The ‘se accidental’ and linguistic relativity

The concluding pages of Manual Vázquez Montalbán’s Los mares del Sur, which I finally finished this morning, include a remarkable example of the so-called se accidental construction, a hallmark of modern Spanish. Vázquez’s detective, Pepe Carvalho, has caught the murderer he’s been pursuing for more than two hundred pages. The murderer’s confession includes the following passage:

El chiquito al que usted rompió el brazo le dio una cuchillada. A mí de pronto se me escapó el brazo y le di otra.

This translates as

The kid whose arm you broke cut him with his knife. Then my arm got away from me and I knifed him, too.

or, more literally though less naturally, as

The kid whose arm you broke cut him with his knife. Then my arm escaped itself on me and I knifed him, too.

The se accidental construction combines a reflexive verb (se escapó) with an indirect object pronoun (me). Se me escapó is an excellent example of how Spanish speakers use this construction to deflect blame. The murderer didn’t raise his arm to attack the victim: it was the arm itself that sprang into action.

In most cases, though, the se accidental is used to describe genuine accidents. This usage is common enough to have become an Internet meme; some cute examples are shown below, along with their expressive and literal translations.

Capture

The se accidental is linguistically significant because it is has been shown to affect the way that Spanish speakers perceive events. As you can see in the meme examples, the construction shifts attention away from the person who is responsible for an accidental event. A clever study by Caitlin Fausey and Lera Boroditsky showed that Spanish speakers were therefore less likely than speakers of English to remember who caused an accident. Similar results have been found for speakers of Japanese, which has a similar structure.

The se accidental is thus a lovely example of “linguistic relativity”, the linguistic term for language differences that affect the way people think. Another common term for linguistic relativity is the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”, after the two linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The latter is notorious in linguistic circles for having spawned the now thoroughly-debunked linguistic legend that Eskimo languages have an outsize number of words for snow.

Linguistic relativity recently went to Hollywood, playing a major role in the movie Arrival. In this film a linguist (Amy Adams) pairs with a physicist (Jeremy Renner) to decipher an alien language, and finds that this process drastically changes the way she understands the world. The se accidental isn’t quite as dramatic as Adams’ new-found ability to predict the future, but it’s certainly more realistic.

By the way, my husband and I got a special kick out of Arrival because I am a linguist (like Adams’s character) and he is a former Los Alamos physicist (like Renner’s). We actually know several other linguist/physicist couples. Perhaps linguists and physicists attract each other because both fields apply scientific thinking to everyday domains. This could be the subject of yet another research project!

Paella poetry

Pablo Neruda’s Oda al tomate is probably the most famous food poem in Spanish literature, but I’ve now found my personal favorite: José María Pemán y Pemartín’s Oda a la paella. This poem celebrates the way that paella respects its individual ingredients while achieving a harmonious whole. I’ve added a rough translation.

¡Oh insigne sinfonía de todos los colores!
¡Oh ilustre paella
por fuera con su blusa de colores,
quemadita por dentro con ansias de doncella!
¡Oh policromo plato colorista
que antes que con el gusto se come con la vista!
Concentración de glorias donde nada se deja.
Compromiso de Caspe entre el pollo y la almeja.
¡Oh plato decisivo :
gremial y colectivo!
¡Oh plato delicioso
donde todo es hermoso
y todo se distingue, pero nada está roto!
¡Oh plato liberal donde un grano es un grano
como un hombre es un voto!

Oh famous multi-colored symphony!
Oh illustrious paella
on the outside a colorful blouse,
burning from within like a yearning maiden!
Oh polychromatic, colorful dish
that your eyes enjoy before your stomach!
Concentration of glories where everything counts.
Spain’s compromise between chicken and clams.
Oh decisive and collaborative dish!
Oh delicious dish
where everything is beautiful
and everything stands out, but nothing is broken!
Oh generous dish where one grain of rice is one grain
just as one man is one vote!

