toponym that means "I don't understand what you say"

Discussion in 'All Languages' started by Ushuaia, Nov 15, 2009.

  1. Ushuaia

    Ushuaia Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    castellano rioplatense
    The Yamana phrase tekenika means "I don't understand what you say". It must have been uttered quite a few times during the first encounters between Europeans and natives of Tierra del Fuego, so much so that for a short while this culture was referred to as "Tekenikas". Although the error was soon corrected, the "word" became widely used: one of the oldest streets in Ushuaia bears this name, and so do shops, hostels, travel agencies...

    I´m interested in collecting other words (typically, toponyms) that were originally believed to be the answer to whichever question newcomers were asking but were actually... something else! :)

    Thanks in advance!
  2. Mauricet Senior Member

    near Grenoble
    French - France
    This is the thread's topic, strictly speaking. What's the name of this place ? -- Dégage ! And for centuries the place is called "Daygage" ... (This example is totally imaginary, of course).
  3. amikama

    amikama sordomodo

    Not a toponym, but a famous example is "kangaroo".
  4. Mauricet Senior Member

    near Grenoble
    French - France
    It seems to be a false example, according to wikipedia ...
  5. L'irlandais

    L'irlandais Senior Member

    Dreyeckland/Alsace region
    Ireland: English-speaking ♂
    Hello Ushuaia,
    In the Irish language, (Munster dialect) we would say :
    Ní thuigim, i gceart, cad atá a rá agat? = I don't rightly understand what you are saying.
    or perhaps a more usual form would be ; Ní thuigim cad atá tú ag caint faoi. I don't know what you are speaking about.

    The River Avon near Bristol in south west England may qualify for the toponym part of your question: the Welsh word afon meaning "river" (f is pronounced as v in Welsh). One can imagine the question in English, "What's this called?" (meaning "What is the local name for this River?" ; answer in Welsh "Afon". (meaning "Plain to see it's a river, silly.") So now it's known as River River.
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2009
  6. amikama

    amikama sordomodo

    Why a false example? Isn't Ushuaia looking for words wrongly believed to mean "I don't understand" (or similar expressions), but their actual meaning was totally different?
  7. Hakro

    Hakro Senior Member

    Helsinki, Finland
    Finnish - Finland
    There has been another thread named "Anyone know this story?" a couple of years ago. I wrote:

    Very long time ago some Finns sailed to Sweden where they saw a strange looking bird with long tail. One of the Finns went to a Swede to ask about the name of the bird. He made his question in Finnish as he didn't know a word of Swedish. The Swede who didn't understand Finnish said then:
    "Va sa' ni?" (What did you say?)
    The Finn went back to his fellows and told them that the name of the bird is fasaani, and since then the pheasant is called so in Finnish.
  8. Ushuaia

    Ushuaia Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    castellano rioplatense
    Thanks, everyone! I had almost given up on this thread!

    I´m looking for actual words which were mistakenly taken to be answers to specific questions but were not, or were misunderstood. Most of these words or phrases have "lived on" as toponyms.

    -What do you and your people call yourselves?
    -Tekenika. ("I beg your pardon?")
    -Hey, he says they call themselves Tekenikas!

    -What do you call that river?
    -Afon. ("we call that stream of water a 'river', if that´s what you want to know")
    -River Avon it is!

    "Kangaroo" does seem to be a false example (unless proven to be a right one... any forum members from Down Under?) :)

    amikama, it's exactly... well, not "exactly", but it's the other way round.

  9. apmoy70

    apmoy70 Senior Member

    I'm sorry for the OT, but I'm afraid your story is a myth. A believable story, yet a myth. Phaesant derives from the Latin Phasianus, which in turn comes from the Greek Φασιανός (pʰasia'nos, m.; in modern Greek fasia'nos, m.), from the name «Φασιανικοί Ὄρνεις» (Phasian* birds) as it appears in the work "Deipnosophistae" (The Banquet of the Learned) of Athenaeus of Naucratis-->
    Καὶ γὰρ ὀρνίθων πλῆθος ἦν αἰεὶ καὶ χηνῶν, ἔτι δὲ τῶν νεοσσῶν ὀρνίθων, οὓς ἵππους τινὲς καλοῦσι, καὶ χοίρων καὶ τῶν περισπουδάστων
    φασιανικῶν ὀρνίθων.

