TT: Have I Got A Word For You!

JANE: Welcome to Thursday Tangents. If you’d like Wednesday Wanderings,

New Zealand and Earrings

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.


7 Responses to “TT: Have I Got A Word For You!”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Since I read about Oceanic archeology and anthropology for fun–yes, really*–all I can say is that according to the anthropologists, taboo and mana were borrowed into English from Tahitian. Which is, of course, quite similar to Maori.

    I know that mana is conventionally taken as “magical energy” but perhaps a better translation is “authority” or “authorship,” as in the ability to create or alter reality. Or at least, the way reality is perceived. Yes, authors have lots of mana and should be properly respected properly.

    *I just finished reading Kirch’s Road of the Winds. Good book, and fun to read, too.

  2. Peter Says:

    An amusing example of linguistic borrowing causing confusion can be found in long-term English-speaking expats in Mexico, who almost invariably end up calling the small green-skinned citrus fruit a lemon, since Mexican Spanish uses “limon” interchangeably for lemons and limes.

    Linguistic borrowing is hardly unique to English, of course – familiar words like “canoe”, and “admiral” are loan-words from Spanish, which in turn borrowed them from other languages (Arawak and Arabic, respectively). When I lived in Poland and my computer needed repair, I took it to a store offering “Serwis laptopow” (the Polish ‘w’ is pronounced like the English ‘v’). Tying together two discussions, after having a couple of cups of coffee in Saudi Arabia, one will likely find oneself asking for directions to the…WC.

  3. janelindskold Says:

    I like that authors have mana… That’s something.

    One of the odd things about loan words — or even knowing word origins — for me is how hard it makes writing imaginary world fantasy.

    Teresa Nielsen Hayden (my editor for the Firekeeper books) and I used to run into this all the time…

  4. Louis Robinson Says:

    @ Jane: fascinating. would you be so kind as to elaborate on that some time?

    • janelindskold Says:

      Louis —

      I’m not sure what you’d like me to elaborate on… What Teresa and I used to talk about, maybe?

      If so, one example was what word to use for what Melina Shield did to her children…

      I used the word “mesmerism,” but Teresa protested because that was related to “Mesmer.”

      She suggested “hypnotism” and I protested because that was related to the god Hypnos.

      We finally compromised on “trance induction.”

  5. Alex Says:

    One of the things in NZ is the tension between English and Maori. Regrettably Maori is, despite strong efforts (and some lip service), in decline. There are fewer and fewer people who are comfortable in Maori. This is not helped by the fact that it isn’t a language in everyday use. You see in American TV programs that there are whole communities in which Spanish is a necessity. That’s not the case in Aotearoa. It is generally only in very special circumstances that something would need to be transacted in Maori.

    A few years ago there was a huge controversy in one of the main papers (“The Dominion”) It was pointed out that Maori does not use the ‘s’ for plurals. If you want to describe a group of Maori people, you refer to them as Maori. The plural of kiwi is kiwi and so on.

    Up until that time, the pakeha community had quite happily applied ‘s’ endings to all sort of Maori words. One tui, two tuis, one Maori, two Maoris. And “The Dominion” defended that its house style was to refer to a group of Maori as “Maoris”. Later on, I believe they quietly discarded this attitude.

    English in New Zealand is not in the process of borrowing words from Maori. It is in the process of stealing and redefining words from Maori, just as pakeha culture is in the process of stealing and redefining the Haka (and in the case of the Haka diluting it into something as meaningful as Morris Dancing).

    • Alan Robson Says:

      It’s a fine distinction — when does borrowing become stealing? You are quite correct in everything you say and it is indeed possible that we are living in the last days of Maori as a language and a culture. I for one regret that.

      You can draw analogies with the way the Welsh language and culture has almost died out under the domination of English. Yet still it stays alive.

      However I can’t think of any Welsh loan words in English except possibly “cwm”, and that isn’t a term used often in everyday conversation. Perhaps the Maori language just has lots of useful words for us to use?


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