What English Owes to Spanish

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English is a language that boasts a flexibility to absorb vocabulary and from its neighbors, a fact that many English-speakers brag about and one that many English learners loath.  Likewise, many purists, observant speakers and the Real Academia Española have rightfully complained that English seems to be invading Spanish at breakneck speed. Indeed, there may be a difference between the use of words because of laziness, pretentiousness, or a combination of both, and the slow, utilitarian evolution of a word with mysterious origins in usage. But that is a debate for another day.

While it may not be as inherently open to change as English, Spanish is a diverse language in itself, which has borrowed from many other tongues with which it has come into direct contact. Whether from the older influences of Latin, Greek, Old French or neighboring Portuguese, or from Arabic, or from indigenous languages like Nahuatl, Quechua  and Taíno, Spanish has both absorbed foreign words and expressions and loaned a fair share to English.

This great reference book, from the American Heritage Dictionaries series, is a cursory list of the most popular words that you many never have suspected had a Spanish origin.  Avocado comes from the Spanish, which was in turn borrowed from the language of the Aztecs: Nahuatl. To the Aztecs, ahuacatl means “testicle,” and now you will probably never look at an avocado in the same way. You´re welcome. The Spanish had a hard time pronouncing the common Nahuatl -tl suffix for plurals, so the word evolved to aguacate, and then to avocado in English (for the same pronunciation reasons). This process of language change—simplification or modification of pronunciation to adjust to the native tongue—is very common. Tomato comes from the Nahuatl as well, and followed the same path from Nahuatl to English: tomatl > tomate > tomato, and it comes to us through hundreds of years of colonialism, exploration, violence and cultural melding.

There are many words that present day residents of the southwest of the United States—Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico—already know and use in everyday language that are obvious derivations, or simple transfers, from Spanish. Examples include: adobe, alfalfa (which is a derivation of the Arabic fasfasa), caldera, canyon, caramel, chili, cigar, cilantro, cockroach (which has a fascinating history of folk etymology, in which the changes of pronunciation were based on mistaken theories of its definition), marijuana, piñata, salsa and sombrero.  But most mistakenly attribute these words solely to exposure to Mexican culture; the majority of words derived from Spanish in fact hold longer, more complex histories.

The word embargo comes directly from the Spanish, which literally translates to “seizure of goods.”  During the late 1500s, Spain and England grew increasingly hostile to each other, particularly at sea, and Queen Elizabeth often seized gold and valuables from Spanish Armada ships.  Through the breakdown in trade between the countries, the word embargo became increasingly used in the language of the English, particularly in maritime vernacular.

Merino comes from a special breed of sheep, once treasured and constrained exclusively to Spain.  The fine wool from the merino sheep was once the engine that drove the Spanish economy, particularly leading up the Age of Discovery. Nowadays, merino refers to any product made of high-quality wool.

Potato comes from the Spanish, too, and it typifies a common quirk in English borrowings from Spanish. Potato comes to us through a complex history of Quechua (the language of the Incans), Spanish and English, and involves influences from patata, batata, boniato and papa. English speakers often replace a final a with an o when they borrow words from the Spanish.

Other strong words like stampede, renegade, patio, mesa, hurricane and guitar also come from the Spanish, and each word has its own interesting story.

Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries is a small, but essential reference for those interested in this particular etymology of English.

Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries

Houghton Mifflin Company

pp., 258

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On Travel Literature (and where to start)

On a recent podcast with The Casual Academic, Jacob Welcker and I discussed travel literature and what it means to us. We again realized just how many books we have not read and how much there still is left to be discussed, which I think is a good sign of our level of curiosity, at least.

In celebration of World Book Day, and as a complement to the podcast I have compiled a small list of the travel books that I have found to be instructive, those which typify the genre. We discussed many of these books, and Jacob brought other works to the conversation.  (As of today, the podcast episode hasn´t been released yet, but stay tuned to The Casual Academic (link above) for news). Of course the genre is a loose one, and many of the categories that I have made overlap and intersect.

