Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Yesterday's post on meänkieli (and the antiobotics-induced state of mind I'm in) got me thinking about the names of some languages. Terms like "our language" seem a bit strange, but they're far from rare. The brief poll I conducted about my fellow Easternslovakians revealed that many of them refer to speaking in their native dialect as "hutorec/hvarec/kazac po našomu" (lit. "speaking our way"). Even the ancient Hittite word for their language, našili, was once interpreted as derived from -naš = "our" (though these days it's not). But the language name which has always struck me as quite odd is Bislama. When I first came across the name of this pidgin, I filed it under "one of those pidgins/creoles from Africa, Arab conquest, islamization ekcetera ekcetera". Imagine my surprise when I learned that Bislama is an English-based pidgin (closely related to that of the Solomon Islands and Tok Pisin) and is actually spoken in Vanuatu. Connections between Vanuatu and islam? Zero. Having opened the window to let my previous theory fly out, I reached for my copy of Holm's "Pidgins and Creoles. Volume II: Reference Survey" and found the following:

The second Melanesian product whose market was confined to China was the edible sea slug called the beach-la-mar (cf. portuguese bicho do mar 'creature of the sea', whence French beche de mer), prized in China as a favorite ingredient in soups. Theses sea slugs are found on the coral reefs of Melanesia, the Torres Straits and Micronesia. There the trade often flourished alongside that in sandalwood, frequently carried on by the same traders. It requried close linguistic contact between the Europeans who lived in the trading areas and the islanders who caught the sea slugs and preserved them for shipment through a process of cleaning, boiling, and smoking. The trade language that this situation fostered was often referred to as Beach-la-mar, a name which survives in Vanuatu's PE.

Imagine that. Naming a language after a (ethnic, religious or social) group of people or a country is quite normal. Naming it after a city is quite common, too. But naming a language after a commercial product, that's gotta be rare. Do you know of any other languages with names with interesting history?


Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

The name "Canaan" derives from Tyrian purple; so Canaanite/Kna`ni is another case in point, sort of.

Chaoui (Shawi - Berber) and Shuwa (Arabic) both derive from the Arabic for shepherd (shawwaa'; sheep = shaa-t)...

bulbul said...

Welcome back, Lameen :o)
I knew about Canaanite, which my books say derives from Akkadian kinaḫnu. Are we sure people who spoke Canaanite dialects really referred to their language as such?
Thanks a lot for Shawi and Shuwa. Come to think of it, there might be similar cases in Eastern Europe, like Vlach or perhaps even Sinti (Roma).

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I know Augustine notes that the Punic-speaking inhabitants of eastern Algeria called themselves "Chenani" - and I seem to recall the Bible using sefat Kna`an, but not sure offhand.

bulbul said...


you are right: there is שְׂפַ֣ת כְּנַ֔עַן in Isaiah 19:18 ("In that day shall five cities in the land of Egypt speak the language of Canaan").

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