So, I’m going to be a ‘gringo’? All Greek to me…

Posted on 24 February 2011

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So, despite recent news about a Brazilian woman finding an alligator behind her sofa, it’s looking like I will be moving to South America this summer.

Before me stands the slightly daunting prospect of having to decipher the language and overcome some of the more challenging cultural differences – but I’ve done it before, and I think Brazil is a bit more civilised than Russia.

On my first journey to Brazil I was sat next to a Swedish guy who was married to a Brazilian lady – both were slowly but surely getting merrier.

It made the 12-hour flight to Rio de Janeiro very enjoyable, as you can imagine.

Brits don’t need a visa to visit most of South America – and you get a no-questions-asked 90 days in Brazil just by having a return flight.

So when the immigration forms came round on the plane, I wasn’t sure whether I needed one or not.

At this point the Swedish guy, who was nearly totally gazebo’d, slurred:

You’lllll have to fill one in, my friend. You’re a griiingo.

Now, I wasn’t totally unprepared for the term. I’d been told about the vaguely derogatory term for ‘a foreigner’.

However, the verging-on-hookerly-dressed air stewardess was clearly not impressed by his loud outburst.

But afterwards, I kind of fell in love with the word – it’s a bit controversial and I am one. And being me, I had to have a quick rummage into the history behind the word.

If you don’t understand something – or find something that little bit too foreign(!) – you might be tempted to say: “It’s all Greek to me”.

As with English, the Spanish- and Portuguese-speakers of Latin America also turn to Greek as something that is completely incomprehensible.

So many linguists believe you’re looking at the word griego (Spanish ‘Greek’) undergoing sound changes to gringo.

It’s not out of the question, but it’s unlikely.

It would require two separate sound changes: griego > grigo > gringo. And nasals in Latin America tend to disappear is anything – not appear out of thin air: e.g. defensa > defesa; conveniente > coveniente (Braz. portuguese).

The only possible route is from the word for a pilgrim: peregrino > -grino > gringo – via Spanish Romani, some say.

In terms of phonological sound changes, this is more likely – [ɡrino/-u] > [ɡriŋɡo/-u].

Anyway – I look forward to raising eyebrows by referring to myself this way – although the pale skin and blue eyes probably shout ‘gringo’ louder than my voice…

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Posted in: Just for fun