Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Language and History

by Edd Doerr

Putting on a shirt the other day I noticed on the label that it was "Made in Germany" from something called "Baumwolle", literally "tree wool", cotton in English. Why? Well, doubtless because German was a well established language before the first cotton was imported to Germany centuries ago. The word was invented because of cotton's resemblance to wool. Just as we in the US adopted the word "dashboard" for the instrument panel (British) in a car. A dashboard was a sort of mud guard on horse drawn wagons. I never use the archaic word.

So where did we get "cotton"? From the French, "coton", which entered English after the Normans conquered England in 1066. Where did the French get "coton"? From the Spanish "algodon" (accent on the final syllable). And where did the Spanish get "algodon"? From the Arabs who conquered Spain in the 8th century, who introduced the stuff to Europe and called it in Arabic "al qutn". Cotton started out as a tropical or subtropical plant unknown in Europe before the Arab invasion of Spain.

In fact, the Arabs introduced a great many words and things to  Europe through Spain, mainly stuff that the Spaniards did not have words for,  such as new foods and things like pillows and carpets. As the Arabs came from dry climes they knew a lot about water management. So most of the Spanish words for water management come from Arabic. Spanish evolved from Latin, so just about the only Arabic derived words in Spanish are the names of places or of things introduced by the Arabs. "Admiral", by the way, is Arabic; "almirante" in Spanish.

Although Spain became thoroughly Catholic, one of the most common expressions in Spanish is "ojala" (accent on the last syllable and pronounced oh-hah-LAH), or "God willing", from the Arabic for "Allah willing". I wonder how many Spanish speakers know that.

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