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Writing tips from Marco Polo February 21st, 2021 by

If Covid has idled you, this might be the time to take a tip from Marco Polo, and write a book or an article.

In 1271, a 17-year-old Marco set out for China and Mongolia with his father, Niccolò and his uncle, Maffeo Polo. At the court of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, Niccolò presented Marco as the great Khan’s servant. The Khan liked Marco right away, and sent him to various cities in China, perhaps as a tax collector, or as an official in the royal salt monopoly, or maybe just to report back.

Even then, Marco had a gift for storytelling, and he reported back to the Khan in detail of the people and things he had seen. Marco kept notes to remind him of what to tell the Khan.

Twenty-four years after leaving Venice, the three Polos arrived back home again, but they were soon dragged into a pointless war with Genoa. As a noble, Marco was obliged to outfit a galley. But when he and his sailors ventured into the Adriatic Sea they were captured by the Genoese, who took him to prison. For centuries, Genoa had been competing with Venice for the trade in salt and other goods in the Mediterranean, so the city states were arch rivals.

The Genoese recognized Marco as a noble (in no small part because he would tell anyone who would listen that he was a Venetian nobleman). So, Marco was placed into a reasonable comfortable captivity, for at least a year, and perhaps as long as three, waiting for his family to ransom him.

Marco beguiled his fellow jail mates with tales of exotic lands, and soon came to the attention of another prisoner of war, Rustichello da Pisa, a notary and a romance writer.

Rustichello realized the power of Marco’s story and the two became collaborators. Marco sent for, and received the notes he had written to report back to the Khan, and he dictated his story to Rustichello, who wrote it up (in French, oddly enough). In the words of historian Laurence Bergreen, in prison, Marco Polo found the freedom to write his story.

Hand-written copies of the book slowly appeared all over Europe, in English, Spanish, Italian and other languages. Marco himself, who had returned from Asia with a fortune in pearls and jewels sewed into the hems of his clothing, also hired scribes to copy his book. Each one was a bit different; Marco may have kept adding to his book each time he had it copied. At a time before the printing press, when a book could cost as much as a house, and a library might have only 100 volumes, a copy of Marco Polo’s Travels was a valuable gift. Marco would give copies to important people he wanted to impress.

Marco died in 1324, but his book lived on, and it was one of the first books (after the bible) to come off the printing press, almost two centuries after it had been written. The Travels appeared in print first in German, in 1477 and Christopher Columbus owned a Latin version, in which he wrote detailed notes in the margins.

China had thrown off Mongol rule not long after Kublai Khan died in 1294, and then closed itself off from the west for centuries. But Marco’s book inspired voyagers like Columbus and Magellan to seek a sea route to China.

Marco Polo was not the only European to visit Asia. His own father and uncle went not once, but twice, yet they appear as minor characters in Marco’s story.

Traveling and writing have both changed a lot since Marco stepped onto the Silk Road to China, but some principles remain the same: keep good notes and be observant; report back in a narrative style and write it up. It may be helpful to have a collaborator. Take advantage of any time or space you get, to write.

If Marco had merely travelled to China and not met Rustichello, the Polos would have been largely forgotten. Marco Polo is famous not because of his trip, but because of his book about his trip, in spite of all the technical limitations of publishing in the 13th and 14th century.

Further reading

Bergreen, Laurence 2009 Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. London: Quercus. 415 pp.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

A history worth its salt


Caravana de Marco Polo, from the Atlas Catalán of Carlos V, 1375.

Map, The Route of Marco Polo’s Journey, by SY.

A convincing gesture January 31st, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

In last week’s blog (We think with our hands), I wrote that people use gestures intentionally to convey meaning, while many other hand movements are unconscious. Moving our hands helps us to grasp the right words. But human speech is also much more than words and hand gestures.

Tone and volume of voice (screaming, whispering), facial expression, head movements (like nodding) and body language (slouching vs standing ramrod straight) all help to reinforce meaning and to convey emotion. We also make humming and clicking noises, which are sounds, but not speech. This non-verbal communication is convincing because it’s natural. We can spot the difference; a phony smile is made with the lips only, while you use your whole face for a sincere one.

At Agro-Insight, when we make videos with farmers, we never tell them what to say. We ask them questions, and film their answers, which we transcribe and translate into other languages. For example, if the farmer is speaking Arabic, we will use her voice in the Arabic version of the video, but we will dub over her voice for the English, French and other versions.

