Language is a Shapeshifting Beast

Language is built largely on listening mistakes and ignorance, or, officially, “adaptations”.

The word alligator comes from the Spanish el lagarto (de Indias), which means “lizard (of the Indies)”. It’s not hard to imagine what happened there. An English traveler and Spaniard’s paths converged somewhere in the Indies. An alligator, which the Englishman had never seen before in his life, swam by. “Bloody mother of the Queen, what the devil is that?!” he cried. The Spaniard, who had seen such creatures many times and was more or less indifferent, shrugged and said, “Ah, es solamente el lagarto.”

“Alligator, you say? Rather feisty fellow, if I may daresay. . .eth.”

With that, the two men parted ways. The Englishman returned home with sketches and tall tales of the beast. “Let me tell you about the terror of the alligator,” his eyes glistening with the joy of travels fondly remembered. His listeners captivated, word soon began to spread. Alligator this, alligator that. Eventually, you had people traveling to Spain to learn more about these creatures. “Tell us about the alligators!” they’d say, eyes glistening with the anticipation of regalement to come.

“What the hell is an alligator?” the Spaniards would reply. “Some kind of guitar?”

By and by, this would incite the Twenty Years’ War and the invasion of England by the Spanish Armada.

Ironically, el lagarto comes from the same original Latin word as the English word lizard (L. lacertus). In other words, when the Englishman asked the Spaniard what he was looking at, the Spaniard simply replied, “a lizard”.

Likewise, in Japan, you might find yourself in a very hot room, where a man flails his hands about and cries, “It’s burning up in here! Somebody get the rimokon for the eakon!

“You want the who for the which now?” you ask, puzzled.

“Come on, foreigner, get with the program. I’m using your words.”

Rimokon and eakon. One means “remote controller”, one means “air conditioner”. He thinks it’s English. You think it’s Japanese. What the hell happened? Certainly it’s possible that both words are just so unattractive that no one wants to claim propriety, but it’s more likely that these words came to Japan from America through various industrial connections, but since most borrowed words sound twice as long in Japanese due to the necessary coupling of all consonants with vowels, they were quickly abbreviated so that they could be crammed into sentences over and over and people could still finish talking before lunchtime. These abbreviations, seen above, no longer bore any resemblance to their origins. As Americans–the inventors of English–it’s easy to see things like this and throw a fit: “How dare they corrupt our glorious words with their haphazard abbreviations and such?! These words don’t belong to them!” Still, it’s at least a step up from the Rape of Nanking, so throw them a bone?

Or if that’s not convincing enough, consider this: Remote, as explained by etymology site, comes from the Latin remotus, past perfect tense of removere, meaning “to move back or away”. In other words, remotus meant something to the effect of “far away” or “remote” in the adjectival sense. Control, meanwhile, apparently comes from the Latin contra (“against”) and rotulus (wheel). One can imagine an abstract, gradual evolution where the words against and wheel came to be combined to mean something like “manipulate”. After all, doesn’t “control” in its barest sense mean to apply a force to something that is contrary to that thing’s natural momentum? But surely nobody in Roman times could have imagined that one day people would be waving around little black rectangles that could summon forth great adventures, horrors, and delights, and that these rectangles would be called “far aways”. Language is, by nature, an ever-adapting, ever-mutating phenomenon.

Perhaps you’ve created your own language, at home or among friends. We do it all the time. In my home, if Dad says “Jeet?” we know exactly what he’s asking. If he says “Skwa,” we know what that means too. The following conversation is not at all infeasible in the Moore household:

Dad: “Jeet?”
Me: “Not yet.”
Dad: “Feel like Italian?”
Me: “Sure.”
Dad: “‘Kay. Y’ready?”
Me: “Sure.”
Dad: “Skwa.”
Me: “‘Kay.”

I like to think this special, exclusive sort of communication plays a big part in bringing people together. If my own experiences are to be trusted, it seems to me that couples that have spent many years together can hold basic conversations in the midst of heavy food-chewing, dental grooming, or any other activity which incapacitates the organs responsible for producing enunciated speech, simply by relying on inflection alone. The following conversation is also a common occurrence in the Moore household:

Mom: “Hmmhmm HM hm hm?”
Dad: “HmhmHMhmhm hm.”
Mom: “Hmmm.”

Indeed, Yoko and I have become capable of this in recent years as well, except in our case, it’s done bilingually. So it sounds more like this:

Yoko: “Hmm hmhmhm HMhmhmhm?
Me: “Mm. Hmhmhm HMHM hmhm.

Consequently, my life may sound like quite the funny farm, but I’ll bet this is a pretty common phenomenon. I want to hear from people about the language they create on a day-to-day basis. So please!

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