Friday, 12 July 2013

"word of the day" entry

This is what I wrote recently to the "word of the day" - an email distribution list at work:

folk et·y·mol·o·gy  
Noun
1. A popular but mistaken account of the origin of a word or phrase.
2. The process by which the form of an unfamiliar or foreign word is adapted to a more familiar form through popular usage.
 
An (in)famous example of “folk etymology” in Inuktitut is the word “qallunaaq”. Most people break it down into: qalluk+naaq (lit. eyebrow+belly). But I strongly suspect the word comes from sailor pidgin (a mixture of words/grammars from different languages) for “boss” (or, “kahuna” from Hawaiian for priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession). I suspect this for a couple of compelling reasons:
 
1. The word for an inferior (in rank) in Inuktitut comes from the word “sailor” – sialaaq;
 
2. There are other examples of words, like sailor, having to do with non-indigenous concepts that have been adopted and adapted into Inuktitut: words like “luuktaaq” (for doctor, which sounds uncannily like its spoken in the British accent)
 
Kenn Harper’s regular column in Nunatsiaq News, Taissumani, is a very rich source of historical and linguistic information. He wrote some articles on Inuktitut words and names that have been adopted by Inuktitut – for example, in his June 21, 2013 article he writes of a guy named, Sakirmiaq – Second Mate, the Inuktitut name given to Robert Janes.
 
In my view “folk etymology” rightfully belongs to the general field of etymology (the study of sources of words). It may not be rigorous nor “scientific” but neither really is scientific discourse in general, which is replete with words stemming from misunderstanding (concepts that were later found to be erroneous but stuck), such as “oxygen” – which the old physical theory thought the element was essential for making acid (the old word for “oxygen” is highly convoluted and unwieldy, dephlogisticated air). But the notion of oxygen being part and partial of acid-formation stuck.
 
Inuktitut also has examples of this type of phenomenon: a ready example of a word that stuck is the commonly-used term for “uranium” which is nungusuittuq (lit. “that which never ends”). Going by how the so-called “plain-language” explanations normally render technical concepts useless, I suspect the word stuck after nuclear-power was explained as being a “never-ending” source of energy” though the concept of “radioactivity” is the complete opposite of “never-ending” being as it is used to describe elements that are so unstable as to lose electrons and protons to stabilize themselves into other chemical elements whose energy states are stable (eg, uranium turns into lead after thousands of years of shedding its unstable parts).
 
There is nothing wrong really with word formation stemming from erroneous conceptions as long as the word is used consistently and is commonly known to refer to what it does. The beauty of the human language, which Inuit Language is a great example, is the notion of “chunking” or “lexicalization” (a phrase that has turned into a word). An example of lexicalization in English is the word “upside down” which consists of three words chunked together to mean one thing. But there are many Inukt. example of lexicalized terms – such as ullaakkut for “good morning”; qanuippit for “how are you”; qanuinngittunga for “I am fine” (the last two examples actually come from Inukt for “are you not well?” (ie, in ill-health) so the response is usually in the negative “qanuinngittunga” (lit. “I am not sick”) which has come to mean “I am fine”).
 
The beauty of Inuit Language is that its grammatical structure is what is called “polysynthetic” (from “many-(things)+put-together”). I’ve written on my blog, qituttugaujara.blogspot, about the relative strengths of the Inuktitut grammatical structure for generating scientific and technical terms. The scientific world currently uses Greco-Latin bases that sometimes make little or no grammatical sense. The word “brachiopodia” (for shelled creatures with “valves” (for “shells”) like mussels, clams, etc.) is formed from two Greek words “arm/hand” and “foot”. The word is “bastardized” and makes no sense in either any European or Greek languages. On the other hand, the proposed and accepted scientific name of a newly discovered fossil of a lobe-finned fish in Ellesmere Island (tiktaalik roseae) actually makes sense. Check out its picture with this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiktaalik - tiktaalik “eel-tailed” roseae “reddish rock” (methinks the Devon, England (Devonian era) rock in which the first fossils of primitive fishes found and documented is reddish in colour, but I’m just speculating or committing “folk etymology”).
 
It’s not necessary to know anything about etymology (even folk etymology), but for interpreter/translators knowing something about how words are formed, how meanings change over time, forms part of an invaluable toolkit as the origin of words are not always obvious. Take the Greek word anthropos “(hu)man” and all its declensions:
 
Philanthropy;
Misanthrope;
Anthropology;
Anthropogenic;
Anthropomorphize;
etc.
 
Naturally, most interpreter/translators do not have the time nor the luxury to research anything in-depth but when I worked as an interpreter/translator I did most of my research into stuff like this. Sometimes, I’d get so engrossed in study that I just had to get back into the research after I completed my assignments. I know I’m a real nerd but I happen to take tremendous enjoyment out of finding things out and the more I read the more interesting the whole world becomes. It’s not a question of knowing everything but realizing there is much information/history encoded into words; being able to decode some of that rich information can only help one think more effectively.
 
Jay

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