“An offer he can’t refuse…”

Starting with this quote from the classic movie “The Godfather” by Francis Ford Coppola I want to discuss an interesting topic that I had never thought about until a couple of weeks ago. In one of my English lessons a student was explaining something about her goddaughter, but she didn’t remember the word for this and said it in Finnish: “kummityttö”. Suddenly, all the other students started to say that the word she was looking for was “goddaughter” “because it’s like in “godfather”, like the movie.” This made me think about the difference between Finnish and most of the other languages when referring to these relationships. I have been making a little research and I couldn’t find another language that behaves like Finnish in this.

Most languages refer to the godfather and the godmother including (directly or indirectly) the words for “father” and “mother”, and thus showing the concept of that these people would take over the education of the child should something bad happen to the parents. It would be something like “substitute parents”. Therefore, it is important to include the words for “father” and “mother”. But in Finnish the words that they include are “setä” and “täti”, which mean “uncle” and “aunt”. The godfather is “kummisetä” and the godmother is “kummitäti”.

kummisetä1 kummisetä2

In English we do include the words “father” and “mother”, but this happens in all the languages I have analyzed: In Spanish we say “padrino” and “madrina”, including the root of “padre” and “madre”. Most of the Romance languages also use this method. In Portuguese they have “padrinho” and “madrinha”, similar to the Galician “padriño” and “madriña”. In Catalan, however, they talk about “padrí” and “padrina”, including only the concept of the father. In French they have “parrain” and “marraine”, following the same pattern as their Southern neighbours. In Italian the words are the same as in Spanish: “padrino” and “madrina”, though in the South of the country they also use “compare” and “commare”, keeping the concepts of father and mother but in the end of the words.

German, as Catalan, includes only the masculine concept: “Pate” and “Patin”. But the other Germanic languages follow the most common method, like English. Thus, we have Norwegian, Swedish and Danish that share the terms: “gudfar” and “gudmor”. In Icelandic they have “guðfaðir” and”guðmóðir”, the same roots again. In Faroese the words change a bit as well, but the roots still refer to father and mother: “gudpápar” and “gudmammur”. In Dutch they continue with the Germanic tradition by calling them “peetvader” and “peetmoeder”.

But this trend is not only found in Germanic and Romance languages. In Polish they use a different construction but they include the words for “father” and “mother”: “ojciec chrzestny” (being “ojciec” father”), and “matka chrzestna” (being “matka” mother, and as a funny note: “matka” means trip in Finnish… This is why I love languages!). In Russian they say “крёстный отец” and “крёстная мать”, which makes sense since “отец” means “father” and “мать” is “mother”.

Hungarian, a language of the Finno-Ugric family don’t follow the system of its distant relative, but follow the mainstream path instead: They have “keresztapa” because “apa” means “father”; and “keresztanya”, since “anya” means “mother”.

In Asian languages we have, once again, the same: Chinese children can have a “教父” and a “教母” and, as you can imagine by now, “父” is the character for “father” and “母” means “mother”. Japanese use these same characters but the words change slightly: “代父” and “代母”.

So, why is Finnish so alone in this? Why did they choose to use the words “uncle” and “aunt” instead of “father” and “mother” like the other languages? In my research I haven’t found any other language that behaves like Finnish or even in a different way than the common trend, but there are many languages in the world and there may be other languages that have different ways of expressing this relationship. If someone knows more examples of languages that use “uncle” and “aunt”, or even totally different concepts, I would really like to read about it in the comments. So please, don’t hesitate to share it with us.

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What do the animals say?

It has been a while since I wanted to write a post about the sounds animals make in different languages, but I think that this is the right time for that due to a certain song that is getting very famous and raises a very interesting question.

