Thursday, October 19, 2006

You Say 'Volver,' I Say ...

[posted by Callimachus]

I wondered if there was a deliberate word-play hidden in the title of the film "Volver." This site, which is wiser than I am on the topic, suggests there may be:

The title of Pedro Almodóvar's new movie, Volver, literally means "to return." But, at least when pronounced with an American accent, it's not hard to imagine an aural pun referring to a certain part of a woman's anatomy. If that's deliberate, then the title is not only a reference to the film's status as figurative ghost story, but also a declaration of intent to explore the lives of a handful of women sprung (as all women are) from the wombs of their mothers.

But it would have to be an English-only pun, I think, because as far as I know volver does not have an anatomical reference in Spanish (which I do not know).

The Latin root that connects volver and vulva is the verb volvere "to turn, twist, roll, revolve," also "turn over in the mind." That would be the direct source of the Spanish word. But Latin also had a noun form of this, volva, which meant literally "wrapper" (that which "goes around" something), but however also became a word for the female sexual organs.

I would have prefered to think the root sense of vulva was the rolling quality of a woman's orgasms, which would have made it a real word. Instead, it seems to be yet another male label, based on what the thing does to a man, not what it does to a woman.

The word begins to turn up in English anatomical texts around 1550. The English had their own, native, common name for the body part, of course, but that wouldn't have been fitting for a medical paper.

You can play the usual game with Latin volvere, of attaching the set of Latin prefixes to it one by one and discovering modern Egliush words that contain it -- evolve, devolve, revolve, involve.

Less obvious cousins of vulva are valve (from Latin valva "section of a folding or revolving door," literally "that which turns"), volute (from Latin voluta "a spiral scroll," originally the feminine past participle of volvere), and voluble (from Latin volubilis "that turns around, rolling, flowing, fluent").

The family also includes volume, whose generalized sense of "bulk, mass, quantity" developed from that of "bulk or size of a book," as the "large book" sense was the earlier one in English and French. But before there were books there were parchment rolls, which is what Latin volumen was used ot describe. It comes from volvere in the notion of a parchment roll as something you wind (or unwind).

Both vaults in modern English also come from volvere. The verb meaning "to jump or leap over" comes ultimately from Vulgar Latin *volvitare "to turn, leap," a frequentative form from volvere. Somehow the notion seems to be that "to leap over" is "to turn a lot."

The noun vault meaning "arched roof or ceiling" comes from Vulgar Latin *volta, a contraction of a word ultimately related to Latin volutus "bowed, arched." The "turning" notion in this is more obvious.

The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root behind Latin volvere and all its many children is *wel- "to turn, revolve."

It has developed a sexual and non-sexual pairing in Sanskrit, too (valate "turns round," ulvam "womb, vulva"). In Lithuanian, it is represented by valtis "twine, net," and apvalus "round." Old Church Slavonic had valiti "roll, welter," and vluna "wave." In Celtic, it turns out as Old Irish fulumain "rolling" and Welsh olwyn "wheel."

Greek shied away from "w-" sounds, so the *wel- words in that language are more disguised. Among them are eluo "to wind, wrap;" eilein "to turn, squeeze;" and one more we recognize, helix.

The root has been highly productive in the Germanic languages, too. We have in Modern English a verb welter, borrowed in the Middle Ages from a North Sea Germanic welteren "to roll," which re-crossed the North Sea in the 18th century in a later guise as waltz, from German walzen "to roll, to dance."

The native English words from the Germanic stem of this root are well (v.) "to spring, rise, gush," from Old English wiellan, causative of weallan "to boil, bubble up;" and wallow (Old English wealwian "to roll"). I doubt, however, Almodóvar would have cared to name his new film "Wallow."

Whelk as the name of a type of large marine snail is Old English weoloc, and it may be from the same Proto-Indo-European base, which would make it a parallel linguistic evolution to volute.

But the most common native *wel- word in Modern English probably is walk, though it's connection is not clear. It comes from a pair of Old English verbs, wealcan "to toss, roll," and wealcian "to roll up, curl, muffle up." How this got to mean "walk" in early Middle English is not entirely clear; probably it was a colloquial use at first. As we now sometimes say "roll" when we mean "go, leave."

Or it may have been via the notion of rolling something flat by walking on it, as was done to cloth. Its relatives in other Germanic langues are Old Norse valka "to drag about," Danish valke "to full (cloth)," Middle Dutch walken "to knead, press, full," Old High German walchan "to knead," and German walken "to full."

The English verb turn, which might serve as the best literal translation of volver, is from a different Latin word, tornare "turn on a lathe," from tornus "lathe." This, linguists believe, goes back to a Proto-Indo-European root *ter- "to rub, rub by turning, turn, twist." The expression to turn (something) into (something else) probably retains the classical sense of "to shape on a lathe."