Thursday, October 02, 2008

stolen words

The other day, I met an Australian friend of mine for some beers with him and his girlfriend. We were talking about this, that, and everything when suddenly he got quite livid about the fact that Japanese people don't borrow the English word for platypus. I pointed out that elephant and rhinoceros are among many other Japanese animal words that have endemic names. I thought he was getting up in arms about how a lot of other words are borrowed phonetically (computer becomes "konpyuta" and smile becomes "sumairu" and so and so forth) but he clarified that he was more annoyed that the word wasn't borrowed as it exists in English because there was no way for a platypus to be local in Japan. That they were local to Australia, and that it made no sense to have a "native" Japanese word. I argued that in Japanese it must just be a translation of the Latin (which I was wrong, apparently platypus means "flat footed" in Latin, I need to brush up on my Latin. Literally it means something akin to "duck's bill" in Japanese which I guess is actually a translation of the nickname "duckbill platypus") but none the less I don't think I really got how frustrated this made him feel. Flashfoward to the next day, focus on my Chinese class. (Yes, I'm taking Mandarin at work. Employee discount, and it's fun!) The teacher shows me a picture of a lady standing in front of the statue of liberty. He asks me (in Chinese of course) "Where is she from?" and I smile, knowing I can ring this one, and answer "She is from America." The teacher (a temperamental old bald man) nods, I've quieted his tamper for the time being. I have answered this question, and he wont get mad at me yet. (He tends to get upset when I answer incorrectly, something that puzzles me as a student. I'm learning, take it easy on me!) He asks, "Where is she from in America?" and I smile, confidence leaking into my grin. "New York." I say in what I assume is a Chinese accent for the place, I get close enough to receive another nod. (Something like "niu yue".) Then he throws me a curve ball, he asks me "Where is she from in New York?" I panic. Whaaaat. I try to throw on a direction word I am learning, "North New York?" He glares, not the faintest hint of a nod. I smile. Still no nod. That doesn't work. I try a Chinese pronunciation for "Queens". It doesn't work. But he decides to cut me some slack, he says, "Queens? ahhh, huang hou qu?" (Keep in mind, qu should be read CHU here.) And I have the "wow, that's what my Ozzy friend ment!" moment. I got it. It felt so weird to have a name that wasn't phonetically borrowed when talking about a borough of New York. Shouldn't it just be a borrowed word? How can there be an endemic word for Queens? It's maybe a translation, instead of a stolen phonetic copy like I was expecting. Thoughts shot through my head. If I didn't misunderstand, that meant something beautiful. There are a million sounds to describe anything. What we tag to things are only the sounds we have been assigned to associate with those things through our connection with our own language frames. There is an infinite way to perceive things. Cool!
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