Posts Tagged ‘N-word’

Annals of respelling

September 1, 2016

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. (In German it’s written Getto to this day.)

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.

Advertisements

Latin?

January 23, 2015

When I first read about the car-sharing entity called Uber, I assumed that the name would be pronounced as Yuber, in accordance with the usual English way of pronouncing word-initial “long u“: union, usage, uterus, utopia,… But I’ve never heard it pronounced as anything but oober, which makes me think that this is how the company calls itself, and that the name is meant to be interpreted as Latin. Now uber as a Latin adjective means ‘fertile’ or ‘productive’ and as a noun it can mean something like ‘fertile ground,’ but by far the most common meaning is that of ‘(female) breast’ or ‘teat.’ Why a company whose goal is to transport people would call itself that, I don’t know.

And whenever I think of Latin, I think of the many terms used to denote a person of (at least partly) sub-Saharan African descent, especially in America. Such people have been called darkies, Negroes, colored, black, Afro-American, African-American, and in the more distant past also Moors, Abyssinian, and Ethiopian. The geographic inaccuracy of the last three designations doesn’t really matter, any more than the actual color described as black (or, for that matter, white; chessboards and chessmen are not always strictly black and white either). Of course, negro is just the Spanish or Portuguese word for  black.

But then there is the Latin word for black: niger. This, two was commonly used in English to designate people in or from Africa from about the end of the 16th century onward (as was pater for father — it must have been a kind of affectation by educated Britons). Around the end of the 18th century some (but not all) writers began adding a second g, presumably in order to insure a pronunciation closer to the Latin one, rhyming with bigger and not, at least in English, with tiger (though Robert Burns rhymes nigger, vigour and tiger).

And, around the same time as the spelling change, the Latin word became offensive, both in the mouths of those saying it and in the ears of those hearing it. What is it about Latin?

Incidentally, the word nègre plays a similarly offensive role in French, but perhaps not to the same extent. The English version of Jean Genêt’s play provocatively titled Les Nègres  was given the inoffensive title The Blacks. (Conversely, black is now an OK word in French for referring to people of African origin or descent.)