In these learning videos, the farmers’ non-verbal communication is typical of unscripted, sincere speech. For example, in a video filmed in India, farmer Maran explained that he had a problem with the neighbors’ turtles coming into his fish pond to eat their feed. As he said that, he moved his hands as if to suggest movement from one place to another. After hiring professional turtle catchers to remove the unwanted guests, everything was fine, an idea he reinforced by patting both hands downwards in a comforting gesture. The film crew didn’t tell him to do that. Unless you watch the Tamil version of the video, you will hear a voice artist dubbing Mr. Maran’s words, but you can still tell that his gestures go with his narrative.

In the final cut of the video, we usually leave in some of farmers’ original voice, before starting the voiceover. This lets the audience hear some of the emotion. For instance, in our video on feeding dairy goats, Teresia Muthumbi explains that when she gives her goats banana stems with sweetpotato vines and a little grass, “They give a lot of milk.” She is speaking from experience: you can hear the sound of authority in her voice, even if you don’t understand Swahili.

In one video from Togo, farmer Filo Kodo tells how the maize harvest had increased a lot after rotating the corn with velvet bean (mucuna). One neighbor even asked her what magic she had used. “I told him it was with mucuna magic,” she said, and you can see the smile in her eyes as well as on her lips.

I’ve written before how smallholders in Malawi called people on the farmer learning videos their “friends”, even though they had never met (Friends you can trust). Farmers in Uganda referred to their “brothers and sisters” in West Africa, who they had only seen on the videos.

When people speak from the heart, their tone, gestures, expressions and body language convey conviction, even if the words themselves are translated into another language, and spoken by another person. Non-verbal communication adds a richness, a sincerity that is hard to fake. This is one reason why realistic farmer-to-farmer training videos are a far richer experience than fully animated videos.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, and Grace Musimami 2013. The Mud on Their Legs – Farmer to Farmer Videos in Uganda. Agro-Insight. MEAS Case Study # 3.

Watch the videos mentioned in this blog

Stocking fingerlings in a nursery pond

Dairy goat feeding

Reviving soils with mucuna


Por Jeff Bentley, 31 de enero del 2021

En el blog de la semana pasada (Pensamos con las manos), escribí que las personas usan los gestos a propósito para transmitir un significado, mientras que muchos otros movimientos de las manos son inconscientes. Mover las manos nos ayuda a captar las palabras que buscamos. Pero la comunicación humana es también mucho más que palabras y gestos con las manos.

El tono y el volumen de la voz (gritos, susurros), la expresión facial, los movimientos de la cabeza (como para asentir) y el lenguaje corporal (ponerse cómodo o mantenerse erguido) ayudan a reforzar el significado y a transmitir emociones. También emitimos zumbidos y chasquidos, que son sonidos, pero no son palabras. Esta comunicación no verbal es convincente porque es natural. Podemos notar la diferencia; una sonrisa falsa se hace sólo con los labios, mientras una sincera es con toda la cara.

En Agro-Insight, cuando hacemos videos con agricultores, nunca les decimos lo que tienen que decir. Les hacemos preguntas y filmamos sus respuestas, que transcribimos y traducimos a otros idiomas. Por ejemplo, si la agricultora habla en árabe, usamos su voz de ella en la versión árabe del video, pero la doblamos para las versiones en inglés, francés y otras.

En estos videos de aprendizaje, la comunicación no verbal de los agricultores es la típica del habla sincera y sin guion. Por ejemplo, en un video grabado en la India, el agricultor Maran explicó que tenía un problema con las tortugas de los vecinos que entraban en su estanque de peces para comer su alimento. Mientras lo decía, movía las manos como si quisiera sugerir un movimiento de un lugar a otro. Después de contratar a cazadores profesionales para eliminaran a las tortugas, todo estaba bien, idea que reforzó dando palmaditas con ambas manos hacia abajo en un gesto de satisfacción. El equipo de filmación no le dijo que hiciera eso. A menos que se vea la versión en tamil del video, se oirá a un locutor doblando las palabras del Sr. Maran, pero aun así se nota que sus gestos realmente acompañan su narración.

