The little-known history of the star of the Thanksgiving dinner.

November 27, 2019 § 3 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Thanksgiving Day is here again. Millions of Americans will gather with friends and relatives to celebrate the most American of all holidays, and almost all of them will eat the same thing: turkey.

Turkey has become the symbol of Thanksgiving in the United States, people talk about cooking their turkey dinner, they decorate their homes with dishes, tablecloths, and ornaments portraying turkeys. Even the classical well-wishing greeting during this season is “Happy turkey day”.

Turkeys are relatively new to western civilization. They were domesticated and eaten in the Americas for centuries, but Europeans found them for the first time in the 15th century, after Columbus and other explorers established contact with American civilizations. In fact, North America has some of the most spectacular birds on earth; countries have adopted as their national bird. How is it then that in a continent where the majestic bald eagle symbolizes the United States, and the magnificent quetzal is found on Guatemala’s flag, a not particularly beautiful bird won the heart of a nation and became a Thanksgiving star?

Since Bradford wrote of how the colonists had hunted wild turkeys during the Autumn of 1621, it became the Thanksgiving meal of choice after president Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. It is said that Benjamin Franklin proposed the turkey as America’s national symbol, and this claim is usually based on a letter he wrote to his daughter Sarah, dated January 26, 1784, in which he panned the eagle and explained the virtues of the gobbler. Although the turkey was defeated by the regal bold eagle, Americans did not stop their love affair with the turkey. Some have said that we eat turkey on Thanksgiving because this meal is a reminder of the four wild turkeys that were served at the first Thanksgiving feast. A more reliable source explains that the first Thanksgiving in 1621, attended by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony contained venison, ham, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, squash, and waterfowl.

Whether they ate turkey at the first feast or not, the truth is that turkeys are one of the Americas’ most representative species. From the wild turkeys of Canada to the ones of Kentucky, where they even named a whiskey for the bird, to the guajolote of Mexico, as turkeys are known for their Náhuatl name (uexólotl), that is served with mole sauce since pre-Hispanic times as described by Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Bernardino de Sahagun who witnessed first-hand how turkeys were sold at the marketplace (tianguis), to the chompipe tamales, as turkeys are called in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua; to the fricasé de guanajo (guanajo fricassee) as turkeys are called in Cuba, and other dishes cooked with gallopavo, turkey in Argentina, and Piru, as turkeys are known in Brazil. In Mexico female turkeys are referred to as “totol”, from the Nahuatl word “totolin” (hen).

How did this American bird get its most popular names in two European languages: pavo in Spanish, and turkey in English?

The word “pavo” comes from the Latin “pavus”, a bird Europeans found in India and Southeast Asia during the Marco Polo and other explorers’ trips to get species and silk. In English we know this bird as peacock. In Spanish it was called “Pavorreal”. Because 15th century European explorers believed they had reached Asia, not the Americas, when Spanish conquistadors saw wild turkeys, they associated them to “pavus”, or “pavorreal”, thus the name “pavo”.

There are two theories for the derivation of the name “turkey”. According to Columbia University Romance languages professor Mario Pei, when Europeans first encountered turkeys, they incorrectly identified them as guineafowl, a bird already known in Europe, sold by merchants from Turkey via Constantinople. These birds were called “Turkey coqs”; therefore, when they saw American turkeys, they called them “turkey fowl” or “Indian turkeys”. With time, this was shortened to “turkeys”.

The second theory derives from turkeys arriving in England not directly from the Americas, but via merchant ships coming from the Middle East. These merchants were referred to as “Turkey merchants”, and their product was called “Turkey-cocks” or “Turkey-hens”, and soon thereafter: “turkeys”.

In 1550 William Strickland, an English navigator, was granted a coat of arms including a “turkey-cock” in recognition to his travels and being the first to introduce turkeys in England. William Shakespeare uses the term on “Twelfth Night” written in 1601.

Other countries have other names for turkeys: In French they are called “dinde”; in Russian: “indyushka”; in Polish: “indyk”; in Dutch: “Kalkoen” (because of Calcutta); in Cantonese: “foh gai” (fire chicken); in Mandarin: “huo ji”  and it is called “Hindi” in Turkey!

Now you know more about the bird that found its way to all dinner tables in America on the fourth Thursday in November. I now invite you to share with us other stories involving turkeys, their name in other languages, and how you prepare it for the big meal. Happy Thanksgiving!

Is it Spanish or Castilian?