So, here is a list of seven kinds of travel literature that I have noticed, with examples of what I have in my own library that serve as great works for the uninitiated. Again, especially with lists like these, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of other fine examples of what could be interpreted as travel literature; this list merely stands as a small collection of those that stand out for me. Feel free to let me know in the comments of any great ones that you might like.

1) Travelogues that have contributed to the knowledge of humanity:
Charles Darwin – Voyage of the Beagle
Steinbeck – Sea of Cortez
Alexander von Humboldt – Personal Narrative and Cosmos
John Lloyd Stephens and illustrator Frederick Catherwood – Incidents of Travel series (particularly those in the Mayan Riviera)
Pigafetta – his accounts of Magellan’s historic voyage
Roald Amundsen – My Life as an Explorer, The South Pole, and Northwest Passage
Ernest Shackleton’s diary entrees and his book South!
Even Robert Falcon Scott’s diary (pulled from his pocket on his frozen body)
Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s –Worst Journey in the World

2) Writers who were already famous for other things, and ventured into writing well about their travels
George Orwell – Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia
Jack Kerouac – On the Road (although I do share a bit of Truman Capote´s opinion on Kerouac´s writing: it´s not writing, it´s typing).
Joseph Conrad – Lord Jim (arguably others, but many drawn from his experience on ships).
Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad, Following the Equator

D.H. Lawrence – Sea and Sardinia

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – Italian Journey

John Steinbeck – A Russian Journal

3) Writers who set out to critique a culture or area of the world, through essay
Rebecca West – Black Lamb Grey Falcon
Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines (on my to-read list), In Patagonia
Robert Byron – The Road to Oxiana

3) Writers who stay in a place for an extended period of time and write about it
Peter Mayle – A Year in Provence
Gerald Brenan – South from Granada
Edward Abbey – Desert Solitaire
Beryl Merkham – West with the Night
Antoine de Saint-Exupery – Southern Mail, Wind, Sand Sea and Stars, and Flight to Arras
Paul Theroux – A Dark Star Safari (a trip, but drawing on a large wealth of experience in Africa)

4) Writers who made a lifetime of study analysis of a culture
Archer Milton Huntington – A Notebook in Northern Spain

5) Writers who write about their own cultures
Steinbeck – Travels with Charley
Camilo Jose Cela – Journey through the Alcarria

6) Some exceptional travel articles

Christopher Hitchens – Visit to a Small Planet (Vanity Fair)
James M. Markham – Goethe’s Italian Journey (New York Times)

The First Travel Writer

There is a long timeline of world history in my mind that throughout my reading life gets filled in slowly with each document, each classic. The original text of this travelogue, written in amateurish Latin, was probably written in the early 380s. It was later copied in the 11th century by a monk in the Abbey of Monte Cassino, south of Rome, and then discovered in a monastic library in Arrezzo in 1884.  This English translation finds us now through the work of several translators and collaborators, this version printed in 1919.

Itirerarium Egeriae begins mid-sentence, whole sections having been lost to the centuries since the initial writings of that singular and impressive pilgrim. She was called Egeria (or Etheria, Aetheria, Etheroiua or Eurcheria), and she wrote of her journeys to see Biblical landmarks that were, to her and her peers, venerated or holy.

The travelogue is a fascinating record of her stops at places still known today, both by modern maps and through Biblical reference.  It is interesting to discover which places were in fact holy in her time, and which have since been assigned sanctity by other men (yes, always men).

In these writings, we learn that in the year 380, a Feast of the Nativity was celebrated on January 6th, not on December 25th and it is interesting that of all the martyriums she visited, she made no reference to Christ’s tomb or place of death, even though it is reasonable to claim that the site, at least, had begun to be venerated as early as the late 4th century.

