Around the web – May 2020

Do you know how the month of May got its name? It may (pun intended) seem a simple word, but the origin is actually fairly complex and interesting. We could say the same about several articles listed here in the May 2020 round-up of this month’s most popular stories about language, translation and interpreting.

was Maia a Greek or Roman goddess?

Off-colour and on the mend

Esther Kim interviews the translator of “Friend”, Immanuel Kim

#ThatTranslatorCanCook week 41: Sausage Rougail


Further reading:

15 Reunion Creole proverbs

Every culture has its own proverbs, and Reunion Creole is no exception – it’s a very colourful language that often makes use of imagery even in simple everyday conversation, so for example if you’re starving you might say Mon léstoma i bat kart (literally ‘my stomach is playing cards’). If something is difficult: La pa in rougay tomat! (‘it’s not a rougail tomate’, the latter being a spicy condiment that is quick and easy to make), and to nitpick is chercher carapate su la peau bèf  (literally ‘look for a tick on cattle skin’).

Here’s a list of fifteen Reunion Creole proverbs with their French and English translations and/or equivalents:

Couler la peau la pas couler lo ker
La couleur de la peau n’est pas la couleur du cœur
You shouldn’t judge people by the colour of their skin

Coq mon voisin grossèr mon marmite
Le coq de mon voisin est la taille de mon marmite/Ce que possède le voisin fait toujours envie
We always want what the neighbours have

Bataille coqs

Kan gro bëf i sharzh, sort dëvan!
Quand le gros bœuf charge, ne reste pas devant
When the boss isn’t happy, watch out.

Bon kari i fé dann vië karay
Le bon carri se fait dans une vieille marmite/C’est dans les vieux pots qu’on fait la bonne soupe
Old pipes give the sweetest smoke


Zorey koshon dann marmit poi
Les oreilles d’un cochon dans une marmite de pois/Faire la sourde oreille
Turn a deaf ear


Bëf dëvan i boir dëlo prop
Le boeuf de devant boit de l’eau propre/Premier arrivé, premier servi
First come, first served

Kass pa la tet la plï i farine, soley va arnir
Ne te casses pas la tête si la pluie bruine, le soleil va revenir/Après la pluie, le beau temps
Every cloud has a silver lining


Pakapab lé mor san esséyé
Pas-Capable est mort sans essayer/Qui ne tente rien n’a rien
He who tries nothing has nothing

Kalebass’ amèr’ y suiv’ la racin’
La calebasse amère suit la racine/Tel père tel fils
Like father like son


La chance lo shein lé pa la chance lo shat
A dog’s chance isn’t a cat’s chance/A chacun sa chance
Everybody gets a chance


Poul i ponde pas kanard
Une poule ne pond pas un canard/Les chiens ne font pas les chats
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree


Le chien y sent sa queue
Chacun voit midi à sa porte
To each his own

Gro poisson i bek su l’tar
Le plus grand poisson ne mord pas en premier/Une bonne affaire se fait parfois attendre
All good things come to he who waits


Ou va war kel koté brinzel i charge
Tu vas voir de quel côté l’aubergine est chargée/Tu vas voir de quel bois je me chauffe
See the true colours (of someone)

Goni vid i tien pa dobout
Un sac de jute vide ne tient pas debout/Avoir le ventre vide rend faible
This last proverb is one of my favourites, but I haven’t been able to find an English equivalent. It literally means ‘an empty jute bag won’t stand upright’, the idea being that if you’re hungry you’re also tired and won’t be able to do anything properly without eating first (definitely my case!).

By the way did you know the study of proverbs is called paremiology?

The pictures are taken from the blog post in French Reunion’s best Creole proverbs, illustrated by Paul Clodel. As Reunion doesn’t have a set orthography you may notice some spelling differences between the quotes I’ve listed and what is shown in the pictures.

If you have anything to add, please let me know in the comments below.

Further reading:

Bastard Tongues

Map of Creoles, travelogue, memoir, intellectual detective story, linguistics primer. All these epithets could be applied to Derek Bickerton‘s Bastard Tongues, which I recently finished reading. Subtitled “A trailblazing linguist finds clues to our common humanity in the world’s lowliest languages” I knew this book would appeal to me given my interest in Creoles, and I was right. After a prologue in Palau, the book starts in Ghana then heads to Guyana, Curacao, Colombia, Brazil, Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, Seychelles, and Surinam, not forgetting stopovers in the UK, USA, Europe, Mauritius, Caribbean …

Cover of

Book cover (via Amazon)

Although he’s now a Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii, British-born Bickerton’s preferred method of Creole research during the 30 years he spent on the subject (mainly 1960s-1990s) was far from hoity-toity – it was often in bars, isolated communities or slums (“drunks are the world’s most underrated language teaching resource”). His thirty or so years of research led him to originate the language bioprogramme theory (LBH) as to the origin of Creoles, according to which their formation is from a prior pidgin by children as the latter share a universal human innate grammar capacity. In the 1970s Bickerton proposed an empirical test of his theory, which would have involved putting families speaking mutually unintelligible languages on a previously uninhabited Pacific island for three years. Funding was obtained, but the experiment was finally cancelled over ethical concerns about informed consent.

