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Cannibal

11 Aug 2016

A long, long time ago over on HH, this fact cropped up: 

In retrospect, that’s a little disingenuous (not least because linguists can’t really decide what actually constitutes a word). But regardless of the parameters involved, studies of etymology tend to agree that anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the English language has been borrowed directly into English from French.

 

Elsewhere in the dictionary, things get increasingly far-flung: besides the likes of German, Spanish and Italian, English has adopted words from practically every major European language, including Norwegian (slalom), Finnish (sauna), and Czech (robot), as well as a number of global big-hitters like Russian (vodka), Arabic (almanac), the Chinese (lychee) and Japanese (karate) languages, and Hindi (juggernaut), Bengali (jute), Urdu (cummerbund) and all the other languages of the Indian subcontinent.

 

And it’s borrowed words, and the languages we have taken them from, that are up for discussion in this week’s video:

 

 

We might owe the humble word tattoo to (SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen the video) one of the furthest of the far-flung languages of the south Pacific, but it’s by no means alone. 


Other somewhat surprising languages to have provided words to English include Tamil (another Indian language, and the official language of both Sri Lanka and Singapore), which is the origin of catamarancheroot and pariah. Javanese, the most widely spoken language in Indonesia, is the origin of batik and lahar, another name for a volcanic mudflow. 


The native Aboriginal languages of Australia have given us billabong, dingo and budgerigar. When you run amok, you’re using a Malay word (borrowed into English via Portuguese) meaning “attacking frenziedly”. The boondocks take their name from a Filipino Tagalog word meaning “remote place”. And over in the Caribbean, the Taíno language is responsible for a number of very familiar words adopted into English via Spanish Caribbean colonists, including tobacco, hurricane, potatocanoe and even Caribbean itself. But these words, plus several others like them, are almost all that remains of the Taíno civilization.

 

An indigenous Arawak people, the Taíno were once the most numerous people in the entire Caribbean, and as such, they were the first Native Americans that Christopher Columbus came into contact with when he arrived in the Americas in the late 1400s. Oddly, Columbus’s misinterpretation of the Carib people’s word for themselves, Caniba (as well as his misapprehension that they were anthropophagous) is the origin of the word cannibalism.

 

But as more Europeans arrived in the Caribbean, the Taíno population collapsed as its people contracted diseases for which they had no natural immunity, most notably smallpox. Within three decades, their numbers had dwindled by as much as 90%, and according to some accounts, by the mid 1500s there were fewer than 500 individual Taíno people alive in the world. 


Although the population understandably never recovered, pockets of Taíno people survive across North America today. But their culture and language suffered so terrifically in the aftermath of Columbus’s arrival that the handful of Taíno words to have survived in English offer an extraordinary and tantalizingly rare glimpse of a long-lost civilization. 

 

 

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