Spanish versus Portuguese

I owe my readers an apology. In my previous post I promised to write several posts about the Spanish of Cervantes. Instead, my recent days have been devoted to annoying grownup stuff (car trouble, health insurance wrangling), happy grownup stuff (visiting my grandchildren), and also sending out “blast” emails about my book. All important, yet distracting.

This makes it even more awkward that my first post since promising Cervantes is, instead, about Portuguese! But I couldn’t resist, and you’ll see why.

My “blast” emails have given me the chance to reconnect with some friends and family I haven’t been in touch with for a while. One childhood friend wrote back, “I have been studying Portuguese and this has made me wonder about why Spanish is so much more complex.” In direct contrast, a cousin of my husband’s asked, “when will you do [a book] on Portuguese, in my opinion a more difficult and mysterious language?”

I hate to disappoint both my old friend and my cousin-in-law, but I have never studied Portuguese and have no idea how it compares to Spanish in difficulty. I do know some interesting factoids about the difference between the two languages:

  1. It’s easier for Portuguese speakers to understand Spanish than the other way around (the topic of an earlier post);
  2. The future subjunctive, an Iberian invention, is more frequent in Portuguese than in Spanish, where it’s only seen in legalese;
  3. Spanish and Portuguese both have the ser/estar contrast, but permanent location is expressed with ser in Portuguese, versus estar in Spanish.

However, none of these factoids has anything to do with the relative difficulty of the two languages. Perhaps some readers will write in and help with this question. Please!

In the meantime, anyone interested in Portuguese is recommended to read the delightful “not just a physics memoir” Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman. Its chapters on Feynman’s time in Brazil show how learning a foreign language can open unexpected doors.

Cervantes on the beach

I’ve just returned home from a glorious visit to the Caribbean. My husband and I resolved to do nothing but relax during our stay, and for the most part we managed to honor this commitment. However, my passion for Spanish linguistics is irrepressible! Even while lazing on the beach, I couldn’t resist taking note of several linguistically interesting passages in one of the Spanish books I tossed into my suitcase: a collection of three Novelas ejemplares by Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quijote.

Cervantes published these novelas — actually, short stories — in 1613, between the two volumes of Don Quijote. El licenciado Vidriera, the first story I read, takes place in the academic and courtly communities of Salamanca and Valladolid. La gitanilla focuses on an itinerant gypsy tribe, while Rinconete y Cortadillo describes the initiation of two teenage boys into a gang of street criminals in Seville. The three stories thus offer diverse perspectives on the people and places of Golden Age Spain. 

I will be writing several blog entries about the Novelas ejemplares in the upcoming days. Here are the topics I’ll cover; I’ll add links to the individual entries as I write them:

  • the use of the noun color with feminine gender;
  • sentences that, while lacking the explicit Spanish words for ‘former’ and ‘latter’ (aquel and este), follow the Spanish convention of putting ‘latter’ before ‘former’;
  • camarada, a nice example of a noun ending in -a that can be either masculine or feminine;
  • an explicit reference to the dialectal phenomenon of ceceo;
  • two examples of gustar used in a ‘forwards’ rather than its normal ‘backwards’ fashion;
  • a case study in how to learn a new word (the innocent-sounding piedeamigo);
  • the antiquated word hestoria;
  • exciting (to me) examples of the future subjunctive “in the wild”.

 

 

Say it isn’t so, (Trader) Joe

I love Trader Joe’s. We live about midway between two of their stores, so I end up shopping there two or three times a week. My husband would probably starve to death if I didn’t keep our freezer stocked with Chicken Tikka Masala, Mac ‘n Cheese, and the like for his lunches. And their goat milk brie reminds me of the excellent cabra cheese I enjoyed in Spain last summer, with a firm crust and a soft center.

