Viva Las Vegas-es

March 30, 2009 § 3 Comments

NZ English speakers might recognise the name of the glitzy gambling town with a grubby underbelly (well according to CSI) as Spanish in origin. It actually means ‘the meadows’ … an ideal name for a desert city … But the attitudes about Los Vegas are far more important than the Spanish etymology. I know this because NZ speakers relatively recently have begin renaming NZ towns. You might hear people talking of

  • Rotovegas
  • Wangavegas (or perhaps sometime in the future Whangavegas
  • Dannevegas
  • Ashvegas
  • (thanks to my informants in 232)

No prizes for guessing the original names of these towns. But what are we saying about a town if we affix -vegas to its name? Perhaps Rotovegas is the easiest to understand and taking an unsubstantiated stab in the dark, I would suggest that this was the first of the vegas municipalities in New Zealand. It shares with the original a sense of a holiday destination and may have a sense of touristic glamour pasted over the otherwise regular NZ town. This cannot be said for the other Vegas-es (plural Vegi?).  Rather perceptions of these towns by outsiders might suggest that the morpheme created by NZ speakers is somewhat ironic.  Somewhat negative attitudes acknowledging the tacky and unseemly side of  the Nevada town seem to be widely held. Here is an excerpt from the blog of the LA Times reporting on two famous philosopher types, Francis Fukuyama and Bernard-Henry Levy arguing about it:

Fukuyama  writes: “Las Vegas is a real city with real people, not just sex workers, in it.” (FYI: Mr. Fukuyama, don’t let their boobs fool you the sex workers are real people, too.)
As for Levy’s view—like a true French Professor— it arrives in the form of a rhetorical question:”Francis, are you implying that all this American grandeur, this fundamental belief, this dream that has inspired so many generations of men and women throughout the world is to find its truth in this empire of imposture, this triumph of tackiness and falsehood, which you cannot deny is the other reality of Las Vegas?”


 Ashburton and Dannevirke are probably do not register highly on tourists’ or NZers’ excite-ometer. So rather than referring to glamour and high-rolling lifestyles, the attachment of -vegas marks a lack of perceived excitement or even a tacky or disturbing underbelly, a marked reversal in meaing from the source term.

Given that my informants could only name one non-local -vegas town, Brisvegas, we can see that attitudes or perceptions about the location are required for this operation to take place.

Let us know, though, if you hear of other Vegas towns


gringo – Greeks in the New World?

March 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

The last post brings to mind the word _gringo_.

In Mexican Spanish, _gringo_ refers to North Americans and, to a lesser extent, Europeans. From Mexico, _gringo_ has spread throughout Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Latin America. Some Americans take great offense at being called _gringo_, however, in my mind, the term is not threatening in any way.

Anyway, if we look up _gringo_ in Spanish-language dictionaries we learn some interesting facts. First, in a dictionary I consulted years ago, I learned that the first attested use of _gringo_ was actually from Spain and the term referred to Irish monks who visited the country in the Middle Ages. And in the Diccionario de la Lengua Espanola of the Royal Language Academy of Spain, a secondary meaning of the word is ‘unintelligible language’. It is quite possible then that _gringo_ was a description of the unintelligible Gaelic language that the Irish monks spoke amongst themselves when they visited Spain. As Martin notes in his post, the Spanish refer to unintelligible languages as _griego_ ‘Greek’. So _hablar en griego_ ‘to speak Greek’ means to speak unintelligibly. Perhaps, then, the etymology of _gringo_ derives from _griego_. If so, the  in the orthography may have come from the preceding preposition _en_ ‘in’, by means of a process historical linguists call ‘contamination’.

As for what we might call the folk etymology of _gringo_, Mexicans have a popular theory as to how the word came about. During the Mexican-American War (1840s) the US and Mexico fought over what is now Texas and other Southwestern states. US soldiers wore green uniforms. When the soldiers encountered Mexicans, whether on the battlefield or elsewhere, the Mexicans supposedly shouted “Green go!”, which derived into _gringo_. A nice story, no?

