Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Word Traveller

A Book from Strahov Monastery Library Collection in Prague
written in old Czech, far more complex than its modern dialect
When visiting Prague last week, I got separated from my group by a mini-army of marching schoolgirls – who were presumably on a field trip somewhere. I tried to break through their flow to catch up with the rest of my fellow travelers but it wasn’t easy. Finally a teacher noticed my futile attempts and said something like “Divki, bachte,” adding some other words I didn’t know, but between the Russian and the Ukranian I do understand, I grasped the meaning. She told them to watch where they were going and not walk into me.

I had noticed how words travel when I was ten. From a family trip to Ukraine, I had brought home a long-coveted book I couldn’t find anywhere but a second-hand bookstore in the small town of Evpatoria: The Holy Bible. It wasn’t exactly the original text, but rather a collection of Biblical stories with a social commentary a la the Soviets. In the belligerently atheistic USSR it was the best shot at religious studies I could get. The only problem was the damn book was in Ukrainian.

I wanted to know why the Romans crucified that preaching Jew, so I read it anyway.

Luckily, Ukrainian is as phonetic as Russian, and even though there were some differences in the alphabet, many words had a familiar ring to them. Once I stopped laughing at how funny some of them looked in the Ukrainian spelling, I began to notice grammar trends and guess the meaning of sentences I didn’t understand. By the time I turned the funny Bible’s last page, I not only learn a gamut of rather odd and extraordinary story tales, but, unbeknownst to moi, I taught myself a new tongue. More so, I laid the linguistic foundation for my understanding of all Slavic-based languages.

Another treasure from the Strahov Monastery where
thousands of old books are carefully preserved
Now, Czech looked like Roman-spelled Russian and Ukrainian combined, so I dove into it with a vengeance, trying to figure out the meaning of every street sign, advertisement, and restaurant name. I kept bugging my tour guide to clarify confusing concepts. “Does grad mean city, like in Russian? Oh, it means place? Ok, then what is zahradka – a fenced area? Oh, it means garden?  Wait, now I know where the Russian word vinogradnik (winery) came from – it must mean ‘wine garden’ in Czech.” 
Three years ago, when a Turkish ferry deposited my husband and me on what looked like a god-forsaken piece of land somewhere southwest of Istanbul, we were at a bit of a loss. Somewhere nearby was a train station, but the signs were in Turkish. In the distance I saw the word gar, picked up my bag and headed in that direction. “How do you know it’s there?” my husband asked. “I think gare means Station in French,” I said. “I bet you the Turks adopted the term.” 

Years ago, in Paris, we were looking for an Air Tram to go up from base of the hill at Place St-Pierre to gleaming white Sacre Coeur Basilica on Montmartre (mont means mountain in French, by the way.)  No plaque said Tram, even remotely. However, there was a big arrow that read Funicular, a word that is not necessarily part of an everyday English vocabulary, but long ago had travelled its way into the Russian language. While in Petra, I discovered that khazna, the archaic Russian term for treasury, came from Al-Khazne, which made me wonder if my fellow Russkis adapted their title of a tsar from the Persian shah.
A Hungarian street poster. The only word I can understand here
is "festival" which must be now universal in every language

Three days ago in Hungary I stumbled into another amazing discovery: their word konyha (kitchen) sounded similar to the Russian kuhnia – and meanwhile Hungarian is not a Slavic-based language, but rather has its roots in the Ugro-Finn linguistical family. Yet, the culmination of my Eastern European linguistic exploration came when our Budapest guide unveiled the mystery of his city’s name. I knew this beautiful European capital divided by the Danube river consisted of two cities, Buda and Pest, but why did they sounded like the Hindu god and an English term for an annoying person was beyond me. “It’s simple,” my guide explained. “Buda means water like Russian voda, and Pest means oven like Russian pech. Water and a place to make bread was good enough to call it home.”

Have you noticed how far from home words travel?


  1. I enjoy how words travel. As I teach my children French, we laugh when we come across a word that closely resembles the word in English. Word play is fun as a parent and a writer!

  2. What a wonderful post, Lina. I have had similar experiences in my travels, although not in the Slavic realm. One interesting thing about Hungarian is that, although not an Indo-European language, because of its location it has lots of borrowed words (like buda and pest, apparently) from European languages.

    The American Heritage dictionary has (or used to have) a map of the Indo-European languages at the back, so you can see which languages are sisters, which are cousins, which are parents and which are children, and which are dead, meaning they no longer have native speakers. Fascinating stuff!

    Edith (PhD in Linguistics) Maxwell

  3. I loved this post, Lina! After I learnt Spanish, I was surprised at how easy it was to understand French, Italian and Portuguese. I'm not fluent in those three languages by any means, but I can read an article and get the gist of it--all because I have a good knowledge of Spanish. I've been told Romanian and Catalan are part of these romance languages, but I haven't tried them out--YET!

    MaxWriter, that American Heritage dictionary sounds fascinating!

  4. Dr. Edith, that IS fascinating! I'm going to go check out the back of my dictionary now. I'd love to have a copy of that map up somewhere in my home study.

    Lina, great topic and great post---I love this stuff too, who influenced whom and how did it happen? We're all so interconnected.

    Alli, in your case, I feel I understand just enough to be dangerous. I remember once in Italy, someone ordered me "more" water but I heard "peu" (as in less or a little in French) so I assumed they were saying a little water when I wanted more. But turns out, that particular Italian word had the opposite meaning of the French peu.

    Rebecca, my 9-year-old read my post from this week and asked me "how can a language be endangered?" ;)

  5. Lina, what dedication you had to teach yourself Ukrainian so you could read that book!

    What fascinates me about traveling words is that they sometimes take on a slightly different or more specific meaning in another language. Like the German word "Handy" (pronounced "hendy"). It means "cell phone". No one seems to agree on the exact origin of that word, but it probably came from the English "handheld".

    Edith, that language diagram is in the back of my copy of the AH dictionary. People are often surprised when I tell them that Farsi is an Indo-European language. They think it's related to Arabic because of the shared alphabet and religion.

  6. I completely forgot to ask about that Ukrainian Bible... do you still have it (say yes)? And wow, Lina, you've read the Bible! ;)

  7. No to Ukrainian Bible, unfortunately. I have no idea what happened to it - probably got left behind with so many other books. As to dedication - I doubt I had any, I was just curious about all these strange stories and had lots of spare time... Edith, I gotta check that dictionary now, I had no idea such maps existed! And, Rebecca, my kids often laugh at how funny certain statements translate from one language to another. Like, "take a bus" in Russian literally means taking a bus with your hand...