What is it you and I, and everyone we know, are all examples of? So many words for it: “individuals,” “human beings,” just plain “humans,” “persons,” to name just a few. These are plurals; in the singular, each of us is an “individual,” a “human being,” or simply a “human,” or a “person.” That last word may be the most common of all.
“Person” has an interesting history: it comes from Latin persona, with a root sense of “to sound through”—the reference is to an actor’s mask, possibly with some means of voice amplification, as with a horn. Persona, then, came to mean “role” or “character,” gradually acquiring the further sense of “person, individual.” Engl. “persona” (with the “a” hanging on at the end just like in Latin) still means an assumed role or personality.
Persona’s descendants are found throughout the Romance languages (Sp.. It. persona, Fr. personne which can also mean “nobody,” Port. pessoa, etc.), but also Ger. Person, Swed. person, and many others.
The Slavic languages use a wholly different word: Rus. chelovek (pronounced “chel-a-VYEK”) appears to derive from words for “mind, thought” and “time, eternity”—thus the word for “person” would mean something like “eternal mind,” a lovely and spiritual sense Plato no doubt would have savored. (Engl. “man” seems, likewise, cognate with “mind” and originally meant any human being.)
Depending on the context, a whole series of terms can be more or less equivalent to “person”: “citizen,” “subject”, “taxpayer,” “voter,” “resident,” and “consumer,” to name just a few. Of course their connotations differ pretty dramatically. There is an assertion of rights implicit in “citizen” that’s not quite there in “consumer,” though the latter has legal rights too.
Then there is “souls” with all its mystery and sometimes pathos—think of a phrase like “the 1,517 souls that perished on the R.M.S. Titanic.”
A curious and fascinating word for “person” is pikadur in Guinea-Bissau Crioulo, a tongue with a strong Portuguese core plus West African elements. Pikadur is from Port. pecador (sinner). Pecado (sin) is related to the second syllable in “impeach” which originally meant “to find fault, to find sin.” In this word for “person,” the hand of the Christian missionary is not hard to see!
Theology meets language: in Crioulo you may mean “person” but you’re saying “sinner”!
¡Buenas palabras! Good words!
Copyright ©2016 by Pablo J. Davis. All Rights Reserved. An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the Jul. 8-14, 2016 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 188 in the weekly bilingual column, “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”. Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT is an ATA (American Translators Association) Certified Translator, Engl>Span; a Tennessee State Courts Certified Interpreter, Engl<>Span; and an innovative trainer in the fields of translation, interpreting, and intercultural competency, with over 25 years experience. He holds the doctorate in Latin American History from The Johns Hopkins University, and is a Juris Doctor Candidate at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, University of Memphis (May 2017).