June 18, 2013 § 13 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Today I decided to write about something we all know and many of us are sick and tired of: The eternal question that we as interpreters are constantly asked by the agency, the client, and the lay person: Is it Spanish or is it Castilian?

If you are a Spanish interpreter, translator, or even a native Speaker you will understand either term as one that is used to refer to the language spoken by the majority of the people who live in Spain, Latin America, Equatorial Guinea, and some parts of North America.  Of course, you will have a preference for one or the other depending where you grew up or learned the language, but you will understand (and occasionally use) both terms.  The problem is that when we are working as Spanish interpreters, sometimes we are asked by the agency or by the client to “speak Castilian instead of Spanish” or we may even be rejected from an assignment because we are Spanish interpreters and they are looking for a “Castilian interpreter.”

To set the record straight we should tell our inquisitor or prospective client that historically Spanish is a Romance language that comes from Latin, and it is called Spanish as it comes from españón in Old Spanish, which most likely comes from the Vulgar Latin hispani­ōne or hispaniolus, because the Romans referred to Spain as Hispania.  Then we explain that Castile is a word derived from the Latin castella (castle-land) that comes from the also Latin term castrum (fortress or castle) That it was a border region of Spain next to the Moorish territories. That at the end of the Middle Ages, with the assistance of the Kingdom of Aragon, the Kingdom of Castile expelled these Moorish rulers from the peninsula. In those days, before Spain was a single country, the people from this kingdom were called Castilians and the language they spoke, which evolves from the old Castilian, was known as Castilian. With time, and the expansion of the Spanish crown in the world, including the Americas, the entire region was called Spain in England, Espagne in France, and the non-Portuguese people from the peninsular region and their language became known as Spanish.  In the Americas the native speakers picked their favorite term to refer to the same language as well.  Some regions, like the Viceroyalty of New Spain (present Mexico and parts of the United States) preferred the term Spanish as they were part of the Spanish monarchy; others, like the Captaincy General de Guatemala (present Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, and parts of Mexico) chose Castilian thinking of the original rulers who sponsored the first expeditions and their representatives in the new world, who were from Castile.

In Spain, the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) used the term Castilian in the past, but since 1923 its dictionary has used the term Spanish when referring to the language spoken by more than 300 million people around the world. In fact, its dictionary is called Dictionary of the Spanish Language (diccionario de la lengua española) The language academies from the other Spanish-speaking countries, including the United States, are grouped under the Association of Spanish Language Academies, which participated in the creation of the Diccionario Panhispánico de Dudas, a dictionary that encompasses mistakes and doubts in Spanish whose production was agreed upon by all 22 national language academies.  The dictionary states the following: “…it is preferable to keep the term Castilian to refer to the Romance language born in the Kingdom of Castile during the Middle Ages, or to the dialect of Spanish currently spoken in that region…” (Diccionario panhispánico de dudas. 2005)

Therefore, the official recommendation is to use Spanish over Castilian.

In Spain, the constitution states that “Castilian is the official language of the State…” In reality, multilingual regions tend to refer to the language as Castilian to tell it apart from their own native languages. Monolingual regions tend to use the term Spanish when referring to the language they speak.  In Latin America and elsewhere, the constitutions of these countries use the term Castilian: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. These other nations use the term Spanish in their constitution: Costa Rica, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. No term is mentioned in the constitution of: Argentina, Chile, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Uruguay.

The reality is that it really does not matter which term is used to refer to the third most spoken language in the world, and the second most widely spoken on earth. The important issue we need to understand is that when non-Spanish speakers ask us to interpret Castilian instead of Spanish, they are not talking about the language we speak because they do not know that there is only one Spanish (or Castilian) They are trying to tell us that they want a “universal” more general Spanish (although some of us do not believe there is such a thing and I will address it on another blog entry) They are trying to reach more people and they do not know how. It can also mean that they want the interpreter to stay away from Spanglish (a mix of Spanish and English) and Portuñol (a mix of Portuguese and Spanish) and because of the people they have worked with in the past, they do not know that by hiring a professional capable interpreter they do not need to worry about these issues. So the next time somebody asks you to interpret in Castilian or rejects you from speaking Spanish instead of Castilian, take a deep breath, explain as much, or as little, as you think necessary, and assure the client that you will interpret in Castilian.  I ask you to please share your ideas as to what to do to educate the client about this topic while taking the appropriate business measures and steps to keep the client.  Please do not write about why it is better to call it Spanish or Castilian.

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