I came across Pemán’s Oda in the Spanish novel I’m currently reading: Los mares del Sur, one of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s many mysteries featuring the detective Pepe Carvalho. Vázquez is passionate about food — he has written a number of cookbooks — and food figures heavily in Los mares del Sur. Vázquez reproduces the Oda in a chapter about a feast Carvalho enjoys with friends from his native Galicia. Paella is on the menu and the feasters have a vigorous discussion about whether or not onion is an allowed ingredient, regional paella differences, how much pepper to add, and so on. They enjoy the paella a lo rural (‘country style’), meaning that they eat straight out of the dish, each choosing some territorio (‘territory’) within the dish — a good way to avoid one eater’s hogging all the best ingredients!

I don’t remember where I saw Los mares del Sur recommended, but Wikipedia tells us that it won the Premio Planeta in 1979, and also made one Spanish newspaper’s list of the 100 best Spanish novels of the 20th century — not bad for light fiction. It has also been made into a movie.

I’m now past the halfway point in Los mares del Sur, and so far it reminds me of a slow train ride with beautiful scenery. In other words, Vázquez takes his time with the plot, but the book has wonderful descriptions of people and places along the way. My favorite aspect (besides the paella poem) is Vázquez’s sly sense of humor, as when he describes a group of mismatched chairs as sillas de diferentes padres. I’m finding something laugh-out-loud funny every few pages. Another plus, for me at least, is that the novel is set in post-Franco Barcelona and thus provides a historical counterpart to the various Jordi Sierra i Fabra mysteries I’ve been reading, which take place in Barcelona just before and during that time period.

 

 

 

Good salsa, bad Spanish

I just took advantage of Fordham’s spring break to spend a few days at my favorite place, the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Besides yoga, dancing, lifestyle classes, the whirlpool, and lots of reading and napping, I enjoyed some excellent food. However, Tuesday’s lunch buffet line contained a Bad Spanish gem:

salsa

Salsa, of course, means ‘sauce’, so that Salsa sauce means ‘sauce sauce’. This error reminds me of some usages I noticed when attending graduate school at Stanford University, where students swim in Lake Lagunita (‘lake lake’) and drive on The El Camino (‘the the road’).

The salsa, however, was delicious!

[An addendum: my son Aaron helpfully pointed out that the second ingredient, verdes chilies, is a remarkable combination of Bad Spanish and Bad English!]

Eñe as art, with a shout-out to García Márquez

Besides Spanish, my two other main passions are my family and art. I managed to combine all three during a trip to New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) this past week with my husband and in-laws. At the foot of the main escalator — a prominent position — the museum had hung a new acquisition: a giant painting of the Spanish letter ñ, or eñe, by the Peruvian painter José Carlos Martinat. The picture below shows the painting with its surrounding wall space so that you can see its scale (about 6 by 8 feet).  For a closer view, please visit the relevant page on MoMA’s website.

Ñ (José Carlos Martinet, 2013)

Ñ (José Carlos Martinet, 2013)

I reacted strongly to the painting as both a Spanish linguist and an art lover. On the one hand, the giant Ñ on the wall seemed like a banner welcoming lovers of the Spanish language to the museum. While it is shared by a number of other languages, ñ has emerged as a symbol of Spanish. My favorite anecdotal proof of ñ‘s importance dates from 1991, when the European Community recommended that Spain repeal a regulation that required all computers sold in the country to have an ñ key. Protests came from Spain’s Foreign Ministry, from the Real Academia Española, and even from Colombia’s Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez, whose defense of the ñ, published as an op-ed in El País on May 15, stated that:

It is scandalous, to say the least, that the European Economic Community has dared to propose that Spain eliminate the letter ñ of our alphabet, and even worse, only for reasons of commercial convenience. The authors of such abuse and arrogance should know that the ñ is not an archaeological relic, but the reverse: a cultural leap by one Romance language that left the others behind, expressing with only one letter a sound that in other Romance languages continues to be expressed with two. Therefore, the logical thing is not for Spain to renounce a letter that even forms part of its own name, but that the other languages of the European paradise modernize themselves by adopting the ñ.

On the other hand, as an art lover, I understood the painting as an example of “appropriated art”, a current in modern art in which “found images”, not originally intended as art, are reproduced, often with changes in color and size, as a deliberate artistic expression. The most famous example is probably Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans paintings.

