Anthropological sign translation errors

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Linguists occasionally encounter examples parallel to mistranslated signs like the one Mark wrote about. The situation arises when someone with little or no knowledge of the native language, typically an anthropologist, elicits information such as place names and writes down whatever the response is. When a linguist familiar with the language later reviews these records, some place name will prove to be uninterpretable until the linguist realizes that what has been recorded, usually in a garbled form, is the response "I don't know". There are various stories of this type in linguistic folklore, and I have encountered this myself.

I came across a variant of this in the census of a Carrier village carried out by Oblate priests, none of whom had much command of the language, in the 1870s. Several women are recorded as having been named tsandelh. What the priests didn't know is that tsandelh is not a name: it means "widow".


  1. John Lawler said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 9:40 pm

    I am reminded of Mt. Your Finger You Fool in Terry Pratchett's The Light Fantastic.

    As well as many anthropological linguistic horror stories told to me by Larry Thompson during my formative years, like the BC First Nation group whose official name translates as "People All Gone", because the idiot who asked for the name managed to elicit a response describing the fact that everybody was down on the shore slaughtering a whale that had beached itself.

  2. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 9:58 pm

    Mithun (1999) lists a nice example: the Laurentian word "ondaccon", supposed to mean "a salmon", but which appears cognate with several Iroqouian words for "kettle". "Apparently the identification of undaccon as 'salmon' was inferred when someone pointed at a pot with a fish in it" (p. 3).

  3. Michael Tinkler said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

    The version I heard once from an Africanist was rivers named Wata and Lo (circonflexe) in answer to questions like "what do you call that?" I've also read in some of the Upstate NY histories that Cayuga and Keuka Lakes both mean "Canoe put in spot," in answer to "what do you call this place?"

  4. John Cowan said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 10:44 pm

    Canada got its name from ganada 'village'.

  5. Bill Poser said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 10:59 pm

    There is a whole sequence like this that I thought I had written down but can't find, and don't remember perfectly. I saw it taped to the door of one of the Linguistics faculty at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. I don't know if any of them read LL. Anyhow, the situation is one in which a missionary or traveler seated in a canoe decides to get down a bit of the native language. He begins with the paradigm of "to paddle". Since he and his guide have no common language, he picks up a paddle and makes paddling motions. His guide responds with something which he writes down as best he can. Then he points to his guide, hoping to elicit the second person singular. The guide again responds. Next, he points at a woman walking by, hoping to elicit the third person singular. And so it goes. When he is done, he has a paradigm of "to paddle" that goes something like this:

    1s You paddle very badly.
    2s Got any smokes?
    3s Nice looking woman, eh?

  6. marie-lucie said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 11:26 pm

    Some years ago another linguist and I helped edit botanical notes taken by the archeologist (I think) Harlan Smith, sent by the anthropologist Franz Boas to the Canadian West Coast. Although Smith's spellings for native names were idiosyncratic, we managed to identify most of the words, but one of them stumped us for quite a while. The word was supposed to mean "lichen". It turned out it meant "the branch of a tree", the support on which the lichen was growing.

  7. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 11:42 pm

    For more "I don't know" linguistic folklore (kangaroo, Yucatan, etc.), see the alt.usage.english FAQ and The Straight Dope.

  8. dr pepper said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 11:51 pm

    I've always loved "Hill Hill Hill Hill". Please don't tell me that's an urban legend.

  9. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 12:19 am

    @ Cowan, I thought they weren't entirely clear what word exactly it was that got deformed into Canada (at least I'm pretty sure they're not entirely clear which one evolved into Quebec)? I'm a bit hazy on the issue, as I haven't looked into it for a while.

  10. WindowlessMonad said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 12:23 am

    Set it all to music and have it performed by those epistemological funsters, Willard and the Gava Guys.

  11. Peter said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 4:53 am

    John Lawler wrote: "I am reminded of Mt. Your Finger You Fool in Terry Pratchett's The Light Fantastic."

    This reminds me of a cleverly-named BBC TV comedy programme from a few years ago, entitled: "No, This is This. Goodbye is Goodbye".

  12. Richard Sabey said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 6:05 am

    "Indri" is derived from the Malagasy word for "Look!"

    @Dr Pepper: I know of 2 names that mean "hill hill hill" (Bredon Hill and Pendle Hill) but the only "hill hill hill hill" I know of is "Torpenhow Hill". In The Story of English, in chapter 10, The Saga of Proper Names, Mario Pei alleges that a ridge near Plymouth is named Torpenhow Hill, and that this name comes from 4 elements: tor (from OE torr), pen (from Welsh pen, head or top), how (from ON haugr, a low hill, tumulus or barrow) and hill. There is no hill named Torpenhow Hill near Plymouth or indeed anywhere; "Tor" in the names of hills in SW England is generally a separate word at the end of the name (e.g. Yes Tor), not part of a word at the start of the name; an element from Old Norse would be unlikely in the name of a ridge so far east of the Danelaw; and there is only one place named Torpenhow: a small village in the north of Cumbria, so it would be odd for its name to be an element in the name of a ridge at the other end of England.

    s: The Debunking of Torpenhow Hill, Darryl Francis, pub. Word Ways, vol. 36 no. 1 (Feb. 2003), pp. 6-8.

