Annals of respelling

Some seven months ago, Salon published a piece by someone named D. Watkins, titled “No, white people, you still can’t say the N-word: That word belongs to black people and our culture now — not yours.” For some reason Salon continues to carry the link to this piece in its Voices column, in which most of the others are only a few days old.

I never read the piece. I was quite put off by the idea inherent in the title — the notion that a word can “belong” to a particular group of people. What it implies that white kids studying Latin must not say aloud the masculine singular of the word for ‘black’.

For that is (as I have already written) exactly what niger is. From about the 16th century on it was used by English-speakers, alongside the Spanish-Portuguese negro, to designate a dark-skinned person from Africa south of the Sahara. As long as literate people were expected to know some Latin, they would know that the was to be pronounced as short. But at some point in the 18th century schools attended by the practical-minded middle and working classes stopped teaching Latin, and so the word began to respelled with an added g so that it would be pronounced correctly, to rhyme with bigger and not with tiger (at least in English — it seems to have been different in Scots). It’s the respelled version that has morphed into “the N-word”; but D. Watkins refers to saying it, not writing it.

It makes me think of other cases of respelling for the sake of conformity with pronunciation, eventually leading to a new word.

The first Jews who settled in medieval Venice came from Germany, and the district where they settled was near a foundry, getto in Italian (pronounced with a “soft g”), which gave the area its name. But the Jews pronounced the word the German way, with a “hard g”, and this pronunciation eventually took over as the district’s name, so that the Italians obligingly added an h to indicate the new pronunciation. Ghetto thus became a new word, meaning ‘Jewish district’, and spread to other places in Italy, having lost its association with the foundry.

Another Italian word is casino, meaning ‘brothel’ (it has a few figurative meanings as well). But because gambling was one of the activities that went on in brothels, the French borrowed the word to mean primarily a gambling establishment, and this meaning has become universal. The French, of course, stress the word on the last syllable, and so the Italians borrowed it back with the French pronunciation, and spell it casinò.

The respelling of proper names is a much broader field, and I will stick to one case. The surname Picasso was originally Picazo, fairly common in Spain. But one of the artist’s maternal ancestors served in the navy of the Kingdom of Naples (then ruled by Spanish monarchs) and respelled his name to make it easier for his Italian comrades to pronounce. Oddly, he kept the Italianized spelling when he returned to Málaga.

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