Saturday, June 4, 2011

Portuguese Loanwords

While on the topic of Portuguese, I thought I'd share a linguistic link that kind of blew my mind when I made the connection last year.

Despite the relatively small territory and population of Portugal, the grandes navegações of the 15th and 16th centuries paved the way for an outsized influence on its colonies, trading partners and beyond, including the adoption of Portuguese loanwords. This influence extended from Brazil to East Asia, where the Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach the shores of Korea and Japan. Portuguese traders and Jesuit priests established new trade links, introduced Western science and began to spread Christianity throughout the region.

Portuguese loanwords that entered the Japanese language during this period include kompeito (a Japanese candy, from the Portuguese confeito), furasuko (flask, from frasco), kurusu (cross, from cruz, until it was replaced by the English-based kurosu), tabako (take a wild guess) and pan (bread, from pão).

The Portuguese word for bread is a loanword in Korean as well: ppang (빵), which actually sounds incredibly similar to the original pão. (This is also the reason that São Paulo is usually transcribed as 상파울루, but that's a story for another day.)

More interesting than the Korean word for bread, in my opinion (despite my love-hate affair with carbs), is the expression 따봉 (ttabong). If you're like me, you're probably thinking there's no way that 따봉—a phrase roughly equivalent to "thumbs up" and most commonly used among young children—is a foreign loanword. But believe it or not, it's derived from the Portuguese expression "tá bom," a common abbreviation for "está bom," meaning "it's fine" or "all right." The connection finally hit me one afternoon in Portuguese class last year when Marta asked me, "Tá bom, Paulo?" and I, in a moment of unconscious linguistic substitution, replied, "네, ttabong," and the lesson proceeded without anyone else noticing my confusion. (After class, I rushed back to the library and confirmed on Google that I had just made the 11th greatest discovery of my life.)

How ttabong became such a widely used phrase in Korean I'm not sure, but something about the thought of Seoul schoolchildren running around using a common Portuguese expression warms my globalization-loving, God-fearing gyopo heart.

(For non-Korean speakers who couldn't care less about the etymology of ttabong yet are still reading for some reason, check out this surprisingly long list of English terms of Portuguese origin, which includes words ranging from caste to mandarin.)