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Alaskan Range: Kumbaya


...Words are fascinating. In Turkey, for instance, our “turkey” is known as “dik rumi”, or Roman rooster. In Turkey’s neighbor Bulgaria, it’s called “Mucupka”, the Arabic word for Egypt, and in Egyptian Arabic it’s called the “Greek bird.” In Greece and Scotland it’s called the “French chicken,” and the French call it “poulet d’inde,” or “chicken from India.”...

Alaskan librarian Greg Hill says that new studies are revealing how the underlying meanings of words vary widely between cultures.


...Words are fascinating. In Turkey, for instance, our “turkey” is known as “dik rumi”, or Roman rooster. In Turkey’s neighbor Bulgaria, it’s called “Mucupka”, the Arabic word for Egypt, and in Egyptian Arabic it’s called the “Greek bird.” In Greece and Scotland it’s called the “French chicken,” and the French call it “poulet d’inde,” or “chicken from India.”...

Alaskan librarian Greg Hill says that new studies are revealing how the underlying meanings of words vary widely between cultures.


Don Triplehorn is a fascinating guy. Trip’s been leading book discussion groups at Noel Wien Library since retiring as geology professor for UAF, and his ability to keep discussions moving and his far-ranging tastes in selecting titles have made his Science Book Discussion Group one of the library’s most popular classes. Few bibliophiles read as widely or as interestingly as Dr. Triplehorn, so I was delighted when he pulled up a chair at the annual Local Authors Book-signing event at Noel Wien Library last week.

One column can’t do justice to an hour with the good doctor. He began by telling me how grocery stores got that appellation from pepper. Besides its natural spiciness, pepper was prized medicinally. Trip explained that the Guild of Pepperers formed in London in 1180 A.D. by spice merchants and traders. They soon dealt in large, or “gross”, amounts of goods, so they changed their name in 1376 to “The Company of Grocers.” The current organization’s website, www.grocershall.co.uk, notes that “small shopkeepers who retailed the goods bought from the wholesale ‘grossers’ adopted the name of grocers and the meaning with which we associate it today.”

Words are fascinating. In Turkey, for instance, our “turkey” is known as “dik rumi”, or Roman rooster. In Turkey’s neighbor Bulgaria, it’s called “Mucupka”, the Arabic word for Egypt, and in Egyptian Arabic it’s called the “Greek bird.” In Greece and Scotland it’s called the “French chicken,” and the French call it “poulet d’inde,” or “chicken from India.” The Japanese say it’s “the seven-faced bird,” or “shichimencho,” and in Farsi it’s called “Boogalamoon,” after the bird’s distinctive call.

New studies are revealing how the underlying meanings of words vary widely between cultures. A Newsweek article from last July titled “What’s in a Word?” described research from Stanford that shows that “language shapes thought.” Take the word “bridge,” for example. The German word for “bridge” is “Brucke,” which is feminine, while its French counterpart, “pont,” is masculine. So when the tallest bridge in the world was unveiled in France in 2004, French newspapers lauded its manly strength, describing it as “concrete giant” and “immense.” German journalists, however, said it “floated above the clouds” and possessed “elegance and lightness.”

Nigeria’s another case-in-point. An online International Herald Tribune article from 2008 describes how “Nigeria’s 140 million people speak hundreds of languages and English is the language of national unity.” Although its British colonial overlords gave up the country in 1960, they left the English language behind, but the English the British brought to West Africa in the 1880s doesn’t sound like modern English. “Nigerian English melds Victorian-era vocabulary … with the grammatical structures and syntax that underpin indigenous languages in Africa’s most populous nation.” In modern Nigeria, street children are still “urchins”, machetes are “cutlasses”, and criminals are” miscreants” and “rascals.” The Nigerians add their own twists, though. All letters in a word are pronounced, so “fuel” is pronounced “foo-el”, “receipt” is “re-seeped”, and “yacht frequently rhymes with hatched.”

Then there’s “kumbaya”. Some experts insist it’s a West African expression, but StraightDope.com, one of the best reference sources going, says it’s a Gullah expression. The Gullah are “an African-American people living on the Sea Islands and adjacent coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia. The Gullah speak a dialect most native speakers of English find unintelligible on first hearing, but that turns out to be heavily accented English.” It’s the dialect used by Joel Chandler in his “Uncle Remus” stories in the 1880s and is “a language of considerable charm.” A truthful person, for example, is “troot mout”, or “truth mouth”, and preachers are “tebble tappuhs”, or “table tappers.”

The song “Kumbaya” began as a Gullah spiritual beseeching the Lord to “come by here,” according to ethnomusicologist Thomas Miller and certainly precedes its first recoding in the 1920s. At some point American missionaries took “Kumbaya” to Angola where its American origins were forgotten. It was rediscovered as an African song by American folk musicians of the 1950s. Some may say StraightDope.com got it wrong, but they’ve earned my trust, and, as that old English poet George Herbert pointed out, “He who has the pepper may season as he lists.”

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