Tuesday, August 11, 2009

English is a Sausage

I'm back from my first Rock 'n' Roll Toor. It was great to play to an appreciative house in Portland, with some of my family there, who made the hour-long (even when they're not trapped in traffic) drive to see us. It was fun to jump and bray like a jackass all day in Nick's car and half a day in Josh's car, and all night in the sweaty European style sheets of my room in Seattle.

But that's of scant interest to all of you, I know. Unfortunately I don't have anything to say about D&D today either. I've got a load of ideas for my Mutant Earth Megadungeon, but I can't share them until my players have encountered them--and they have killed the living crap out of my players.

Travelling the Pacific Northwest I was reminded of all the bizarre (to my ear) words English acquired in the course of taking all this territory from its natives--many of which I can't really see as strange, as they are so familiar, like Massachusetts and Mississippi. No, I can totally see how bizarre those are in English vocabulary, even more so with the placenames in Washington state: Snoqualmie, Walla Walla, Puyallup . They're a definite spice in our word-sausage, added to the bulky, knobby Anglo-Saxon, and the broad veins of Norman French and chunks of Old Norse here and there. But surprisingly little of Celtic origin considering how long speakers of the two language families have lived side-by-side. I wonder if any of my UK-native readers might share their feelings about these weird American placenames. Hi, Chris!


Chris said...

There are a lot of Celtic place names in Britain. They're just so elided by usage, and so much part of the landscape that we don't even think of them as Celtic anymore. The rivers Avon and Eden. Torpenhow Hill (that's 'hill' in four different languages). Cumbria. Penzance. Anywhere with aber-, -coombe, or glen in the name. Then you cross the border into Wales and it's like the road signs are suddenly in pure gobbledegook. \0_o/

Given their relative novelty, and their non-Indo-European linguistic origins, some American place names are a veritable car-crash of syllables to outsiders. Familiarity has accustomed us to the more famous ones, but a more obscure (to us) place name starkly points up that America is not Europe, and that they do things differently here. "Injun country", literally as well as metaphorically.

Chicago, Kansas, Manhattan or Niagara - fine.
Milwaukee, Oklahoma or Saratoga - hmmm...
Narragansett, Tahoe or Puyallup - whu?!

I'm just glad that Coleridge and co. never got their Susquehanna Phalanstery off the ground. Iroquois+ Anglicised Greek = tongue twister. *shudder*

As an aside, we Anglos generally find your American Indian loan words (bayou, chautauqua, hickory, hominy, squash, toboggan, wigwam) exotic and redolent of a particular American 'voice' and experience. It's as outlandish to us as some of our Indian-derived vocab (pukka, kedgeree, jodhpur, gymkhana, bungalow, tiffin, -wallah, etc.) must be to you.

Two nations divided by a common language indeed. And let's not talk about those crazy Aussie and Kiwi place names...

Ick the Ark said...

Yeah, it seems I got my wires crossed about the Celtic elements--since I was talking about placenames I shoulda known there'd be a lot more Celtic in the countryside than in the everyday vocabulary.

I those Indian loanwords seem exotic indeed, since I only know two of them: jodhpur and bungalow. Except I would have thought bungalow was a Wild West word--those, sometimes borrowed from Spanish, often fanciful coinages, outlandish words that we also take for granted out here in the Far West: hoosegow, buckaroo, hootenanny, discombobulated. . .

I wish someone would talk about Aussie and Kiwi geography! I had a comment once from a New Zealander, who threw water on my hopes that I could describe my bludging self as a bludgeon.

Jeffrey said...

Hello from (oddly) sunny Seattle.
[which is a corrupted pronounciation of Chief Sealth/Seathl who was a central leader of the native Americans in the early/mid 1800s]

We have all sorts of funny names derived from the native Chinook language.


Jesse Carter said...

As an aside, Snoqualmie and the falls specifically are beautiful and my favorite place in America.