Columbus Day & Word Loans

A few weeks ago, my best friend lent me a heating pad after I injured my back. It was a very thoughtful gesture and much appreciated; but eventually, I returned it. The heating pad wasn’t mine to keep, after all.

Objects and ownership are pretty straightforward, in that sense. I can lend you something, and after a while, you give it back. Now, depending on how [dis]organized someone is, this timeframe might be longer than you originally anticipated; but physical things are clearly here or there, yours or mine. The idea of lending money begins to get a bit more abstract when you are talking about credit (not cash); and to further complicate matters, sometimes the owner of that couch (~that you happened to ‘borrow’ for two years) no longer wants it anymore, which begs the question: did s/he lend or gift it to you?

What happens when we extend this to language? To jumpstart this conversation in my classroom, I like to ask first graders a deceivingly simple question, “So, does anyone know how to say, ‘taco’ in Spanish? What about mosquito? Papaya?” This throws even the native speakers off. Wait a second… (For older students, you can add in concepts, like déjà-vu.)

I can loan you a papaya to take a picture of it and you can give it back (well, you might eat it…), but what about the word papaya? Where did it come from? You see, word loans are not like other loans; they are, arguably, their own category and beast. But let’s back up.

My professional focus as a Spanish teacher is, of course, Spanish and everything that entails (culture, language, all 21 countries, music, food, etc.). But I am also equally interested in fascinated by other languages and particularly, what occurs when they interact or come into contact with one another. So… what happens when languages meet?

Is it like a meet-cute, where they walk off together in the sunset? Or more a ninja style battle, flying from roof to roof at dusk across the city? Or perhaps they don’t even notice each other at first?

Can we personify languages? Do they behave like humans? Every culture and word–and person–has its own story, that is for sure; but unlike people, I think it can be tricky to delineate exactly where one language ends and another begins… particularly when we take word loans into account.

For instance, today: [Christopher] Columbus Day. Now, many have (and had) strong opinions about this Genoese sailor from the 1400s–did you know that he was extremely religious but also thrown in jail for six weeks?–but today we will focus primarily on what happened to the Spanish language when he sailed across the ocean and unknowingly acted as a catalyst for languages to interact.

Let us start with the fact that, according to his diary entries, Columbus wrote in castellano (Castilian Spanish)–although, as philologist and historian Ramón Menéndez Pidal posits here, this was likely not his first language:

« nota reiteradas veces que el Almirante revela ‘ser natural de otra lengua, porque no penetra del todo la significación de los vocablos de la lengua castellana ni del modo de hablar de ella’ ».

Source (6)

Many hypothesize that Columbus’ native tongue was Ligurian, but he was clearly also familiar with Portuguese, Italian, and Castellano, among others. He presumably interacted with the monarchs Isabel and Fernando in Spanish when asking them (repeatedly, until he succeeded) to fund his overseas ventures and [four] voyages to the New World.

I mention this linguistic context and background because the subject of word loans comes up in his castellano diary entries. When languages meet for the first time, there is of course some general confusion. Columbus was actually prepared for this and brought along several interpreters–which was a great plan, except that he did not land in India, and therefore encountered over 600 indigenous languages in lieu of the expected Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Aramaic. Whoops!

Soon after sailor Rodrigo de Triana famously shouted, “¡Tierra! ¡Tierra!” (Land! Land!) upon sighting an island in the Caribbean, his fellow crew members and Columbus were to make initial contact with the Taíno natives. The Taínos spoke a language called Arawak. (Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow even explain in their book, The Story of Spanish, that Columbus captured indigenous Taínos and brought them back to Spain for the original intention of teaching them castellano so that they could act as interpreters for the Europeans.)

Spanish historian Bartolomé de las Casas accompanied Columbus on his third voyage and described this “language of the Indians [as with] the most elegant and abundant of words, and the sweetest of sounds (original: “la lengua de los indios [con] la más elegante y más copiosa de vocablos, y la más dulce en sonidos”). I read somewhere that Columbus himself had used the word, “apacible” (~pleasant, gentle, calm, peaceful) to describe Arawak, but I can’t find the source right now.

Anyway, this is where things get interesting. You see, the beautiful fruit of linguistic encounters is that new ideas are exchanged. As with any voyageur, Columbus and the other sailors learned and were exposed to so many new things in their travels. For example, the Europeans had never seen a canoe before. This is apparent in his diary, where Columbus starts out using the word, “almadía”, or raft in Spanish, to describe what he sees; but over a period of weeks, switches to the Taíno canoa and eventually drops almadía altogether (The Story of Spanish, pp. 99-101).

Here, we see one of the original dictionary entries (1505): canoa, boat of wood; from the Caribbean. How crazy is it that we have access to this information nowadays?

In addition to canoa, the Spaniards took many word loans from Arawak, such as canoe, shark, papaya, iguana, hurricane, corn, hammock, potato, barbecue, and mangrove for foods, animals, and ideas that they did not already have in their own language (i.e., castellano). Can you imagine not knowing what a huracán/hurricane was and experiencing one for the first time? Or seeing a tiburón/ shark or iguana? Or eating a papaya? Or having a barbacoa/ barbecue?

Now, to be fair, none of this is new: linguistic contact occurs all of the time, and we are constantly acquiring new words in our own language on both a cultural and individual level. Whether that is because of a new invention (iPads were invented in 2010, might I remind you), or simply because you moved to the country and someone said, “It’s spitting out” (instead of drizzling), our vocabularies naturally expand over time.

Nevertheless, it is fascinating to ponder how one word can be loaned or “borrowed” into another language and end up comfortably living in two places at once. Why are some terms bifurcated? Why is bread bread in English, pan in Spanish, and מָן (mān/ manna) in Hebrew; but barbacoa is shared by Arawak and Spanish, and papaya by Arawak, Spanish, and English? Conversely, how has Icelandic remained relatively untouched, linguistically speaking–(if you speak Icelandic, you can easily understand a text from the 900’s)–whereas English has undergone so many changes it is difficult to pinpoint a time period when it has stayed still?

There are linguistic answers to these questions (Iceland, for one, is geographically isolated as an island, which helped keep the language in one place; whereas English is sort of like your friend’s messy apartment: stuff is just spread out everywhere!)–but all of this still begs the question, how can some words be loaned or borrowed from other languages, while still remaining their own entity? Why did Arawak and Spanish not become one in the same? How many words can a language borrow before it loses its identity, or essence?

Regrettably, I do not have the answers to those questions today. However, I can share [below]–and just for fun–a chart from my FAQ page, if you wanted to delve a bit deeper. In the meantime, Happy Columbus Day!

P.S. Another fun fact: jaguar, petunia, and tapioca, among others–come from the Tupí-Guaraní languages, thanks to later expeditions through South America.

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