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12 English Words Derived from an Extinct Caribbean Language

Reconstruction of Taino village, via Michal Zalewski//CC BY-SA 3.0

When Columbus landed in the New World in 1492, the first humans he encountered were the Taino, an Arawak people, then the most numerous group in the Caribbean, inhabiting what are now Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. They were skilled navigators and farmers with complex social systems, art, music, and poetry. But within half a century, diseases brought by the Spanish wiped out most of the Taino population. Traces of their civilization are preserved in words adopted by the Spanish that passed into English and other languages.

1. BARBECUE

In a 1526 account of life in the Indies, Spanish explorer Gonzalo Fernández De Oviedo y Valdés describes something called barbacoa, which was either a raised platform for storing grain and occasionally cooking food, or the particular method of cooking meat on that device. More than a century later, “barbacu’d” first appears in English, as a verb, in Edmund Hickeringill’s Jamaica Viewed (1661). Other travelers to Jamaica helped popularize barbecue cookery in England, and the word was adopted without reference to its other meanings.

2. CARIBBEAN

The region takes its name from the indigenous people called in English Carib, from Spanish caribe, which comes from a word in the Arawakan language group (probably Taino) meaning human being.

3.CANNIBAL

Since different dialects of Taino interchanged l, n, and r sounds, when Columbus heard the name of the Caribe in Cuba, it sounded like "Caniba." The fierce tribe was believed to eat human flesh and the word—anglicized as “cannibal”—was generalized to mean man-eater.

4. CANOE

Canoe, originally meaning a dugout like those used by the natives of the West Indies, entered English in the mid-1500s. It comes from Spanish canoa, which Columbus picked up from the Taino of modern day Haiti.

5. CAY

Confused about the difference between cay, key, (like the Florida Keys), and quay? You’re not alone. English speakers have been muddling them for centuries. The first two refer to a low bank or reef of coral, rock, or sand. Quay (pronounced “key”) is an artificial bank or landing stage, typically built of stone. Quay entered Middle English from Anglo-Norman. English got both cay and key from Spanish cayo. The Spanish word may come from Taino kaya or from French quai (which is pronounced “kay” and means quay). Originally, “cay” and “key” were the same word, sometimes spelled one way but pronounced the other.

6. GUAVA

Guava derives from Spanish guayaba, which comes (essentially unchanged) from Arawak wayaba.

7. HAMMOCK

Spanish colonists learned about hammocks from the Taino, who were protected from crawling critters in their suspended woven-bark beds. Hamaka is Haitian Taino for “fish net.” In the late 16th century, the British Royal Navy fitted out the gun decks of their ships with hammocks, which allowed sleeping sailors to sway with the motion of the ship instead of being pitched out of stationary bunks.

8. HURRICANE

Speaking of things that could dislodge a sailor from his bunk, "hurricane" comes from Spanish huracán, from Taino hurakán, “god of the storm.”

9. MAIZE

The Spanish word for what speakers of American English call “corn,” mahiz (now maíz) first shows up in 1500 in Columbus’s diary. The Taino word was mahiz or mahís.

10. POTATO

How could "potato" be of Taino origin? Potatoes don’t grow in the tropics; they’re from Peru, right? Right. But "potato" comes from the Spanish word patata, which comes from Taino batata, and refers to what we now call the sweet potato. Columbus introduced the plant to Spain in 1493. Later, Spanish explorers in the Andes encountered what we call potatoes. Spanish adopted the Quechua word papa for those tubers. English speakers used modifiers for the different kinds of “potatoes,” but confusion ensued anyway.

11. SAVANNAH

The word "savannah"—meaning an open plain of long grass, frequently with scattered drought-resistant trees—may bring East Africa to mind, but such grasslands also exist in the tropical West Indies. The Taino word zavana was adopted into post-classical Latin in 1516 as zauana and into Spanish in 1519 as çavana (now sabana). In the late 1600s, savannah began to be used in the English colonies of North America to mean a marsh, bog, or other damp or low-lying ground.

12. TOBACCO

According to Oviedo (the explorer mentioned above under "barbecue"), the Spanish word tabaco comes unchanged from a Haitian Taino word for the pipe used for smoking, but in a 1552 work, Spanish historian Bartolomé de las Casas says the word applied to a roll of dried leaves that was smoked like a cigar. The American Heritage Dictionary says Spanish may have been influenced by a similar Arabic word for a Mediterranean medicinal plant.

Sources: American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.); Library of Congress, Exhibits…Columbus and the Taino; Barbecue: a history; Oxford English Dictionary Online;  New Oxford American Dictionary, (2nd ed.)Wikipedia, Taíno language.

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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