O chess pieces, what are your names (in 79 languages)? And what did my dad have to do with it?

Chess, of course, is endlessly fascinating.

For some reason, however, I no longer play chess. I never became good at it, even though my dad started me on it at an early age. Chess meant a lot to him because he learned it from his father and then wrote a book on its history, aptly titled A Short History of Chess, listed in Google Books as an “antiquarian book,” as it was written in 1943–45 and published in 1949. Surprisingly, given the resources available at the time, my dad wrote most of it in New Guinea and Australia; he then finished writing it in New York after the war was over and he had access to pretty much all the resources he needed. Although he was primarily a neurologist, psychiatrist, writer, editor, parliamentarian, and hospital administrator, he also had deep interests in history, linguistics, and applied mathematics, all of which feature in his book. The last chapter is a “Chess Polyglot,” listing chess terminology in the forty “major languages” of the world (by whose criteria? who knows?)—and now we find a 2021 article by Ari Luiro titled “Chess Pieces in Different Languages.” Luiro goes for 79 languages rather than 40, the extra 39 being readily accounted for by the intervening span of 72 years. In both cases we get each name in the “foreign” language along with its literal translation.

Luiro wrote his article in Finnish, but fortunately the link in the previous paragraph takes you (and me!) to an English translation. You will learn about the names of the pieces in various languages—the names of the pieces being also the emphasis of my dad’s list, in addition to which both of them contain terms like check and checkmate. In both lists there is a smattering of interesting history related to the terminology. If I had a little extra time on my hands, maybe I would do a point-by-point comparison of the two lists, to see what contradictions I might find and what unexpected commonalities might be there. Maybe some day.


Categories: Life, Linguistics