Friday, October 30, 2009


Snatches from the Pink Snapper – 8

Spanish speakers frequently brag about the rationality of Spanish spelling—you can always pronounce the written word because its spelling will match its pronunciation. No silent letters. No words like "once" that any sane person would pronounce [ons]. That said, it's not always possible from the pronunciation to know how a word is spelled. The Spanish letters b and v, for instance, are pronounced alike, so Spanish speakers will often write "baca" instead of "vaca" for "cow." The letters ll and y are another such pair.

So I was chatting with Mario the other night when he mentioned that his brother would be coming down to Florida for Christmas. "What part?" I asked. "Callo Hueso" he replied. "Where?" I asked, leaning forward better to hear the words I had obviously missed. "Callo Hueso," he repeated. "Where's that?" I wondered, "I've never heard of it."

He explained with amazement that it was a famous tourist spot and he was sure I should know about it. Well, I didn't, so I asked him to spell it. "C-a-l-l-o H-u-e-s-o," he offered, which translates to "bone callus." I still had no idea where Mario's brother was heading. But thanks to the wi-fi at the Snapper I could look it up. And there it was—Key West.

Still I was puzzled by the weirdness of the name. When I looked up the Spanish for "key" (in the sense of "a small island"), it turned out to be "cayo," which explained why a Spanish speaker might think the word was "callo." Then I assumed that "hueso" was some kind of corruption of "oeste"—the word for "west,"—so that Key West should be translated "Cayo Oeste."

I was wrong about that. It turns out that "Cayo Hueso" is the original name given to the island by the arriving Spaniards because it was littered with bones. The English word "key" was in fact derived from "cayo." And histories of Key West that I found online were uncertain whether the "west" in "Key West" referred to the island's location in the chain or whether it was an English attempt at "hueso."

So for me it was a lesson in the sorts of misunderstanding that can arise from linguacentrism (in this case "the excessive pride of English monolinguals"). And for you I'm hoping it will be proof that I do not go to the Snapper to drink but to slake my thirst for knowledge.

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