In the case of Carlos Martinet’s Ñ, MoMA’s wall text explained the painting as follows:

José Carlos Martinat’s practice frequently involves appropriating images and texts from the public sphere and recontextualizing them in mixed-medium works and sculptural installations. Between 2009 and 2013, he produced the series Pintas (Impressions), in which he removed street graffiti with advertising, political slogans, or candidates’ names — in the case of this work, that of the former mayor of Lima, Luis Casteñeda. After applying a resin-based medium onto a painted wall, Martinat would peel off the imprint and its material support, creating a new and autonomous image of a single letter or word. Taken out of context and installed in a museum space, the extracted fragment is activated in new ways as a signifier of language, politics, and public space. A residual image of what was previously a word or a phrase, Ñ speaks to the erodible, changeable nature of language and speech, whose users introduce fluctuations that ultimately transform communication itself. As a distinctive letter from modern Hispanic alphabets, “ñ” is also a differential sign, one that indicates otherness in relation to the global hegemony of English.

Rules are made to be broken — “siempre” edition

Back in 2013 I wrote about the drawbacks of teaching students formulaic rules instead of general principles for certain aspects of Spanish grammar and vocabulary. The prime example I gave was the two versions of the Spanish past tense: the preterite, or simple past, and the imperfect. I teach my students the general principle that the preterite is used to narrate the bare bones of ‘what happened’ in a sequence of events, and that the imperfect adds color to this sequence. You can see this distinction in the following sentence, where I’ve underlined preterites and colored imperfects red. (In class we work through a fairy tale on a whiteboard, using different-colored markers.)

Llovía cuando entré, me senté, y le dije “Buenos días” a mi amiga, quién se llamaba Juanita y llevaba un vestido espléndido.

‘It was raining when I entered, sat down, and said “Good morning” to my friend, who was called Juanita and wore a splendid dress‘.

Nevertheless, certain rules are extremely useful in deciding which past tense to use. For example, mientras ‘while’ always triggers the imperfect, and the mention of a specific time or time interval, like a las tres or durante cinco días, usually triggers the preterite.

The adverb siempre ‘always’, like mientras, has long been on my mental list of reliable imperfect triggers, and it is one that I teach to my students. I was therefore surprised when a participant in Reddit’s /s/Spanish subreddit recently mentioned that siempre can occur with the preterite, too. In the spirit of “If you build it, they will come”, within 24 hours I’d come across several instances of this in the Spanish novel I’m currently reading, Alberto Fuguet’s Las películas de mi vida.

tempI’ve listed some examples below; the ones that are most striking to me combine a siempre preterite with an imperfect or two elsewhere in the same sentence.

  • Pero mi abuelo sintió siempre que hacía menos de lo que podía hacer. ‘But my grandfather always felt that he accomplished less than he was capable of.’
  • Mi abuelo siempre sintió que lo miraban en menos. ‘My grandfather always that they looked down on him.’
  • Siempre supe que eras brillante. ‘I always knew you were brilliant.’
  • Siempre me llamó la atención que [el aeropuerto] no tuviera un nombre. ‘It always struck me that the airport didn’t have a name.’
  • Los Zanetti y los Soler siempre fueron inmigrantes. ‘The Zanettis and Solers were always immigrants.’

One could probably write an article about the use of the two past tenses with siempre based on this novel alone. You could also broaden the field of inquiry to other authors, from around the Spanish-speaking world, as well as to actual speech — and then you’d have yourself a nice dissertation! But at a rough glance, Fuguet appears to be using the siempre preterites to give his overall assessment of how something was in the past, whether it was his grandfather’s feelings, a friend’s intelligence, an airport’s name, his families’ assimilation, and so on. This reminds me of a rule of thumb a Spanish teacher once shared: that fue (‘it was’ in preterite) is used to give an overall ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ assessment. The imperfects in these sentence would then serve to flesh out the factors behind these assessments.

What do you think?

Report on ANLE event with Francisco Moreno Fernández

On Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending the induction of Francisco Moreno Fernández, the Executive Director of the Instituto Cervantes at Harvard University, as the newest member of the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española (ANLE).  Moreno Fernández’s specialty is sociolinguistics, and he is currently focusing on Spanish in the United States.