    *Named after the river Phasis which had its headwaters in the Caucasus Mountains, in what it is today W. Georgia (ancient Colchis)
  10. Maroseika Moderator

    Looks like all such stories are nothing more than mith, or better say folk etymology, including tekenika.
    They are very logical from the point of view of the folk etymologist and therefore very common in any language.
    Is there reliable etymology for tekenika?

    As for the rivers, this is quite another story. In fact many rivers literally mean "river", especially large rivers. No need to give the name to the river if it is the only one or the biggest nearby, this is just River. Onthe other hand, hydronims are the most stable lanscape names, often remaining when new people comes. For example, Volga, Danube, Don, Kama, Oka, Elba (Laba) most possible meant just "river" or "water" in the different languages.
  11. Ushuaia

    Ushuaia Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    castellano rioplatense
    I agree with you, Maroseika, that some of these stories are myths: kangaroo, pheasant...

    It's not the case with tekenika, though. It does come from the Yamana teke uneka, which means "I don´t understand" (there are plenty of reliable references, Thomas Bridges' Dictionary being the most commonly quoted).

    I find it hard to believe that tekenika is the only "true" one!
  12. Maroseika Moderator

    It would be very interesting to become familiar with these references. At least the dictionary you mentioned cannot be considered as a reliable witness thereof. In fact I failed to find it in the web, however Thomas Bridge was not a professional linguist and moreover, scientific etymology just did not exist yet in his epoch.
    Or maybe you mean this dictionary just contains the words teke and uneka? But can we conclude from this any relationship between tekenika and teke uneka? What do we know about phonetics, morphology and processes of this language with just 70 natives? Of course superficial similarity is absolutely insufficient (e.g. for my Russian ear ship and sheep are quite the same; and Berliners are sincerely sure their town name is connected with the bears...).
    Me too.
    Because I cannot imagine such strange case could happen even once. Let's consider the situation.
    We have arrived to the new country and try to ask something the natives in the language they don't understand. Even better, imagine you are the one who is asked. What would you answer? I imagine many variants:

    - What do you say?
    - What?
    - I don't understand.
    - Say again.
    - Who are you?
    - Where are you from?
    - I don't give alms on Fridays.
    - Go to the hell, I'm busy.
    - I'll call to the police.
    - Etc., etc., etc...

    How probable is that each and every comer will give exactly the same answer? And why then from this endless multitude we have chosen only one answer? Because we need this one in this case. But this approach has nothing to do with etymology.
  13. Ushuaia

    Ushuaia Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    castellano rioplatense
    I'm sorry, but I don't understand what you're talking about!

    "Teke uneka" (Bridges) and "Tekenika" (Darwin) are different records of the same sounds, both noted by speakers of English. Try saying them "in English": they do sound the same. Bridges' dictionary, Yamana-English. A Dictionary of speech of Tierra del Fuego (first printed in 1933)is not online but can easily be found in libraries.

    There's really no debate as to the meaning of Tekenika/teke uneka, not because I say so but because... there isn't. Darwin calls this tribe Tekenikas; modern editions of his Travels have footnotes explaining why he was confused (those can be found online, footnotes and all.)

    I said in my first post that the error was soon corrected, but that the word continued to be widely used -for shop names, etcetera- as "a colorful Yamana term", if you will. It doesn't have a different meaning from its original one: it's just void of meaning. It is, however, a word everyone in Tierra del Fuego is familiar with.

    Still hard to believe there aren't any more out there.

  14. Maroseika Moderator

    I'm also sorry for insisting but I really don't see any relationship between [teke uneka] and [tekenika] except some superficial similarity. Especially stressed ika/eka is very suspicious; and of course dissapeared syllable . Well, maybe all this is very reasonable and can be easily explained from the point of view of jagana language. Unfortunately this is an isolated and dead language, very complicated therefore for etymological analysis. That's why it would be reasonable to find out what professional etymologists think about the matter - before taking it for the axiom and building a theory on this "fact".
    Regretfully all the links in the web I could find just repeat this version with slight variations, nothing more.

