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Category: Quick thoughts

Quick thought: Alternate history and historical contingency

In Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle, the Axis powers have lost World War II and the former United States is occupied by Nazi Germany (in the east) and Imperial Japan (in the west), with a demilitarized zone in the middle. In this alternate-reality 1962, the Japanese have established their Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, while the Nazis have committed genocide in Russia and Africa and are sending space missions to the moon and Mars.

The Man in the High Castle is a story of historical contingency. Although it is often tempting to think of historical events as inevitable, they usually are not. It was not inevitable that the Allies would win World War II, or that they would win in the way that they did. There were many possible outcomes.

Dick shows this by introducing an alternate history novel within his alternate history novel. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by an author in the demilitarized Rocky Mountain States, narrates an Axis defeat, but not what actually happened in our world. President Roosevelt does not seek reelection for an unprecedented third term in 1940 (as he did in real life), but instead he is succeeded by Rexford Tugwell, who cunningly saves the US fleet from destruction in Pearl Harbor and leads the country to victory against the Axis. At the end of the war, Adolf Hitler Is tried and executed (rather than committing suicide in his Berlin bunker).

Some of Dick’s characters doubt the possibility of an Allied victory in World War II, but we the readers know that it was not only possible, it happened in real life.

Quick thought: Loanwords from one language to another

Something I’ve noticed when studying languages is that loanwords from that language in English don’t always mean the same thing in the donor language as they do in English.

An example: “jungle” comes from a Hindustani word meaning forest. In India, a jungle could be any forest—from the dense tropical forests that the name connotes in English, to the thorn-forests of central India, or even the coniferous forests of the foothills of the Himalaya.

I think we can all agree that this is a jungle.

I think we can all agree that this is a jungle. (Garo Hills, Meghalaya)

But what about this? It is a jungle in Hindi but not English. (Himachal Pradesh)

But what about this? It is a jungle in Hindi but not English. (Himachal Pradesh)

Another example: “sombrero” is of course a word that American English has picked up from Mexican Spanish, but again the word has a broader meaning in the donor language than in English. For English-speakers north of the border, a sombrero is a particularly Mexican kind of hat, with a very broad brim. But south of the border, a sombrero is any kind of hat—or at least, any kind of hat with a brim.

Now that is what I would call a sombrero. (Emiliano Zapato from Wikimedia Commons)

Now that is what I would call a sombrero. (Emiliano Zapata from Wikimedia Commons)

The hat your blogger is wearing is a sombrero in Spanish but not English. (Teotiuhuacán, Estado de México)

The hat your blogger is wearing is a sombrero in Spanish but not English. (Teotiuhuacán, Estado de México)

I think of the adoption of loanwords as a bit like technology transfer: the meaning of the word changes as it moves from one language to the next, just as the form and function of a technology have to change to fit the recipient culture.

In the case of both jungle and sombrero, the meaning of the word in English is linked to the culture that the word came from. India has its share of dense tropical forests, and Mexico has—or at least had—many of the traditional wide-brimmed hats. English already had a generic word for forest and hat, but it was in the market for a specific word to represent forests in (parts of) India and hats in Mexico.

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