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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.

An Ode to Concrete

“This is Bombay, my friend, Bombay. Here the buildings are made of cement, and people’s hearts are made of stone.”

-The Beggar, Shree 420 (1955)

David Edgerton explains in his book The Shock of the Old that concrete, asbestos-cement, and corrugated metal are examples of creole technologies—technologies that originated in one place but took on new uses and meanings elsewhere. These materials in their modern forms were western inventions, but they have been particularly significant in the development of the poor world.1

It would be difficult, or perhaps impossible, to imagine modern India without concrete. The material can be produced cheaply and worked easily by either labor-intensive or capital-intensive methods. As such, it is the foundation—both literally as well as metaphorically—for much of India’s infrastructure.

The following gallery illustrates the complex and varied uses of concrete in contemporary India.

  1. David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 42-3. []

Camels at work

A camel passes by Surajpol, one of Jaipur’s seven original city gates.

A camel passes by Surajpol, one of Jaipur’s seven original city gates.

In his book The Camel and the Wheel, Richard W. Bulliet explores a curious problem in the history of technology: why much of the medieval Islamic world stopped using wheels, and instead transported goods on the backs of camels.1 Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did wheeled vehicles return to some parts of the Islamic world that had abandoned them centuries earlier. Bulliet argues that the reason for the switch from wheels to camels was economic: camels were low-cost, low-maintenance, all-terrain animals. Pack camels were suitable for transport in all parts of the Islamic world, even in the former Roman empire where the old roads were deteriorating.

In some places, pack camels never supplanted wheeled carts; rather, camels were pressed into service pulling carts. One of these places was Islamic India east of the Indus River (now parts of Pakistan and India). Unlike other parts of the Islamic world, India always had wheels.

Camels still haul loads in parts of western India. In Jaipur, camel carts share the streets with mechanized forms of transport such as motorcycles, cars, and autorickshaws. In narrow alleyways of the eighteenth-century Old City, camel carts sometimes cause infuriating traffic jams.

Jaipur’s camel carts are a blend of technologies from different parts of the world, during different time periods. Although most of the carts appear to be build out of wood, all of them sport pneumatic tires borrowed from trucks or some other type of motor vehicle. Pneumatic tires first appeared in Britain in the late nineteenth century, where they were originally used on bicycles. These tires are suited for the paved roads of a modern city. In contrast to the tires, the camels are harnessed by an adaptation of a saddle design that originated in northern Arabia at some point between the years 500 and 100 BC.2

  1. Richard W. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975). []
  2. Ibid., 87, 189-90. []

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