Sunday, March 26, 2006

Language beanie

Here's an interesting language factling.

The city of Mumbai (birthplace of the great Rudyard Kipling, by the way) was until recently known as Bombay --- a name that is still much more widely recognized in the Western world.

What's in a name? Well, the reason that the name was changed is that "Bombay" is more than likely a foreign derivation, which rankles the ire of Indian nationalists. Mumbai is located on India's west coast, on the Arabian sea. The name of the city is likely derived not from any Hindi or Sanskrit words, but from a Portuguese phrase --- bom bahia, meaning "good bay."

So there's your useless fact for the day: that word "Bombay," which conjures up so many exotic images to the Western mind, is not Hindi or Marathi or Konkani, but a Portuguese compound cognate. A historico-linguistic leftover akin, by the way, to "Mandarin," our name for the most widespread Chinese dialect, which name is not derived from Chinese at all, but Portuguese mandar, to govern. Boy, those Portugeese really got around, didn't they?

[Note for nitpickers: The Portuguese etymology is speculation, but fairly solid speculation. Some allege that the Marathi name Mumbai (possibly derived from the goddess Mumba) was used for the area before colonial occupation, and that the British distorted the extant "Mumbai" into "Bombay." This is possible, but less likely.]

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