It is rather interesting that even if animals do more or less the same sound in different countries, people have adapted them to the phonetics of their language to put into words these sounds. However, some studies show that animals also “speak different languages”, that is, use different series of sounds in different geographical areas. I have myself noticed that seagulls in Finland and in the North of Spain do not make the same sounds, since in my home-town you can listen to them all the time and somehow you know some of the series of sounds they do every day, but in Finland I have never heard them doing those particular series… Maybe they were speaking Finnish-seagull, who knows?

Let’s start comparing the sound that dogs make in different languages: In English dogs say “woof-woof”, similar to the German “wuff-wuff” and the French “wouaff-wouaff”. But in Spanish dogs say “guau-guau”, similar to the Italian “vau-vau”, the Finnish “hau-hau” and the Estonian “auh-auh”. But then we have other different sounds, like the Russian “gav-gav”, the Korean “mong-mong”, or the Ukranian “breshe”.

When it comes to cats there is more agreement in the different languages, but we can still find some very different examples. In English cats say “meow”, in Spanish, Danish, Hebrew, Portuguese, Hungarian, Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish they go “miau”, in Italian and French they say “miao” and in Dutch they say “miauw”. But there are other cat languages, or so can be supposed from the fact that Japanese cats say “nyan”, in Korea they say “yaong”, and in Estonia they say “näu”.

Cats

What about cows? In English they say “moo”, which is what they say in most other languages, even if changing a bit the spelling. In Spanish, Portuguese, and Swedish they say “muu”, in Japanese they say “moh”, Norwegian cows go “mø”, and in Finland they say “ammuu”. But Polish cows for some reason say “yazoo”, in Estonia they say “mop”, and Dutch cows say “boe”. These last three examples are a bit curious, aren’t they?

Roosters have also a very peculiar sound that languages have tried to adapt but with different results: English roosters say “cook-a-doodle-do”, but in Spain they say “kikirikii” and in German “kikeriki”. French roosters prefer to say “cocorico”. In Korea rooster prefer to say something shorter, like “ko-ki-oh”, a preference not shared by Finnish (“kukkokiekoo”), Japanese (“kokekoko”), Norwegian (“kykkeliky”) or Swedish (“kuckeliku”).

Another farm animal, the pig, offers also some interesting variations: In English, Spanish, and Portuguese pigs say “oink”, but in Portuguese is often written “óinc”. Finnish pigs say “röh röh”, and Hungarian say “röf röf”. This f-ending is shared with Swedish “nöff nöff”, Norwegian “nøff nøff”, and Danish “øf øf”. French pigs say “groin groin” whereas German pigs say “grunz”. Dutch, Japanese, and Albanian offer the most interesting ones with “knor knor”, “bu-bu”, and “hunk” respectively.

Ducks are said to make the only sound that produces no echo, but how is this written in different languages? English ducks say “quack”, like the Spanish “cuack” and similar to the Finnish “vaak” and Turkish “vak”. French ducks say “coin” but Danish say “rap”, and Hungarian say “háp”. Romanian ducks say “mac”, and Estonian ducks win the prize to the strangest sound with their “prääks”.

English birds say the famous “tweet” that is nowadays well-known everywhere for other reasons, but in other languages they usually say something starting with “p”. In Spain they say “pio-pio”, in Portuguese “piu-piu”, in Swedish and Norwegian “pip pip” and in Japanese “pi pi”. In French they say “cui cui”, in Dutch “tjilp tjilp”, in Japanese “chun chun”, and in Finnish “tsirp tsirp”.

Sheep have two options: They can either say something that starts with “b” or something that starts with “m”. Sheep that preferred the “b” option moved to Spain, Hungary, Russia or Italy “bee”, Holand “bè bè”, England “baa”, France “bêê”, Germany “baehh”, or to Sweden “bä bä”. However, sheep that found easier to pronounce the letter “m” moved to Finland “mää”, Denmark “mæh-mæh”, Greece “maeee”, Japan “meh”, and Turkey “maeh”.

