Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Lingua Somnia

One sometimes wakes up from what feels like a dream, but the only residue is a single word. That happened to me last night; and the harvest of my dream was the word Nicaragua. Nicaragua is the largest country in that slender isthmus that connects North to South America or vice versa. Honduras is to Nicaragua’s north, Costa Rica to its south, about 6 million people. But none of that was in my mind.  What my dream presented was a linguistic challenge. I lay there in the dim dark, nose barely reaching the cold air, wondering if the first part of that word, Nicar, had any linkage to “black” in Spanish—because agua, of course, meant “water.” This kept me awake just long enough to make a firm decision to look into the matter when light finally came.

It turns out that the etymology of a word like Nicaragua is a swamp not even Donald Trump will ever drain. The accepted  version is that conquistador Gil González Dávila, its western discoverer, named the country for a local chieftain named Nacaro. But later scholars, having studied the original language of the region, called Nahuatl, have made correctives: that R in Nicaragua is suspect—but the “agua” is very defensible. But let us start with the name of the language itself. Nahuatl is formed of two words: NAHUAC and ATL. The first means “near,” the last means “water.” Note here, however, that atl is clearly not related to agua; agua, however, is a natural translation of atl. The name Nicaragua, scholars say, originates from three native words: NIC meaning “here,” ATL meaning “water,” and NAHUAC meaning “near.” In simple terms, Nicaragua means Here-Near-the-Water—just as the name of its language means Near-Water. These folk were proud either of their nearness to two oceans or, more likely, having their population centered around two big lakes on the south-western extent of the country: Lago Xolotlán and Lago Nicaragua (today). That chieftain named Nacaro perhaps played no role at all. But the Spanish clearly got the idea that agua had better be part of every major name around here. The capital is thus called Managua; it is the largest city in Central America. The Man part of that name comes from the name of a tribe, the Mánkeme, who lived in the area of Managua; the rest of it I need not repeat again.

Even a brief investigation into language reveals a universe beneath. To those who, like me, are absolutely fascinated by the hidden, near-forgotten, and overlaid parts of history, I recommend a closer look at the Nahuatl language, presented here by Wikipedia. It turns out to be part of the Proto-Uto Aztecan language group, the fifth level down a sizeable pyramid—all of which was leveled down, you might say, by the Spanish invasion of Latin America (Aztekistan?). The image of the Nahua woman I show above, the curl showing that she is speaking, comes from the same source. The image dates from the sixteenth century Florentine Codex produced by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún. Clearly the Nahuans were also originating later North American techniques of comic book speech. What a vast world we live in…

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