August 2012

“To lead a snake to school is nothing; to make it sit down is what’s hard.” This Haitian Creole proverb—Mennen koulèv al lekòl pa anyen; se fè’l chita ki rèd—has a well-known English counterpart: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” though it is a safe bet that the perverb derived from the latter—“You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think,” like “One man’s mate is another man’s person” or “A Bool and his algebra are soon parted”—belongs uniquely to the Anglophone community.

 Terms: A perverb is a proverb that has been subjected to a kind of verbal détournement by adding, subtracting, or otherwise altering its component parts. A proverb has been variously defined as “a simple and concrete saying popularly known and repeated, which expresses a truth, based on common sense or the practical experience of humanity. They are often metaphorical. A proverb that describes a basic rule of conduct may also be known as a maxim. If a proverb is distinguished by particularly good phrasing, it may be known as an aphorism
[] and “a short, generally known sentence of the folk which contains wisdom, truth, morals, and traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed and memorizable form and which is handed down from generation to generation” [Wofgang Mieder, Proverbs are Never out of Season] to which may be compared the Mercedes Benz of a gloss offered by Le Petit Robert—known to its friends as Le ‘Ti Bob—for proverbe:  “Formule présentant des caractères formels stables, souvent métaphorique ou figurée et exprimant une vérité d’experience ou un conseil de sagesse pratique et populaire, commun à tout un groupe social. >adage, aphorisme, dicton, maxime, pensée, sentence; parémiologie.  That is, ‘a formula exhibiting stable formal characteristics, often metaphorical or figurative and expressing an experiential truth or a piece of advice drawn from practical and popular wisdom, shared by all members of a social group. > adage, aphorism, saying [dicton], maxim, thought, dictum [sentence, ‘a thought—especially on a moral point—expressed in a dogmatic, literary manner’]; par(o)emiology [i.e., the study of proverbs, from Greek. παροιμία ‘common saying, old saw’ (of the saga, rather than scythe family), ultimately from πάροιμος ‘by the roadside’].

That said, what is to be made of the commonality of the Creole and English proverb(s) next to the language-specificity of its (English-only)  perverb? Universal grammarians, from the Modistae of the Middle Ages to the transformationalists of the present day, might conclude from all of this that the semantic content of the Creole and English proverbs—their deep structure so to speak—is basically the same while its actual expression—the surface structure—differs according to the specific language,  while perverbs involve a play on a specific language’s surface structure (with some fancy mapping from the result to the appropriate semantic underlay). So, the view of language that posits a universally shared semantics realized differently in different languages is arguably bolstered by the evidence and is certainly not contradicted by it. Others might argue, however, that since proverbs reflect the human condition generally, the fact that some common aspect of human behavior should elicit common reactions encoded in differently worded proverbs in different cultures should neither come as a surprise nor be taken as evidence in support of a universal grammar: Aspects of  human experience may be universal, but that doesn’t mean we’re all dealt the same set of semantic cards, let alone subject to the same set of rules governing how to play them.

The origin of Haitian Creole itself (like that of other creole languages) is subject to similar debate, in which there are three major contenders: Universalists hold that the language evolved on its own, taking as its semantic base the one shared by all other natural languages and cobbling together its surface structure from the spare parts provided by the colonial and native languages at hand. By contrast,  proponents of the “substrate” school suggest that Creole has one or another or some combination of African languages as its grammatical (and presumably semantic) base on which lexical and other linguistic features of the colonial language (in this case French) have been superimposed. Finally, the “superstrate” school proposes that a creole language’s grammatical base is some nonstandard flavor of the colonial language that has been influenced by various of the native languages originally spoken by the people on whom the colonial language was imposed.

Claiming to not have a dog in the race, we invoke Wittgenstein’s seventh proposition (“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen,” roughly, ‘You can’t talk about what you can’t talk about,’ i.e., some realms can’t really be explored with the kind of language humans have at their disposal) and return from the realm of the ultimately unknowable to a brief sampling of Creole and English proverbs from which you are free to draw whatever conclusions you like about universality, culture binding, borrowing, independent innovation, and the human condition.

