Friday, June 13, 2014

Translation into English

"Caleb? Caleb what?"
"Caleb ... Cheeschahteaumauk."
"Outlandish name. I suppose you insist upon it? You will not like to take another? What was your father's name?"
"No better. Sounds like a donkey's bray. The other will have to serve. Caleb Chis-car." President Chauncy's pen scraped across the parchment: "-ruimac. So be it."
Geraldine Brooks, Caleb's Crossing

Geraldine Brooks, in her 2011 novel Caleb's Crossing, is writing a fictional account of the first American Indian to be educated at Harvard, but the changing of Caleb's name would ring true to many American immigrants who left Ellis Island with different surnames than they arrived with.

The same kind of thing happens with foreign-language words when they are converted into English. They often lose their spellings, their pronunciations and, in many cases, even their meanings.

To return to American Indians, Henry Hitchings tells in The Secret Life of Words how many words from various Indian languages became English words. In most cases, it seems, these words lost something in the translation. Here are some examples:

English word                      Indian word

hickory                               pawcohiccora
skunk                                  segongw (meaning "one who squirts")
squash                                 askutasquash (Narragansett)
squaw                                  squa-sachim
terrapin                               turepe
wampum                             wampumpeag
woodchuck                         wuchak (Cree)

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