But ever since TJ’s introduced their Chicken Asada, my happy shopping mood is punctured every time I cruise the refrigerator case. The problem is that chicken (pollo) is masculine in Spanish, so Asada should really be be Asado. The abominably feminine Asada is no doubt a carry-over from the more famous Carne Asada, which Trader Joe’s also sells. However, TJ’s gets chicken gender right in their Pollo Asado (this is just chicken, no vegetables or sauce), and Pollo Asado pizza.

Wrong gender! Abomination!

pollo-carne

Correct gender for pollo (with or without pizza) and carne

If you care about Spanish grammar, please contact Trader Joe’s to complain — maybe they’ll fix the product name if they hear from enough hispanophiles! Here is some suggested wording.

Please change the name of your Chicken Asada product to Chicken Asado, to match the (correct) gender you use for your ‘Pollo Asado’. Chicken (‘pollo’) is masculine in Spanish, so ‘asada’ is just plain wrong. ‘Asada’ is correct in ‘Carne Asada’, but that’s because meat (‘carne’) is feminine.

 

Teacher dreams

I was in fourth grade when I had my first panic dream about school. In this dream I forgot to write an assigned paper about English history; as punishment, my teacher — in real life, a particularly cool guy who drove a Triumph TR6 — “strung me up by my thumbs”, whatever that means. This dream so disconcerted me that at school the next day I delicately inquired among my classmates first thing to make sure we didn’t really have a paper due.

When I started teaching, over ten years ago, my student panic dreams morphed into “teacher dreams” in which I was late to class, horribly unprepared, or otherwise made a mess of my new responsibilities. According to colleagues such dreams aren’t unusual, and in fact Rookie Teaching for Dummies devotes an entire (small) section to the phenomenon. These dreams have definitely declined in frequency as I’ve gained in experience and confidence, but they do come back from time to time.

I wasn’t surprised when I had a doozy of a teacher dream a few nights ago, because this spring I’ll be teaching, for the first time, a higher-level Spanish class with less emphasis on grammar (my comfort zone) and more on reading, writing, and class discussion. In real life I’m looking forward to taking on a new challenge, but obviously my subconscious hasn’t yet gotten the message. In this particular dream I neglected to prepare a lesson plan, left my house late, and then couldn’t find my classroom. A triple failure!

In real life I expect to be ultra-prepared for my new class — not just on day one, but throughout the semester. I hope that with effort, Fordham’s usual terrific students, and a bit of luck, my teaching will grow, my students thrive, and my subconscious give me a break.

A triple harvest of nouns

A reader asked me about the difference between cosechasiega, and mies. He likes to read the Bible in Spanish and sees all three words, whereas the English Bible uses the single word ‘harvest’.

Nice question! I really went to town on this one, using several resources to research the answer:

The first thing I learned is that cosecha is a much more common word than siega or mies. Here is the Google n-gram plot of the three words’ frequencies. Incidentally, it looks like folks don’t write about crops as much as they used to, ¿no?

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The second thing is that all three words started as past participles. Therefore, they originally meant something that is reaped, and only later took on the meaning ‘harvest’. The original verb behind cosecha is the very common verb coger ‘to take’: the g in cogecha, an obsolete irregular participle, morphed into the modern s. The verb behind siega is segar ‘to reap’; it is a cognate of English words including dissect and section, saw, sickle, and scythe, and possibly sail — because a sail is cut from a larger piece of cloth. The verb behind mies is Latin metere ‘to reap’, a cognate of English meadow and mow.

Finally, I learned that cosecha is the only one of the three words to have ‘harvest’ as its primary meaning. Mies mostly means ‘grain’, and siega, ‘mown grain’. Getting back to my reader’s original question about the Spanish Bible, perhaps these differences explain which word is used when. Check back and let me know!

 

Some nice press from the UK!

Times Higher Education, the British equivalent of The Chronicle of Higher Education, has cited ¿Por qué? as one of its “Best new books of the week”. It would be tons more exciting if it were the year instead, but I’ll settle for the week!

Screen clip below, link here.