Examples: There are many ways in both Creole and English to express the notion that cooperation is a good thing. Many hands make light work, It takes two wings to flyIt takes two to tango, an observation first attested in a song composed in 1952, often expresses a negative view of the act of cooperation, while the notion that There’s no “I” in “team” is typically an exhortation to suppress one’s individuality in the interests of the group, a milder and more nuanced variant being There’s no “I” in “polyphony.” Creole’s offerings by the same token include Men anpil, chay pa lou (‘[With] many hands, the load isn’t heavy’), Akoz diri, ti wòch goute grès (‘Thanks to the rice, pebbles have their share of fat,’ i.e., taste good); Se de bon ki fè bonbon (‘[It takes] two good people to make a cookie’ or, as we might say, to bake a cake), and Yon sèl dwèt pa manje kalalou (‘You can’t eat okra with just one finger’). And, as is often the case with proverbs, the opposite sentiment also has its common expression: Too many cooks spoil the broth and the (St. Lucien) Creole Twòp kwizinye, sòs gate (‘Too many cooks, the sauce is spoiled’).

For better or ill, we inherit something from our parents. Like father, like son; The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; Joumou pa donnen kalbas (‘A pumpkin doesn’t produce a calabash’). But Beauty is no inheritance, Handsome is as handsome does, and in any caseYou shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, to the last of which we may compare Creole Je wouj pa boule kay (literally, ‘Red eyes don’t burn the house down’). A new broom sweeps clean (Balè nef ka bale byen), and it’s a toss whether an old broom knows the corners or is worthless (English favoring the former, French the latter), but in any event, All things must come to an end: Tout priyè gen Amen (‘Every prayer has an Amen’).

Los Tocayos Carlos

Los Tocayos Carlos

On December 7, 1989, having been convicted of the 1983 murder of  a woman named Wanda López, Carlos DeLuna became the thirty-third person to be executed in Texas after the state’s reinstitution of the death penalty in 1982. (As of August 7, 2012, Texas has performed an additional 451 executions since DeLuna’s.) In 2003, members of Columbia Law School’s Innocence Project began an investigation of DeLuna’s case, eventually concluding that it was not DeLuna who had killed Wanda López but, rather, a man named Carlos Hernández. (Hernández died in prison in 1999 while serving a sentence for unrelated crimes.) The Innocence Project released its report, Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution ( in the Spring of 2012, causing considerable stir and gaining substantial coverage in the news media at home and abroad (see, e.g.,

So, why “Los Tocayos Carlos?” The short answer is that the murderer and the man convicted of the crime were both Latinos named “Carlos” and in Spanish the word tocayos refers to people who share the same name—Carlos DeLuna was Carlos Hernández’s tocayo, and vice versa, by virtue of their both being named “Carlos.” But more to the point, the word tocayo expresses a relationship that, for many speakers of English, the usual Spanish-English dictionary gloss—‘namesake’—fails to encompass and for whom “The Carlos Namesakes” would imply that DeLuna and Hernández were both named after someone (possibly two different people) named Carlos, not that they shared a common name. Compare, for example, the entry for namesake in the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary—“One that is named after another. [< the phrase for the name’s sake.]”—with the corresponding entry in the on-line Oxford English Dictionary—“A. n. A person who or a thing which has the same name as another. B. adj. That shares the same name as someone or something else previously mentioned. Now chiefly N. Amer.” Other (North American) dictionaries offer the combo platter: The venerable Century Dictionary of 1890 glosses namesake as “One who is named after or for the sake of another; hence, one who has the same name as another,” while the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1971) has “1. A person named after another. 2. A person having the same name as another.”

