TT: Borrowing Trouble

If you’re looking for Wednesday Wanderings, just wander back a page to find out what sunflowers and the rock band Queen have in common.  Or read on…

JANE: Alan, last week you brought up the question of loan words from other

Maori War Club

languages that enter English, specifically, Maori words into the local New Zealand version of English.

Can you give us a few interesting ones?

ALAN: Well perhaps the most obvious is that Maori refer to non-Maori people as pakeha, and many non-Maori New Zealanders like me think of themselves as pakeha, even though the word is actually a little insulting in its original context.

JANE: That’s interesting. I believe something similar has happened here in the Southwest with the Navajo term Belacani. I’d heard that it was a somewhat derogatory term, but two Navajos working with Jim say it’s merely descriptive. It means something like “people who turn red in the sun, but are pale in the shade.” I can see why early translators would have figured this was derogatory.

Although it hasn’t entered into general use, it seems to have lost some of its sting. There’s a trading post in Santa Fe called “Belacani.”

ALAN: That sounds like a very similar concept. Isn’t it fascinating that two utterly different cultures have a word for that idea? The original meaning of pakeha is specifically a white person of European descent – it appears to be a neologism coined by the Maori to describe these weird pale-skinned people who turned up out of the blue one day.

JANE: Many years ago, for an anthology called Visions of Liberty, I wrote a short story set in New Zealand called “Pakeha,” in which the word and the qualities it has come to stand for are central to the tale.

So, tell me some other Maori words that have entered New Zealand English.

ALAN: There are lots of other examples. We are all of us, of course, Tangata Whenua, which translates as “the people of the land”. Obviously, that is the Maori description of their own place in the world as first settlers, but those of us who feel a strong sense of identity with the place where we live could equally well describe ourselves that way.

There are times when our Government makes unpopular decisions and naturally we all want to protest and make our feelings known. Most countries would have a protest march and a demonstration, but we have a hikoi.

A meeting held to discuss important matters is a hui.

We all like to eat, and food (kai) is an important part of everyone’s life. The sea (moana) surrounds us and provides a rich harvest of kai moana. Barbecues are very popular, of course, but so are hangi where the food is wrapped in leaves (these days they use aluminium foil) and buried in a pit lined with hot stones and just left to itself for hours and hours. In the evening, you dig the food up and have a feast.

JANE: Here we go with food again… I love seafood. Go on…

ALAN: But don’t confuse a hangi with a hongi. The latter is a greeting where you touch foreheads and noses with another person in an encounter. It serves a similar purpose to a handshake and is often used together with a handshake on formal occasions, particularly when taking part in a powhiri; a Maori welcoming ceremony which has become very much part of our culture. Visiting dignitaries are often greeted with a powhiri when they arrive in the country. I was once honoured with a powhiri. I found it to be a hugely emotional experience, very touching.

JANE: Not that I don’t think you’re worthy, but was there a special occasion for your powhiri?

ALAN: Well, yes and no. My parents-in-law were visiting from Australia and we took them on a tour of the South Island. We visited a place that offered “A Genuine Maori Experience”. It was obviously geared very much towards tourists, but nevertheless it was a perfectly genuine reflection of Maori protocols.

A young lady called Tina who was dressed in traditional costume and who had the proper facial moku (tattoo) introduced herself to us and welcomed us.

“You,” she explained, “are visitors to our land. But before you can be properly welcomed, we must know who your chief is. Which one of you is the chief?”

Every eyeball in the audience clicked into place and stared at me.

“Are you the chief?” asked Tina.

“Yes,” I said, “I suppose I am.”

“And is the beautiful woman beside you your queen?”

“Indeed she is.”

And so I became a chief for a day and Robin became a queen.

Tina led us off into the forest, explaining points of interest to us along the way. Suddenly an enormous tattooed Maori warrior jumped out of the bush and confronted us. Eyes popping, tongue sticking out, he waved his spear and roared a challenge. He placed a small, leafed branch on the ground and retreated. I picked it up and held it, thus indicating that I was coming in peace.

I was astonished at the overwhelming emotion of the moment, the sense of taking part in a truly foreign and yet at the same time oddly familiar ritual. There was a feeling of spiritual rightness about the moment. I felt very strongly the deep cultural heritage with which I was now involved. It was all extremely moving,

Later, as we left, I planted the small leafed branch that I had been presented with in the soil. It seemed wrong to take the branch away with me. It belonged here in the forest. But I couldn’t bring myself to simply discard it either. Probably it won’t take root, but nevertheless planting it seemed like the right sort of gesture to make.

JANE: That’s all very interesting, but are these really loan words, or are they just Maori words that you have learned? To me there is a big difference. I know a Spanish word for “watermelon” is sandia – and so do most locals, since the mountains that border Albuquerque to the east are called the “Sandias.” However, I have never been offered a slice of sandia anywhere. Therefore, to me, it is not a “loan word.”

However, burrito, chalupa, quesadilla have all become loan words. They are used by preference, even when American marketers have tried to introduce terms like “wrap” for burrito.

ALAN: Good point! Let me think about that and I’ll discuss it with you next week.


7 Responses to “TT: Borrowing Trouble”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    You know, there’s something about Polynesian languages and places that seem to lend themselves to loaning. Hawaii has similar borrowings from native Hawaiian. The kikis (kids) for example. I’d guess the reason is that the Polynesian languages are easier to pick up than many others.