Derek Bickerton

Whether or not Bickerton’s hypothesis is true (see here for other Creolisation theories) his book, as well as being an interesting read, raises a number of important points about Creoles. Attending an international conference on Creoles held in the late 1960s he recounts how some Creole scholars had, as students, been warned off Creole studies as ‘professional suicide’: “Weren’t there more than enough real languages to go round?”.  Along the way he informs us that Creoles have grammars that are often stricter and more regular than those of European languages, and asks how, in some instances, Creole grammars so similar could have come into existence in so many different parts of the world. We also learn some fascinating history along the way such as the slave situation in 17th Surinam (the place where the most ‘extreme’ Creoles were born), how plantation societies were created, or Hawaii’s hidden history – Hawaii being the place where creolisation has happened most recently. We learn for example about the creation of Pidgin Hawaiian (which confusingly, despite its name, was actually a Creole):

When people think about pidgins they immediately think of Pidgin English, Pidgin French, Pidgin of some European language or other. The idea of the big white guy on top, and all the little nonwhite guys under him struggling to cope with the sophisticated complexities of his language is so firmly fixed in our minds that the idea of a pidgin based on a language of nonwhites, clumsily and haltingly spoken by members of the master race, seems almost inconceivable.

Some linguistic explanations are a little too technical for my taste, but they form a relatively small part of the book. My main gripe is a map at the beginning, actually a world map of Creoles and places that Bickerton studied and/or took an interest in, but which is labelled “Creole Languages of the World”. Given that there are only 22 labels on the map a novice could be forgiven for thinking that only 22 Creoles exist (worldwide there are actually 127 Creoles according to a 1977 study by Ian Hancock).

World map of Creoles

World map of Creoles

I’d like to end this post with the following quotation from the book’s last lines:

Creoles are not bastard tongues after all … they are the purest expression we know of the human capacity for languages. Other languages creak and groan under the burden of time … Creoles spring pure and clear from the very fountain of language, and their emergence, through all the horrors of slavery, represents a triumph of all that’s strongest and most enduring in the human spirit.

Further reading:

European Day of Multilingual Blogging – Reunion Creole

Yesterday was European Day of Multilingual Blogging which gives bloggers a chance to highlight the multilingual dimension of the internet.  The idea is to feature one or more languages on your blog that you don’t normally use (thanks to Christine Schmit and J. Scott of  Word to Deeds for indirectly bringing this to my attention). So, here, a day late, is my small contribution – the Aesop‘s Fable The Fox and the Crow in Reunion Creole (it’s not been translated by me – see here for source). Note that as a mainly spoken language Reunion Creole does not have a universally accepted writing system; I’ve chosen to print using the ‘KWZ’ writing system, so-called because it makes strong use of the letters K W & Z. Other systems called Tangol and Lekritir 77 also exist.

Lo Korbo ék lo Ronar

Konpèr Korbo, anlèr inn pyédbwa,
Té tyinbo dan son bèk in formaz.
Konpèr Ronar, ki té anbèt son bous,
La di ali paroli-là :
« Wopé ! Adyé, Misyè Korbo.Ou lé byin zoli ! I arsanm ou lé gadianm !
M’i manti pa, si out santé
Lé parèy out plim,
Ou lé lo Payanké lo bann zabitan dann bwa-là. »
Lo Korbo ki antann sa, i santi ali tarzé ;
Epi pou amont son zoli vwa,
Li rouvèr gran son bék é li kit son manzé sapé.
Lo ronar i kap ali, épisa i di : « Mon bon Misyé,
Aprann aou tout tarzèr
I viv soupléyan sat i akout ali :
Lamontraz-là i vo byin inn formaz, somanké. »
Lo Korbo, k’na ont épi lé pérdi,
La ziré, soman tar minm, k’i ginÿ arpi trap ali.
English: An illustration of the fable of the F...

An illustration of the fable of the Fox and the Crow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For more posts on Creole(s) and/or Reunion see these links:

House invasion

As night fell yesterday I absentmindedly heard the fluttering of tiny wings and thought a moth must have got in through an open window. As the fluttering became more insistent I looked up and realised the house had been invaded by dozens of karya, a species of flying termite that appears every year at the beginning of the warm season on Reunion Island. Attracted to the light they soon lose their wings, fall to the ground, and if you’re not careful they can create a colony and start attacking the woodwork in and around the house.

