Thursday, April 26, 2012

A to Z: Words


Word: the smallest element that may be uttered in isolation with semantic or pragmatic content (with literal or practical meaning).

Ah, but what content--and what meaning. The simplest words (blue, for example) have countless meanings: the color, a feeling, adult movies, lack of air. Even taking a word at its "face" meaning--say, sin--the connotations might be completely different--nay, opposite. If I say this chocolate cake is sinfully good, it's a positive thing. But if I say it's a sin to treat animals that way, the word clearly has a negative meaning.

Words are like slithery, slippery creatures. And their power multiplies exponentially when we introduce other languages.


Translation is a tricky business. Take, for example, value. Translated into Spanish it becomes valor--the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something (according to my Mac dictionary). But in Spanish, valor is also courage, guts. Guts, on the other hand, can translate into agallas, or in the more physiological sense, into tripas--which is tripe in English.

You might be familiar with the embarrassed/embarazada dichotomy. Yep, obvious similarities aside, to be embarrassed is not to be embarazada--which means pregnant. It doesn't help that embarrassed doesn't translate easily into Spanish.

If you want to say I'm so embarrassed in Spanish, you'd say something like Qué pena, or Qué verguenza, which would translate into English as what an embarrassment. In short, embarrassed isn't an adjective in Spanish.

Then there's last. The last example translates into último--but último is also used for latest, as in the latest news, or the latest fashion. Small thing, but think of the confusion: the last news we heard implies there will never again be more news, or at least, none that you'll hear.

Spanish is a quirky language. Its quirkiness isn't helped at all by the fact that Spanish isn't just one language. At school in Mexico I learned Spanish grammar, and I noticed ample differences between what the book said and the way people spoke. The plural you, for example, is ustedes--or vosotros, if you're from Spain. The book was from Spain, so instead of saying ustedes irán (you all will go), the book required vosotros iráis. Yeah--one more tense to add to the fourteen already existent in Spanish.

For nearly 30 years, I thought that was it--Spain Spanish vs. the rest of us. Then I came to Curaçao, and made friends from Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Cuba... And I realized every single country that speaks Spanish speaks it differently.

It's not just the accent, although that doesn't help, either. When Dominicans, for example, substitute the R for an L, or when Venezuelans plain skip over the S... Well, it makes for a lot of confusion.

But it's more serious than that. Words have different meanings--completely diametrical meanings, in some cases. Take cola, for example (tail in English). A Venezuelan friend asked me one evening, me das la cola? I did a double-take. Would you give me the tail? Seriously? She laughed and laughed--turns out in Venezuela it means would you give me a RIDE, as in will you drive me home.

Cola also means glue in Spain and some other places--which made for a crazy translation of Crazy Glue--Cola Loca, or Crazy Tail. In South America, Cola is also Coke, so I hear people asking for tail at restaurants all the time.

There's also the confusion with meal times. In Mexico, you have desayuno in the morning, comida at midday, and cena at night. But in Venezuela and Colombia, comida is the evening meal, and the Mexican comida becomes almuerzo--which in Mexico is used more for brunch. Very confusing when you're trying to make plans to meet for lunch. It's not any wonder most of us have resorted to using English.

I went to a garden center to look into planting a lawn on our front yard. I asked the Dominican assistant there for pasto--grass, and he had no clue what I was talking about. He called his boss, the Portuguese owner who speaks passable Spanish, and I repeated the question. Again--blank look.

"It's the green stuff that grows in gardens--lawns," I said, feeling half-frustrated, half-stupid.

"What color are the flowers?" he asked.

"No, no flowers. Just--" I gestured with my hands, "long blades. Green blades." Then I spotted a lawn across the street. "THAT is what I need. Pasto."

He threw his head back and laughed. "You want grama. For a lawn."

Grama? I'd never even heard the word before. Without the visual aid, I'd have been forced to stealing a chunk of grama from someone's yard.

We writers are more-than-normally aware of the power of words, of using the right word for the precise moment. We know the absolute authority they possess, the weight they carry. We aspire to, if not master this power, at least harness it.

And yet most of us are like Phaeton: harnessing a chariot whose power is beyond our comprehension, and which can--and will, if we don't curb our enthusiasm and pig-headedness--destroy us.

23 comments :

  1. Wow -- fascinating post!

    I only speak English, and just trying to keep that one languuage straight is hard enough. Finding the correct word for the right situation is tough, just using English. Trying to add in the complexities from multiple translational possibilities is mind-boggling, lol!

    And thank you very much for the visit, comment, and follow on my blog -- I'm your newest follower, also!

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    1. Thanks for the visit, Chris, and glad you liked the post. I agree--one language seems to be more than enough, haha.

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  2. Having worked in Norway, Sweden, Denmark I still get confused between diferent meanings so much that I often spell control as kontrol, job as jobb - the list of similarities is endless. Spell in France, Germany and Mexico have helped either - just brought more confusion of the type you have so well illustrated. Great post.

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    1. Hahaha--I can totally sympathize, Bob. My spelling has also suffered: I continuously spell certain words wrong either in Spanish or English. For example, "consequence" is with a Q in English, but with a C in Spanish ("consecuencia")--and I can never remember which one is which in which language, haha.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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    2. Pretty much anything with a "kwa" sound will have a "qu" spelling in English, but it's such a tricky language because there are always exceptions (like "awkward", which English certainly is).

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  3. Why do they have to make it all so complicated? Imagine if we all spoke the same lanuage.

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    1. Agreed, Cassam--it would be simpler... But also impossible. The example of Spanish being different in each country, or even English (British vs. Australian vs. American vs. New Zealand, for instance) teaches us that even the *same* language acquires a localized character through time. Even if we all spoke, say, American English, we'd have to relocate periodically to make sure the language kept its "purity". Funny, right?