En la edición final del vídeo, solemos dejar algo de la voz original de la gente, antes de empezar el doblaje. Esto permite al público escuchar parte de la emoción. Por ejemplo, en nuestro video sobre la alimentación de las cabras lecheras, Teresia Muthumbi explica que cuando da a sus cabras tallos de plátano con hojas de camote y un poco de pasto, “Dan mucha leche”. Habla por experiencia: se puede oír el sonido de la autoridad en su voz, aunque no se entienda el suajili.

En un video de Togo, la agricultora Filo Kodo cuenta cómo la cosecha de maíz ha aumentado mucho después de rotar el maíz con el frijol terciopelo (mucuna). Un vecino incluso le preguntó qué magia había usado. “Le dije que era con la magia de la mucuna”, dijo, y se puede ver la sonrisa en sus ojos además de en sus labios.

Ya he escrito antes cómo los campesinos de Malawi llamaban “amigos” a las personas que aparecían en los vídeos de aprendizaje, aunque no se conocieran (Amigos confiables). Los agricultores de Uganda se referían a sus “hermanos y hermanas” de África Occidental, a los que sólo habían visto en los videos.

Cuando la gente habla con el corazón, su tono, sus gestos, sus expresiones y su lenguaje corporal transmiten convicción, aunque las palabras mismas estén traducidas a otro idioma y sean pronunciadas por otra persona. La comunicación no verbal añade una riqueza, una sinceridad que es difícil de fingir. Esta es una de las razones por las que los videos realistas de agricultor-a-agricultor son una experiencia mucho más rica que los videos de pura animación.

Lectura adicional

Bentley, Jeffery, Paul Van Mele, y Grace Musimami 2013. The Mud on Their Legs – Farmer to Farmer Videos in Uganda. Agro-Insight. MEAS Case Study # 3.

Vea los videos mencionados en este blog

Estanque vivero para criar alevines

Alimentando a cabras lecheras

Revivir el suelo con la mucuna

We think with our hands January 24th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

I live on a busy street. But the traffic is slow enough that I can observe the drivers. Many have their eyes on the road. Some are looking at their phones, but occasionally I see a motorcycle rider speaking to his passenger, and making hand gestures. Taking one’s hands off the handlebars to gesture is dangerous, and pointless if your listener is behind you and can’t see you wave and point.

So why would people in their right minds risk their lives to make hand gestures to someone out of view?

Anthropologists have found that people all the world over move their hands when they speak, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes to convey meaning. We know how to point at something to let the shopkeeper know we want to buy it, or to hold out our palm while saying “and the corn was this high.” Hand signs can be used to say anything. Deaf sign languages are complete communication systems, as expressive as speech. Native American sign language was once the lingua franca across the plains from southern Canada to northern Mexico.

But unconscious hand gesturing is different; we aren’t always aware that we are doing it. We gesture while speaking on the phone. Even the blind, who have never seen hand signs, instinctively gesture while speaking to other blind people.

In his book on translation, David Bellos tells a story about people giving speeches at international organizations like the United Nations. The speakers tend to read prepared remarks, so they know what to say. They stand and speak, hands resting quietly on the podium. To see the hand movements, you have to go down to the booth for the simultaneous translators, who gesture wildly as they struggle to find the right words in another language.

A recent review of the evolution of languages describes how our primate relatives communicate with their hands and with their voices. Over the past six million years, human gestures and vocalization probably developed together, even if spoken language eventually gained the upper hand, so to speak.

Speech has probably always been accompanied by hand gestures. Sometimes these are complete signs, like pantomiming a scribbling pencil to let the waiter know you’d like the check, but we often move our hands unintentionally, which may add clarity to meaning, like a wagging finger. And sometimes, we just move our hands as we make an effort to express ourselves. We may be unaware of the hand movements, but they help us to find the right words. We all gesture like the motorcyclists on my street, who haven’t lost their minds; they are just gathering their thoughts.

Further reading

Bellos, David 2011 Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything. New York: Faber and Faber. 373 pp.

Corballis, Michael C. 2012. How language evolved from manual gestures. Gesture 12(2): 200–226.

Fröhlich, Marlen, Christine Sievers, Simon W. Townsend, Thibaud Gruber, and Carel P. van Schaik 2019. Multimodal communication and language origins: Integrating gestures and vocalizations Biological Reviews. doi: 10.1111/brv.12535

Iverson, Jana M. and Susan Goldin-Meadow 1998. Why people gesture when they speak. Nature 396(6708): 228-228.

