The concept of ‘so-so’ is found in many languages, and often in a similarly repetitive form:
it’s tako tako in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian,
aixa aixa in Catalan,
cosi cosi in Italian, wale wale in Chipwyan (Canada),
hanter hanter in Cornisa, thik thik in Gujarati (India), hai hao in Mandarin, jako tako in Polish, ma ma in Japanese, ithin ithin in Sinhala (Sri Lanka),
soyle boyle in turkish,
atal atal in Occitan (France),
asina asina in Asturias (Spain),
elae belae in Azeri (Azerbaijan)
and azoy azoy in Yiddish.
Words don’t necessarily keep the same meaning. Simple descriptive words such as ‘rain’ or ‘water’ are clear and necessary enough to be unlikely to change. Other more complex words have often come on quite a journey since they were first coined:
Al-kuhul (Arabic) originally, powder to darken the eyelids; then taken up by alchemists to refer to any fine powder; then applied in chemistry to any refined liquid obtained by distillation or purification, especially to alcohol of wine, which then was shortened to alcohol.
Chauffer (French) to heat; then meant the driver or fan early steam-powered car; subsequently growing to chauffeur.
Hashhashin (Arabic) one who smokes hashish; came to mean assassin.
Manu operare (Latin) to work by hand; then narrowed to the act of cultivating; then to the dressing that was added to the soil, manure.
Prestige (French) conjuror’s trick; the sense of illusion gave way to that of glamour which was then interpreted more narrowly as social standing or wealth.
Sine nobilitate (Latin) without nobility; originally referred to any member of the lower classes; then to somebody who despised their own class and aspired to membership of a higher one; thus snob.
Theriake (Greek) an antidote against a poisonous bite; came to mean the practice of living medicine in sugar syrup to disguise its taste; thus treacle.
The Apache people of the USA name the parts of cars to correspond to parts of the body. The front bumper is daw, the chin of jaw; the front fender is wos, the shoulder; the rear fender is gun, the arm and hand; the chasis is chun, the back; the rear wheel is ke, the foot. The mouth is ze, the petrol-pipe opening. The nose is chee, the bonnet. The eyes are inda, the headlights. The forehead is ta, the roof.
The metaphorical naming continues inside. The car’s electrical wiring is tsaws, the veins. The battery is zik, the liver. The petrol tank is pit, the stomach. The radiator is jisoleh, the lung; and its hose, chih, the intestine. The distributor is jih, the heart.
George Bernard Shaw said “England and America are two countries separated by a common language”. It may be an awkward situation borrowing a cigarette in the US if you are an English tourist there. The word ‘tramp’ describes different people in each country, and ‘spunk’ could not only mean ‘to get up and go’ if you are an American in the UK. You don’t even need to love your mistress.
Eddie Izzard talks about these two confusing languages with a great sense of humor. Enjoy!
On the tiny mountainous Canary Island of La Gomera there is a language called Silbo Gomero that uses a variation of whistles instead of words (in Spanish silbar means to whistle). There are four ‘vowels’ and four ‘consonants’, which can be strung together to form more than four thousand ‘words’. This birdlike means of communication is thought to have come over with early African settlers over 2500 years ago. Able to be heard at distances of up to two miles, the silbador was until recently a dying breed. Since 1999, however, Silbo has been a required language in La Gomera schools.
The Mazateco Indians of Oxaca, Mexico, are frequently seen whistling back and forth, exchanging greetings or buying and selling goods with no risk of misunderstanding. The whistling is not really a language ore even a code; it simple uses the rhythms and pitch of ordinary speech without the words. Similar whistling languages have been found in Greece, Turkey and China, whilst other forms of wordless communication include the talking drums (ntumpane) of the Kele in Congo, the xylophones used by the Northern Chin of Burma (Myanmar), the banging on the roots of trees practised by the Melanesians, the yodeling of the Swiss, the humming of the Chekiang Chinese and the smoke signals of the American Indians.
Some people need to travel to a foreign country whose language is completely unknown by them. In those cases a phrasebook seems like a handy temporary solution… or maybe not… Have a look at the poor Hungarian immigrant in this Monty Python sketch:
When we hear the word technology we tend to think about some new product: some new kind of music device, a computer, a robot… It is harder to think about an old television set or a vinyl player. But although strange…we can consider them as part of technology.
The thing is that the invention of the printer around the 15th century took its new product, the book, to people who had never even thought about one. That was clearly a new technology… and much more revolutionary than a new mp3 player.
This amusing video jokes on what I’ve been saying…enjoy!
It is a fact that the English country has spread all over the world. No matter where you are you can read all kind of signs in this language. It is particularly interesting the case of pop music. Many times people understand the signs even though they can’t read them directly. The same thing happens with music. Not the majority of people understand the lyrics, but they do enjoy the music. This video pictures the situation.
November 11, 2007 at 2:11 pm
· Filed under Spanish, Yiddish · Posted by Nacho
Cursing and swearing are practised worldwide, and they generally involve using the local version of a small set of words describing an even smaller set of taboos that surround God, family, sex and the more unpleasant body functions. Occasionally, apparently inoffensive words acquire a darker overtone, such as the Chinese wang bah dahn, which literally means a turtle egg but is used as an insult for politicians. And offensive phrases can often be beguilingly inventive:
Zolst farliren aleh tseyner achitz eynm, un dos zol dir vey ton (Yiddish) may you lose all your teeth but one and may that one ache
Así te tragues un pavo y todas las plumas se conviertan en cuchillas de afeitar (Spanish) may all your turkey’s feathers turn into razor blades
Gossip – perhaps more accurately encapsulated in the Cook Island Maori word ‘o’onitua, “to speak evil of someone in their absence” –is a pretty universal curse. But it’s not always unjustified.
In Rapa Nui (EasterIslands) anga-anga denotes the thought, perhaps groundless, that one is being gossiped about, but it can also carries the sense that this may have arisen from one’s own feeling of guilt.
A more gentle form of gossip is to be found in Jamaica, where the patois word labrish means not only gossip and jokes, but also songs and nostalgic memories of school.