  13. Virtual Linguist said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 7:40 am

    I've always found it odd when parents name two daughters Elizabeth and Isobel, or two sons Iain and Sean.

  14. Nicholas Waller said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 8:23 am

    @Virtual Linguist – At least Isobel and Elizabeth sound different – I heard a story once of two Scottish sons both called Murdoch, but it was all right as they were named after different grandfathers. Even if you don't believe that, George Foreman famously has several sons all called George (though I think it is already a bit weird when a father names his son after himself; even weirder when he has a daughter and names her after himself, as in Nigel and Nigella Lawson).

    @Richard Sabey – Wikipedia claims that the 200m high hill near Torpenhow is the one in question though the OS map you can link to via the grid reference does not name the hill. The Wikipedia page also has a link to the debunking Francis article you mentioned.

    I suppose doublings-up are redundancies as much as errors; are they deliberate or due to forgetfulness of the meaning of the original name? I live not far from a couple – Cheddar Gorge (ceodre/ceodor and gorge meaning the same thing) and one of the River Avons (afon meaning river). And I have been in the Sahara Desert.

  15. Kevin Iga said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 9:07 am

    According to the Wikipedia article on Yucatan:

    According to Hernán Cortés' first letter (Cartas de relación) to the King of Spain, "Yucatan" represents a mis-naming of the land by his political antagonist Diego Velázquez. Cortés alleges that when Velazquez initially landed in Yucatan and asked about the name of the well-populated land, the indigenous people answered, "We don't understand your language." This was supposedly rendered as Yucatan by the Spaniards, who were unfamiliar with the phonetics of Mayan. However, there was political antagonism between Cortés and Velázquez, and this story evidently represents an attempt to defame Velázquez. The actual source of the name "Yucatan" is the Nahuatl (Aztec) word Yokatlān, "place of richness."

  16. Kate G said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 9:18 am

    I recall being told that "Nipi" means "Water" in the languages in use in Northern Ontario while Europeans were busy making maps of the place. Lake Nipissing, Lake Nipigon and the like are all apparently "Lake Big Water", "Lake of Shining Water", and so on. Whether that's by someone pointing at a lake and asking "what do you call that?" and getting "lake" as an answer, I don't know. I think "Detroit Narrows" and "Sault Rapids" come from generic topological notes on maps being misinterpreted as place names, and then regaining the feature name, but I could be wrong.

  17. Willy said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 9:22 am

    The Sundance, WY, Times recently included the obituary of a fellow named Lester, nickname "Les." He was survived by his twin brother Leslie. The obituary didn't offer a nickname for his brother.

  18. Kevin Iga said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 9:28 am

    And as to "doubling names", on the Stanford University campus there's "Lake Lagunita".
    Both the English word "lake" and the Spanish word "laguna" (lagoon) come from Latin "lacus" (lake, pool); "laguna" through "lacuna", meaning "small lake". The "-ita" suffix is a diminuitive. So "Lake Lagunita" is "Lake little little lake".

    Then on a more prosaic level, we have ATM machines, ISBN numbers, PIN numbers, UPC codes, etc.

  19. marie-lucie said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 10:35 am

    Years ago I read a birth notice in the French newspaper Le Figaro: four brothers called Jean I, Jean II, Jean III and Jean IV were announcing the birth of Jean V.

  20. Lugubert said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 11:24 am

    I think this is three rivers: River Yarlung Zangbo Jiang (aka Brahmaputra etc.); Yarlung is a Tibetan dynasty.

  21. Q. Pheevr said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

    I remember visiting the Sedlec Ossuary once with a group of other tourists, none of the rest of whom spoke any Czech. Looking at the gravestones, one of them remarked that there seemed to have been quite a lot of people named Rodina.

  22. sleepnothavingness said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

    The 1947 Ordnance Survey 1" map covering this part of North Lincolnshire details a slender cluster of houses under the placename of "Shifty Nooking". Always having supposed this to have been a prime example of locals having fun with "The Man From The Ministry", I was astounded to discover this year that such a place once existed for real, as a road name.

    Lincolnshire has an abundance of tautological place names, my favourite being the Isle of Axholme (originally Isle of Haxeyholme, or "isle of water-island-island").

  23. Stephen Jones said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

    I've always found it odd when parents name two daughters Elizabeth and Isobel, or two sons Iain and Sean.

    Well Victor, Laureano and Esteban would be a threesome in Spanish.

    Off topic, but Amnesty International once adopted a Cambodian railway station as a prisoner of conscience because the Khmer for closed down and detained was the same word.

  24. Bill Walderman said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

    This topic seems to be catching. Check out the Language Hat posting entitled

  25. Stuart said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 2:35 am

    A NZ version of this is a little more upbeat and positive. There is a town called "Paihia" which apparently got its name from a missionary who knew very little Maaori, and said of the place where he was, "it's pai (good) HERE". Thanks to his non-rhoticism, the assumption stuck that it was a Maaori placename, and that he was saying "Paihia", and so it is to this day.