Related Agro-Insight blogs

At the end of the words

The wine rose


Por Jeff Bentley, 24 de enero del 2021

Vivo en una calle con bastante tráfico. Pero caminan lento no más, y puedo ver a los conductores. Muchos sí se fijan en la calle. Algunos miran sus celulares, pero de vez en cuando veo a gente manejando moto, hablando con su pasajero y haciendo gestos con las manos. Quitar las manos de la manilla para hacer gestos es peligroso, y no tiene sentido si el pasajero está detrás de ti y ni puede ver lo que señalas.

Entonces ¿por qué la gente en su sano juicio arriesgaría su vida para hacer gestos con la mano a alguien que ni le pueda ver?

Los antropólogos han comprobado que los pueblos de todo el mundo mueven las manos cuando hablan, a veces de forma inconsciente y otras para transmitir un significado. Indicamos algo con el dedo para hacerle saber al tiendero que queremos comprarlo, o extendemos la palma de la mano mientras decimos “y el maíz era así de alto”. Las señas manuales pueden usarse para decir cualquier cosa. Las lenguas de signos de los sordos son sistemas de comunicación completos, tan expresivos como el habla. El lenguaje de signos de los indígenas norteamericanos servía para comunicación entre las tribus en las llanuras desde el sur de Canadá hasta el norte de México.

Pero el gesto inconsciente de las manos es diferente; no siempre somos conscientes de que lo hacemos. Hacemos gestos mientras hablamos por teléfono. Incluso los ciegos, que nunca han visto los signos de las manos, gesticulan instintivamente cuando hablan con otros ciegos.

En su libro sobre la traducción, David Bellos cuenta una historia sobre las personas que dan discursos en organizaciones internacionales como las Naciones Unidas. Los oradores suelen leer los discursos preparados para saber qué decir. Se ponen de pie y hablan, con las manos apoyadas tranquilamente en el podio. Para ver los movimientos de las manos, hay que ir a la cabina de los traductores simultáneos, que gesticulan a todo dar mientras se esfuerzan por encontrar las palabras adecuadas en otro idioma.

Una reciente reseña de la evolución del idioma describe cómo nuestros parientes primates se comunican con las manos y con la voz. A lo largo de los últimos seis millones de años, los gestos y la vocalización del ser humano probablemente se desarrollaron juntos, aunque el lenguaje hablado ganó la carrera.

Probablemente, el habla siempre ha ido acompañada de gestos con las manos. A veces se trata de signos completos, como la pantomima de un lápiz que garabateamos para hacer saber al mesero que queremos la cuenta, pero a menudo movemos las manos sin querer, lo que puede añadir claridad al significado, como al mover el dedo para decir “ya no”. Y a veces, simplemente movemos las manos en un esfuerzo por expresarnos. Puede que no seamos conscientes de los movimientos de las manos, pero nos ayudan a encontrar las palabras adecuadas. Todos gesticulamos como los motociclistas de mi calle, que no han perdido la mente; sólo están juntando sus pensamientos.

Lectura adicional

Bellos, David 2011 Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything. Nueva York: Faber y Faber. 373 pp.

Corballis, Michael C. 2012. How language evolved from manual gestures. Gesture 12(2): 200–226.

Fröhlich, Marlen, Christine Sievers, Simon W. Townsend, Thibaud Gruber, y Carel P. van Schaik 2019. Multimodal communication and language origins: Integrating gestures and vocalizations Biological Reviews. doi: 10.1111/brv.12535

Iverson, Jana M. y Susan Goldin-Meadow 1998. Why people gesture when they speak. Nature 396(6708): 228-228.

Previos blogs de Agro-Insight

At the end of the words

The wine rose

The wine rose November 15th, 2020 by

When experts say that a wine tastes of berries or has a floral scent, I believe them. When I hear of “toffee notes” or a “cigar nose” I grow slightly skeptical. But when I read of a wine that comes on like “a street-walker,” I give up. Is there any objective truth to such descriptions?