The word karya arrived in Reunion Creole from the Tamil word kareya via Indo-portuguese.  In Reunion Creole the noun has also given rise to the adjective karyaté which means (1) ‘attacked by termites’ or (2) ‘to be in a bad way’.

MauritianRodrigues and Seychelles Creoles also have the same word; interestingly in Mauritian Creole karya can also mean “concrete with little holes in it” – an obvious reference to the termite’s destructive power – and karyaté means any piece of wood or metal that is porous or spongy, while karyate means “to destroy slowly, to fade away to be eaten away.

Minor irritation aside, karya are an annual reminder of the arrival of the warm weather and the cycle of the seasons, and in that respect they are welcome.

Coptotermes gestroi ('karya') termite

Coptotermes gestroi (‘karya’) termite

To find out more about Reunion Creole you can read my post here.


Adventures on a Faraway Island

Last week I was invited by the Endless Possibilities Talks (EPT) team (Al NavasGerda Prato-Espejo and Esther Navarro-Hall) to talk about my personal journey, that is say the story of how I came to end up living and working as a translator on this small island in the Indian Ocean that is Reunion Island. We also talked about my three years spent living in South Korea, and some of my travels. You can see the video here or below.

If you’re a translator or interpreter you may already have heard of the EPT initiative. Esther, Gerda and Al reside in the US and all work as Spanish interpreters, mainly in the courts; Esther also speaks French and is an Adjunct Professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and a trainer and consultant. At the beginning of this year they started a series of talks about the profession of Interpreting and Translating, using the Google Hangout on Air format. Talks are broadcast on average once a week (sometimes more), and generally include guests from the four corners of the globe. They can be watched live on Google+, or afterwards on You Tube. Previous talks have covered localisation, blogging, and technology options for interpreting, to name just a few subjects.

To find out more about EPT and their talks you can visit their Google+ page and/or their blog. You can also follow them on Twitter.

With warm thanks to Gerda, Esther and Al for allowing me this wonderful opportunity to be part of their fascinating EPT adventure, and here’s looking forward to many more talks!

7 facts about Reunion Creole

I realise some readers might not know much about Reunion Creole, the language which is spoken as mother tongue by about 90% of the population* on the island where I live, La Réunion, in the Indian Ocean.

1) Until the late 17th century the island was uninhabited so there was no local population and thus no indigenous language. When the island started being inhabited it was initially by people from France and Madagascar, later by slaves from East Africa. When slavery was abolished in 1848 indentured labourers were brought in from India and China. All these factors led to a linguistic melting-pot, with French dominating but with input from Malagasy, Portuguese, Tamil, Gujarati and Hindi, and this led to the development of Réunion Creole.

1770 Bonne Map of East Africa, Madagascar, Isl...

1770 Map of East Africa, Madagascar, Reunion Island (Isle Bourbon) and Mauritius (Isle de France).

2) What is a Creole? Briefly, a Creole is a language which has developed from parent languages and which is spoken as the native language by those growing up where the Creole is spoken. The word itself comes from criollo (Spanish) and crioulo (Portuguese), words used in the 16th and 17th centuries in the colonies to describe those born and raised locally as opposed to those who immigrated as adults. A study carried out in 1977 by Ian Hancock counted 127 different Creoles world-wide, 15 of which are French-based.

3) Following are a few examples of  Reunion Creole words and their origin:

  • carri –  the name of the main type of dish in Reunion (from the Tamil kari)
  • papang – a bird of prey (from the Malagasy papango)
  • Le Tampon is a local place name which comes from the Malagasy tampona, meaning ‘summit’.
  • macatia – a type of sweet bread roll (from the Swahili mkate)
  • malbar – person of Indian origin (from the Portuguese malabar)
  • bringèle – aubergine (from the Portuguese berinjela)
Overview of Le Tampon

Continue reading

Mauritian musings

I recently took a trip to Mauritius, a place I know fairly well as it’s Reunion’s neighbouring island, but where I hadn’t been back to since 2001.

Mauritius doesn’t have official languages, although English is the ‘unofficial’ official language, used for business and government, and French is used more in culture and education. However inhabitants’ native language is Mauritian Creole, which although still French-based, is sufficiently different from Reunion Creole for me to have trouble understanding it (although of course I’m not a native speaker of Reunion Creole; mother-tongue speakers of the latter have less trouble understanding Mauritian Creole than I do).

Mauritius has its own Google, available in Mauritian Creole.

Generally speaking Mauritians will spontaneously address a foreigner in French, but switch easily to English if that foreigner is non-French speaking. However the Mauritian bilingualism can sometimes lead to confusion, such as on the following sign which mixes the English “sale” with the French “chemise”, with amusing consequences if you understand both languages.

Another sign also made me smile, as the writer had obviously forgotten the English word ‘butt’ for a cigarette end while writing it!