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It’s funny that both this review and the one in El diario mention the “la la rule”, which is one of the myths I debunk in the book rather than an actual rule of Spanish. Hopefully readers will get the point.

Mirar with ‘a’

I recently finished Las chicas de alambre, one of Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Sierra’s top-selling novels. It is about a reporter’s investigation of a top model’s disappearance; the alambre ‘wire’ in the title is a reference to the model’s anorexia. This was my first Sierra i Fabra novel outside of the author’s Inspector Mascarell series, and actually read a lot like a detective novel. It was a good story though I prefer the Mascarell books.

The second person the reporter interviewed for his story was the photographer who took the model’s first photographs. His description of the session included a use of the verb mirar that truly threw me for a loop.

Mirar is one of those verbs that often puzzles English speakers learning Spanish because its English translation, ‘look at’, includes a preposition (at). My students always want to add an explicit (and incorrect) preposition, Spanish a ‘at’, to the verb, as in Juan mira a la pintura ‘Juan looks at at the painting’. Spanish has plenty of verbs of this sort, mostly involving perception or motion, simply because English, as a Germanic language, favors two-part verbs, whereas Spanish, as a Romance language, does not. Other examples are buscar ‘look for’, escuchar ‘listen to’, subir ‘go up’, and sacar ‘take out’. (It’s worth noting that a few Spanish verbs require prepositions whereas their English equivalents don’t — salir de ‘leave’ and entrar en ‘enter’ come to mind — but these are clearly outnumbered.)

Mirar is especially challenging because it is correctly followed by a when its object is a person, as in Pablo mira a Juan ‘Pablo looks at Juan.’ But the a in such sentences is an instance of the untranslatable “personal a” required before human objects — also seen in sentences such as Pablo visita a Juan or Pablo ayuda a Juan ‘Pablo visits/helps Juan’ — rather than a verbal complement (if that’s the right term).

The relevant sentence in Las chicas de alambre was nadie puede enseñarte a mirar a una cámara ‘nobody can teach you how to look at a camera’. Assuming that this wasn’t a typographical error, I wondered whether this could be a most intriguing use of the personal a. Could looking at a camera be like looking at a person, since a camera, like a person, has an eye?

To investigate this question I consulted one of my favorite resources, the website wordreference.com. Its listing for the verb mirar included the specific phrase mirar a la cámara but also other uses of mirar a without a human object:

  • mirar a ambos lados antes de cruzar ‘look both ways before crossing’
  • mirar a las musarañas ‘look at the bugs’, i.e. daydream
  • mirar a otro sitio ‘look away’
  • mirar al futuro ‘look to the future, think ahead’
  • mirar al vacio ‘stare off into space’

In all these cases, including mirar a la cámara, a clearly acts as ‘toward’ rather than just ‘to’, expressing the direction of one’s gaze.

In sum, the possible personal a interpretation turned out to be a red herring, but I ended up learning more than I expected about the use of this ubiquitous Spanish verb.

The joy of diminutives

I just checked, and was surprised to see that this is my first blog post about Spanish diminutives (unless you count a passing reference in my all-time second-most-viewed post on Spanish nicknames). Diminutives are word endings, such as -ito and -illo, that make a ‘little’ version of the word they are attached to. For example, a cucharita is a little spoon (cuchara) and a cigarrillo ‘cigarette’ is literally a small cigar (cigarro). Diminutives often convey affection rather than size. Pobrecito is equivalent to ‘poor thing’, and mamacita, while it has no true English equivalent, is similar to ‘dear mother’.

Spanish speakers use diminutives deliberately and even with relish, often piling them on as in chiquitillo ‘little boy’, which adds both -ito and -illo to chico ‘boy’. In this way, diminutives are different from inflectional endings, such as plural -s and -n, which speakers use without thinking. The same is true for other affective endings, such as -azo and -ón, which both mean ‘large’ and often bear an insulting tinge.

