A representation of the famous rope bridges of the Inca Empire, one of that culture’s many stunning achievements. From the monumental visual history of Peru,Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615) by Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala.
An Argentine reader of this column asks us how to translate yapa into English.
This fascinating word refers to a small addition of merchandise given to a customer without charge, or more broadly to any small extra amount of something.
It comes from Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire. Quechua-Spanish contact was massive from 1532; from it come Spanish words like cancha (sports field), ñato (snub-nosed), choclo (ear of corn), poroto(bean), papa (potato), and mate (an herb tea).
To translate “yapa” into English we use French: the word lagnappe (orlagniappe). The road took several turns. Ñapa is a palatalized variant ofyapa, where the first sound is produced bringing the tongue up to the palate.
It turns out that French speakers in Louisiana, an area having much contact with Spanish, heard “la ñapa” as one word and spelled it French-style: lagnappe. In French (like Italian) ‘gn’ makes the ‘ñ’ sound (ny), but adding the ‘i’ made the pronunciation clearer for English speakers. Lagniappe can also mean tip (gratuity) or even kickback.
In Mexico, the merchant’s small gift to the customer is known as a pilón or piloncillo. The latter word also means a small pyramid-shaped mass of unrefined sugar. The connection may be that pilloncillos themselves were a typicalyapa, or perhaps from the idea of the tip that completes the mountain. (Mexico Bob’s entertaining and thorough exploration of the word pilón can be found here.)
In English, the word “bonus” is common, and the expression “a baker’s dozen” (meaning thirteen) conveys in a picturesque way the idea of a yapa.
Another Quechua-derived word, charque (or charqui) means dried and salted meat. Its English translation, as withyapa, preserves the Andean root: “jerky”and the adjectival form, as in Jamaican “jerked chicken”.
Copyright ©2013 Pablo J. Davis. All Rights Reserved. An earlier version of this essay was originally written for the January 20, 2013 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), as part of the weekly bilingual column Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation/Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción.