Monday, April 6, 2009

Lola, Laura, Miracle, Milagro

Eric Crapton jokes aside, the tendency to confuse the letters “L” and “R” confusion when translating between Japanese and English does happen. I don’t know why this happens, but I’d bet someone with a background in linguistics could explain it. The phenomenon is not specific to East Asian languages. I recently noticed that it happens in Spanish in a way that is noticeable when you compare some Spanish words to their English cognates.

I was watching Dollhouse this week, and I noted that the actress who plays Mellie is Miracle Laurie. Aside from sounding like an improved version of Regular Old Laurie, the name is notable to me because I’d never heard of anyone named Miracle before. I had, however, met a few Hispanic women with the name Milagro, Spanish for “miracle.” You can easily see from their similar structure how the words miracle and milagro might be related — and indeed it seems that they are. I don’t have handy resources for Spanish etymology, but a simple Google search did turn up a few documents indicated that milagro comes from Latin via a rarer Spanish word, miraglo. (Yes, it sounds like a new floor-cleaning product and perhaps it should be, especially in Spanish-speaking countries.) It should be noted, however, that none of the Spanish-to-English dictionaries I checked included miraglo, so perhaps it’s obsolete and therefore not of use to the rudimentary Spanish-speakers who would use these online dictionaries.

My question is this: Why would Spanish switch these sounds/letters around? When you’re talking about people who grow up speaking Japanese (or other East Asian languages), the explanation for why “L” and “R” get moved around is that those sounds don’t exist in those languages, at least not in the same distinct way they do in English. In Spanish, however, they do. Is there something about these sounds that lends themselves to getting confused/merged in multiple languages? All languages?

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