    I live in a real ethnic melting pot, and it’s fascinating to see what gets borrowed and what does not. Food terms get borrowed with abandon, of course, but there’s also the fun of seeing what terms the first generation Americans hold on to from their parents’ cultures.

  2. janelindskold Says:

    “Ethnic melting pot” definitely describes where I live now, and where I lived (D.C.) as a child. Much as I enjoyed my five years in south central Virginia, I missed the multi-culturalism a great deal.

  3. CBI Says:

    Interesting choice of words, “multi-culturalism”. I know what you mean by it in this context, and love much of the ethnic differences. Yet I hear the word used so often as a club to attempt to justify (or at least deflect criticism of) things within some cultures which are quite intolerant, or, more often, to criticize as merely cultural some aspects of Western civilization which are of more universal application.

    Perhaps an adequate vocabulary has not yet been developed to readily discuss the different parts of various cultures: some cultural differences are wonderful while other differences are incompatible. I’ve found that this lack of vocabulary (or perhaps some over cause) makes discussions difficult and misunderstandings quite common.

    I think we can all agree that the best portion of the melting pot is the wide variety of food and food traditions, not only specific styles, but the mixture of various styles. Yum!

  4. heteromeles Says:

    Hi CBI,

    Actually, I’d suggest that the first stage of food adaptation is “Americanizing” it, which generally means more meat, more sugar, less salt, etc. Then they hybridize (Kim’s Mexican Burrito?), then they go for “traditional” or “gourmet” versions which bring over the tastes from home.

    You can follow this generationally: the immigrants coming over want to fit in, so their food becomes Americanized, in part because they are cooking with new ingredients, in part because, well, they want to become American. The first generation Americans are trying to figure out how to blend their cultures. They may or may not speak their parent’s native language, they may or may not date someone of the same nationality, etc. Their food shows this hybrid quality too. This may explain why there’s Kim’s Korean Burrito now, and not in the 1960s. Their children (2nd generation American) want to reconnect with their ethnic roots, because they don’t feel that being American is enough. That’s when the real genius of the parent culture comes over. That’s where Italian and Mexican cooking are now, in the US.

    Now, about multiculturalism. it’s *HARD* to break the habits one has learned in one’s youth. Yet the US is a nation of immigrants. How do you reconcile these two extremes? Multiculturalism. This is otherwise known as letting people out of the ‘hood and into the ‘burbs. Immigrant neighborhoods aren’t all bad: they give people churches (mosques, temples, synagogues) to share, places where immigrants can get familiar food, places where people understand your language, reference points, and way of thinking, and networks where people immigrants help each other get along. Countervailing that is ‘burbs, the sense that you don’t need this special support network anymore. That’s part of becoming American too.

    My family’s been in the US since the early 1700s, if you trace the longest root. We’ve married immigrants every few generations ever since, more or less. This kind of multiculturalism has been going on for a very long time.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    I’m impressed by such a balanced discussion of a potential hot button issue.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  6. CBI Says:

    Hi, Jane & Heteromeles,

    Sorry for the late repoly. I definitely do enjoy the tone on this blog.

    Interesting thoughts on Americanization and food. I wonder if there is a country/city component to it, for that doesn’t correspond that well to my own family’s experience (rural), and is probably closer to my wife’s (city, but no “ethnic food” to speak of, being less-than-dirt-poor Irish).

    My mom is third-generation American, but her native language is German: she didn’t learn English until she started school. I don’t think there was any sort of attempt to Americanize food: recipes from my childhood, especially from her mom, could come straight from a Deutscher Küchen. If there was any borrowing, it was with my mom from the Mexican and Southern influences. On the other hand, my wife grew up Irish in a mixed Jewish and Italian neighborhood in New York City. Her own cooking (her hobby) is all over the map: learned from friends, travels, and just trying things out.

    As for food hybridization, I now always think of your post when I pass by the “Azteca Chinese” restaurant!

    If “multiculturalism” were merely applied to food and to languages and social clubs — the “hoods-to-burbs” bit — then I think that the label wouldn’t have some of the negative connotations it has acquired. What you call hoods-to-burbs is a reflection mainly on a specific culture, an American culture, which has as a component then idea that a person is not tied to his past and has the opportunity to break with it and start over. This is not found, at least to a great degree, in most cultures.

    The negative connotation of the label “multiculturalism” seems to me to stem from its admixture with various Group Identity philosophies, along with an overtone of “no culture is worse than Western civilization” (as someone once put it to me). I’ve experienced this sort of ‘multiculturalism’ (using scare quotes now) in both university and workplace settings, and seen it used to justify forms of racial or ethnic discrimination in treatment (which American culture would move away from). Anyway, that’s why I shy away from the term.

  7. heteromeles Says:

    Hi CBI,

    Well, my German ancestors were master machinists who went to work around the industrial areas of the upper Midwest, so I do have a different background. The century before that, my English mining and farming ancestors got their kids to go to school so they could be teachers in town. You’re right, in that ‘hoods to ‘burbs is a modern phenomenon. Still, most of my friends are recent immigrants, and that’s what they and their friends are doing. It all depends on where the jobs are, for a particular group.

    Still, my Asian partner is learning how to make lebkuchen and springerli for Christmas, with me, from my family recipes (sorry for the lack of detail, but I keep her life private on the internet). Perhaps multiculturalism as a label has a bad rap, so we can just say, “that’s America.”

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