Friday, November 19, 2010

Iguazú words

I'm watching a travel site slideshow of Iguazú Falls (not coincidentally, a frequent excursion destination for the study abroad program in Rosario, Argentina, where I'll be teaching next fall). The images are mesmerizing, so I'll leave aside the absurdity of a natural feature having an "official" site and supply the link just for fun (     
Photo: Alejandro Yacono

Falls have their own language, their own lexicon. Not the noise of the falls, though a sound poet might find much to work with along those lines (deafening roar, silence in sound, a pattern that seems constant yet changes, just as the water pours over in a variable yet endlessly similar stream). But I'm thinking of a typology. My daughter once gave me a hiking guide that pinpoints waterfalls across the Pacific Northwest. Stylized icons flag the Plunge, the Horsetail, the Punchbowl, the Block, the Tier. I don't know whether this is a standard subdivision or the unique invention of the guide's author (Gregory A. Plumb, Waterfall Lover's Guide--Pacific Northwest) but I find the variations intriguing. The falls come rated, too, from the single star ("Uninspiring. Probably not interesting except to waterfall collectors") to the 5-star "awe-inspiring sight."

I won't try to decipher Iguazú's formal structure from a distance. On the rating scale, though, its place is clear: The Guardian's 2010 Travel Awards rank it the number 1 world scenic attraction (

The Diccionario de la Real Academia does not dabble in "cola de caballo" or "cascada abanico," soberly defining cascada as: "Caída desde cierta altura del agua de un río u otra corriente por brusco desnivel del cauce." For a straight translation, the Oxford Spanish Dictionary presents three alternatives: cascada, salto de agua, catarata.  Catarata is designated "large," but beyond that the dictionary offers no way to choose among the three. Salto de agua is intriguing in comparison to the English fall-- my first associations with salto suggest jumping, upward motion; still, one might jump (down) off a cliff as well as up onto a table to dance. The water leaps into space and tumbles down.

I have never met a waterfall collector, though I've taken more than my share of waterfall photographs. And I'm a sucker for specialized word lists--I do collect those. Las Cataratas del Iguazú, at the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, should offer plenty of opportunities to broaden my waterfall vocabulary into Spanish, Portuguese, or Guaraní. So now I'm looking for a list of waterfall forms in Spanish. Suggestions welcome! 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

So what do you call this place, anyway?

The first time we visited the Mezquita in Córdoba, we admired the extraordinary red and white pillars and arches, we examined the detailed stonework and elaborate inscriptions, we noted the chapels, and then we emerged into the front courtyard, visit completed--certain we'd missed something. Was that it? we asked the guards. We took a wrong turn, we skipped part of what we came to see. Can we go back in?

The guards were accommodating. We retraced our steps. But where were the endless, unbroken ranks of columns we had seen in photographs, images carefully framed to block or elide any evidence of the imposition of the Christian cathedral on the prior structure?

English language guidebooks to Spain almost invariably highlight the Mezquita, using the Spanish term. Mosque appears below the heading, in the body of the description, for clarity, and cathedral appears lower still. The fact of the cathedral built within (or on top of) the mosque is explained, often critically, sometimes in considerable detail. Still, before I went there, my impression was of a largely untouched mosque, with some later Christian detail off to one side.

The politics of place names are complicated. So, too, their translation. This past week, I read in the paper that the bishop of Córdoba has proposed changing the signs that appear around the city, directing visitors to the "mosque-cathedral," dropping the mosque reference to reduce confusion. As might be expected, the idea is not universally endorsed. []

I read about the mosque/mezquita/cathedral/catedral signs in a week when I was already thinking about names. Like individual names, place names carry a host of associations. Names of towns or monuments or mountains might derive from historical events, notable inhabitants, conquerors, rebels, accidents, points of national pride or public embarrassment. Character names carry baggage as well, connotations that may be intended or accidental. A writing blog raised the question of how different people name characters--always an entertaining challenge. What's in a (fictional) name? It might be anything. Revenge on the hated sixth-grade art teacher who trashed your favorite painting; homage to the neighbor who always feeds your cat. In fiction there's not the same risk of causing misery--I might saddle a character with a moniker I'd never have left my flesh-and-blood child to struggle under on the playground.

But there is the question of getting it right, of finding the name that adequately evokes the place or person described or invented. I am also reading with great enjoyment (several years now after it first came out) Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. It's a book to dip in and out of, almost trolling for found poems, to enjoy terms like "frost hollow" or "ganderbrush" or "ramadero." These are not just definitions, but short narratives, records of settlement, change, restoration, misperception. Possibilities to savor, opportunities lost.

Somehow, for me, the question of what a place might be called, and how the people who move through that place might be imagined or understood, are connected, and connected as well to an image of arches or columns that recede toward an uninterrupted horizon, but only if the observer stands in the right place.