Son: Papi, te toca a ti (Papi, it's your turn)
Me: ¿Qué moviste? (What did you move?)
Son: El alfil. (The bishop)
Me: Ah, el alfil. (Ahh, the bishop!)
El alfil. The bishop. El alfil. El alfil. The bishop. El alfil. El. Alfil. EL. ALFIL. 'The teacher pronounces, "The imperfections must lie within ourselves - in our ignorance, and in the records that the first disciples and scribes made of the Prophet's utterances. The very title of our sura, for example, may be a mistranscription of Abraha's royal monarch, Alfilas, which a dropped ending left as al-Fil - the elephant.'
One of the joys of studying languages, more specifically modern European languages, is that one is exposed, not just to the linguistic differences and similarities between them, but also to the historical and cultural factors that brought about that heterogeneity and affinity in the first place. And this is the case with the Spanish word 'alfil'. Whilst reading John Updike's novel 'Terrorist' from which the above citation was taken I was struck by how little I knew about chess, a game/sport from which I have derived much pleasure.
Son: Papi, jaque. (Papi, check)
Me: Ah, sí, jaque. (Oh, yes, check)
In addition, I had never been aware of the marked differences - and similarities, too - that existed in semantics amongst the various languages spoken in Europe (chiefly) when it came to naming the pieces that make up a chess set. And one of these is the bishop. In English, the word takes its meaning after the mitre carried by the Church representative. But French and German are different. In the former the translation is 'fou', same as 'crazy', whereas in the Teutonic lexicon the term is 'Läufer', same as 'runner' and 'carpet'.
Son: Papi, jaque de nuevo. (Papi, check, again)
Me: Sí, ya me di cuenta. "Este niño ya es no es tan niño como cuando le enseñé a jugar ajedrez. Déjame ver como salgo de este lío". (Yes, I already noticed. 'This boy is no longer the same boy I taught chess to. Let's see how I get out of this jam')
The real beauty, though, is provided by the actual word 'chess', ajedrez in Spanish. It is thought that the game was created in the Far East and brought to India where it was baptised 'Chaturanga', meaning 'four forces'. Hence the reason why my chess set has an elephant instead of a bishop; I brought it from Malaysia last year, a present from one of my brothers-in-law who lives in that Asian country. Curiously enough, he had purchased the set in Viet Nam. Back to the word 'chess' and we find that by the time the Moors invaded Spain in the 8th century A.D., a nation in which they stayed for nearly eight hundred years and to whose language they contributed a great deal, the word 'chess' had suffered many changes including the one that apparently gave us the modern spelling of 'chess' in Spanish, 'acedrex' with the 'x' swapping places with the 'c' at some point and the sound becoming like the English 'h'. Hence city names like México and Texas are pronounced in Spanish 'Méjico' and 'Tejas'.
Son: ¡Papi, jaque... mate! (Papi, check... mate!)
Me: ¡Oh, no! (Oh, no!)
And did I ever tell you that the word 'checkmate' can be traced back to the Persian 'sha mat' (dead king)? Well, I guess that's for me and my monarch this time. I blame the bishop, or rather, the elephant.