When it comes to horses we can find similar versions of the same sound. English horses say “wehee”, Spanish horses say something like “ihiiihihi”, Finnish horses say “iihahaa”, Dutch say “hihi”, and French, Italian and Japanese say “hiiiii”. But German, Hungarian, and Turkish horses are a bit different: They say “wiihiee”, “nyihaha”, and “e-he-he-he”.

And now, does anybody know what does the fox say in any language? ; )

Feel free to add some other sounds you know, or to correct some of these in the comments.

Liebster Award

I have been nominated for a Liebster Award! The Liebster Award is a networking scheme that has been created to support and encourage new bloggers, and I think that it’s a good initiative to get to know interesting blogs.

If you have just been nominated by me, here are the rules:

– Post the award on your blog.
– Thank the blogger presenting you with this award and provide a link back to their blog
– Write 11 random facts about yourself
– Find 11 other bloggers with less than 200 followers who you think are deserving of the award and nominate them
– Finally, the award presenter will ask 11 questions which you need to answer and then you, in turn, ask your nominees 11 questions, and on it goes.

So here we go!

A big THANK YOU to my nominator Rita Rosenback!!

Eleven facts about myself:

  1. I’m currently living in a multilingual environment where I speak everyday 3 languages (English, Spanish, and Finnish) that are slowly getting the same degree of usage.
  2. I love animals and I’m looking forward to adopting a cat.
  3. I have considered starting PhD studies on the area of historical linguistics, more precisely on Old English, Old Norse, and their influence in modern Germanic languages.
  4. Related to the previous point, I’m very interested in the Middle Ages in England and Scandinavia.
  5. Living in Finland, I want to learn Swedish at some point in the future, once my Finnish gets better.
  6. I’m from Galicia, a region in the north-west of Spain where we have our own language, culture, and traditions.
  7. Teaching languages has been my vocation since I was a child.
  8. I’m left-handed.
  9. I really think that speaking several languages helps us to broaden our mind.
  10. I have taken courses of 8 different languages, and my hunger for learning new languages isn’t over yet.
  11. I have started to write some fiction but for the moment it’s still some drafts.

Answers to MultilingualParenting‘s questions:

Who do you admire the most?
That’s a very difficult question, I have been thinking for a while, but I can’t really choose just one person.

Which country would you like to visit?
I would say Iceland, Japan, and Ireland.

Are you an early bird or a night owl?
Definitely a night owl, I really like to sleep in the mornings when I can.

What is your earliest childhood memory?
Probably one night when I was around 3 years old and my mom was showing me the stars in the sky and taught me that Sirius was the brightest of all.

Which is your favourite day of the week and why?
It usually changes depending on my schedule. Right now I would say that is Thursday because I finish my lessons for the week on Wednesday, so Thursday feels like weekend already.

If you were to appear in a film, which film would it be and what character?
It would be a movie set in medieval York during the times of the Danelaw, and the character would be just any woman of that time.

What was your dream job as a child?
I have always wanted to be a teacher, so we could say that I have my dream job 🙂

When did you last jump in a puddle?
Can’t remember.

What song lyrics have you misheard?
It’s very common in Spain to make jokes with “Hotel California”, by Eagles. When they say “then she lit up a candle” it sounds for us as “el chinito pescando”, which means “a Chinese man fishing”.

How long is a piece of string?
Good one 😉

What’s the worst spelling mistake you have made in a text or email message?
Probably not the worst, but the funniest typo was a couple of days ago when I was telling a friend that I didn’t want to go to some place because it was very far and I had to “swim” for half an hour through deserted areas… When I wanted to say that I had to “walk” (it was in Spanish and I wrote “nadar” instead of “andar”).

Questions to my nominees:

1. Have you even experienced “cultural shock”?

2. What’s your favourite city in the world?

3. If you had to choose a different profession totally unrelated to your current one, which one would you choose?

4. Do you usually drink 2 litres of water everyday?

5. Do you believe  in extraterrestrials?

6. What’s your favourite word?

7. Which country would you like to visit the most?

8. If you could have any skill you wanted to have, what would it be?

9. Who do you admire the most?

10. Favourite book?

11. How would you like your life to be like in 10 years?

Finally, my nominees: (Sorry that I didn’t choose 11, but all of them are very good!)

