11 September 2018
The Portuguese Hobson-Jobson
One of the things I wanted to explore as part of my tenure as the British Library’s translator-in-residence was the way in which dominant or colonial languages absorb minority languages and the tongues of the colonised, from speech patterns in Welsh or Irish forms of English that obviously originating in the Celtic languages (‘I’m just after seeing him’ ‘Cold I am’), to the many words from Hindi, Arabic, Nahuatl, Yiddish etc., that are so essential in modern English. After all, where would we be without, ‘Chocolate’, ‘Chutzpah’, or indeed ‘Alcohol’? Or indeed, the words ‘thug’, ‘loot’, ‘juggernaut’ and ‘shampoo’, all of which entered English from Indian languages over the course of the 300 or so years of British presence in India.
The son of an Indian father, I’ve for a long time been aware of the great lexicon of British India, A.C. Burnell and Henry Yule’s Hobson-Jobson, first published in 1903. The name itself, a mangling of the mourning cries of ‘Ya Hassan! Ya Hosain!’ in the Shia festival of Muharram, this eclectic and idiosyncratic glossary of words that entered English from the Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Persian, Chinese and Indian languages, has been called ‘the legendary dictionary of British India’ by none other than Salman Rushdie. Its influence has been great, with over 500 of its entries ending up in the OED, and the variety of its entries, including discussions of etymology, political asides and witty anecdotes, makes it a highly entertaining read. The entry for ‘mosquito’, for example, ends with the tale of a Scottish woman who, upon arrival in India apparently thought the first elephant she saw was an example of the dreaded mosquitoes she’d heard so much about!
Of course, English was not the only colonial language, and at its pinnacle the spread of the Portuguese empire was wide enough to rival that of its British counterpart. Likewise, Portuguese has been similarly marked by its encounters with, for example, Tupi in Brazil, Kimbundu in Angola and the many Asian languages spoken in former Portuguese territories, from Konkani in Goa to Tetun in Timor. Two of my favourite examples of loan words in Portuguese are actually both Arabic in origin: ‘salamaleques’, from the Muslim salutation, meaning an excessive or exaggerated greeting, and ‘mameluco’, taken from the Egyptian Mamluk dynasty, which in Brazil came to be used to describe the offspring of one European and one Native parent, and more generally people of mixed race-origin. Working in the other direction, food lovers may have noted that the name of the popular Mumbai snack, Pav Bhaji, where a curry is soaked up with Western-style bread comes from the Portuguese word for bread, ‘pão’.
In a conversation with Barry Taylor, the BL’s curator for Spanish and Portuguese, I asked if he knew of a Portuguese version of Hobson-Jobson, detailing the Asian words used during Portuguese rule in Asia, or in Portugal itself. All Barry had to do was email the right person, and within a week I was in possession of both volumes of Sebastião Rodolfo Dalgado’s Glossário Luso-Asiático, the format of which pretty much mirrors that of Yule and Barnell’s tome.
Though the Glossário lacks some of the wit of Hobson-Jobson, in its own way it’s as unique and idiosyncratic as its English-language cousin, by which it was clearly influenced, and which provided a source for some of its entries. Of Indian rather than European ethnicity, Dalgado was born into a family of Goan Brahmin Catholic converts, and as well as being a Catholic priest, wrote numerous studies of language in India, including a Konkani-Portuguese dictionary and several glossaries of Indo-Portuguese dialects across the sub-continent. Eschewing scholarly impartiality, his preface starts with a lament for the short-lived glory of Portuguese Asia, which despite leaving its traces across the continent in place names such as Colombo, Bombay and Formosa was very small by 1919. He takes solace in his belief that Portugal was ‘(the) heroic nation which, opening up the doors of the Orient, was the first to plant the seeds of Western civilisation, conquering lands for the king and gaining souls for Christ’, but is also quick to insist that ‘the Portuguese conquest is distinct from the others…owing to its efforts in bringing civilisation…and its highly egalitarian politics’.
Sebastião Rodolfo Dalgado. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
Just as Dalgado himself was the product of a complex Luso-Indian colonial context, cross-referencing the Glossário and Hobson-Jobson produces some interesting case studies For example, the English word ‘nabob’ did not come straight from the Hindustani ‘nawab’ but from the Portuguese corruption, ‘nababo’. The word originally described only the high-ranking governors who served under the Great Moghul, before becoming a ‘a title occasionally conferred, like a peerage, on Mohammedan gentlemen of distinction’. In English, however, it became far more familiar as a term used to describe those English people who returned from the East with great riches. Elsewhere, Hobson-Jobson notes that the term ‘Bengal’ once denoted a kind of wood from that region, but that it was barely used at the time of publication. The Glossário, on the other hand, describes how the specific term ‘cana de Bengala’ (Bengal-wood cane) was a specific term which was eventually shortened simply to ‘Bengala’, and in modern Portuguese is the common term for any kind of walking-stick.
Leaving aside other aspects of empire and colonialism for a moment, I feel one would be hard pressed to argue that English and Portuguese were not enriched by their encounters, violent or otherwise, with cultures in Asia, Africa and the Americas. To put these two books side-by-side is a fascinating comparative study of the differing fates of each country’s colonial project and a testament to the remarkable adaptability of language itself.
Rahul Bery, Translator in Residence