A nifty set of experiments by Ilja Crojmans and colleagues suggests that naming a wine does not help to remember its smell. In one experiment, wine experts were distracted by being asked to remember some numbers while smelling different wines. Ten minutes later they were asked to sniff a larger set of wines containing the original varieties. When the experts were not given a memory task, their minds were free to give each wine a mental label, but they did not remember the wines any better than when their minds were distracted.

This study suggests that experts do not use language to recognize the aroma of wines. Yet, in an earlier experiment, Crojmans and Asifa Majid showed that wine experts can describe the odor of wine more accurately and consistently than novices, but only marginally so, suggesting that one can learn to recognize different flavors in wine and describe them.

This reminded me of my days as a volunteer novice in a wine tasting experiment in Tucson, Arizona, in 1983. Linguist Adrienne Lehrer invited me and 11 other graduate students, colleagues and friends into her living room to taste different wines. We were chosen because we liked wine, but didn’t know much about it. We each got four glasses holding 50 ml (just enough for a taste), and a set of cards to write a short description of each wine.

A few weeks later Professor Lehrer asked us to come over again. We sat around the same tables as before with the same unlabeled wines we’d tasted previously. Each wine had a letter, which we were asked to match with the description we had written earlier. I recall reading my cards while sipping the wines and feeling no real connection between what I had written and what I was now savoring. Yet one person in four did correctly match each of their own descriptions with all the different wines. Just as important, those people were certain at the time that they were right. Wine can be described, if you have the knack for it.

Wine really is complex, with over 800 volatiles affecting its smell and taste, but one’s skills at recognizing and describing these subtle differences may improve with training and practice. Lehrer points out in her book, Wine and Conversation, that the more florid descriptions are commonly found in wine magazines, and most new metaphors are only used once. (The Economist says that “gravel” and “wet tennis balls” are recent offerings). Flamboyant descriptions are mostly word play. Wine scientists (vinologists) use fewer, but more accurate descriptors, like “vanilla”.

Culture influences how we drink and talk about wine. There is the ritual of clear, stemmed glasses, only half full, accompanied by sniffing, sipping and pronouncing on the merits of the wine. But you can drink wine in completely different ways, as I learned while living among smallholders in Portugal, whose ancestors had been making and drinking wine for centuries. They had their own evolved wine etiquette and ritual.

Wine had to accompany food, and was usually poured into white, ceramic bowls, sometimes as large as half a liter. At a large lunch, sometimes two or four people would share a bowl of wine, refilling it from a ceramic pitcher on the table, replenished from a 500-liter wooden keg.

No work party was complete without wine, to thank the neighbors who had gathered to help with the big farm jobs. When we took a break in the field, we would hold a snack in one hand, and chug a bowl of wine as fast as possible. Other people were waiting to use the bowl, and they didn’t have all day. There were potatoes to harvest.

When these hardworking folks talked about wine it wasn’t the flavor, but the color that caught their imagination. Speaking of a wine that they had made themselves, the farmers would say with pride and deliberate emphasis “it leaves a rose in the bottom of the bowl.”

Why should a roundish red stain be so important? In northwest Portugal, farmers made vinho verde, a fresh, light wine. This community in Entre-Douro-e-Minho was on the edge of the designated zone, where it was difficult to make a superb wine. The dissolved solids in wine (and alcohol) make up what we call “body”. The crimson stain in the bowl said “a full-bodied wine”.

There are many ways to imagine and discuss wine, some earthy, some refined and some pretentious. You can do worse than to drink wine from a bowl in the shade of a grape arbor, sitting on the ground with fellow workers, washing down a roasted sardine and a chunk of sourdough corn bread.

Related blog story

The pleasure of bread

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Croijmans, Ilja and Asifa Majid 2016. Not all flavor expertise is equal: The language of wine and coffee experts. PLoS ONE. e0155845.

Croijmans, Ilja, Artin Arshamian, Laura J. Speed, and Asifa Majid 2020. Wine Experts’ Recognition of Wine Odors Is Not Verbally Mediated. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000949.

Lehrer, Adrienne. 2007. Can wines be brawny? Reflections on wine vocabulary, Chapter six. In, Barry C. Smith (Ed.) Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine. Oxford. Signal books.

Lehrer, Adrienne. 2009. Wine and Conversation. Oxford, UK: University of Oxford Press. Second Edition. See page 169 for the tasting and writing experiment.

Wine and bottles. The Economist. 17 October 2020.

