The night before last, Mrs L suggested we watch a film called Arrival, starring Amy Adams as a brilliant linguist supported by Jeremy Renner as Jeremy Renner and Forest Whittaker chewing the scenery in a very enjoyable way (him and Jeff Goldblum: as far as I’m concerned, they should be in everything)
Anyway, this isn’t a blog about movies, so why am I mentioning it? Well, Amy Adams starts her first scene in a lecture theatre with the opening lines of a lecture she’s about to deliver about Portuguese and why it sounds so different from other romance languages. I was all like…
But sadly at this point the movie was ruined for me when a siren sounded, heralding the arrival of twelve alien space ships who have come to… Well, I’d best not let slip any spoilers, but suffice to say they hadn’t come to help answer the question, and Amy Adams found her priorities had shifted somewhat so she didn’t even move on to the second paragraph.
I hunted around and found a reddit discussion about the lecture. I think there’s a lot of copy/pasting from Wikipedia going on here, coupled with some diversionary chatter from Brazilians who don’t see what all the fuss is about because everyone in South America sounds more-or-less the same, but it’s good to know I’m not the only one who wanted more. Maybe one day there’ll be a director’s cut with the whole lecture included. I live in hope.
I’ve always thought of the verb Assistir as a straightforward false friend, meaning, as it does, to attend or spectate at an event, and has nothing to do with helping or supporting any way. But today I was reading the book “Trilby” by George Du Maurier, written at the back end of the nineteenth century and I came across this sentence
And, indeed, here was this immense audience, made up of the most cynically critical people in the world, and the most anti-German, assisting with rapt ears and streaming eyes at the imagined spectacle of a simple German damsel, a Mädchen, a Fräulein, just “verlobte”—a future Hausfrau—sitting under a walnut-tree in some suburban garden
That really sounds like a very Portuguese use of the word “assist”. So I looked in my trusty Chambers and it turns out that assist had, in Shakespeare’s day, much the same meaning as its cognate does in Portuguese. What’s more, when I checked the priberam online dictionary I found that Assistir has several senses, including the British one. They give as it’s synonyms Ajudar, Socorrer and Cooperar.
So what we have is a word with two distinct meanings, in the process of diverging, where one sense is dominant in English and the other in Portuguese, but while the lesser sense is still used in Portuguese, the lesser sense in English has all but faded away to nothing.
I saw something really interesting online the other day. Someone shared a link from imgur showing all the different words used for “orange” in languages in and around Europe.
The word for the fruit “orange” in various European languages
Notice anything? I’m looking at the green ones, mainly. These are countries with strong Arabic influences or strong Greek ones. And… They all seem to be close variants of “Portugal”. This aroused my curiosity, so I did what any self-respecting inhabitant of the twenty-first century would do: I looked it up on Wikipedia.
According to this section, the origin of the name of the country is from the Latin “Portus Cale” – the port of Cale, where Cale is probably a Celtic name for something-or-other. It evolved into Portugal between the seventh and ninth centuries when the country had been conquered by an Arabic-speaking army and was part of the land known as الأندلس (Al-Andalus). I can’t help feeling like the similarity of “Portus Cale” to their word for a small fruit might have influenced the colonists’ pronunciation of the name of their new possession. Citrus fruits do grow in the area, so maybe if there were a lot of orange groves around it might have been a pretty good fit to call it the orange region. A few centuries later, after the reconquista rolled back the invaders, the name lives on. A place named after orange groves isn’t far-fetched. Orange County in California got its name the same way, although California hasn’t been conquered by Muslims, whatever Donald Trump might tell you.
I have absolutely no idea if there’s any truth in this. Fact-checking was never my strong point. It would be an odd linguistic legacy. Portuguese does have some inheritances from Arabic (there’s a list here if you’re interested) but their word for Orange (“laranja”) não é um deles. And yet, it just seems too… well, too right.