Finally, note that in Mexican Spanish, _gringa_, the feminine form of _gringo_, can be used to refer to a taco made from a (white) flour tortilla, much like the tortillas used for wraps here in NZ. So,  the next time you order a wrap, I guess, you could order a _gringa_. If the waitperson misunderstands you, it is because you are speaking Greek (griego/gringo) to him or her.

It’s a Spanish Village

March 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

This is what many speakers of Slavic languages say when they hear languages they don’t understand or are unfamiliar with – just as English speakers might say ‘It’s all Greek to me!’ or ‘Double Dutch!’  But what do the Greeks say or the Spanish for that matter?

Interestingly, the Spanish reference Greek and/or Chinese, and the Greeks say incomprehensible output sounds like Chinese and Arabic.

A clever soul, with more time on his hands than me, has constructed a cool map showing the ‘languages of incomprehension’. You can see it here

Cheeky speakers or Esperanto, and artificial language created in the 19th century and with 100 000 speakers as a second language, and maybe a thousand mother tongue speakers, respond to incomprehensible input with the phrase … Ĝi estas laŭ mi Volapukaĵo!  or Tio estas volapukaĵo por mi ‘It’s all Volapük to me’.   Volapuk was an earlier constructed language that was eclipsed by Esperanto.  This now begs the question what do Klingons say in this situation?  Visit the Klingon Language institute and perhaps you’ll learn!


March 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

A little informal formal linguistics in this post.

Morphology is the study of word formation. Well in linguistics it is. In geology it is something different. Something about rocks, I guess. Linguists talk about meaningful bits of words by using the term morpheme. If we take a word like unattractive,  we will all agree, I hope, that we can break it down into 3 parts or 3 morphemes, each of which contribute some of the meaning to the whole:



The second version is an attempt to describe the structure of the word, the morpheme withe shape un-is a negator. This attaches to the adjective form attractive. The -ive   is doing the work of making the verb attractinto an adjective or describing word.  We know that un-  morphemes attaches to attractive rather than attract morpheme, i.e., the verb, because we cannot say *he really unattracts me. (The little star here tells us we are dealing with an ungrammatical construction.)

 So many morphemes in English have been around since the dawn of time. That is not to say though that new morphemes don’t appear in the language. One of my two big favourites are -(a)thon and -ista.

Some of you may be familiar with the story of the marathon. To advise the Athenians of the victory of the Greeks over the Persians back in the day, a warrior ran from Marathon to Athens, a distance of some 20 odd miles.  In the first modern Olympics held in Athens at the end of the 19th century, this feat was celebrated …. and turned into a competition. At this stage, the (modern) Greeks had not won a medal, and this was the final event. 12 runners set off from Marathon to run to Athens, and I think 6 of the 8 that finished were Greeks including the winner, – instant national hero!

Not only that but eventually the rebirth of the marathon had an influence on the English language. Not one to be delicate about the word structure  of other languages – we borrowed cerise  from French to make cherry but we assumed that the final s was a plural marker so lopped it off. We fused the Arabic for the to the word for intoxicating beverage- al+cohol.

With marathon, we did not feel much need to keep on with the mar(a) part, despite the fact the Greek does not seem to segment into two parts here, and we assigned a totally new meaning to -(a)thon.

Here’s a google corpus of -athon words

  • Welcome to Math-a-thon

  • Butt-Numb-A-Thon

  • 24 Hour Cancer Dance-a-thon

  • Our understanding of an -athon  type event is informed from the entire word the morpheme was modelled from. There must be some sense of endurance and abnormal length of activity.

    It is interesting that this morpheme which has been called an Americanism is quite widely employed compared to a similar looking morpheme with a more ‘legitimate pedigree’. You will all be familiar with biathlons, triathlons, pentathlons and decathlons. These forms too are from classical Greek. A google search however pulls out a great deal fewer novel  -athlon  forms than -athon terms.  There might be two reasons for this. One purely phonological the sequence of sounds  represented by the spelling ‘thl’  is not common in English. The other might be that at some level speakers are aware that the compounds above are made up of Greek number morpheme +  athlon,  a morpheme meaning ‘competition, game’. 

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