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    2. Great post! I did a linguistics major in college so this is all fascinating to me, especially the differences between dialects of the same language. (Oddly enough, even though I live in southern California and it would be useful, I never learned any variant of Spanish.) Cola, as in the soda, is one of those words that always comes up in linguistics classes to illustrate differences in American English dialects. Here on the west coast, we usually call it soda, but in other places in the country it's cola or pop or even Coke (even for other brands and flavors, like Pepsi or orange soda).

      What's funny is that there is some linguistic scholarship theorizing that as the world becomes more globalized (and media, specifically American media, gains dominance across the world), English is becoming and will continue to become more homogenous. I doubt we'll ever be 100% universal across different continents simply because of things like regional slang and its delayed/low adoption into mainstream media, but things may become more standardized. I'm also not too sure this trend would happen with any other language, simply because I'm not sure any one inundates the global entertainment market to the same degree.

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    3. Super interesting, Kristin. Yep, I'm familiar with the "soda vs. pop" issue :) Funny trivia: here in Curacao "soda" is called "lemonade" :D Yet another layer of confusing language issues to trip us up, haha!

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  4. Oh my words! Yes, words are powerful weapons. I just love your blog and you write your posts in great details. I blame my 3-4 babies. ;) Mine are well, just scraping by A to Z challenge.

    How do you pronounce your name? What does it mean? It looks like mine. :)

    Did you know in English some words have similar sounds as Mongolian but totally different meanings. There are names like Batbold - means Steelbrave and I remember some official people were checking with me if this was a real name. I was interpreting for them. :))

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    1. Awww, Guuye, my posts are nothing but ramblings... I just talk too much (and the internet is my captive audience, haha). You, on the other hand, have kids to keep you company :) Thank you for the compliment, though, and I'm really glad you like the blog.

      My dad invented my name, always said it doesn't come from anywhere (but there's a similar French name, spelled with two Ls, although it's a male name), so it doesn't mean anything... Unless you believe an old friend, who decided it meant "quiet laughter"--hence the name of the blog :) It's pronounced GEE (as in "geese")--LEE--EH. How do you pronounce yours?

      Lord, yes--those words that have similar spellings/sounds in different languages are a problem! Especially with names. In Dutch there are some really funny last names, like "naked born" (as opposed to... born fully clothed?). I'll have to write a post on those--and I'll ask you for input to include some Mongolian anecdotal names, too :)

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  5. I'm glad someone else thinks about these things the way I do. I'm fluent in French and German (and, of course, my native American English), and one of my ongoing games is to "translate" the meaning of the wacky collection of last names we have in the US. It's gotten to the point that my husband asks me on a regular basis: "So. What does so-and-so's name mean?" Given the plethora of words out there, it frustrates me too, to see authors shying away from using just that perfect (maybe obscure) word for fear of making a reader look up a new word. With eReaders' capacity to highlight and research, we should all be stretching our language use. :)

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    1. LOL--yes, that's pretty much the way I felt when I found your blog, Tonya: "yay! someone thinks about these things!" :) The semantics of names fascinates me, and my Dutch boyfriend is always snickering about Spanish last names (Cabeza de Vaca, for example, which translates as Cowhead. "How do you do, Ms. Cowhead?" LOL). Thanks for stopping by!

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  6. "Words are like slithery, slippery creatures. And their power multiplies exponentially when we introduce other languages."

    Ooh, I really love that! Words ARE so dynamic across cultures and languages. We tend to toss them about without a lot of thought at times, when we should probably view them as exhaustible resources. I think writers tend to value them more because we can only put so many on a page. : )

    Beautiful post!

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    1. I'm so glad you liked it, E.J., and your tweet about it was so cool it made me blush :D Thanks for the visit!

      Hmmm... Exhaustible resources... Interesting concept, EJ--agreed!

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  7. Words are tricky! I didn't know there were so many variations of Spanish. Very interesting post.

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    1. Thanks for the visit, Sherry, and glad to help you learn a bit about my language... Or my "version" of my language, haha!

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  8. Word/language confusions can be so funny! I particularly love Chinglish signs, and when I was in China I saw many. For instance, one said: Please Slip Gently. Another said: Anonymous Paragraph Salad!!!!!!!!!!

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    1. Oh no! Hahahahaha--hilarious :D I love "Dutchisms"--the Dutch happen to be very fond of sayings--you know, little aphorisms for every occasion, which is super cute--especially when they translate them literally: "we are now on glad ice" ("glad", in Dutch, means "slippery"). Your Chinglish signs would make the Dutch proud :D

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  9. Another thing I find fascinating about languages is the tendency for some to assign a gender to words, but the gender seems to be based on whimsy, and isn't the same from one language to the next.

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  10. ROTFL - when my dad was in Bolivia in the Peace Corp and struggling to learn Spanish, he made some kind of embarrassing mistake. People chuckled and Dad tried to say he was embarrassed - which only made them laugh even more because, yep, you got it. Dad announced he was pregnant.

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  11. Ha Ha! Like your post. Your frustration with language reminds me of the time I was getting help packing our house up. I thought Leticia, through our attempts to communicate at sign language, was 4 months pregnant, and told her boyfriend and my husband so when they showed up.

    Of course, it was news to them. Leticia had 4 children, and was very definitely not 4 months pregnant. Oops.

    New follower here. Trying to get to my 100. Can you help?

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  12. What with drama with grama and cola going way beyond Coke, and being embarrassed leading to a pregnant silence ... makes my head spin, but great fun!

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