You’re From Fried Chicken and Beef Sandwich?

When words get adopted from one language into another, unpredictable things happen to them. There’s almost always some correlation between its new meaning and its former one, though sometimes even this can be almost completely lost in adaptation.

The Melanesian language I grew up speaking had adopted the English words for break and screw, but had come to apply these terms to the concepts of bend and bodily joints, respectively. Thus, to pray was to brukim skru, “break your screws,” i.e. bend your knees in prayer. The English words for turn and belly had also been adopted, but while turn mostly kept its original meaning, belly came to mean the soul. Thus, to tanim bel was to “turn the soul,” i.e. to repent and believe in Jesus. It was not uncommon to hear testimonies where people would say that they “broke their screws and turned their bellies,” – meaning simply that they prayed and believed.

This morphing can also happen to place names and the different things associated with them. I am originally from Philadelphia, but Kentucky has been our home base in the U.S. for a good many years now. However, these names in our Central Asian language have become solely associated with certain foods which each location is famous for in other places. Locally, kantaki has come to mean fried chicken and fladelfia means an elongated beef sandwich – the foreign relative of the famous Philly cheesesteak. Pat’s and Gino’s have come a long way. So has Colonel Sanders. They have taken up residence not only in the diet of a far-flung people, but also in their language.

The problem with this is that no one here knows that Kentucky and Philadelphia are actually places, not merely foods. Why is this a problem? Because I am often asked what part of the US I am from. Being a third culture kid (TCK), this is already a complicated question even without the complexities of inter-language morphology. But when I answer with the truth, “I live in Kentucky but I am from Philadelphia originally,” it gets understood as, “I live in fried chicken and my people are those of elongated beef sandwich.” This, understandably, leads to some bemusement. It gets even worse if I explain that I was raised in a Melanesian country famous for its former cannibalism.

Why does this foreign guy have a background so strangely intertwined with food?

Sadly, neither Philadelphia nor Kentucky are famous enough as places yet for most locals to know about them – unlike Texas, which everyone knows and constantly compares to a nearby tribal town famous for having more AK-47s than people. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that’s any better.

These word connections are relatively recent. But some connections exist that are ancient, proof that many thousands of years ago, the ancestor of the Persian-related tongue that we have learned is the same ancestor of English – Proto-Indo-European. The local compound word for a deep trust or faith is an ancient relative of our English words for back and fasten. To trust someone completely is to be fastened to their back, metaphorically carried by them. Thus, to “trust in the Lord with all your heart” is rendered in our translated Proverbs as, “Full-hearted, be strapped onto the Lord’s back.” Not a bad way at all to communicate complete trust. After all, a child riding on his parent’s shoulders is exercising a high degree of faith that he will not be dropped. His safety is entirely in the power of the one carrying him.

These kinds of word connections – new or old – can be fascinating, fun, and even frustrating. Language is a remarkable thing and our human ability to borrow, to shape, and to poetically turn a phrase is almost infinite.

That must be because God’s capacity to play with language is infinite.

Photo by Aleks Dorohovich on Unsplash

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