In this book, we get a rare look into the very early days of Christianity, approximately 380 years after the death of Christ, and around 67 years after emperor Constantine I issued his edict ceasing the persecution of Christians. Sixty-seven years isn´t that long, and since then the ambiguities of this particular period seem to me to have been filled laboriously with obfuscation, revised histories, complex and conflicting interpretations and myth, the frustrating lack of details and even context having been glazed over with declarations of revelation and faith that seem more to serve particular people than the acquisition of knowledge.

The primordial Christian church was more monastic in nature, the notion of “congregation” and collective worship had just begun.  Solitary men and small groups, we would now call them hermits, inhabited caves and humble living spaces, and lived chastened lives. The concept of hymns and hymn singing had only just begun as well.  Holy Week was already celebrated with its recognizable symbols and rituals: children waving palm leaves, the cross as a symbol of adoration, the taking of Communion on Maundy Thursday.

Egeria refers to what we would call the Bible with several names, some of which only appear in this document (Scriptura Canonis for example, means “Scripture of the Canon”, which to me implies an attempt at a common standard, or the beginnings of a universal, all-inclusive tome).  She quotes most often from the first five books of the what we now call the Old Testament, also known as the Pentateuch, and in a pre-Vulgate Latin.

The text is a great education in monasticism, vulgar Latin and the origins of the Mediterranean Romance languages, and it is a wonderful account that is arguably one of the first travelogues, rich in references to landscape, politics and subjective interpretation of the world through journey.  Also, the writings seem to have been written and orally related not only by a woman, but also to women, a circle of ladies who gathered to share stories and religious devotion. And I am once again prompted to ponder the gems of literature, art, philosophy and politics which have been lost or destroyed throughout the centuries at the clumsy hands of entitled men.

 

 

Death at Our Elbow: Saint-Exupéry’s High Adventure in Literature

“They gave him a plane with an altitude limit of seventeen thousand feet; the highest Cordillera peaks are over twenty-two thousand. And Mermoz took off in search for the gaps. … Forced down at thirteen thousand feet on a plateau with sheer sides, he and his engineer searched for two days for a way down. They were trapped. So they played their last card. They launched their plane towards the void, bouncing cruelly over the uneven ground until they dropped over the cliff edge. As it fell the plane picked up enough speed to respond to the controls. Mermoz brought its nose up as it headed for a ridge, brushed up the against summit, and with water gushing out of every pipe burst by night frost, crippled after just seven minutes in the air, he saw the Chilean plain below him like a Promised Land.

The next day he went up again.” 

— Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939.

Imagine that you are flying a plane over the Sahara desert, and you crash, somewhere between Benghazi and Cairo.  You and your navigator nearly die of thirst until you are rescued by a Bedouin on a camel.  How would you write about the experience?

In the 1930s, most of North Africa and the Andes, as well as much of the Mediterranean, was without charted air routes. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of the “The Little Prince”) and his flying buddies, like Mermoz, cut through the unexplored airspace of these ends of the earth. These solitary men, willing subjects in dubious and slapdash expeditions and sorties, belonged to a particular moment in modern history. They lived in an era that is just out of sight, dipped below the horizon, an era filled with experiences and dramas that must now forever be recorded in books. The travel writing at these times was still often defined by firsts, where places were yet undiscovered, and a writer could come before all others to take a stab at putting the experience to the page (nowadays, travel writers have other challenges). The settings in these stories are drawn with the glow of Nazi bombs below, or at the hands of the elements, through a vulnerability that only a pilot can know.  There is an irony though, that no matter how adventurous the life of a man or woman is, reading about it is almost always a disappointment, something like listening to someone talk about their dreams. The copious quantity of stories to tell does not guarantee that those stories will ever be told, much less told well.

