JANE: Welcome to Thursday Tangents. If you’d like Wednesday Wanderings,
just page back, but please come back and join us for more strange language trivia.
Alan and I have been discussing how loan words from other languages become part of English, further complicating difficulties in communicating between English-speakers in different parts of the world.
ALAN: Last time you asked me if the words I was using were really loan words or were they just Maori words that I’d learned. In other words, I suppose, when does a word truly become part of the language?
One of the words I used last time was hui – an important meeting. By a strange coincidence, one of the items on the television news tonight was a report on a hui that had taken place that day. And the word hui was used without any translation or qualification. It was just assumed that everyone knew what it meant. So I think we can safely say that it really has become part of the everyday vocabulary.
Other words are perhaps a little more suspect, and while you would certainly be understood if you used them, I doubt that you would use them often, if at all. I drink too much beer and eat too much food and so I have a puku (a belly). Men with a puku are often Kaumatua (respected people, usually elderly). They tend to have a puku because , being tribal elders, their lifestyle tends towards the sedentary. So a puku is a mark of authority and influence. Such people have much mana – which is to say prestige, authority, charisma and great spiritual power.
JANE: “Mana” – as in the term that is now commonly used to mean “magical energy”? I never realized it had a Maori root. That’s fascinating.
ALAN: The word “taboo” also has a Maori root – their word for the same concept is tapu.
JANE: Since I live in New Mexico, I am casually familiar with a great number of Spanish words. Some have equivalents in English , such as using avenida rather than “avenue,” but some do reflect things or ideas that aren’t common in American culture.
One of these came up in a Wednesday Wanderings back in December of 2010 when we talked about coming of age rituals. This is the quinceanera (tilde over the second “n” for you purists), which is celebrated on a girl’s fifteenth birthday. I’ve often wished the secular “Anglo” culture in which I live had something similar.
At the risk of getting too serious, do you think the Maori loan words serve a cultural need for those outside of Maori culture?
ALAN: I’m not sure it works that way. James Nicoll, a Canadian SF reviewer once said, “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”
In other words, English speakers seem to absorb words from the languages that surround them without even thinking about it. It’s just something that we do.
Though, as with your example of quinceanera, one very good reason for borrowing a word is because we don’t have an adequate word for the concept it describes.
Consequently when my cat died earlier this year, we held a tangi for him. Essentially the word means to weep or lament, but it is now usually used to mean a funeral celebration which, while being a sad occasion of course, is also an opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of the individual being mourned. Speeches (korero), both formal and informal, are given. I wrote an article celebrating Porgy’s life rather than making a speech, but nevertheless I felt that it was part of his tangi.
JANE: Porgy was a good cat. His courage in facing illness certainly made him worthy of a tangi.
Now that I think about it, while food and custom are places where loan words enter a language, the arts are another. I’d enjoy discussing that next time.