One of my favorite examples of Spanish diminutives in action comes from (where else?) Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” book series, my current Spanish literary obsession. In Seis días de diciembre, the fifth book in the series, Mascarell has lunch with a customs official, Martín Centells, at Centells’s favorite restaurant near the port of Barcelona. As a regular patron, Centells receives the best treatment from Quique, the chef/owner. Quique uses diminutives to describe the specialties of the day with loving pride:

¿Qué tienes hoy, Quique?
Una sopita de pescado de las buenas. Y de segundo sardinitas pero de las que anoche estaban en el mar tan tranquilas que las ha pescado mi suegro.

— What do you have today, Quique?
— A terrific fish soup, and as a second course, sardines that were relaxing in the ocean until my father-in-law caught them last night.

Interestingly, Sierra i Fabra maintains the diminutive when describing how Quique serves the food (Ya traía las sardinitas), but drops it when Mascarell and Centells eat: Probó la sopa ‘He tasted the soup’, atacando la primera sardina ‘attacking the first sardine’.

Darn it, now I’m hungry.

Waiting and hoping, i.e. esperar

In an earlier post I summarized some asymmetrical differences between Spanish and English: the many distinctions in meaning seen in Spanish but not English, such as ser vs. estar (both meaning ‘to be’), and some seen in English but not Spanish, such as his vs. her vs. their (Spanish su). A recent thread on r/Spanish brought to mind another asymmetry of the second type: the Spanish verb esperar, which can mean either wait (for) or hope:

  • Espero el autobús ‘We’re waiting for the bus.’
  • Espero que venga ‘I hope he comes.’

Comments in that thread pointed out an interesting difference between the two uses of esperar: when used without a direct object, esperar can only mean ‘to wait’. This means that, for example, Tienes que esperar cannot mean ‘You must hope.’ The only way to express this is via a work-around, such as Tienes que tener esperanza — literally, ‘You must have hope.’

I love it that after spending decades with Spanish I can still come across such fresh nuances of meaning and usage. This is, of course, a “glass half full” reaction — perhaps I should be frustrated that there is always more to learn. But for me, this richness is part of what makes languages interesting.

Muletillas revisited

I remember, with excruciating clarity, my most embarrassing moment as a young mother. I was in the supermarket with my two-year-old daughter, Joanna. She always attracted a lot of attention because of her adorable face and her cherubic halo of blond curls. This made it even more humiliating when she decided that she was bored and piped up, in her clear voice that carried for aisles (if not miles), “Mom, let’s get out of this f**ing store!” That’s when I realized it was time for me to clean up my language.

What does this have to do with Spanish?

Last week my second-semester students all gave oral presentations. I had slipped, almost without realizing it, into the habit of dropping the English word so into my Spanish. And just like toddler Joanna, my students did as I did. More than half of them used so in their presentations instead of a proper Spanish hesitation word, like pues or bien. (In Spanish these are called muletillas ‘little crutches’, a term I adore.) As with the supermarket incident, the message was clear: it was time for me to clean up my Spanish.

This incident was particularly galling to me because I am well aware of the linguistic importance of sticking to the target language when using hesitation words. In fact, this was the subject of the best language lesson I ever had as a student, in a class with Harvard’s master French teacher Judy Frommer, Prof. Frommer had every student in the class read out loud a short, innocuous paragraph while attempting to stretch it out as long as possible with French muletillas, or tics de langage, such as bondoncalors, and bien. It was a lot of fun, and really drove home an important point: every time you lapse into your own language, even if just for a meaningless syllable, your brain has to do extra work to switch back into the target language.

So — I have turned over a new linguistic leaf, and am doing my best to keep my Spanish pure. I’m sure that my students will register this change, albeit not consciously, and I hope it will help them keep to Spanish themselves.

[Note: I entitled this post “Muletillas revisited” because I thought I had mentioned the topic before…but I haven’t. More’s the pity…]