Thursday, September 02, 2010

“Mountain Mountain Mountain”

In the comentario under the poem “Palabra de Mujer” in his book Caminante John Oliver Simon notes that “Cerro Huitztepec,” a place name in Chiapas, Mexico, “means Mountain Mountain Mountain in Spanish, Mayan, and Nahuatl respectively.”

Puts me in mind of my British Life & Culture teacher 22 years ago in London. He said the River Avon (Shakespeare’s brook!) essentially means River River in English and Celtic. This is probably true of more place names than we realize. When a people comes to a land new to them they ask the present natives what things there are called. If “Avon” doesn’t mean anything to you, it sounds like a proper name, so you have to add a clarifying noun. River Avon doesn’t mean River River to an English speaker because Avon doesn’t mean anything to an English speaker.

“Adam”, I once read, means “Man” so any man named Adam is named redundantly. The Dine people (Dine being what the Navajo call themselves) translates as The People people.

I think this is called semantic opacity. Something “semantically opaque … passe[s] through a system without its contents being inspected or manipulated as if it was a black box.” A “black box” being a box no one thinks to open?


Jim Murdoch said...

Adam, or at least the Hebrew equivalent, also means ‘dust’. When Jesus get’s called ‘Son of Man’ in the Bible what they’re saying is ‘Son of Adam’ because we all are. An interesting observation. I can’t think of any Scottish equivalents but there must be some. I did see a street name once called ‘Road Street’ which I thought was just perverse.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

There's always more research to do!