  26. aginensky said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

    According to my brother, the hebrew name for the Red Sea is the Sea of Reeds. It is a shallow and marshy waterway. It is not in any sense red.

  27. Randy said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 1:01 pm

    Chai Tea — Chai is Hindi for tea, so you're drinking tea tea.

    Naan Bread (one of my favourite things about Indian food) — I used to call it "naan bread" until an Indian told me that "naan" means "bread". It seemed that he had told a lot of people this.

    I don't these really fit into the anthropological sign translation errors category, though. I would guess that this has to do with nonIndians indulging in the exotic, trying to adapt new information with familiar patterns.

  28. Doug Sundseth said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

    So, if an Oblate priest goes on a diet, does he become a Prolate priest?

    On the issue of redundant names, the National Center for Atmospheric Research is on Table Mesa Dr. in Boulder, CO.

  29. mollymooly said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

    "four brothers called Jean I, Jean II, Jean III and Jean IV were announcing the birth of Jean V."

    There's Prince Michael Jackson I and II, but III is less and less likely.

    Nicolae Ceauşescu's father was drunk when he named Nicolae's younger brother "Nicolae".

    But the prize probably goes to one of the Reuss Junior Line:

    The house is unusual for its system of naming and numbering the male members of the family, every one of which has been named "Heinrich" for centuries. While most royal and noble houses give numbers only to the reigning head of the house, and that in the order of his reign, the Reuss Junior Line used a numbering sequence for all male family members which began and ended roughly as centuries began and ended. A consequence of this naming system is that certain heads of the Reuss Younger Line have had the highest numbers attached to their name of all the European nobility. Note also that the male children within a single nuclear family are not numbered sequentially, as all members of the larger family are part of the same numbering system. For example, the sons of Prince Heinrich LXVII Reuss of Schleiz were, in order, Heinrich V, Heinrich VIII, Heinrich XI, Heinrich XIV, and Heinrich XVI.

  30. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

    The easiest way to identify an Arabic word brought into Spanish is by the prefix "al". But, this is just the Arabic article, so a structure like "El Alcázar" or "The Alcázar" really means "The the fortress". Worse still is that you can then give a word both a definite and an indefinite article at the same time!

  31. Randy said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 8:45 pm

    I said "I don't these…"

    I meant "I don't think these…"

  32. Jangari said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 4:09 am

    My first linguistics professor told me that a language that he studied in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, Yimas, was so-named (apparently) because an anthropologist who had no interest in the language and was merely conducting cursory research, forgot to ask them when he was there, and asked the people in the next village whose language was Watam, I believe.

    Anyway, he asked 'Who is that mob in the next town over?' To which the Watam replied 'Yimas' ('people').

    However it always pays to take these stories with a healthy dose of cynicism.

  33. Lektu said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 7:53 am

    As for people's names, google for "Zanizar Rodrigues da Silva" and then Zanizir, Zanizor and Zanizur. Zanizer Rodrigues does exist too, though Google doesn't find her.

    They are all brothers and sisters.

  34. wally said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

    Some might enjoy the Austin Lounge Lizards comic song

    "Big Rio Grande River"

    and more examples of this can be found here:

  35. John Curran said,

    November 9, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

    I had a professor who did fieldwork in the Amazon among the Achuar Jivaro. He spent a lot of time making kinship charts, recording everyone in the village. And he noticed a lot of people were named "Haku".

    Months later, he learned from another anthropologist (via airmail, I think) that "Haku" in Achuar means "dead."

    When asked, "What is the name of the woman who bore X?", they would say, "dead". The Achuar don't speak the names of the dead. Partly because it's taboo, but also because "the person's dead, so their name doesn't concern them anymore."

  36. Colin John said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 11:39 am

    Going back to dr Pepper and Richard Sabey, there is a small hill immediately above Torpenhow village, which is unnamed on the Ordnance Survey map of the area – but what might the locals call it?
    My favourite of these names is a valley near Halifax in West Yorkshire called Luddenden Dean. Lud is probably a proper name and so this is Lud's valley valley valley, but using the same word in each case.

  37. João Rodolfo said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

    Zanizar was a friend of mine. Zanizer, Zanizir, Zanizor, Zanizur, Zenizar and Zenizer are his brothers and sister. Zanizar is a contration of de names of his parents; the others names is the sequence os vogals (a, e, i, o and u). After the five first kids, the firts "a" was changed to "e" and the series returned.

  38. João Rodolfo said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 10:07 pm

    Adendum: they lived in Rio de Janeiro when was child

  39. Alessandro Moraes said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

    I am Zanizur´s son. In fact my uncles and aunts are Zanizar, Zanizer, Zanizir, Zanizor e Zanizur. Zenizar, Zenizer, Zenizir e Zenizor. The original idea came from my grandfather who to created a landmark for the family and make strong link among brothers.

  40. Rodrigo said,

    February 7, 2011 @ 8:22 pm

    I'm Zenizer's son and, even though my girfriend doesn't really appreciate the idea, I'm thinking about naming my future son "Zenizur"…

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