Dual Language Schools: Biliteracy Word of the WeekThe Troubled History and Journey of “Cotton”

01/2019
Author Photo: Velázquez Press

Cotton is a fiber that grows on a shrub. Archeologists have found evidence that the peoples in Mesoamerica, in what is today Mexico, have cultivated the crop in the 6th millennium BCE and in the Indus Valley in the 5th millennium BCE. Much of our knowledge of the history of cotton comes from the troubled history of American slavery and from the Industrial Revolution, also. However, the word 'cotton' takes us to a different journey.

In the world of trade in the Mediterranean Sea of the Middle Ages, Arab traders from Egypt would export the soft fabric to their European counterparts. The Arabic word for this fabric is 'quṭn', but once the Arabic language became established in Egypt, the Egyptian pronunciation of the word evolved from quṭn, to quṭun, and then to qoṭon. However, many historians believe that this was not the only way that qoṭon became available to Medieval Europe. From 652 to 1091, the island of Sicily was ruled by Muslim Arabs, or Moors. These Moors were a mixture of Arabs from Arabia that conquered the North African Berbers. These Berbers adopted the Arabic language and culture, and the new religion, Islam. When the Moorish armies took Sicily from the Byzantines, they brought their culture, language, and religion with them, enriching the culture of the island. In 1061 the Normans started their conquest of Sicily until they gained total control of the island in 1091. During this time, the Normans became acquainted with the culture of their predecessors. Qoṭon was one of those cultural elements that the Normans disseminated throughout the Italian Peninsula and into Provence, in southern France. Either through trade from Egypt or through the Normans, the Arabic word was borrowed in many varieties of Italian Romance of the time – Sicilian 'cuttuni'; Neapolitan 'cuttone'; Roman, Tuscan, and Ligurian 'cotone'; then, it crossed into Provençal 'coton', the variety of the Occitan language that was spoken in southern France, and from there to the north, where in Old French it became coton. In England, the Normans there adopted it either through contact with their brethren across the English Channel in France, or through trade with the Normans in southern Italy. Either way, English now had 'cotton'.

Very few things in the world are conflict-free. Conquests, wars, and other forms of tragedy often form how we as humans gain knowledge of unknown things. Sometimes, knowledge can be obtained through peaceful gains like cooperation in trade. Cotton, the plant, the fabric, and word, has both conflict and trade. It is important to know how historical events shape our world and how words can help us understand it.