    Hm... I'm afraid they sound quite different. Anyway to compare them we should take into account how Darwin and Bridges used to represent the sounds of the alien languages in their notes. Do you know?
    For example, what's uneka like: uneka, aneka, anika, unika? What's -neke like: niki, neke, ni:k?
    How can be tekeneke split to words: teke neke, te ken eke, teken eke?...
    Suppose English is an isolated and dead languages and only few words remained from it, recordered by aliens not speaking English.
    What do you think could mean then something like "tutitututu"? Two tea to #22? Or maybe something else?

    One of the possible explanations why there is no more is that this is just impossible. We really have to check your etymology consistence before taking it for granted.
  15. Ushuaia

    Ushuaia Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    castellano rioplatense
    Well, that's just what you think (on no scientific grounds). I believe there are very likely a few more toponyms with this meaning out there.

    Knock yourself out. :)

    Thanks again, everyone!
  16. Maroseika Moderator

    Thank you for the very intersting links. Two of them just repeat the same folk versions with the reference to Th. Bridges. And the third link says:

    Admiral Fitz-Roy called one section of them by mistake Tekeenicas (a, 137), from tekianaca, *not seen before, strange' (Th. Bridges, A., 207; Lovisato, c, 721; Dabbene, 6, 169), or Tac-q/'yenniccb-owena, “stranger men”
    (Despard, 6, 746, 717). Cf. also discussion of origin of this name in Lovisato, c, 721; Martial, 209; Hyades, q, 282; Th.
    Bridges and Despard, 11. c.

    So, in fact tekenuka as applied to a people just means “a stranger” – the name widely spread in the world as applied to the peoples. Many peoples are known under such name, given them by the neighbors. Maybe this name is number 2 in popularity after “men” or “real men” among the names of the peoples.
    Besides, we may note how many other books are referred to as devoted to this etymology, that means the question is very complicated and still far not clear.
    Last edited: Nov 20, 2009
  17. Ushuaia

    Ushuaia Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    castellano rioplatense
    Well, in view of all your... writing I can see now that anthropologists are wrong to call this culture "Yamana" (the name they gave themselves) or Yaghan/Yahgan (the name of a sub-group of this rather complex culture) and should be calling them "Tekenikas" instead, an expression they thought to be so simple it wasn´t worth duscussing once it's "true" meaning had been found.

    Have some fun. Sounds like you should! :)

    Any other words?
  18. Maroseika Moderator

    Well, Ushuaia, I believe we should differ between the names anthropologists use and the proper names of the peoples. The formers may use any name they like or need to understand each other, but this may have nothing to do with the original names. And yet two quite separate problems are the etymology of the proper names and the names given to the peoples by the strangers.

    For example, I found in one of the books you have kindly linked to, that the name Yaghan was shortened by Th. Bridges from the original Yahgashagalumoala (lit. People from Mountain Valley Channel). For an anthropologist this fact is not important, because the only thing they need is to be sure they are talking about the same people. But for an etymologist this is super-important, because only "Yahgashagalumoala" is of the etymological interest.

    As for the title word tekenikas, I concluded from your books the following:

    1. The name "tekenikas" was first mentioned by Darwin in his diary (according to words of his captain FitsRoy).

    2. This name was later "explained" by Th. Bridges (some sources say it was his son) as consisting of two words, meaning "I don't understand you".

    3. However the only scientific book among your links gives quite clear explanation of this word: "stranger" (Analytical and critical bibliography of the tribes of Tierra del Fuego and adjacent territory (1917)).

    Semantic connection between “stranger” and “the one who cannot speak [our language]” is quite common however, cf.:

    Slavic names for Germans (formerly – of any foreigners) originate from the stem meaning “dumb” (Russian
    немец, Czech Němec, etc.) - as opposed (acc. to some versions) to the word Slav < slovo (word). In other words:
    Our people = speaking our language
    Stranger = not speaking (not understanding) our language.