Traducir es otra historia
Página en blanco
Me llamo 玛丽
Paloma Loves Baking

Days and weeks

Have you ever wondered what do the names of the days mean and how this differs in different languages? If so, this post is for you. We could say that many of the names they get in several languages come from astronomical objects or deities from the past.

In Latin, Monday was the day of the Moon: dies Lunae. Tuesday was dies Martis, the day of Mars. Then there was dies Mercurii (Mercury), dies Iovis (Jupiter), dies Veneris (Venus), dies Saturni (Saturn), and dies Solis (day of the Sun). Later on, with the arrival of Christianity, dies Solis was called dies Dominicus, the day of the Lord; and with Judaism dies Saturni changed to the Hebrew shabbath. The names of these planets were also the names of the Roman gods, so here we have both astronomical objects and deities. Romanic languages have very similar terms because they all come from Latin. Therefore, we have the Spanish names: Lunes, martes, miércoles, jueves, viernes, sábado and domingo; the French: lundi, mardi, mercredi, jeudi, vendredi, samedi and dimanche; the Italian: lunedì, martedì, mercoledì, giovedì, venerdì, sabato and Domenica. Portuguese is an exception for this rule, since its terms have no relation to the Latin names and follow a different structure. They start with Sunday, which is Domingo, following the other Romanic languages, but then Tuesday is segunda-feira (second day), and following this structure: terça-feira, quarta-feira, quinta-feira, sexta-feira, to finish the week with Sabado.

Germanic languages use variations of Proto-Germanic and Old Norse terms. The English Monday comes from mondæg, or monandæg, day of the moon. Tuesday, Tiwesdæg, was the day of Tiwaz, or Týr, a god of the Germanic pantheon which, curiously enough, is similar to Mars, the Roman god after which Tuesday is named. Wednesday, Wodnesdæg, was the day of Woden, who is better known as Odin. Thursday comes from Old Norse Þorsdagr, which was the day of Thor. Friday was also named after the goddess of love, like Venus, but in this case it was the Germanic version: Frig, and the Old English name was Frigedæg. Saturday and Sunday come from the same root that the Latin counterparts, Sæterdæg and Sunnandæg, meaning day of Saturn and day of the Sun respectively.

The Germanic god Woden

The Germanic god Woden

However, the North-Germanic languages do not call Saturday the day of Saturn, even if they share the same roots that the English names. Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic share the origin of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. But when it comes to Saturday they keep the Old Norse root, which has an interesting origin. The ancient Scandinavians had the habit of bathing, washing, and grooming themselves every Saturday. For this reason Saturday was called Laugardagur, day of bathing. From this word come the Swedish lördag, the Norwegian and Danish lørdag, and the Icelandic Laugardagur, which is the same word as in Old Norse because Icelandic has remained very similar as to how Scandinavians used to speak 1000 years ago.

Another trend to name the days is after the five elements, which is how they are in Japanese and Korean. In Japanese we have the symbols of the words Sun (), Moon (), Fire (), Water (), Tree/Wood (), Gold/Metal (), and Earth () in the Japanese days of the week: 月曜日 Getsuyōbi, 火曜日 Kayōbi, 水曜日 Suiyōbi, 木曜日 Mokuyōbi, 金曜日 Kin’yōbi, 土曜日 Doyōbi, and 日曜日 Nichiyōbi. Chinese used to have these same words (although with a different pronunciation) but nowadays they use a different system. They use the word 星期 xīngqī, which means “star period” and start counting: Monday is star period one (星期一), Tuesday is star period two (星期二) and so on, until Sunday, where we find again the symbol for “sun” or “day”: 星期日 xīngqīrì.