The main point of Moreno Fernández’s inaugural lecture was that United States Spanish has two manifestations. The first is “Spanglish”, the casual form of speech characterized by frequent code-switching, or alternation, between Spanish and English. The second, used in more formal contexts, is an American* version of Spanish (español estadounidense) that has borrowed hundreds of English words, in many cases crowding out their normal Spanish counterparts.

My favorite part of the talk was the data that Moreno Fernández showed on the degree of penetration of specific English borrowings in different parts of the United States. He walked us through three examples: registración, which has mostly replaced inscripciónflu, which is threatening gripe, and dil (a Spanish spelling of deal), which hasn’t obtained much of a foothold.

As in the previous ANLE induction I attended, it was a pleasure to immerse myself in the beautiful Spanish of all the evening’s speakers: not just Moreno Fernández but the scholars who introduced him, formally responded to his talk, and officially inducted him. Coincidentally, two of these presenters were native speakers not of Spanish, but of other Romance languages (Italian and Romanian). As a non-native speaker myself, I was heartened to see them accepted as full colleagues and participating in the Spanish academy system.

[Later edit: Here is ANLE’s press release about the event.]

*Since I’m writing in English I’ve used the word American here to mean ‘of the United States’. This usage is problematic from a Hispanic perspective, since América, of course, includes all of North, South, and Central America, not just the United States. When speaking Spanish I would therefore never say americano to mean ‘American’ in the more limited sense, but always estadounidense. It would be helpful to have a more neutral English word like “United Statesian”. Wikipedia has an interesting discussion on this topic here.

Why ser and ir are so irregular

The purpose of this post is to share two of my favorite slides from the PowerPoint I prepared for my recent talk at the NECTFL conference. The slides summarize the history of the two most irregular Spanish verbs, ser ‘to be’ and ir ‘to go’. It turns out that each of these verbs is a historical merger of three distinct verbs. Ser merged the Latin verbs sedere ‘to sit’ and esse ‘to be’, which itself combined Proto-Indo-European verbs meaning ‘to be’ and ‘to become’. Ir merged the Latin verbs ire ‘to go’, vadere ‘to go, walk’ (a cognate of English ‘to wade’), and esse ‘to be’. As you can see from the slides, each root is responsible for a subset of each verb’s modern forms.

Capture

The history of “ser” (‘to be’). The asterisks indicate reconstructed (hypothesized) Proto-Indo-European roots.

temp

The history of “ir” (‘to go’). My favorite detail here is that the singular command ‘ve’ and the plural command ‘id’ come from different Latin roots.

This type of historical process, in which one verb does a “hostile takeover” of part of another verb’s conjugation, is common enough to have its own name: suppletion. You can see suppletion in the English verb ‘to go’, whose past tense form went comes from the semantically related verb ‘to wend’. The various cases of suppletion in the histories of ser and ir are likewise plausible:

  • for sedereesse: ‘to sit’ is connected to ‘to be’ because it expresses location
  • for *hes*buh: ‘be’ and ‘become’ are obviously related
  • for irevadere: ‘walking’ is a kind of ‘going’
  • for ireesse: if you ‘are’ somewhere, it follows that you ‘went’ there. For example, you can say “I’ve never been to Barcelona” instead of “I’ve never gone to Barcelona”.

I will have to save these charts for the second edition of my book!

15 February ANLE event (NYC)

ANLE, the Academia Norteamericana de la Lenga Española, is the United States’ branch of the Real Academia Española (RAE— or, more precisely, of ASALE, the international organization of which the RAE is the best-known member. I’m a huge fan of the RAE and have previously written about it here, here, here, and here (slides 4 and 5).

Membership in ANLE is limited to fifty outstanding proponents of the Spanish language in the United States, including academicians, writers, and journalists. New members therefore join ANLE only occasionally — when an existing member retires or passes away — and their induction is always celebrated with a scholarly yet joyous event. I’ve previously attended one such induction. The order of business is always the same. First, the inductee is introduced and makes a speech (an academic discourse). Then another member gives a speech in response, and the director of ANLE officially welcomes the new member.