Of mangos and manioc October 18th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Last week in this blog, I wrote about how Native American words for crops entered English and other tongues from native languages, through Spanish (Spanish chocolate). Now it’s time for the other side of the story, the Portuguese side.

Soon after the Columbus voyage, in May of 1493, Pope Alexander VI essentially drew a line north-south through the Atlantic Ocean, 100 leagues (about 400 km) west of the Cape Verde Islands, declaring that any lands discovered west of that line would belong to Spain. The Portuguese could claim any non-Christian country east of the line. The Pope’s intention was to recognize Spanish rights to the islands of the Caribbean, since the Portuguese had previously claimed all lands south of the Canary Islands (which would have given the Caribbean to the Portuguese).  The Portuguese accepted Spain’s hold on the Caribbean, but argued strenuously that the line should be moved a further 270 leagues west.  

Just the next year, Spanish and Portuguese negotiators met in Tordesillas, in northern Spain, where Spain bowed to the Portuguese demand, and the line moved west. Fortuitously, the change would later ensure that Brazil became a Portuguese colony.

The Portuguese would only land on Brazil in 1500, but six years earlier in Tordesillas, they had insisted so strongly on moving the line that some historians wonder if Portugal had known of South America in 1494. In the end, Portugal claimed Brazil in addition to territories in Africa and Asia. Spain got the rest of the Americas and most of the Pacific Ocean. Even by the arrogant standards of sixteenth century imperialism, the Tordesillas deal was astonishing, splitting the world in half the way you would slice an orange with a knife.

Other seafaring nations, especially England, rejected the Treaty of Tordesillas out of hand, but the deal did help to avoid war between Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese set up a string of trading colonies from Guinea Bissau in West Africa to Macau in China. They took 16th century manufactured goods east, along with the names for the stuff. Many languages in Asia and Africa borrowed Portuguese words for items like “window” (janela) and “key” (chave).

The exchange of goods and words worked both ways. In India, Portuguese travelers savored a delicious fruit called maanga in Malayalam, a Dravidian language. The fruit became “manga” in Portuguese, and then “mango” in many languages from German to Japanese.

The Portuguese also brought new foods from Brazil, like a tasty nut, called “cashew” in many European languages from the Portuguese caju, from akaiú, in the native Tupi language.

In spite of treaties, the Spanish-Portuguese tension lingered, and still shows up in language today. The tropical American root crop, cassava, has three names in English. The word “cassava” comes from the Spanish cazabe (the name for cassava flour), which is from the Taino, a native language that was then spoken throughout the Greater Antilles. Another English word for cassava is “manioc”, which comes not from Spanish, but from the rival Portuguese, from mandioca, from mandióka, in the Tupi language of Brazil.  German, Dutch and many other languages also have two words for this crop, “cassava” from Taino via Spanish and “manioc” from Tupi through Portuguese.

The label for “pineapple” was also contested. The Spanish called the fruit piña, “pinecone”, because of its faceted skin. The English translated piña as “pine” and added “apple,” to signal “this is a fruit”, making an unusual blended word.  Brazilians today call the pineapple abacaxi (from the Tupi ywa-katí, “fragrant fruit”), but in Portugal it is ananás, from the Tupi word for pineapple, naná. In most of the world’s languages today, except for English and Spanish, the pineapple is known by some version of “ananas.”

The line of Tordesillas, through the center of the Atlantic Ocean, seems improbably and crudely imperialistic to modern ideals. The Iberian colonies have finally all been surrendered, but the Spanish influence on the world’s languages is still felt from the west of that line, with a Portuguese legacy on the east side.

Further reading

Brotton, Jerry 2013 A History of the World in Twelve Maps. London: Penguin Books. 514 pp. (See chapter 6).


Most of the etymologies are from Michaelis Dicionário Brasileiro da Língua Portuguesa


18 de octubre del 2020, por Jeff Bentley

La semana pasada en este blog, escribí que algunas palabras indígenas para cultivos americanos pasaron al inglés y a otros idiomas desde las lenguas nativas, a través del español (Chocolate español). Ahora nos toca la otra parte de la historia, el lado portugués.