It is impossible to know if Saint-Exupéry was aware of that unspoken curse that adventurers are almost always denied the tools to produce good writing, but often in Wind, Sand and Stars, we get the impression he is making an effort at literature. In North Africa and Spain, his charts were marked not only with vectors and flight ceilings, but with scribbled-in notes that told a stories, like the orange grove to watch out for at the end of the runway in Guadix, Spain, or the elderly man and his wife in Lorca who wait on their farm like a lighthouse for passing pilots in the night, or the small tributary off the Ebro river that spawns thirty species of flower and sometimes wanders across the runway there, tearing a crack in the earth that would destroy a plane’s landing gear.

In the form of a letter of admiration, Saint-Exupéry tells us about another comrade, Guillaumet, who crashed his plane in a high-altitude snow storm, and walked for days in the blizzard, where if he’d just lied down, he never would have risen again from the blanket of snow. He writes, quoting Guillaument in a letter to him, “In the snow… all you want is sleep….But I said to myself: ‘If my wife thinks I’m alive, she’ll believe I’m on my feet. My comrades believe it too….I’m a cowardly bastard if I don’t keep going.'”

Although many of the stories in Saint-Exupéry’s books spring to life from crises, they are not merely some collection of diary entries. The true driving force here is Exupéry’s ability to translate the complexities of the human experience within the absurd drama of war and the novelty of the rugged, unexplored regions of the world, and indeed within the flying machines that are thrust into both.  And we are thus fascinated by his getting on

Exupéry sets off in 1938 to fly from New York to Tierra del Fuego. He crashes in Guatemala, fracturing his skull in several places. (photo from http://www.thelittleprince.com/work/the-autor/)

with the business of living, albeit in extraordinary times.  This was the stuff of travel writing in the 1930s and 1940s, but only the good works have survived.  Today, it is more difficult to be interesting, the substance of many travel books only being the crises themselves, even worse crises that are self-inflicted, or sometimes contrived altogether. Exupéry proves his worth as a writer in many ways, and he’d probably be an excellent storyteller even in boring contexts.  To me, his work rises above other banal travelogues because he makes sure that the stories will be remembered not as sensational shock pieces (in war, perhaps so abundant as to be trite), but more so as stories with eloquence that can penetrate even the most uninterested reader, or now, the modern reader dulled by overexposure to images and information.

Flight to Arras begins with Saint-Exupéry and another pilot being briefed on a reconnaissance flight into Nazi-occupied France. It is a mission that will likely kill them. But he keeps to a rare kind of wisdom and honesty, mostly refraining from melodrama. In the book he writes with a sense of desperation and humor, in a well-chosen mix of tenses, of stress-induced quarrels with colleagues and on the checklists and practical duties that a pilot or captain does, duties done more compulsively in the midst of life-threatening danger.  He can bring the entire war to a private microcosm:

 “… the battle between the Nazi and the Occident was reduced to the scale of my job, of my manipulation of certain switches, levers, taps. This was as it should be. The sexton’s love of his God becomes a love of lighting candles.”

The honesty of his experience at first seems disarming and endearing, but in fact it only exposes a simple and powerful notion: how a man behaves when he has already accepted that he is going to die.

It is perhaps not so ironic that Exupéry probably did meet his end at the hands of a German fighter plane.  In 1998, fishermen near the island of Corsica dragged up Exupéry’s name tag in their nets.  His disappearance, a long-running mystery, happened in 1944, in airspace carpeted by Nazi radar and thick with the buzz of the Luftwaffe.  One can wonder, if in those last moments, he faced the permanence of death with the grace and clarity of his literature.

“It would be easy to write a couple of fraudulent pages out of the contrast between this shining spring day, the ripening fruit, the chicks filling plumply out in the barnyard, the rising wheat—and death at our elbow. I shall not write that couple of pages because I see no reason why the peace of a spring day should constitute a contradiction of the idea of death. Why should the sweetness of life be a matter for irony?”

