Saturday, October 21, 2006

Found in translation

Life in Latin American countries is a linguistic roller coaster ride. One never really gets a complete hang of the dialect despite coming from a well versed nation like India. This truth dawned on me quite early on during my tenure here but I am stumbling upon new discoveries each passing day.

It all began when my boss began responding with a ‘See…’ every time I spoke to him about something important. As unorthodox as that response was, being used to English as a main mode of communication back home, I would wait for him to continue his thought. As in ‘See….the thing is…’ and so on.

He never did. That was the end of his response. One word. ‘See’.

A few days later I realized the truth behind his bizarre responses. He had gotten so used to speaking in Espanol (Spanish for the uninitiated) that he looked past the fact that he was talking to a newbie. ‘See’ had not meant ‘seeing’. It sure sounded like it but was actually ‘Si’ as in ‘Yes’ in Spanish.

My first lesson in Spanish – Si. The one word that sailed me through many a turbulent time. The only time tested way to get a cabbie to bring you home safe. All you had to do was agree with whatever he was saying. Si.

With time and experience comes knowledge. Not all of it is always worth retaining but the bits that do stay behind are life savers. My second brush with a mixed up word came when I heard someone yell out ‘Mira!’ at a dinner party. I was quite excited to know there was someone named Mira at the party. I even toyed with the idea of letting her know my name had Krishna in it. You know…ice breakers. A few minutes later I realized ‘Mira’ meant ‘Look!’ in Spanish. I got so used to it that when my cousin Meera actually came down to India last Christmas I showed her my new laptop and said ‘Mira Meera!’ Being a Californian she got the joke.

Thus began my research of homonyms in Spanish and my base languages – Hindi and Kannada. Within the first few attempts I had actually assembled an exhaustive list of over 50 words that sounded the same. Some had amusing translations like the word ‘papi’. In Hindi and Kannada it meant ‘Sinner’ but in Spanish it meant ‘Daddy’. Other interesting ones included ‘Sala’ which meant ‘room’ in Spanish but meant ‘loan’ in Kannada and ‘brother-in-law’ in Hindi. Interesting patterns emerged with words like ‘cama’ which meant ‘bed’ in Spanish but also meant ‘lust’ in Hindi and Kannada. Not far from the truth, I thought.

The best anecdote I found was at a friend’s wedding when I realized the word for marriage was ‘boda’ in Spanish. I mentioned to him that it meant ‘a bald man’ in Kannada. He chuckled at me and responded ‘Not surprising. I am so sure I will be a boda after this boda. Do you know how much this thing is costing me?’


Click here to view some of my Homonyms

2 reflections:

Akshita said...

This was an interesting read. I find many similarities between malay and hindi, which is not that surprising, since the Vijaynagar empire did expand south into the Malayan peninsula. However, your list of homonyms does seem to indicate there was once a root language from which all others developed. Or parallel evolution maybe... oh, the stories and theories that could be spun of this!

shakri said...

Oh absolutely! It does present an interesting theory of how languages might have evolved given that some are represented using english-like alphabets while others (read Hindi and Kannada) are more symbolic shapes.

It definitely calls for some investigation.

Thanks for being here Akshita.