Poco después del viaje de Colón, en mayo de 1493, el Papa Alejandro VI trazó una línea de norte a sur a través del Océano Atlántico, a 100 leguas (unos 400 km) al oeste de las Islas de Cabo Verde, declarando que cualquier tierra descubierta al oeste de esa línea pertenecería a España. Los portugueses podrían reclamar cualquier país no cristiano al este de la línea. La intención del Papa era reconocer los derechos españoles sobre las Islas del Caribe, ya que los portugueses habían reclamado anteriormente todas las tierras al sur de las Islas Canarias (que daría el Caribe a los portugueses).  Los portugueses aceptaron el dominio español sobre el Caribe, pero argumentaron enérgicamente que la línea debería desplazarse otras 270 leguas hacia el oeste. 

Al año siguiente, los negociadores españoles y portugueses se reunieron en Tordesillas, en Castilla, donde España aceptó la demanda portuguesa y la línea se movió hacia el oeste. Por suerte de los portugueses, más tarde el cambio les daría el Brasil como colonia.

Los portugueses sólo desembarcarían en el Brasil en el 1500, pero seis años antes en Tordesillas, habían insistido tanto en mover la línea que algunos historiadores se preguntan si Portugal había sabido de América del Sur en el 1494. Al final, Portugal reclamó Brasil además de territorios en África y Asia. España obtuvo el resto de las Américas y la mayor parte del Océano Pacífico. Aun según los arrogantes estándares del imperialismo del siglo XV, el acuerdo de Tordesillas fue mucha cosa, dividiendo el mundo a la mitad como si se tratara de cortar una naranja con un cuchillo filudo.

Otras naciones marineras, especialmente Inglaterra, rechazaron el Tratado de Tordesillas de frente, pero el acuerdo ayudó a evitar la guerra entre España y Portugal. Los portugueses establecieron una serie de colonias comerciales desde Guinea Bissau en África Occidental hasta Macao en la China. Se llevaron las manufacturas del siglo XVI al este, junto con sus nombres. Muchos idiomas de Asia y África se prestaron palabras portuguesas para artículos como “ventana” (janela) y “llave” (chave).

El intercambio de bienes y palabras corrió en ambos sentidos. En la India, los viajeros portugueses saborearon una deliciosa fruta llamada maanga en malayalam, una lengua dravídica. La fruta se convirtió en “manga” en portugués, y luego en “mango” en muchos idiomas del alemán al japonés.

Los portugueses también trajeron nuevos alimentos del Brasil, como el sabroso marañón. Su nombre en inglés y en varios otros idiomas europeos, cashew, viene del “caju” en portugués, del akaiú, en la lengua nativa tupí.

A pesar de los tratados, la tensión hispano-portuguesa persistió, y aún hoy se manifiesta en el idioma. La yuca, o la mandioca, tiene varios nombres. El más común en inglés es “cassava”, del español “cazabe” (el nombre no de la yuca sino de su harina). “Cazabe” viene del taíno, idioma nativo que se hablaba en las Antillas Mayores. Otra palabra inglesa para la yuca es “manioc” que no es del español, sino de su rival, el portugués, de “mandioca”, la cual viene mandióka, en la lengua tupí de Brasil.  El alemán, el holandés y muchos otros idiomas también tienen dos palabras para la yuca, “cassava” del taíno a través del español y “manioc” del tupí a través del portugués.

La “piña” era otra palabra discutida. Los españoles lo bautizaron “piña”, por las facetas de su piel, como de la fruta del pino. El inglés tradujo “piña” como pine (pino) y añadió apple (manzana), como decir “esta es una fruta”. El resultado, “pineapple” es una extraña mezcla de dos palabras.  Hoy en día los brasileños llaman a la piña abacaxi (del tupí ywa-katí, “fruta fragante”), pero en Portugal es “ananás,” de la palabra tupi para piña, naná. Actualmente en la mayoría de los idiomas del mundo, excepto el inglés y el español, la piña es conocida por alguna versión de “ananás”.

La línea de Tordesillas, atravesando el Océano Atlántico, parece improbable para nuestros ideales modernos y antimperialistas. Hoy en día los ibéricos han entregado todas sus colonias, pero la influencia española en las lenguas del mundo aún se siente desde el oeste de esa línea, con un legado portugués al lado este.

Lectura adicional

Brotton, Jerry 2013 A History of the World in Twelve Maps. Londres: Penguin Books. 514 pp. (See chapter 6).


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