The OED observes with respect to the origin of the word namesake (which it dates to the 1600s) that “This compound may have arisen from earlier phrases such as for one’s name(‘s) sake, for name sake,” and gives as its first definition of the phrase for the sake of; for (one’s, a thing’s) sake as “Out of consideration for; on account of one’s interest in, or regard for (a person); on (a person’s) account.” (Compare the keepsake you bought to remind you of your trip to Vegas, a place that some consider Godforsaken, a place that God has put out of mind.)  The OED dates the phrase from the thirteenth century, which suggests that the “named-after” sense of namesake given by the AHD and others is closer to the original meaning and that the more general definition given by the OED (and echoed as secondary senses by other dictionaries) represents an extension of the relationship to the one embodied in Spanish tocayo.

Like the debate over the source of syphilis (see the origin of the word tocayo involves a face-off between the New World and the Old. Partisans of the New World origin derive tocayo from Nahuatl tocaitl ‘name, renown’ or the verb tocayona ‘to name someone, to call by name,’ or the like. The chief Old World alternative derives tocayo from a phrase customarily spoken by the bride in a Roman wedding, Ubi tu Caius, ibi ego Caia ‘Where you [are known as] Caius, there I [will be known as] Caia,’ the groom’s response being Ubi tu Caia, ibi ego Caius ‘Where you [are known as] Caia, there I [will be known as] Caius,’ Caia being the feminine form of Caius, one of the most common of Roman first names (praenomina).

So, what’s the evidence? The case for deriving tocayo from Ubi tu Caius/Caia seems to be that there’s no compelling reason not to prefer it over the (arguably problematic) New world hypothesis (see, e.g., Joan Corominas’s Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico), that Roman legal terminology has sometimes been preserved archaically in Modern Romance (see, e.g., Guido Gómez de Silva’s Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua española), and teasing a single word out of a foreign phrase, while rare, is not unknown (cf. Spanish brindis ‘[a] toast’ from German [Ich] bring’ dir ’s—‘I bring this to you’or French vasistas ‘transom’ from German Was ist das?—’What’s that?’).

 In addition, the gloss for tocayo offered in Capt. John Stevens’s A New Spanish and English Dictionary (published in London in 1706), the earliest occurrence of the word in print that has so far come to light, may be entered as Exhibit A. Stevens glosses tocayo simply as “namesake” with no further comment as to its language of origin, while his entry for the word cacao (“The Nut whereof chocolate is made…”) concludes with the information that  “The greatest plenty is in the Province of Guatimala. The Name is Indian. F. Fos. Acos. Nat. Hist. Ind. Lib. 4. Chap. 22. Pag. 250.” Ergo, by not saying that tocayo is “Indian,” we may assume that its origin is Old World.

Arguing for the defense of the New World hypothesis, the forensic lexicographer notes that the derivation of tocayo from Ubi tu Caius/Caia is, on the face of it, rather a stretch both phonologically and semantically, and the evidence from Stevens is shaky at best: Stevens’s entries for such New World terms as tlixochitl (“An herb in New Spain…The Spaniards call them Baynillas from their shape, because they are like small sheathes or scabbards…”), chocolate (“Chocolat; well known, and therefore needs no more to be said.”), and tomates (“A sort of red fruit growing in Spain, not known in England…”) are not explicitly identified as “Indian” words. Indeed, in his introduction, which identifies the various sources from which Spanish has derived its vocabulary—Latin, Arabic, Gothic, French, Greek—Stevens makes no mention whatever of any New World languages, and one suspects that the cacao reference was borrowed from the cited source.

But perhaps the best evidence for the New World hypothesis is not that the opposition’s case is weak but (a) the Nahuatl derivation is plausible on both phonological and semantic grounds and (b) Brazilian Portuguese has two terms synonymous with Spanish tocayo: tocaio (borrowed from Spanish) and the more widely used xará, whose derivation from Tupí xe’rer (‘my name’) is completely noncontroversial, suggesting that the whole notion of the general same-name-as relationship was one whose monolexical expression first appeared in the New World, a hypothesis bolstered by the lack of such a term (other than some variant of homonym) in the other Romance languages.

You be the judge.