Language Series: Avocados, embarrassment and linguistic relativity

Languages adapt to the spaces in which they are formed, by absorbing culture, histories and, of course, social norms. For this reason, untranslatable words and phrases exist.

Avocados in Peru via Senasa

As key means of communication, languages are bound to relativity. So it’s not just about what words are used but how they are used, and in what context. Think about the words ‘OK’, ‘okay’ and ‘alright’. Do you gravitate towards any of them? Do you avoid using any of them when texting, and if so, why? How would you feel if you sent someone a long message and they simply replied with ‘OK.’ Would you be mad or would it depend on who that person is? In reality, all of these words are variations of more or less the same thing. ‘OK’ is either uttered in agreement or to suggest that something is satisfactory (but not especially good). This is the relativity and nuance of language.

Uses of ‘OK’ in other languages demonstrate how difficult translation can become. When speaking French, people use ‘d’accord’ to show agreement; for instance, ‘Will you share this article with your friends?’, you should respond ‘d’accord’, of course. But don’t be mistaken, this word cannot be used for description, especially not to describe how you’re feeling. Instead, if someone asks ‘Ça va?’ (How’s it going?), you could reply with ‘Oui, ça va’, which literally translates to ‘Yes, it’s going’. Are you confused at all? Good. This is the problem of translation at work. In Spanish, ‘de acuerdo’ is used even less frequently than ‘d’accord’ and doesn’t feel quite as blunt as ‘OK’ in all caps.

Satirical tier system: Relationship status as indicated by varied responses of ‘OK’

Similar to England’s tiered COVID-19 alert systems launched in October, this system is flawed. Read more on this here.

How avocado! (Qué palta)

Whether it’s a word that has too many meanings in one language, and a contextual nuance in another or phrases with literal translations that are too clumsy for comfort, untranslatable words cause chaos for language teachers around the world. It’s their job to break the news, not all words can be swapped for another to carry the same meaning elsewhere.

Within the last ten years, avocados have taken over Brunch menus throughout the country. From borderline boujie Buhler & Co in Walthamstow to basic-looking but delicious Boston Tea Party in Bath, avocado on toast is a staple. There’s no north-south divide on the question of the green fruit; even as far north as Newcastle, according to one Trip Advisor user, there’s “Awesome avocado smash for brekky” at Cafe 1901. So, aside from the politics, it’s no surprise that the Duchesses, of Sussex and Cambridge, also seem to like the taste:

Diane Abbot MP on tabloid hypocrisy via Twitter

“One of my favourite phrases is ‘qué palta’. When you try to translate it into English, it gets a little bit difficult because it’s Peruvian slang, which means avocado. So when I use both of these words ‘qué’ and ‘palta’, it’s when you’re embarrassed about something,” says Yasmin Diaz Rojas, who studies Communications for Development at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú.

This beautiful phrase brings together Spanish and Quechua, one of Peru’s official and indigenous languages. This language comes from the Incan Empire, tracing back to civilisations from 5,000 years ago. At face value, ‘how avocado’ is such a funny phrase, there’s just no making sense of it in English. But without understanding the Peruvian connection to avocado or the status of Quechua, how could we possibly begin to decipher such a meaningful linguistic construction?

“Although Quechua is spoken by eight to twelve million people across six South American countries, by most measures, Quechua is an endangered language,” warned Hornberger and Coronel-Molina in their academic paper in 2004.

The term ‘palta’ not only managed to survive colonialism but the language suppression that ensued as a result. Over a decade after Hornberger and Coronel-Molina’s research, a national news channel broadcasted a television programme entirely in Quechua for the first time in Peru’s history. As Dan Collyns reports, “Usage has dwindled over generations as many parents deliberately did not teach the language to their children, fearing they would be rejected or mocked for using it.” Yet, it remains the most widely spoken indigenous language in Peru.

Peruvian potatoes via The Guardian

Food is at the heart of Peruvian culture. Their dishes blend Incan, Spanish, Asian and European cuisine influences with rich ingredients, including corn, beans, avocados and potatoes. With more than 3,500 varieties of potatoes, Peru has the largest variety in the world and celebrates National Potato Day on 30 May each year. Lucky enough to experience this first-hand, my taste buds have been exposed to the flavours of arroz con pollo or papa a la huancaina accompanied by cold glasses of Inca Cola. There is not a single afternoon that I spent at Yasmin’s home that I wasn’t offered these delicious home-cooked meals by her aunts.

In truth, this article doesn’t provide a precise explanation for why Peruvians associate avocados with embarrassment. It’s as much of a mystery to me as to how pineapples have come to symbolise bad luck in Peru (‘qué piña’). But this is the relativity and nuance of language. Some readers might disagree with the order of ‘okay’, ‘alright’ and ‘agreed’ in my satirical tier system because of different cultural references. Similarly, saying ‘qué palta’ (how embarrassing) to someone from Spain might not have the desired effect. In the absence of a literal translation or origins story, languages are imbued with culture and carry meaning from person to person. In this case, colloquial use of ‘qué palta’ embeds Quechua into everyday interactions, entrenching a cultural legacy that stems from the very roots of Peru.

Writer, Journalist and Editor

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store