    We may conclude therefore that the name tekenike was taken by Darwin or FitzRoy from the neighbors of the tribe obtaining this name or inhabiting the lands called like that.
  19. yahganlang New Member

    I've studied Yahgan for 15 years, and have collected most of the extant materials on the language. The form teki generally means '(to be able) to see, observe, spy. To find.' (p396 in the published version of the dictionary). -vnnaka (v here is schwa) is a suffix that means 'unable to do a thing, unable to do well' (p.52).

    Extended use to mean 'understand' is commonly attested in the three biblical texts, as a grammaticalization of the original senses. In this usage teki appears as a preposed auxiliary before the main verb.

    Though Bridges wasn't a linguist and lived before phonemic writing, his phonetic renderings are generally usable as-is. The original surviving manuscripts of the dictionary (at the British Library; I have copies) often show stresses absent from the very badly edited published version. His descriptions of the sound system can be found in a variety of publications, as well as in unpublished manuscripts (such as the 'lost' ms of the grammar I found mouldering unread at the US Library of Congress).

    Pre-Bridges renderings often miss subtle phonetic distinctions, and there were also differences between the five dialects recognized in the late 19th century. This can explain the seeming irregularities in the terminology.

    Yahgan had minimal sandhi effects, but truncations were quite common in compounding (similar to what one sees, say, in Siouan languages).

    The language, by the way, is almost, but not quite, dead. There is still an elderly speaker left, Cristina Calderon, who is in her 80's. The variety she speaks seems to be an amalgam of more than one dialect, but primarily one different from the one in Bridges' dictionary. Her dialect is simplified relative to that of the late 1800's (fewer inflections, more periphrasis, lowered vocabulary size, inclusion of Hispanicisms and Anglicisms from the Mission period). In addition the wealth of compount (serialized) verbs seems to be lacking in her speech.

    Secondly, though it isn't easily recognized as having near relatives in the local area (despite the claims of Joseph Greenberg and followers), I've found that there appears to be a relatively close genetic relation with Salishan languages all the way up the Pacific Coast in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia. This based on Aert Kuipers' Salishan etymological dictionary. Many, many matches in grammatical items, derivational materials, core and noncore vocabulary. I have lots of language materials from different American families and individual daughter languages- none have such a wealth of comparable terms. So not ISOLATED either.

    Yahgashagalumoala breaks down to Yahga- asha:ga (channel, pass, strait)-lum (shortened form of -(nd)aulum) 'from' (case suffix)- oala (men, pl.). Dunno what Yahga means- neither did Bridges. Possibly from aia:ku: 'arrow'?

    Jess Tauber
  20. Maroseika Moderator

    This is very inetersting. So what's your opinion on the likelihood of the expanation "tekenika = I don't understand you"?
    I.e. did really tekenika < teke vnnaka or this is a folk etymological review?
    Can we interprete tekenika as just 'a stranger"?
  21. yahganlang New Member

    tekenika (and variants) works fine as teki+vnnaka. But the form isn't inflected for person, tense, etc. No nominals in a clause. So it can't literally mean 'I don't understand you', etc. More like 'difficulty understanding' leaving the rest implied but not said. The kind of simplification one might use when speaking English to someone we assume might have some exposure to, but not anything like fluency in, English, or be stupid, or deaf, etc.

    Jess Tauber
  22. Ushuaia

    Ushuaia Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    castellano rioplatense
    Thanks, Jess, for your posts. Of course, the meaning I explained in my first post meant to talk only about the nature of the misunderstanding; while it was not etymologically proper, it made it clear that FitzRoy got an answer that meant something along the lines of "I fail to see/recognize/understand what it is you are asking me about" and he took it for an informative answer to the question he had asked.

    My interest was in this misunderstanding. "Tekenika" was not a Yamana toponym, nor a name of any kind: it was a phrase meaning something very different from what FitzRoy understood it meant.

    So we're back to the original question: is "tekenika" the ONLY expression/word of its kind?
  23. Maroseika Moderator

    And what do you think about this etymology of tekenika: could it really happen that the whole people has got its name just due to the kind of misunderstanding when someone asked "who are you" and got in response "bad understanding = teke vnnaka"?

