30 July 2015

Language following

Last week, I was at a party in Edinburgh to mark Peruvian independence day. As I was leaving, I heard someone refusing a drink because "tengo que manejar" -- "I have to drive".

Funnily enough, I've had a couple of discussions recently about that very word "drive". It all started with a discussion on a Welsh-language Facebook group. The traditional word presented there was gyrru, whereas people often tend to use the term dreifio, presented there as an Anglicism. Strangely enough, the very next day, I ran into an old university classmate of mine, Carwyn, who was up from Wales to visit a conference in Edinburgh. When I asked him which word he would use to say "drive", his answer was "probably the wrong one", which I immediately took to mean dreifio.

I explained to him why I felt that dreifio was less of an Anglicism than gyrru.

How so?

This is a phenomenon that I call "dictionary following", for wont of a better term. (If there's a widely-accepted alternative name, please do let me know in the comments.) It's a peculiar form of language change that minority languages seem particularly prone to undergoing, where a word-form in one language gets locked to the changing meaning of a single equivalent in another language.
Edit: An Cionnfhaolach over at IrishLanguageForum.com tells me that this transferrence of all meanings for a word in one language to a similar word in another is called a "semantic loan".

In this case, the dictionary word gyrru is a word that means to spur animals onwards -- it's "drive" as in "driving cattle": what drovers do. The modern sense of "drive" comes via the idea of forcing carthorses forward, and thus the English word has broadened.

Across Europe, the equivalent word often evolved analogously. The French and Italian equivalent term is actually to "conduct" a car, and in Spanish, you either "conduct" or "handle" your car -- which is where manejar comes into the equation (manejar = manage = handle; mano = hand).

It's too easy to focus on the grammatical and lexical items as being the characteristics of a language, but if that is not underpinned by idiomatic usage and unique linguistic metaphors, then it doesn't feel like a complete language; and for me at least, much of the joy of learning and speaking that language is lost.

So for me, I'm happier to adopt the English "drive" morpheme into languages like Gaelic and Welsh than to adopt the English metaphor with a native room and claim that this is somehow "purer".

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