Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A menu of words

One of the really fun things about knowing more than one language is the way you can see not only how people's minds work differently in different languages, you can also see the affinities between languages, in ways that sometimes you'd not have thought about at all. I'm of course bilingual in French and English, studied German at school(and still have a bit of the language though am in no way fluent at all!) and know a smattering of Italian and Spanish from hearing my parents who can both speak it.
And I've been learning Russian for a few months now--something I've wanted to do for years but kept putting off because people were always saying how difficult it was--and maybe being put off by the look of the Cyrillic script too. Anyway, I found the perfect course online--Russian Accelerator, have gone ahead in leaps and bounds in simple and succint conversation through its unique and very natural methods, and discovered it was not only not difficult to pronounce, at least for me as a French speaker, but also that cracking Cyrillic was not hard. But also in the process I discovered some surprising affinities with French, and English, and other European languages as well, including German and Italian. One of those affinities lay in words for various foods, and it really got me thinking about the interesting pot of words whose ingredients different languages fish out and use and how many of those words have relationships with each other, across different languages.
Some are unsurprising: for example the word 'soup' is 'soupe' in French, 'suppe' in German, 'zuppa' in Italian, and суп (pron. 'soupe) in Russian. Or the word 'cotelette' in French, 'cutlet' in English, is котлета(kotlyeta) in Russian, but has undergone an interesting evolution in meaning, as котлета refers often to the tasty flat meatballs(beef, pork or lamb) which are beloved of Russians.
And then there's some surprising ones: take the word for that beautiful and ubiquitous red(or yellow or orange or even ranging to pink and purple)fruit which enlivens countless sauces, salads, soups and stews around the world, and is known as 'tomato' in English and 'tomate' in French, from the Central American Nahuatl word 'tomatl' meaning, 'the swelling fruit'. It's also known as 'tomate' in German, and more importantly also as 'tomate' in Spanish(the Spanish were the first Europeans to import the fruit, from their Central American colonies.) But in Italy, which we so associate with it in cooking now, it's 'pomodoro' literally, 'the golden apple.' And that's almost exactly what it is in Russian too: помидор (pronounced 'pomidor'), which gives you an idea that it probably was from Italy, and Italian cooks, that the fruit first came into Russian cooking.
Another interesting one to me was the word for 'potato', a food also Central American in origin of course, which is 'patata' in Spanish and Italian, but 'pomme de terre' or 'earth apple' in French(though we always called it 'patate' at home--my mother's family being partly of Spanish origin, so she simply frenchified the Spanish word). And in Russian, it's картошка (kartoshka) or sometimes картофель(kartofel) which of course reminded me irresistibly of the German 'kartoffel'. There's always been a German community presence in Russia, and maybe it was their propensity to good hearty potato dishes that also found its way into the Russian language. Staying with the good old Central American staples(and what wonderful culinary possibilities they gave us!)the lovely vegetable known as 'maize' or 'corn' in English-speaking countries is 'mais' in French, Italian and German, 'maiz' in Spanish(from a Central American word)--but in Russia they have their own native word, quite unrelated to the others, which I just love: кукуруза(kookoorooza). Yet though it had no relationship with the French word for the vegetable, it reminded me immediately of 'Cocorico!' which is what French roosters say, and which of course allied for me in my mind with the idea roosters, and chickens generally, love corn! (so the mind plays around, making fun connections!) I'll never forget that word now!
Another word which is similarly connected in a contradictory way for me, making it unforgettable, is the word for the fruit known as an 'orange' in many different European languages. Not in Russian, though: there it's апельсин (apyelsin), which reminded me of apple and hence of its 'opposite' --if you're comparing apples with oranges!
(By the way, the photos are: top, a market stall in Yaroslavl, Central Russia, which I visited on my 2010 trip to Russia; and bottom, market stalls in Paris, the same year. )

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