July 31, 2018

Words of the Month - Say What?

        You may have heard the story about the origins of the word kangaroo in English.  In 1770 Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks were exploring in northern Australia when they saw a kangaroo - becoming the first Europeans ever to see such a strange beast.  They asked a local what the creature was called, and the local, who knew no English, replied “I don’t understand you,” which sounded like “kangaroo,” and which the Englishmen took to be the name of the animal.  It’s pretty funny to think about such a misunderstanding giving rise to a word, and kangaroo isn’t even the only word with a story like this.
        According to a footnote to a 1519 letter from Hernán Cortés, the word Yucatán also really meant “I don’t understand what you’re saying” in the local Maya dialect, and was the reply to the question “What is this place?” or something along those lines.
        Indri is a word you may never have heard of in the first place.  It’s a large lemur from Madagascar, allegedly given its French name (which English borrowed) by naturalist Pierre Sonnerat.  His Malagasy guides, upon seeing the creature, said, “Look there!” in order to show Sonnerat, but he thought they were telling him the animal’s name.
        People love stories like this.  They’re funny, and they poke a little fun at the big-name explorers and scientists who are supposed to know so much.  They shed an amusing light on the difficulties of cross-cultural communication, and we can all relate to the misunderstandings and difficulties of learning new things or new languages.  There’s just one problem.  All of these stories are, much to my regret, probably false.
        Yucatán is the only one that still apparently has some etymologists who think it may be true, despite the explorers having translators with them.  The other less entertaining but more plausible etymology is the Nahuatl word Yocatlan, meaning “place of richness.”
        The story of indri’s origins as an error dates back to the late nineteenth century, although the word entered French in 1780 and English in 1839.  Around the same time there is a record of endrina, an alternate Malagasy name for the animal, which is now the accepted source of the European word.
        As for kangaroo, in 1898 an ethnologist pointed out that in the local aboriginal Guugu Yimidhirr language the word for one species of kangaroo, at least, is gang-oo-roo, but nobody seems to have paid any attention at the time.  Later linguists eventually discovered that he was right (they record the word as gaNurru), thus debunking the original anecdote, which was predicated on no English speakers actually knowing the local languages of Queensland.
        Obviously it’s always better to learn the truth about things, and it’s also nice to think that the Europeans and the native peoples they were encountering were clearly managing to communicate at least a little better than those anecdotes were giving them credit for.  Still, I’m a bit sorry to learn that the anecdotes weren’t true.  After all, they were so much more amusing than the boring old truth!

[Kangaroo, linocut by Gladys Osborne Reynell, 1923 (Image from Centre for Australian Art);
Indri Indri, wood engraving by Jenny Pery, c. 2015 (Image from Society of Wood Engravers).]

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