I think that it is very interesting to see how cultures that apparently have no relation do share the same roots in their words for the days, or that they named them after the same gods, even if adapting it to their own pantheon. There is, of course, more languages and linguistic families where there are for sure more content to analyze, but this is all for today. I hope you enjoyed this walk through etymology as much as I did.

My affair with Chinese and Japanese

First of all, sorry for not posting much during the summer, but I have been quite busy preparing a moving abroad and other issues. In September the blog will have more activity again, but meanwhile enjoy today’s entry.

Some weeks ago I told Mª Teresa Moya that I would write about my experience studying Chinese and Japanese, so here you are! My affair with Asian languages started around 2005, when my mother bought me a Madarin Chinese phrasebook as a joke. I have always loved learning languages and when I was 9 years old I learnt to count to 10 in several languages, Japanese and Chinese among them. In 2005 people was starting to say that China was becoming a powerful country and that “Chinese is the future”. In this context my mother decided to buy me this phrasebook to see whether I liked the language, but she probably didn’t expect me to devour the book as if it was a novel. I was really intrigued about the symbols that constitute words and I enjoyed looking for similarities in symbols for words with similar meanings. It was a whole new world for me to discover, and I wanted to learn everything I could!

More or less in that same period I also started to get interested in Japanese, and the cause was manga and anime, which is probably the reason why 95% of Japanese students get into the language. After watching many movies and episodes of series in Japanese with subtitles I started to understand words and sentences. Again, my love for languages made it easy for me to assimilate the grammatical constructions and the basics of the language. Of course, the writing system was fascinating and I started to study the syllabaries by myself thanks to the many resources online for Japanese. Since I had liked the Chinese phrasebook, I bought its Japanese counterpart, from the publisher Espasa. People have always said that languages are easy for me and that I learn fast, and they are right, since after a few months studying Japanese by myself I had achieved a basic but good level.

The phrasebooks that became my first contact with these languages

The phrasebooks that became my first contact with these languages

By that time I was a high-school student, and I still hadn’t decided what I wanted to study in university. I had some options in mind, most of them related to languages, and I started to think about a degree on Asian Languages, but it was still early to make a decision. Life was easy back then : ) In the summer of 2006 I took my first Chinese course, a 1 month summer course in the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas of A Coruña. They offered also courses of Japanese and of many other languages, but I could only attend one because they were all at the same time. I had to choose between Chinese and Japanese and I eventually went for the Chinese course because I had learnt more Japanese by myself and I needed some guidance with Chinese. The course was very interesting and I learnt many new things. I was enjoying the language and the difficulties were only challenges. The next summer the same courses were offered again, so I signed up for the Japanese course without a doubt. Since I had been studying the language on my own for some time and the course was for beginners there were many things that I already knew, but I also learnt some other things that my non-organized self-study had missed. However, a few months later I had to make a very important decision. 2007 was the first year that Chinese and Japanese were offered in the official program of the language school, and once again, I could only attend one of them. The decision was difficult, but I chose Chinese because I found it more difficult to study on my own. That September I had to leave Japanese aside for a while.

I started to study in university the same year that I enrolled in the Chinese official course, so I didn’t have much time left to study Japanese as a hobby. But I kept on studying and that same year I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (better known as Noken) and I passed the level 4, which now would be a level 5 after they changed the system. I passed the test after study by myself, except for that summer course, so I was very optimistic about my skills.

