Wondering about the word “wiki”

Anyone who goes to conferences half as often as I do knows the phenomenon of conference friends. They’re folks you like, who you enjoy spending time with, and who, as conference friend Doc Searls puts it, “you only see when there’s industrial carpeting under your feet.” I got to see some of my favorite conference friends – Jerry Michalski, Greg Elin, Helen Grenier – at PUSH. But I also got to hang out with one of my favorite real-world friends – Peggy MacEachern – who lives in Minneapolis and was happy to accept the guest ticket the conference organizers offered me as a speaker.

It’s a little odd having someone from my “real” life witness the sort of things I do in my professional life. While I don’t generally try to embarrass myself while in my conference persona, I do have a reputation for – ahem – enthusiastic presentations. I think I’m glad Peggy didn’t have a camera. (Unfortunately, Greg did…)

Peggy’s a linguist – specifically, a phonologist – and made what I thought was one of the most interesting observations at the conference. As more or less everyone who’s worked with wikis knows, Ward Cunningham named his software “WikiWikiWeb” after the Hawaiian term, “wiki wiki”, which means “quick”. Peggy speculates that the word is probably not an original Hawaiian word, but an English loan word.

In Hawaiian, she tells me, syllables are either single vowels, or a single consonant followed by a vowel. When loan words come into a language, they’re adapted to fit local syllabic structure. So if Hawaiian speakers started using the word “quick”, they would likely pronounce it “ki-wi-ki” or just “wi-ki”. (If I get any of the linguistics wrong here, it’s me, not Peggy, so apportion blame appropriately…)

Generally speaking, languages adopt loan words when there’s no equivalent word in the language. So English speakers may have brought the word (and the concept?) to Hawaii, encouraged its adoption, and we’re now borrowing it back to name new technologies.

Just goes to show, I should attend more conferences with linguists by my side.

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2 Responses to Wondering about the word “wiki”

  1. Traveler says:

    This is a good observation that mirrors one discussed here:

    http://othering.blogspot.com/2005/06/living-languages.html#comments

  2. 发电机 says:

    I’m perplexed at Kathy being a target when on the list of top people to go after, I doubt she’d be in the first 50 pages (not discrediting her work, she’s brilliant, and gentle, but not the first I’d think would have to deal with this

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