    I just cannot imagine such a situation for real, because it seems quite evident for me that when dealing with someone knowing absolutely nothing in your language, it is senseless to ask him such complicated (gramatically) questions like "who are you" or "what is the name of your tribe".
    Yet less probable is that the enquirer would be able to anyhow interprete the answer: if you see your interlocutor doesn't understand a word of yours, can you hope that any of his answers would have anything to do with your questions?
  24. yahganlang New Member

    The sensitivity to culture and language exhibited by the first English folks to Tierra del Fuego left much to be desired. Of course this was pre-anthropology and relativism, too.

    The famous Woolya massacre of 1859 was due to major mutual cultural incomprehension: the missionaries assumed that the natives understood perfectly that 'theft' was wrong, and that all peoples had as strong a notion of property as they had. The Yahgans, on the other hand, had a sort of communistic economic system, where any excess wealth was expected to be doled out to friends and relatives, and if the host failed to do this, then it was right and proper to try to grab whatever you could. Nobody was allowed to hoard anything. So the English show up with incredible amounts of wonderful stuff, and won't share. In trying to redress this imbalance, the natives are accused of, to European eyes, a crime.

    The English missionaries also failed to understand that 'face' was much more important to the Yahgans than their lowly economic status would presume, again from the European perspective. You publicly (or even privately) call a Yahgan an malefactor, and you can expect bloodshed.

    I think these sorts of hard lessons could be repeated all over the world in the Colonial era. Add to this the fact that many English ship captains were notoriously rigid and uncurious- as Darwin found out on the Beagle voyage.

    Later in the 19th century Yahgans and Kawesqars were kidnapped and exhibited in Europe in cages, often having been starved so that their supposedly animalistic eating habits could be observed when paying customers came calling. Many of these people died in such captivity. After gold was discovered in Tierra del Fuego and sheep-ranches were set up, Ona (Selk'nam) were hunted like animals, the hunters paid by the hide, or pair of ears. Genocide was considered a kindness, the feeling being that these peoples could never adapt to the so-called 'civilized' world.

    When ignorant, stupid and/or hard-assed people are your first-contact or management resources, this is the kind of nonsense you end up with.

    Jess Tauber
  25. Maroseika Moderator

    So, you don't think the etymology we are considering here, is correct or verisimilar?
  26. yahganlang New Member

    I've seen 'checklists' of words and phrases that travelers in the 19th c. were supposed to use to gather data from native languages. They make all sorts of assumptions. For instance, that all languages have a term for 'God'. Give one of these lists to someone who wants little or nothing to do with those being questioned, and you get minimal effort. Many explorers found interaction with Yahgans and other Fuegian tribes distasteful due to a) their appearance (covered in soot, naked, often unkempt, with vacant expressions on the face), b) their odor (years of worked in smoke and old blubber), c) their behavior (constant haranguing of the seamen to give them stuff so that they became famous for a term meaning 'gimme') and d) rumors about cannibalistic consumption of their elders (started apparently as a a practical joke by Jemmy Button after his capture by the British).

    Thus Yahgans were either literally, or morally, held at 'arm's length' by visitors. In such a situation, the latter weren't going to expend much effort to get to the heart of any matter, let alone what the people were called.

    Here's a later example of this- the missionaries who arrived in the 1850's were supposed to learn the language and translate biblical materials into it. But all but a small number found this impossible. The language isn't hard to learn at all- the phonology is simple, the grammar straightforward. So other things being equal the fault was with the missionaries, either in their abilities or their attitudes.

    The first translation of the Lord's Prayer into Yahgan manages to get things spectacularly wrong. I laughed for a long time after I did a first pass back-translation of it.

    The fault was entirely on the British side for this tekeenica thing.

    Jess Tauber

    If I haven't mentioned it before see and
  27. Maroseika Moderator

    Excuse me my importunity, but can you please clarify your attitude towards the etymology Ushuaia has mentioned in the very beginning of this thread:

    The Yamana phrase tekenika means "I don't understand what you say". It must have been uttered quite a few times during the first encounters between Europeans and natives of Tierra del Fuego, so much so that for a short while this culture was referred to as "Tekenikas".