The next ANLE induction, on February 15 at the Instituto Cervantes in Manhattan, promises to be exceptionally interesting. The new member is Francisco Moreno-Fernández, the Executive Director of the Instituto Cervantes at Harvard University, a member of Harvard’s oddly punctuated “Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights,” and a professor of Hispanic Linguistics at Spain’s University of Alcalá. Moreno’s field is sociolinguistics, and his inaugural lecture will be on “Perfiles del español estadounidense.” You can download a flyer for the event here.

Prof. Francisco Moreno-Fernández

Prof. Francisco Moreno-Fernández

Besides the inherent interest of this event for anyone who cares about Spanish in the U.S., it will be personally meaningful for me: I studied linguistics at Harvard, and wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on a sociolinguistics topic. Small world!

Maybe I’ll see some of you there.

NECTFL report

On Friday and Saturday I had a wonderful time at the annual NECTFL conference here in New York. NECTFL stands for the NorthEast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. It started as an independent conference, but is now the largest of the regional conferences under the umbrella of ACTFL, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. I’ve attended NECTFL several times, and this year, for the first time, presented a talk.

The talk was based, not surprisingly, on my book, but with an appropriately pedagogical twist, to focus on how foreign language teachers can bring linguistics into the classroom. The conference theme was standards for foreign language teaching, so I shaped my talk around two of ACTFL’s official standards: Comparisons (with other languages) and Connections (to other disciplines). In the talk I managed to work in two other standards: Cultural comparisons and — the big one! — Communication. The abstract is below.

temp

My talk had a decent turnout, especially since there were more than a dozen concurrent talks for attendees to choose from, and was well received. I had some promising follow-up conversations, including an offer of collaboration and an invitation to speak at another conference. I’m also planning to write up my talk and submit it to one of the ACTFL journals.

Bloomsbury Linguistics had rented a table in the conference’s book exhibit, and sold every copy of my book that they had with them, in addition to taking advance orders. This made me very happy. I figured that if I couldn’t sell my book at a conference for language teachers, I was in big trouble.

As in previous years I learned a lot from the talks I attended. My chore today is to go over my notes and the handouts I accumulated, and digest the specific techniques that I can implement (i) immediately and (ii) later in my own teaching. In many talks I was struck afresh by the dramatic differences between K-12 and college teaching. Most attendees, and all the presenters I heard, are K-12 teachers. They have lots of time to work with their students, and usually have a classroom to call their own. As a college Spanish teacher I have less time to cover more material, and share an anonymous classroom. On the other hand, my students are more mature who are strongly motivated to do the work and earn good grades. These environmental differences will play a large role in how I adapt the techniques I learned in the conference.

I had a final dose of Spanish after the conference, when I struck up a conversation with an Argentinian family at an excellent taquería where I stopped for a bite on my way to the train station. (It isn’t hard to recognize Argentinian Spanish, but of course I was pleased, and these tourists somewhat surprised, when I guessed their nationality.) We chatted a bit about my two idiosyncratic Argentinian obsessions: pato, the gaucho version of polo originally played with a live duck, and the linguistic isolation of Argentinian Spanish during the formative colonial period, which was the subject of my first blog post back in 2013. Now I have friends to see when I eventually visit Buenos Aires!

 

Neruda en México — sort of

I have to apologize, because I’m at it again, blogging about something other than the long-promised theme of “Cervantes on the beach.” The distracting factor this time is my trip to Washington, DC this past weekend for the Women’s March on Washington — an amazing experience, though not related to Spanish. While there, I returned to a Mexican restaurant I had enjoyed on my previous trip to the city. It is called Oyamel and features small plates that are innovative and delicious. I strongly recommend it!

As on my previous visit, I noticed that the words of my long-time favorite poem, Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche, are inscribed on the restaurant’s walls. This time I took some photographs (below). You can see the titular first line of the poem interrupted by the window in the first photo, and wrapping around the corner in the second.IMG_20170122_160253

IMG_20170122_160226

Puedo escribir… is one of the most famous poems by Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet. It is part of his Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada, published in 1924. Readers familiar with Hispanic literature will wonder, of course, why a Mexican restaurant is decorated with Chilean poetry. Perhaps this is because Oyamel is part of a larger restaurant group run by José Andrés, a Spanish chef, whose restaurants include cuisine from around the Spanish-speaking world.

At any rate, it was a thrill to be able to enjoy my favorite poem while enjoying a delicious lunch with friends.