I continued studying Chinese in the language school for three years, but after the first and the second year things started to get more and more difficult. I got very good grades in the first and second year, but the third year was also my third year in university and I had a lot of essays to write, a lot of classes, a lot of books to read, and a lot to study. So adding the homework and study of the Chinese lessons was too much. I started to miss some lessons when I had too much work on university and I realised that after missing just one lesson I was completely lost when I came back. One of my classmates helped me a lot by sending me the scanned notes she took in class and the new vocabulary that they were learning, (thank you, Fátima!) but even with her help Chinese was getting more and more difficult and was demanding a higher level of study and dedication that I wasn’t able to give it in that time. When we got at the end of the course and I had the final exams both in university and in the language school I was overwhelmed. I got to the point of crying out of frustration after the lessons because I was feeling that a boat was leaving without me. I did great in university because that was my priority, but I realised that even if I was able to pass the speaking, listening, and grammar parts of the Chinese exam, I wouldn’t pass the writing part, and I needed to pass all 4 parts to pass the course. So then came the next big and hard decision: I did not take the exam. I felt very frustrated because I had put so much effort and so many hours that it was hard to decide not to take the exam and waste all those years of study. Students had the opportunity to take the final exam again in September, but that year I got an Erasmus grant to spend one year studying in Finland, and I had to leave in August, so it wasn’t possible for me to take the exam in September. I remember that when I told my Chinese teacher that I wasn’t going to take the exam and explained to her the situation she understood it and told me: “But don’t quit studying Chinese!”. But I did.

When I moved to Finland I wanted to learn Finnish because I also love this language, so my priority during my stay there was to learn Finnish, so I had no time for Chinese or Japanese. And after my stay I finished my university studies and it was time to decide what I really wanted to do in the future and which steps I had to take to fulfill my dreams. After thinking about it I realised that if I continued studying Chinese or Japanese I would have to dedicate my life to them and the path related to that would imply living in China or Japan for a while to improve my language skills. Without living in Asia I would never be fluent in any of these languages, and I realised that my heart was in a different place. I realised that the path marked by the Asian languages was not what I wanted and that it didn’t make sense to keep making such a big effort in studying them if I was not going to actually “use” them or to need them. Actually, I was going to need a very fluent Finnish to follow my heart, and since this language also requires a complete dedication and I was going to use it and to need it, I decided to go for it.

We could say that Chinese and Japanese have been like a romantic disappointment for me, but I don’t think that I have wasted all the time I spent studying them, because even if I forgot many things and my skills are a bit rusty, everything you learn can be useful at some point and it all enriches your life. I’m probably more skilled when it comes to assimilate grammatical constructions and how languages work after having studied Chinese and Japanese, which by the way, are VERY different from one another. You can see a glimpse of these differences here. People used to ask me “But you study Japanese or Chinese?” “Both”. “But aren’t they all the same?” “No….”

So, that’s the story of my affair with Chinese and Japanese. I don’t consider it finished, though. I’m still fascinated by these languages, so I don’t rule out the possibility of keeping learning a bit more of them, even if just for fun.

The sound of music…. notes.

Something that surprises many Spanish-speaking people when in contact with anglophones is that the names of the music notes are different. This is because there are two systems of naming the notes. In several countries such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, France, Greece, or Russia, among others, the music notes are called Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Si. However, in England, Germany, Finland, Poland, Norway, Hungary and other countries the notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. I do not really know a lot about music, but I thought that this may be interesting to know to avoid misunderstandings, so I will comment a bit on the linguistic aspects of this, without deepening the musical issues.

clave de sol

The Do-Re-Mi system comes from Latin. This seems obvious when we notice that the system is used mainly in countries whose languages come from Latin. The origin is the hymn “Ut queant laxis”, dedicated to John the Baptist and written by Paul the Deacon in the VIII century. Guido D’Arezzo was who took the first syllable from each verse and formed the actual scale in the XI century. This is the Latin text:

Ut queant laxis

Resonare fibris

Mira gestorum

Famuli tuorum

Solve polluti

Labii reatum

Sancte Ioannes

It could be translated as: So that your servants may, with loosened voices, resound the wonders of your deeds, clean the guilt from our stained lips, O Saint John. “Ut” was changed as “Do” in most countries, but in France the original form is still used. In some areas “Si” is changed by “Ti”.

As for the Anglo-Saxon system, it also comes from Latin, but from the alphabet. It is said that the philosopher Boethius took the first letters of the Latin alphabet to from the scale: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-K-L-M-N-O, but over the centuries it was changed to the present day “C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C”. In Germany “B” is sometimes changed by “H”.

