Love of Language

Language fascinates me. Since I was a child, I’ve always been interested in learning the origins of the English language and how it’s connected to languages all around the globe.

It tickles me to learn where a word or phrase (or product) originated. The origin of anything, for that matter. How rituals and rites began, where a recipe originated, when the first time something was said, or a tradition came from…

I’m the kind of person who has books like The Roots of English, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, and Imponderables: The Solution to the Mysteries of Everyday Life. And knowing a particular fact about a word often leads me to learn other things, things that lead me to believe that we all shared a common language a long, long time ago. Take, for example, the origin of the name Coney Island. It’s said that at the time of the settlers, the island had a large population of rabbits. The Dutch, who colonized much of New York, named the area Rabbit Island—“coney” is a derivation of the old Dutch word for rabbit, conyn.What’s interesting is that the Italian word for rabbit is coniglio. In Spanish, it’s conejo. In Portuguese, it’s coelho. Okay, so those three are all Latin languages, so naturally they’d be similar. But why are they similar to Dutch?  Let’s take a look at some other languages:

Scottish Gaelic=coineanach.
Irish Gaelic=coinín
Greek=kounéli
Icelandic=kanína
Telugu=Kundēlu
Tagalog=kuneho
Yiddish=kinigl
Polish=Królik
Russian=krolik
Czech=králičí
Galician=coello
Thai=Krat̀āy
Vietnamese=Con thỏ
Uzbek=quyon
And, yes, even Esperanto=kuniklo

Malay=arnab—which is exactly like—Arabic= arnab
Maori=rapeti (much like “rabbit”)
Hawaiian=lapalapa—which is a lot like—French=lapin
Afrikaans=haas—which is similar to—German=hase

Do you see what I mean? This goes to show you the connections that languages all over the world have. Seemingly different and disparate tongues were connected somehow, somewhere, way, way back in time.

(BTW, I find Merriam-Webster’s etymology of “rabbit” interesting as well: Middle English rabet, probably from Middle French dialect (Walloon) robett, from obsolete or dialect Dutch robbe, robbeken; probably akin to Middle Low German robbe seal, East Frisian rubben to scratch, rub)

Mind you, there are other theories about the name Coney Island, such as that it was named after a Native American tribe called the Koneh, who inhabited the island, or that Conyn was the name of a prominent Dutch family. I prefer the story about the rabbits, especially considering the similarities in the other languages.Yes, I’m a total geek. I’m at a point in my life when I can own it.

I have a mind full of minutiae, useless details that won’t ever bring me any money (unless I get on Jeopardy), and as much as I wish I could knock it all out to make room for more useful information, I really do get a kick out of it.

Getting back to language…

So, the Dutch colonized New York, which is why it was originally called New Amsterdam (the British renamed it New York). As much as the battle cry “The British are coming! The British are coming!” was a call to arms against the invading forces, Americans didn’t fall far from the British tree. At least, not in the Northeast.

Why, whatever do you mean, R.G.? you ask.

Some people (not from New York) have told me that I have a New York/Brooklyn accent. I actually don’t. Okay, maybe a little comes out every now and then. Okay, okay, it really comes out if you piss me off (in which case, that last word would be pronounced awf).

For anyone who mocks or turns their nose up to the New York/Brooklyn accent (well, dialect, really), keep in mind that it is based on the British accent. That’s right, the accent that comes from the Queen’s mouth. The accent of Princess Diana, Winston Churchill, and Dame Edna!

Right about now, you must be thinking that I’ve indulged in some loco weed, but hear me out.

The British way of speaking influenced the Northeastern accents (which makes sense, if you think about it). Of course, it’s been watered down, but you can see threads of the British origins. Words like “car,” “far,” “coffee,” “door,” and so many others have distinct pronunciations in the New York/Brooklyn way of speaking. But if you were to listen to a British person say those words and then a New Yorker say them, you would hear the similarity. Those words would be pronounced in both accents—although slightly harsher in NY/Bklyn—as:

Cah
Fah
Cawfee
Dohw

The syllables in the middle come out a bit differently, but the overall words are pretty much the same.

These are just some of the things I think about. My brain is a very strange place, but it is where my love of words and books were formed, and where my curiosity about the world and its origins germinated.

Language is an amazing thing, and it’s mind boggling to realize how many languages there are in the world (according to Ethnologue, considered one of the best languages resources, there are 6,909). In the neighborhood of Jackson Heights, New York (where I work), alone, 167 languages are spoken. Think about that. I don’t know about you, but that blows my mind. I’ve had to acquire interpreters (part of my job) for not just common languages such as Bengali, Mandarin, and Hindi, but also for more exotic tongues, such as Nepali, Tibetan, Taishan, Guyanese, French Creole, Burmese, Hungarian… I even once had a request for a Zulu interpreter. Which opens up all kinds of cultural questions.

But my point is, language is awesome, and we should embrace all the many kinds there are, including the variations in our very own English.

Here’s a thought: If you’re ever in Coney Island and you spot a rabbit, you’ve just caught a glimpse of history. In that case, you should treat yourself to some Nathan’s.

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9 comments

  1. Thanks, R.G. This was an interesting read. Language fascinates me also. I’m always curious about the origin of slang expressions and the entrance of new vocabulary/expressions in English. Be well.

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  2. Great blog. I love words. recently found out that the verb to boycott is eponymous and based upon someone from the land rent strike over here in Ireland in the 1800s. As for accents… worst memory ever… I’m a bit of an introvert and first week of uni in and English lecture, prof asks me to stand up and say something because, apparently, the accent/dialect of my home town is pretty unique for the area.
    Slang from anywhere is just as interesting too. Some of the slang I used as a kid came from Romany gypsy and other from Hindi.

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