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I remember when I was a kid we were taking a family road trip to New Mexico, and I was looking through a book about the history of Santa Fe, when it suddenly occurred to me that these Spanish names were equivalent to English names.  Suddenly it all made sense!  Juan is John.  Jorge is George.  Pedro is Peter.  Yes yes yes, it all makes sense.  Maria is Mary.  Diego is….

“Mom, what’s ‘Diego’?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean in English, what’s ‘Diego’?”

“Diego is just…Diego.”

I think that was the first time I began to understand that some things just don’t translate.  This was rather frustrating to me at the time.  I wanted everything to make sense, and something that didn’t have an English equivalent fell too far outside my concept of the world.

But of course, when a Spanish-speaking person calls his friend “Pedro,” he’s not really just saying “Peter.”  He’s saying his friend’s name, and a friend’s name is more than just a word, in any language.

Most of us can look up our names in a baby name book and get the etymology and the ‘meaning’ of the name.  I think Allison means something like “noble and truthful” in Old Germanic.  But when my friends or my husband or my brother or my boss says, “Hey, Allison,” they’re not literally saying “Oh, Noble and Truthful One.”  Names signify much more than can be translated.

Most words in a language are like that, actually.  One of my favorite examples comes from K. David Harrison, who has spent a lot of time with reindeer herders in central Siberia.  The Tofa people have a word: döngür.  It means “a male domesticated reindeer in its third year and first mating season, but not ready for mating.”[1]  Of course, that is the explicit information encoded in that word, but when a Tofa speaker says the word döngür, they’re not really saying all of that.  That word maps to a memory, an intuition, an understanding of their world that includes but is not limited to any dictionary definition.

The Tofa language is dying; perhaps only a dozen people remember it now.  When it goes away forever, we don’t just lose a few entries in a dictionary.  Words are never just words.  Döngür is “just” döngür, in the same way that Diego is “just” Diego.

[1] Pg. 57.  Harrison, K.D. (2007).  When languages die: The extinction of the world’s languages and the erosion of human knowledge.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.