On a curious note, in Chinese they use the Anglo-Saxon system, whereas in Japanese they use the Do-Re-Mi system, but adapted to their writing system. Here is the Chinese scale:

C谱号, D 谱号, E 谱号, F 谱号, G 谱号, A 谱号, B 谱号, C谱号.

And this is the Japanese scale:

ド 全音, レ 全音, ミ 半音, ファ 全音, ソ 全音, ラ 全音, シ 半音.

It is surprising to know how many people do not know that in other countries the music scale is different, so I hope that this entry will be helpful and that someone will learn something new.

Meatballs with or without meat?

Some days ago I overheard a conversation that really made me think about the origin of the word “meatball”. The conversation -or rather the argument– was about whether or not a meatball had to contain meat necessarily. Everything started when one of the participants of the discussion who was a vegan said that you can prepare vegan meatballs using tofu instead of meat, and another participant said that if it did not contain meat, it could not be called “meatball”. The conversation was in Spanish, so they were talking about “albóndigas”, which is the Spanish word for meatballs. They spent a long time arguing about this topic, and all I could think about was that in English the word implies that we are talking about “balls” of “meat”, so probably you should not call meatball a ball of tofu. But the Spanish word does not imply (at least at first sight) that you need meat to cook an “albóndiga”. So I decided to look for the etymology of the word and to compare if in other languages a meatball has to contain meat because the actual word implies the concept.

albondigas

As we already know, in English we say “meatball”, which literally means “ball of meat”. However, the Spanish word is “albóndiga”, and as many other Spanish words starting with “al-” comes from Arabic. This is because the Arabs stayed in the South of Spain during almost 800 years and therefore, it is natural that some traces of their language have been assimilated into Spanish. “Al” was the definite article “the”, so many words in Spanish that start with “al-” come from when the Arabs used to call something using the article first, and the Spaniards made a noun putting together the Arabic article and noun. This is the case of the word “albóndiga”. “Búnduqa” was the Arabic word for “ball”, so they used to call meatballs “al-búnduqa” (the ball), and this was how we ended up saying “albóndiga” as a noun. As we can see, this Spanish word has no references to meat, it just means that the form of this product is that of a ball, so even if Arabs used to cook balls of meat, meat is not present in the etymology of the word. Thus, it would be logical to call “albóndiga” to a ball of tofu when speaking Spanish, because meat is not implicit in this term.

But, what about other languages?

 In German, meatballs are called “Fleischklößchen” which also means “balls of meat”, so they do imply the use of meat in them.

The same happens with the French name, which is “boulette de viande” and means, again, “balls of meat”. Other languages where we find the same meaning are: Dutch (“gehaktbal”), Finnish (“lihapulla”), and Swedish (“köttbulle”).

In Norwegian they call them “kjøttkake” which means “cake of meat”.

But in some other languages, as in Spanish, the terms used do not imply the use of meat. For example, in Polish meatballs are called “klops”, which apparently has nothing to do with the word for meat “mięso”. In Italian they say “polpetta”, and it is unclear whether it comes from the French word “paupière” (eyelid), or from “pulp”. The most interesting word for “meatball” that I found was the Cebuano “bolabola”. “Bola” means “ball” in Spanish, and Cebuano is spoken in the Philippines, where the Spanish language has a big influence. Therefore, it seems obvious that “bolabola” means “ballball”, comes from Spanish, and does not imply the presence of meat.

As a conclusion, the words for “meatball” imply the presence of meat in several languages, but in others they do not. The argument that I overheard could have been easily finished by using etymology, and the answer would be:

It depends on which language we are talking about, it is legitimate to call “albóndiga” a meatball made of tofu, but we cannot call it “köttbulle”, for example.

This is what I found in my little research about meatballs and languages, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did enjoy comparing these languages.