Words both common and not

Knowing other languages can teach us a lot about our own. Not only can common sources for words between our native and target languages help us learn vocabulary, but sometimes an unknown word in our target language can teach us a word we didn’t know in our native language. Here are examples of both.

One of the first sounds that a baby makes, regardless of culture or language exposure, is some sort of “Mmm,” usually associated with an “ah.” If you think about the human mouth for a second, this makes total sense. Close your mouth and try to exhale, and what sound do you make? Now open your lips mid-exhale, and what are the combined sounds?

Ma.

Once a baby realizes they can control the sounds they’re making, it’s a simple step to “mama,” and this sound refers to all things mother in so many different cultures and languages that it’s ridiculous. In Chinese and Japanese both, the word is pronounced mama, and you find very similar things in Zulu (umama), Thai (maaa), Punjabi (mami), and Irish Gaelic (mam). Even in Basque, which is said to be not related to any other known language, the word is ama.

Although less universal, in a lot of Western languages, the M sounds still holds when you get formal: mother, madre, Mutter, mère, mama, matka. And extending the concept via Latin into Romance languages, you find the official word for breasts coming from the same place: mammaries — which makes total sense if you keep in mind that one of a mother’s major functions after giving birth is to feed her child. And that’s true of any animal that is classified as… a mammal.

In case you were wondering where that term came from, ta-da!

I was reminded of this linguistic evolution when I ran across a story in La Opinión with the headline “Policía amamanta a bebé cuya familia sufrió un accidente.” The word that stuck out because I didn’t know it was amamanta, but in the context of the rest, I took a guess and then looked it up to find out that I’d been right. The infinitive form of the verb is amamantar, but if you get rid of the prefix, “a,” and the verb ending, “tar,” you’re left with maman. The prefix “a” is the Spanish word for “to,” but it is also often used when the direct object of a verb is a person, in which case it’s referred to as the “personal ‘a.’” (It even appears in the headline, right before the word bebé.) I won’t get into that here, except to say that affixing an “a” to a verb often means that the verb indicates that the subject is doing something for someone else.

If you haven’t guessed the meaning already, the rest of the sentence is talking about a police officer, and a baby whose family was in an accident. Think of the verb as “mothering-to,” and you can see how it means to breastfeed. The mammaries are right there in the word, so to speak. It just takes a little breaking down to get to them.

And then there are those cases where not knowing a word in our target language at all leads us to look it up only to find out that we don’t know the word in our native language, either. In my case, it was the Spanish word álgido, which I ran across recently. I couldn’t figure it out in context no matter how hard I tried, so resorted to looking it up, only to learn that the English word was… algid.

Okay, that was a new one to me, too. The form of the word in both languages told me that it was probably an adjective — many Spanish adjectives end in –ido/-ida or –ado/-ada because the past participle of the verb is often used that way, just as it is in English: he’s baked, you’re stoked, all the leaves are raked, and so on. Also, a lot of English adjectives end in –id, e.g. rigid.

Otherwise, guessing the meaning really didn’t help. Sure, a lot of Spanish words borrowed from Arabic start with “al,” like alfombra (carpet), or algodon (cotton). Even English got the word algebra from Arabic, but all that the “al” prefix means in Arabic is “the.” Compare this with the Spanish masculine the, “el,” so el algodon is technically redundant. And if you take the al off of álgido, all you’re left with is gido, which means nothing because the only logical verbs it could be derived from would be ger or gir, which do not exist.

And so looking up the translation for álgido in English led me to algid and taught me nothing, so I finally had to resort to an English dictionary, where I looked up the word, doubting that I wound find anything — except that I did. The words in both languages mean frozen or cold, and they come from the Latin word algidus, which means exactly the same thing. It came into English in the very early 17th century as a medical term, and since Latin was still all up the butts of academics and religious at the time, this is probably how it came into Spanish, too. The only difference was in how both languages liked to make their adjectives, so Spain went the –o/–a ending route, while English cut it short.

And there’s another English word that looks a lot like this one and means the same thing: Frigid. Ironically, this word also came into English from Latin, but about a generation before algid. Why one persisted in every day speech and the other didn’t is a mystery I’m not going to try to solve.

And yes, the word for frigid exists in Spanish, too — but I’ll bet you a quarter you can figure out what it is without me even telling you.

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