Wednesday, May 24, 2006

To the right, again

My musings in yesterday's entry reminded me of yet another language incident involving foreign words for "right." In Spanish, the word for "right" (as opposed to "left") is derecho, which like most adjectives changes its ending when modifying a female noun: the right foot is el pie derecho but the right hand is la mano derecha. But derecho can also mean "straight" or "upright"; in fact, there's a metereological phenomenon called a derecho which produces straight-line winds. As with similar words in any language, the meaning must be derived from experience and context.

After studying Spanish for a year in the U.S., in 2003 I went to Puebla, Mexico for a month-long immersion course. I was trying to understand the positions of the two major political parties in Mexico, the PRI and PAN. Intending to ask my teacher which party was more to the right (i.e. conservative), I said something like "¿Cuál partido es más derecho?" She answered that they were the same, which thoroughly confused me. After further conversation, I realized that what I had actually asked was something like "Which party is more upright?", or rather, "Which party is less corrupt?" to which her answer was plausible, if somewhat cynical and depressing. What I should have asked was "¿Cuál partido es más a la derecha?" which is the correct expression for "on the right" or "to the right."

As if this weren't confusing enough, derecho has a third meaning as the noun meaning "right", or "privilege." And here's where the comparison to other languages gets interesting. To have a right (say, against self-incrimination) in Spanish is tener derecho, which is similar to the direction "right" (derecho/a); to have "right" (i.e. to be correct), however, is tener razon (literally, to have "reason"). It's similar in French: "right" meaning "privilege" is droit, just as the direction is droite, and to be correct is avoir raison (again, "to have reason"). In German, to have a right is the same as to be correct, Recht haben, which is similar to the direction, recht. And it's the same in English, whether one has a right or is right or is talking about his right hand.

There must be some etymological explanation for why the Germanic languages associate the three meanings of "right" ("correct", "not left", and "privilege") with the same word, whereas the Romance languages associate "correct" with "reason", but I haven't yet tracked it down.


Anonymous said...

Interesting idea you have w/ "right" This is a bit off the point but I often wonder how much language affects our culture and/or reflects it. In general aren't speakers of Romantic languages considered more laid back than speakers of Germanic languages? So, it makes sense to me that associating right w/ correct and priviledge might reflect a more rigid work driven culture.

Language Lover said...

Culture is definitely affected by language, and vice versa; I've explored this in other entries and plan to do so more in the future. You have an interesting point about the Romantic vs. Germanic languages, although I wonder if the stereotypes we have now about the respective cultures were accurate many years ago when these languages were forming.