— Flight to Arras, 1942.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Toulouse, France, 1933. Source NY Times online Author Distributed by Agence France-Presse

What would you expect from an alien?

img_1312Reviewing Olgierd Wolczek’s Man and Others Out There (1983), Wisława Szymborska relishes cosmic solitude. In her Nonrequired Reading (2002), she welcomes the idea of our being alone in the universe, while granting that it is also highly likely.  She writes,

“I like being a freak of nature on our one and only, extraordinary Earth.  Furthermore, I ‘m not waiting for any UFOs, and I’ll believe in them only when one comes up and pokes me in the ribs.  Besides, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to expect from them. They may just be planning an inspection of bristletails, caddie flies, and trematodes. The conviction that if they were so inclined they would lend a hand with everything strikes me as hopelessly banal.”

I wonder when we will stop having to watch alien films in which the alien invaders are just slightly deformed versions of ourselves, playing out scenarios of how we would approach an alien that behaves like us and looks like us. (Science writer Philip Ball’s short video from The Atlantic is a good place to clarify and gestate this idea). The new Denis Villeneuve film “Arrival,” derived from Ted Chiang’s “The Stories of Your Life,” at least approaches the subject in an interesting way that makes sense from our sentient point of view and with realistic expectations of both the limitations and unimaginable variations of the evolutionary processes of life. It allows the possibility that we may not know at all what to expect.

img_1206Language, it has been proposed, wires that way that the mind works.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis so far has only been tested with different languages here on earth, but in Chiang’s story, an alien spaceship arrives suddenly and a linguist must figure out how to communicate with them. Szymborska’s banality of an alien coming to help us out (or perform other human-like endeavors such as genocide or experimentation) in our proto-human naïveté is the bread and butter of Hollywood science fiction, and it begins to raise its intellect-numbing head in “Arrival.”  But Chiang’s linguistic approach saves it.

Amy Adams’s protagonist Louise Banks walks the fine line between too much expository dialogue and not enough. But it works, partly because of the irony of a linguist having to explain to a physicist (her impromptu colleague Ian Donnelly) the stuff of realities that one would think he’d already have known.

The aliens’ written language has little or nothing to do with their spoken language.  The aliens produce sounds that are impossible for humans to imitate. They are more advanced that we are, but in other ways, perhaps not.  Their communication is non-linear, whole paragraphs and phrases can be written and read instantaneously, which leads Banks, who begins to learn their language, to realize that they perceive time in a different way than we do, which in turn leads to her own significance in the film and a profoundly satisfying twist. As Chiang writes in “Stories of Your Life,” the aliens can perceive future and past in the same way, but participate in the conversation anyway, as if to actualize their ideas.  In the same way we say “You’re under arrest,” or “I christen this vessel,” the words put the ideas into action.

“For the [the aliens], all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, [the aliens] already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”

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Chiang’s short story is chock-full of interesting parallels from theoretical physics and linguistics, the kind of parallels that make the audience think.  Contrary to its intentions, with its lack of ideas and phobia of meaningful contemplation, Hollywood usually just reinforces the suspicion that we are in fact alone in the universe.  The book and film do play a bit with our ignorance in contrast to the superiority of an alien species, but they reject the banality of the anthropoid “take me to your leader” kind of alien. Instead, opening the minds of the layman to the fundamentals of communication and language, as well as to the laws of physical reality itself (physics), we once again feel that maybe we are on to something.

Christmas Reading

The prospect of time off to write and read instills a deep sense of happiness and calm in me.  These are some of the books that I’ll be taking to the mountain village of La Granja to read between wines and writing. Click title links or book cover image for more info.  Reviews to come later on this blogito…

Merry Christmas!

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Michel Faber’s book Under the Skin, whigh the excellent film was based on. After researching the story itself, I found that the book reveals much that the (well done) minimalistic film kept hidden.

