July 31, 2008
By Alessia Leathers
Cape Coral resident Alessia Leathers, who is from Peru, writes about how words in Spanish and English can often be misinterpreted.
I just came back from my country of Peru. It has been a month pampered by family and friends. It also has been a month of surprises.
As usual, my annual visits open unavoidable opportunities to revisit childhood memories. This time, I discovered with great amazement that the word used to describe one of my favorite plays is not a Spanish one.
That is the word "tobogán" (toboggan), which I wrongly assumed was part of the Spanish vocabulary since the oldest existing epic poem "El Mio Cid" was composed, written long before Cervantes published "Don Quijote" in 1605.
Reading Albert Baugh "A History of the English Language," I found out that the Spanish "tobogán" comes from the English "toboggan," which is an adaptation of a word for sled used by the Canadian Indians located in the east coast. Also Native Americans Micmacs in Maine had a similar word, "tobagun," which designated a drag made of skin, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary.
In 1691, the Indian word was translated as "tabaganne" by a French missionary named Le Clerq. Even though the equivalent of toboggan in French is a completely different word, "luge," other languages such as Hungarian, Dutch, and Slovenian adopted the same word "tobogan" as it is written in Spanish.
Once again, I have learned that languages are perfect examples of tolerance and acceptance among different cultures. There are no barriers when communication is at stake.
My linguistic research was motivated by a recent telephone conversation I had with my American husband. While I was in Peru, I called my husband to tell him how happy I was playing again on the "tobogán" at a park near my parent's house.
"How come were you playing on a toboggan?" he asked
At first, I thought his comment was because of my age.
"Honey, being a grown-up does not mean I cannot play again," I replied with certain disgust, thinking how right Peter Pan was when he thought adults were boring creatures.
The misunderstanding could have gone further, if my husband did not know me well. After all, it was not the first time we were talking about different things, even though the word in question was similar in English and Spanish.
My husband has lived in Lima long enough to know that there is no snow in a city where roofs are all flat due to the lack of rain. So, when he explained that toboggans are light sleds for transportation especially on snow, I understood the confusion.
My childhood "tobogán" is not the American "toboggan." In the Spanish language, a "tobogán" refers to the English "slide."
I have to take my husband to a playground around our house in Cape Coral next time I want to share with him my childhood memories.
The sooner, the better. While writing this article, I have also found out that my Spanish "trampolín" is not the same as his English "trampoline." If you want to know more about it, I guess you need to read my next article.