Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Words On the Brain

The lock of my door broke this morning as I was trying to leave the house, so today it’s been necessary several times on the phone to use the word ‘locksmith’. An odd and rather frustrating thing: the word comes to me much more readily in Greek than in English, probably because I have had no truck with locksmiths in this country but had to avail myself of their expensive services several times in Greece. I suppose it’s all to do with context: keys + locks + frustration = looking for a phone number (usually on stickers in the lift) and mentally preparing what I’m going to say in Greek. The Greek word is ‘κλειδαράς’, pronounced, more or less, klidharás, and all morning for a few stuttering seconds it has blocked off the path to wherever the English word resides in my brain.  

There are other Greek words that do this. I have only ever had to ask for an advance on my wages in Greek, and the Greek word for ‘advance/deposit/down payment’ is prokatavolí. It always springs into my mind a second or two before ‘advance’ or ‘deposit’ do. Another curious ‘blocking’ word is periorisménos, meaning ‘restricted’ or ‘limited’. One Sunday afternoon back in the nineties a Greek queen of my acquaintance was indulging in nostalgia for the days when girls were severely limited in their movements by their fathers and brothers, and so boys turned to boys for sex. (I was some fifteen years too late for that.) Picking up a lad back then, he said, was easy as buying twenty Marlboro. The adjective he used to describe the condition of women was ‘periorisménes’, a word I had not heard up to that point, but whose meaning could be worked out from context and morphology. Correctly deducing meaning from contextual clues is a sure-fire way of fixing a word in my mind, but so often it causes this odd blocking of the English words. Whenever I need to use a word belonging in the lexical area of ‘restriction’, periorisménos bounds up wagging its tail and the right word in English is lagging a few paces behind. Same with prodiáthesi, meaning 'predisposition', which I read in a body-building mag in the far-off days when I used weights at a gym. I wish this meant that I was effortlessly fluent in Greek, but it doesn’t, especially after eight years away.

One evening in Athens I was walking home from work, racking my brains to recall the Albanian word for ‘prostitutes’. (I’m sure you do this all the time.) I had worked this one out from context whilst translating an article from Koha Jonë* a few weeks earlier. I kept getting Greek alepoú meaning ‘fox’, then lýkos meaning ‘wolf’, but couldn’t home in on the right word, and this bugged me no end until finally lupësa popped up out of the murk. Obviously! From Latin lupa, ‘she-wolf’, and slang for a lady of the night… hence the foxes... yeah, well, it was getting close. I felt dead sophisticated.

Until I started to write this post. I decided I had better check the meaning, just in case. Lupësa appears in a Google search only three times, each one the same article that I had read in 1995. It is not in my dictionary or in any online translator. I messaged an Albanian Facebook friend and meanwhile looked in my dictionary at alternative spellings. Yep, it’s lypësa, and it means ‘beggars’. Edlira later confirmed this. I’m so glad I was not trying to translate that article for anyone else's eyes, as I’ve been deluding myself for 23 years because of a typo. It occurred to me to hope that the word might still derive from Latin lupus, but no – the root is lyp-, meaning to ask or request, and nothing to do with wolves.

While we are sort of on the subject of wolves, bet you didn’t know that the English verb ‘look’ derives from the Greek for wolf. A colleague in Greece solemnly declared this to me. In Homer, she said, lýkofos means ‘wolf-light’, i.e., twilight, and you can’t deny that lyk- looks a bit like ‘look’, and you need light to look at stuff, and anyway, it’s in Homer, so QED. Thus a really chauvinistic Greek filológos – and there’s no shortage - can derive every word in every one of the world’s languages by trawling Homer for a syllable or two, and a little semantic lassoing. If I had had five thousand drachmas for every time I heard ‘Greek is the basis of all languages’, I’d have been dead of cirrhosis years ago.  

Actually, English is the basis of all the world’s languages, and I shall use the popular Greek method of etymology to demonstrate this. One illustration will serve to prove me absolutely, incontrovertibly right. The Chinese word for person is ren. It is written thus:  - a rather silly picture of a thing with two legs invented by people who’ve never learned to read like Christians. The word is quite plainly derived from the English ‘wren’, which, like a person, is bipedal. The Chinese failed to understand that the word refers to a bird and not a man because they are foreigners and we aren’t, and this is why the word means so much less in Chinese than it does in English.

Gus Portokalos is not much of an exaggeration.     


*Koha Jonë ('Our Time') Albanian newspaper.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad I'm not the only person who has the problem of words appearing in the brain in a different language. It happens to me all the time, especially when I can't find the equivalent of an English word for a Greek word. In English it seems so bare, stingy even, whereas in Greek words seem much more passionate. !

Vilges Suola said...

Et tu... Just so long as you realise that's a wholly subjective evaluation. Words depend on context and delivery for their passion, and passionate delivery isn't done in middle class areas of the UK. (At least not in public, terribly bad show, what?)

Deiniol said...

I find this kind of thing happening to me on a depressingly regular basis. Sometimes my mind simply blanks when trying to retrieve even basic English vocabulary, and a word comes to mind from another language: only the other day I could not for the life of me recall "ramekin" but instead lost my temper with my sous-chef when he didn't know what "un godet" was.

Curiously, it's always more likely to be a French word than a Welsh word that comes to mind, aside from those cases where I never learnt the English words adequately: the distinction between a birch and a beech eludes me, but a bedwen and a fawydden are clearly totally different.

Anonymous said...

I'm okay with 'foreign' words leaping into the lead and thence the mouth when my brain refuses to relinquish the English word. But it is when my brain mangles the English word - or somehow manages to jump the gun and give me a word that sounds like it might be right. I have found myself asking for 'arthritis' instead of 'anthracite', I have accused someone of being 'lasvicious' instead of 'lascivious' and have described my lack of enthusiasm as 'truculence' rather than 'reluctance' (although in that case, either would have worked.)I'm waiting until I'm not bothered by it any more - not too long, I'm guessing.

Vilges Suola said...

One of our MA sts is writing a dissertation on precisely this topic. Will have to wait until September to see what she comes up with.


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