Theres a long history of mottoes being garbled in the move from one conversation to another, says Guardian writer and editor David Shariatmadari
Game of Thrones is well known for its linguistic inventiveness. The TV change of George RR Martin’s fantasy cycle has departed road farther than the original stories ever did, with linguist David J Peterson fleshing out its own language of Essos and Westeros, Dothraki and Valyrian, from one or two mottoes into grammatically coherent “conlangs” or created languages.
The latest fragment of vocabulary to come out of the reveal got nothing to do with him, however. In knowledge, it wasn’t purposely designed by anyone. I’m seduced, because of the genre we’re dealing with, to call it an epic miscarry. But it’s probably not even worse as leaving a Starbucks cup in hit. And it’s actually pretty fascinating.
A crucial position during one duel place in a recent escapade was ” She can’t see us !”, delivered in light Geordie by Irish actor Liam Cunningham. In the dubbed Spanish version it came out as “< em> Sicansios !” em>( OK, let’s do this right :< em> “! Sicansios !”). The problem is, there’s no such word. The accurate rendition would have been < em> no puede vernos . Perhaps onlookers thought it was a spot of Valyrian. That must be what the articulation performers usurped, or at the least wanted their honchoes to believe after having failed to decode Cunningham’s accent.
Anyway, it wasn’t long before sees picked up on the mistake, with sicansios rapidly becoming the most famous bit of stupidity since covfefe. What’s interesting about it from a linguistic point of view is how it takes the original utterance and nonsenses it through an aural filter, accommodating the audios of English to ones Spanish speakers will allow us to. This is most obvious in the departure of the “sh” of “she”. European Spanish doesn’t naturally have this sound, but its version of “s” can sometimes resemble the English ” sh”- hence the substitute in sicansios .
This process- of forcing the square peg of a word from one word into the round hole of another- isn’t all that surprising. It’s happened throughout biography when conversations have come into contact- often through crusade or market or racial exchange. Unlike < em> sicansios, these foreign words often accompany preferred produces or helpful thoughts, and end up being permanently borrowed. Not simply that, but they can get crushed through a kind of semantic filter, as well as an aural one.
Let me show. There’s a word in English, crayfish, that cites not to a fish but a relative of the lobster. We got that statement from the Old French crevice ( in modern French it’s ecrevisse ), which in turn come back here Old High German krebiz , intending crab . What happened to fissure after being taken up in English was that it deepened a little in clang terms, with the stress changing from the second to the first syllable. But the committee is also went performed slightly differently too. The meaningless -ice em> aiming felt like it ought to mean something. And since this was an animal that lived in water, a fish is what it became.
This is one type of what linguists call a folk, or popular etymology. People adapt a word according to the clangs and intends they’re to be followed in, departing from the original in the process. There are loads of entertaining examples of it( the ones in this article come courtesy of historical linguists Lyle Campbell and Larry Trask, and the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology ).
Take the English ” country dance”, which in the 18 th century became so favourite it was acquired into French, where it was stressed contre-danse . Contre wants against, or opposite, which accommodated very well with a line of men facing a line of women, and that’s how it was interpreted. With its air of continental finesse, the French utterance was eventually borrowed back into English, conducting some to believe that country dance was a corruption of contre-danse , em> and not the other way around.
Benzoin is a rich fragrance made from the resin of a tree that stretches in Indonesia. It’s also known as gum benjamin, which is a further Anglicisation of something quite alien-looking. But where does the word benzoin come from? The Arabs who traded this substance called it” frankincense from Java”, or luban jawi . In that motto you can already see the injunction jawi element that became benzoin. But what happened to the lu ? Italian is what happened. Lu clangs a little like the Italian definite article, lo . So luban jawi was interpreted by 16 th-century Italian merchants as lo benzoi ,” the benzoi “. As a result simply the second bit became the noun in the European conversations that acquired it.
The most quirky tribe etymology of all was probably a one-off, just like < em> sicansios – although it had long-lasting causes for at least one individual, if we are to believe the narration. During the US occupation that followed Spanish rule in the Philippines, one Filipino father was said to have listed his son Ababis, after America’s patron saint (< em> san in Spanish ). The concept is, the US doesn’t have a patron saint. All is very clear if you think of how a term that was common currency among American occupiers would have been able to resonated to a Spanish-attuned Filipino. In that context, it’s just a short gradation from” lad of a bitch” to San Ababis , and a pretty terrible misunderstanding.
* David Shariatmadari is an editor and novelist for the Guardian. His book Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language ( Weidenfeld& Nicholson) is out in August