Friday, September 18, 2009

Culture: Linguistic Oddities

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the delightful things about living in what amounts to a bi-lingual country (even if Toronto itself is broadly multi-lingual with the other official language, French, surprisingly rare) is the insight obtained by interacting with native speakers of the "other" language. Two recent examples from recent heritage events were particularly poignant.

The recent Heritage Toronto Bâby Point walk was led by guides from the La Société d'histoire de Toronto which has been leading the effort to create an Historical Park along the lower reaches of the Humber River. During the walk, it was pointed out that the historical sign in honour of the "Toronto Carrying Path," in both official languages, had a burgundy background. The name for the color clearly derives from the east-central region of France known in French as "Bourgogne."

However, as pointed out by the leaders, if speaking French, the color would be described as "Bordeaux," clearly derived from a region in southwestern France. Apparently, the regions of Bourgogne and Bordeaux have relatively little in common, so the reason why the color became known in English as "burgundy" is a bit of mystery. Most etymologies trace the word in English to the color of wine from the Bourgogne region of France, but it's hard not to speculate that some mis-pronunciation of the French during the Norman era in English might have something to do with it.

Another example came up at the recent Etobicoke-York Heritage Fair. There, I was engaging in conversation with La Société d'histoire de Toronto's representatives when a dandelion on the grounds came up and laughter ensued. Seeing my confusion, it was explained to me that the French word for dandelion is "pissenlit," which if taken literally (as it had by a schoolchild recently at a society school visit) means "pees in bed."

There seems good reason for the French etymology, as dandelion leaves are well-known (though not previously to me) as having diuretic effects. After eating dandelions, it is entirely possible that one might "pee in bed." The English etymology, on the other hand, is purely visual. Though I had never thought about it this way before, the name clearly derives from "tooth of a lion," which makes sense if one looks at the leaves, which indeed look like teeth. Apparently, in Middle English, the name of the plant had been "piss-a-bed," so at some point the name had changed radically.

The old adage that the best way to learn about one's own language is to learn another can come true in strange ways when living in a multi-lingual place.

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