    In other words, do you think it is correct: yes, no or maybe yes, maybe not.
  28. L'irlandais

    L'irlandais Senior Member

    Dreyeckland/Alsace region
    Ireland: English-speaking ♂
    Hello again Ushuaia,
    The communes of Lapouterie/Val d'Orbey here in Alsace are known locally as "Pays Welsch", that is "Foreigner country". So called, because of a French speaking community who were installed there from the 16 century onwards. In German, the commune was originally called "Schnierlach" a reference to the alder trees growing there.

    Along the same lines, the people of Wales (who call themselves Cymry since 633 ad) are known in English as the Welsh. From the German word "Welsch" meaning "stranger" or "foreigner". These are two real life examples of new-comers changing the name of the native population. However I do accept the name change is not based on a misunderstanding, but rather intended as an insult on those who didn't speak the language of the newcomers.
    Hello Maroseika,
    I believe the misunderstanding is yours. For one thing, Explorers get out more than linguists ; as a result of this they tend to be quite resourceful people. All early cartographers/explorers/navigators had guides (interpreters/translators) with them, who were usually, native to the region being explored, and who had some understanding of European languages. (Several examples spring to mind. Tupia a Polynesian navigator, who accompanied Lt Cook on his first voyage, or Mai (called Omai in UK) a young Pacific Islander who served as an interpreter for Captain Cook on his second and third voyages.)

    p.s. (James Cook took along with other surprisingly knowledgable types, like Charles Darwin. So if navigators are considered to dull to communicate with native populations, perhaps we can accept that their scientific companions were sufficiently intelligent to do so.)

    You might also like to consider the fact that non-verbal communications can express far more than words.
    Last edited: Jan 16, 2010
  29. Maroseika Moderator

    I'm afraid you have mentioned two extremities quite irrelevant in our case. If only a non-verbal communication took place in the case of the first recorders/interpretors of the word 'tekenike', how could they comprehence this word in the non-verbal way?
    But if their guides or contacts from the local tribes had sufficient notion of the alien's (say, English) language, such misunderstanding as Usuaia's version assumes, just could not take place.
    For that we need some very special intermediate grade of the misunderstanding, presuming that the respondent can understand the question enough for at least giving an answer, but not enough to comprehence it properly.

    I'd like to outline, that you may hope to score a success finding out the name of your interlocutor just poking at yourself and repeating "Robinson', and then poking at himself with the interrogative interjections; but it is rather difficult to formulate a question like "what is the name of your tribe" or "what tribe is living there" or something like that without knowledge of at least some basic words of the local language.
  30. Abu Rashid

    Abu Rashid Senior Member

    Melbourne, Australia
    Australian English
    The Sahara desert is another example of this kind of mixup. In Arabic this desert is called الصحراء الكبرى (as-sahra al-kubra) meaning the great desert, with sahra meaning desert. So it is in English effectively called the desert desert.
  31. Maroseika Moderator

    According to my dictionary, Sahara means 'deserts' (from sing. sahra). In this case European name is quite correct, because what we call Sahara is not one, but a complex of the North-African deserts.
  32. Abu Rashid

    Abu Rashid Senior Member

    Melbourne, Australia
    Australian English
    Sahara is one plural form yes (not the one most commonly used though), but even still "the Sahara desert" (as it's called in English) would be "the Deserts desert". The meaning of the name was quite clearly lost in the borrowing of the word.
  33. elirlandes

    elirlandes Senior Member

    Dublin & Málaga
    Ireland English
    My example is not quite what your are looking for, but is close.

    There is an area in County Wicklow, Ireland that was always known in Irish as "Bearnas na Diallaite". This means the Saddle Gap - it is a gap between the hills, or a pass, which is one of the two passable ways to get from east to west in the county.

    When recording its name in English, the official obviously misunderstood the translation and instead of "Saddle Gap" which describes the shape of it very well, he called it the "Sally Gap" - it has been known as this in English ever since.

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