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Admittedly, I haven’t read much historical fiction, but I trust Gore Vidal to be reliable and honest in a way most other writers cannot be.  If one can separate the man from the work (his occasional grumps and stupid rants), he reveals a talent for writing that could make a 657-page account of Lincoln worth reading.

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Largely unknown to Americans, P.G. Wodehouse is a treasure for many readers of English. His particular sense of humor is lauded by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, amongst others, and that is all I need to discover a new way to laugh.  This is a collection that is recommended by Fry.

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I discovered Ted Chiang in college, a light of hope for those in the short story field, and I remembered him recently. He has a wonderful way of mixing sci-fi and literary short story. The new film “Arrival,” a truly intelligent alien film (for a change), is based on his story “Stories of Your Life,” and delves into the linguistics of communicating with an alien.

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Christopher Hitchens admired our third President in ways that have been largely forgotten in today’s indentity politics and partisan climate. But Hitchens, of course, was a measured, objective and balanced study, and when writing about subjects that can be politicized and hijacked, there is sometimes little more valuable in nonfiction work.

 

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Miguel Delibes wrote a historical novel on the turbulent time of the late 16th century Castile, during the Spanish Inquisition and the Age of Discovery. Set in Valladolid 4 years after the Junta de Valladolid, and at the time of Martin Luther’s beginning of the Protestant Refromation, this novel will serve to inform.

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I have been wanting to read this one for as long as I’ve been interested in travel and reading (and writing). An essential in the library of any travel writer, in my opinion.

 

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Antonio Machado is a treasure in Spain, one of the greats of the “generation of 1898.”  I have a lasting interest in literature that is engaged with the landscape of a place.  This book is a collection of poetry about Castilla, a place near to my heart and home.  Presented bilingually, as any translation of poetry should be.

 

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Camilo José Cela is another Spanish treasure, and a Nobel Prize winner who is profoundly connected to the landscape of places where he lived and visited.  Another essential read for those interested in the culture of Spain.

 

Obvious and Hidden Symbols

symbolsCarl Jung longed for his work to be understood by the general public, not only by specialists in his field.  There have been others, like Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, who have also made great efforts to translate their often esoteric research and observations to laymen, children, and the generally curious. Most naturalists or armchair aficionados rely on books and papers written in this way, for this audience, and we non-scientists owe much to them.  In Carl G. Jung´s Man and His Symbols we discover meanings of symbols in our waking life (the medieval, natural, religious, in advertising, literature, political propaganda, sculpture and art, or in myths) and in our subconscious life (dreams, compulsions, desires, emotions).  Much of this “profusely illustrated” book (how could a work on symbols not be so?) is simply Jung´s interpretation of his clients´ dreams, but the work in general may well be boiled down to his effort to describe the acquisition of psychological maturity, a highly individual endeavor, and how it may be obtained in a modern society that moves toward conformity at every turn.  His clients come to him with dreams, he interprets them as subconscious expression through symbols, the only way the subconscious can express anything. These symbols are recurring and they learned throughout our lives through literature, for universesnakeexample. To me, dream interpretation gets boring quickly, mostly because the books and articles I´ve read on the subject either neglect subjectivity entirely (similar to the silliness of zodiac symbols) or are too self-deprecating by explaining that dreams are only products of individuals, thereby just fun to speculate about.  But there are symbols that carry meaning that we all understand, and there are individuals who´s dreams are particular to him or her, but decipherable through symbolic means (Jung includes a James Thurber cartoon in which a “henpecked” man sees his home and his wife as the same thing).

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                    Cartoon by James Thurber.

Often in modern life we behave in ways that conflict with our individual nature, and I think there is something to be said for the subconscious compensation for this imbalance. Jung has written much about this, and I include his expertise in the other works on the subject that I have read and will read.  If I, for some political motivation, choose to fly a    Don´t Tread on Me flag, with its squirming serpent amongst disjointed words and letters, I want to know what it means, both to my own mind and to humanity in general.  This is not only a peculiar interest, but a social responsibility.