Compound Words & Fireflies

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My entire perception of words and anything having to do with them has changed since I've become bilingual. Sometimes I struggle to find the right word in Spanish to convey what I’m thinking, and other times I find that there is no good English equivalent for a word that I frequently use in Spanish. I could probably write quite a bit on this topic as it’s something that I’m faced with on daily basis, but for today I’m just thinking about compound words.

Do you realize how strange some of our compound words sound in English? If we’ve grown up hearing them, they’ve likely become natural to us despite how unusual they are. For example, consider the word firefly.

Last night I wanted to ask if they have fireflies in Bolivia. It turns out they have a word for fireflies in Spanish, but I didn’t know it at the time. So I just described the bug and then gave a literal translation of the word. Firefly has always sounded very normal to me, pleasant, in fact. After all, fireflies are beautiful and interesting and don’t do any harm.

But “firefly” translated literally into Spanish is mosca de fuego – fly of fire. Okay, all of a sudden that sounds pretty horrible to me. I mean, flies are pesky and gross in my opinion. They land on your food and buzz in your ear and we have swatters that are specifically designed to kill them. And how much worse would a fly be if it was made from fire. That thought conjures images of little demon flies in my head.

Imagine a non-native English speaker being told that they were about to see flies of fire! I think I would be pretty freaked out if someone told me that.

And there are so many more compounds words like that. It’s kind of fun to see the language that I’ve spoken all of my life through new eyes. I highly recommend learning a second language to anyone that doesn’t know more than one. It really makes you think twice about what you say.

By the way, I found that there are fireflies in Bolivia and they're called luciƩrnagas.

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Sorry this post is kind of random and includes no photos. I am heading out on the motorcycle with my camera (cell phone camera, that is) this afternoon!

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