’s name clearly shows that the Caddo peoples were called “los Tejas.”
The name would soon find a broader use. In the 18th century, the Spanish called a good chunk of modern Texas “El Nuevo Reino de Filipinas” (New Kingdom of the Philippines) or “La Provincia de los Texas” (“Province of the Texas”).
Over time “los” was dropped and the region became “La Provincia de Texas” or “Tejas” (Province of Texas). It was as La Provincia de Texas that it was incorporated into the Mexican Empire in 1821. It declared itself a sovereign nation, La República de Tejas or Republic of Texas, in 1836. Later, absorbed into the US, it was simply called Texas.
Now that we’ve reviewed the historical development of the state’s name, let’s return to linguistic issues. We saw that the original Caddo word táyshaʼ has a diphthong (/ai/), a combination of two adjacent vowels (in this case /a/ and /i/) that glide into each other, being pronounced as a single sound.
But why, you may ask, would the Caddo diphthong become a single Spanish vowel? It’s actually a common process called monophthongization (yes, it’s an insane-looking word) seen in languages across the globe.
Spanish had already gone through monophthongization during the Middle Ages. As Medieval Spanish evolved from Vulgar Latin, the diphthong /ai/ became /e/.
Here are a few examples.
Latin > Vulgar Latin > Spanish
amavi > amai > amé
primarium > primairu > primero
laicum > laicu > lego
capio > caipo > quepo
This /ai/ to /e/ shift is very common as languages evolve. In the majority of modern Arabic dialects, the Classical Arabic diphthong /ai/ has become the long vowel /eː/. Classical “kayf” (well-being, pleasure) is pronounced “kēf” in rural areas throughout the Middle East.
One of the most extensive (and annoying to students) examples of monophthongization is French (whose spelling system appears to have gotten stuck in the Middle Ages while its phonology continued to evolve). The digraph “ai,” once pronounced as the diphthong /ai/, now represents /ɛ/ or /e/.
That evolution looks like this:
Vulgar Latin > Old French > French
placet > plaist > plaît (pronounced /plɛ/)
The change is understandable. In your mouth, to glide from /a/ (a low back vowel) to /i/ (a high front vowel) takes a big move of the tongue. It is much easier to split the difference and use /e/ (a mid front vowel). Here’s a sloppy chart of vowels in the mouth to illustrate.
And that’s the origin of the state’s name, guys.
Every time you say Texas, in English or Spanish, remember that this land was stolen from Native nations — Caddo, Karankawa, Comanche, Coahuiltecan groups like the Carrizo, etc. Sovereign nations, advanced and allied.
The Europeans invaded these lands. White intruders didn’t come to be táyshaʼ, to find dignified ways to live alongside the Caddo and others in spaces the Native nations might have apportioned for them.
No, the Europeans wanted it all. They ripped it from the True Chiefs through unspeakable violence and deception.
When you say this state’s name, remember that hard truth. We live on ill-gotten, stolen land. It’s not our direct fault, but we enjoy an ugly privilege bought with innocent, sovereign blood.
Of course, there are still indigenous and mestizo folx residing in Texas, many of whose ancestors lived in this region for thousands of years. While they are not always on the exact sovereign lands of their people, they have the stronger claim and should be shown deference.