Backyard Brief: Little White King

The other day, my husband spotted another striking, first-time visitor to our house, a male white-crowned sparrow. One day in rain, the next in sunshine, he stuck to the grass to forage for fallen seed.

According to my slightly outdated North American birds guide, we’re in His Majesty’s winter range. Perhaps he has been dethroned and is migrating northward to a new seat of power. I wonder if he is related to the White King in my Alice novel. Look closely: This fancy little monarch even wears white eyeliner on his lower lids.

He must be French, or maybe Quebecois.

Five-Phrase Friday (28): Roots & Rivers

“Five English phrases” is the “name” of this game, but some day I’ll have to come up with a single word that means the same thing. Maybe quinque-Angli-phrasis. That’s Latin, Latin, and Greek. Nah, it should be something more rhythmic, more elegant–just better.

Both the complex and the simple can be graceful, and at least they’re both usually interesting to us linguaphiles. Complex single words derived from other languages often translate into simpler descriptive phrases in English. Native American peoples and other indigenous cultures have created many such words, and we see it in the Latin-based scientific names of plant and animal species.

English word roots, parts, or loan words may be Greek, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Native American, Gaelic, Zulu, Egyptian, Persian, Hebrew, Urdu, Hindi, Swahili, Japanese, Chinese, Slavic, Fijian, or some combination of these or others.

No language that one can learn across cultures, continents, and oceans can ever remain pure in itself. No country made so culturally rich and economically strong by the influx of so many immigrants can claim an authentically singular native tongue. Thus, English reaching out from its origins remains multi-lingual, just as America collecting its masses and individuals has always been so.

In the grand scheme of global language development, the difference between word and phrase dwindles in significance, and in comparing how different languages are constructed, the division of linguistic units may begin to seem rather arbitrary.

Still, while my series fixates on the phrasal unit in English, I might as well enjoy the poetry, mysticism, and general creativity of the descriptive wildlife phrases that equate to the single words naming animals we know.

Certain one-word mammal names have quite appropriate phrasal meanings.

  1. aardvark means “earth-pig” in Afrikaans
  2. elephant – “The Zulu, Tswana and Tsonga names for the elephant all mean ‘the forceful one’, ‘the unstoppable one’.” – source: http://www.krugerpark.co.za/krugerpark-times-2-1-animals-name-18978.html
  3. hippopotamus – Its common name is “river horse,” from the Greek, because it spends most of its time in lakes. The pygmy hippopotamus likes forest streams.
  4. orangutan – “‘Orang’ and ‘utan’ are the Malay words meaning ‘person’ and ‘forest’; the orangutan is literally a ‘person of the forest’.” – source: http://ypte.org.uk/topics/animal-facts
  5. The rhinoceros gets its name through Latin from Ancient Greek: “nose horn”

As you may gather from the examples, words that name less common wild animals stem from a core concept that takes more familiar things and specializes them based on the unique animal’s appearance or behavior. For instance, someone may not be familiar with a hippopotamus outside of Africa, but a horse is a much more common sight and, so, a concept we can use as a foundation for meaning. The complete phrases can seem either fitting or odd depending on one’s frame of reference, but the core concept penetrates.

Even if you don’t know the proper label for an unusual animal, if you start with its most unique features, you may just hit upon a phrase that means the same thing. Close is often close enough. After all, if communication can truly bring about human harmony, and if language’s best purpose is communication, then a shared sense is the key to shared meaning.

pygmy hippopotamus mother and baby. source: pinterest.com via duckduckgo.com.

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