The top 10 Spanish verb mysteries unraveled

The wait is over — here is my “listicle” (slide presentation) that unravels the top 10 mysteries of Spanish verbs. Why is hay always singular? Why are there so many more irregulars in the preterite past tense than the imperfect? Why do positive and negative commands have different pronoun rules? The answers lie in the history of Spanish.

Bad Spanish in Salt Lake City

When out for a walk on a recent visit to Salt Lake City,  I saw this sign above Popperton Park :

Bad Spanish

 

The substitution of Parke for Parque is one of the worst Spanish mistakes I’ve ever seen in public signage. Spanish doesn’t even normally use the letter k! Even Google Translate or its ilk would have gotten this right. Grrrr.

If you care about such things, please drop a line to parks@slcgov.com asking them to fix the sign.

The top 10 surprising ways that Spanish isn’t special

¡Próspero Año Nuevo!

My previous post presented the Top 10 reasons why Spanish is special. This post presents its opposite: the Top 10 reasons why Spanish isn’t special. Like the previous Top 10 list, it includes examples from Spanish grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation.

This Top 10 list was constructed with native speakers of English in mind. It describes core aspects of Spanish that may seem peculiar, but turn out to be normal when considered in a broader linguistic context. Some of these are truly surprising! The inscrutable ‘personal a, for example, turns out to be a prime example of a linguistic phenomenon known as Differential Object Marking, while the use of positive expressions like en absoluto (‘absolutely’) with a negative meaning (‘absolutely not’), illustrates a well-known historical process called Jespersen’s Cycle.

To me, the two lists are equally interesting. I love both the special features of Spanish and its reflection of broader cross-linguistic tendencies. I hope you do, too.

 

The top 10 reasons why Spanish is special

Today’s post is the first of several I plan to make in the next few weeks to summarize the broad linguistic themes that emerged as I wrote my book. It is a follow-up on a post I did some months ago, “What makes Spanish unique”. This post is somewhat more general, and, I hope, more fun because it’s a slideshow.

Enjoy!

Click the bidirectional diagonal arrow to view in fullscreen mode.

A terrific website for Spanish learners

[On Halloween, I turned in the manuscript for the book on Hispanic linguistics I’ve been working on for the past 5 years (¡Uy!), and expect to be getting back into more regular posting now that I have more time.]

A contributor to the Spanish subreddit posted some time ago about a terrific website for Spanish learners, called Readlang. Frankly, I don’t know much about Readlang except for what I’ve seen while playing around with the links on the subreddit post, but I strongly recommend that you check it out if you learn or teach Spanish. Each Readlang entry (at least the ones linked to on this post) has a video of a series of speakers reading different thematic passages in Spanish, with the passages reprinted below. You have the usual video controls, plus the ability to slow down or speed up the video. A cursor in the reading passage shows your current location. You can click on any word to get an instant translation.

The entry labeled “Day, Date” gives the country each speaker is from. (I wish all the entries had this feature, but “chiggers can’t be boozers”.)

Here’s a screen shot:

Truly awesome — many thanks to the folks at Readlang and to whoever posted these specific entries on it.

In Spanish “hog heaven” with ANLE

Last night I attended an event of the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española (ANLE), the United States branch of the Real Academia Española. The event was the induction ceremony for ANLE’s newest member, Eduardo Lolo, a professor at CUNY’s Kingsborough Community College.

For this linguist, the event was Spanish hog heaven. First, ANLE’s General Secretary, Jorge Covarrubias, introduced the inductee. Sr. Covarrubias is from Argentina, and his cadences were delightfully Italian. (In case you didn’t know, some 70% of Argentinians have Italian blood, and the Spanish there shows definite Italian influence.) Prof. Lolo then spoke. He is from Cuba and his Spanish sounded completely different from Sr. Covarrubias’s. Understanding him was at first rough going for this non-native speaker, but I got the hang of it after a few minutes. Finally, ANLE’s director, Gerardo Piña-Rosales, critiqued Prof. Lolo’s presentation. He is from Spain, so this was yet another accent, one that I am more familiar with.

All three men spoke beautiful, erudite Spanish, elegant yet crisp and communicative. It was a treat to hear these three different accents produced at such a high level of linguistic sophistication.

I shouldn’t neglect to say that the subject of Prof. Lolo’s talk, and Sr. Piña-Rosales’s critique, was children’s theater, a topic that I knew nothing about, and in fact had no idea had been the topic of academic research. Now I know a little more, and am impressed with how rich the subject is.

Lo pasé muy bien; gracias, ANLE.

¡Estoy en El Diario!

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Le agradezco a Carmen Molina Tamacas por haberme incluido en su artículo:

Sin embargo, no comparto el optimismo del artículo en cuanto al futuro del español en los EE. UU. Según los lingüístas cuyas obras he leído, como Carmen Silva-Corvalán de USC (en California) y John Lipski (Penn State), los inmigrantes hispanos, como los italianos, griegos, alemanes, y judíos en décadas anteriores, van perdiendo su idioma dentro de pocas generaciones. Solo la llegada constante de nuevos inmigrantes permite la continuación del idioma.

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Many thanks to Carmen Molina Tamascas for having included me in her article about Spanish in the United States (see image/link above). However, I don’t share the article’s optimism regarding the language’s future here. According to the linguists whose work I have consulted, such as Carmen Silva-Corvalán at USC and John Lipski at Penn State, Spanish-speaking immigrants, like the Italians, Greeks, Germans, and Jews in earlier decades, generally lose their own language within one or two generations. Only the constant arrival of new immigrants enables the language’s continued vitality.

Acronyms in English vs. Spanish

I got hung up on a matter of terminology while revising a section about Spanish nicknames in my book: are nicknames like Mabel for María Ísabel acronyms? Not according to the English definition: “an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word.” However, the RAE’s Ortografía, my source for the Mabel example, states that it is an acronym (p. 628). When I looked up the RAE’s own definition of acronyms, copied below, I saw that the first meaning matches the English definition: an acrónimo is a sigla, or initialism. The second meaning, though, is broader: “A word formed by the union of elements from two or more words, made up of the beginning of the first and the end of the last, or, frequently, other combinations.”

Live and learn!

 

“No niños en la canasta” — not!

I’ve been meaning for some time to share this horrendous sign I saw in a shopping cart at my local supermarket:

This sign combines several mistakes, evidently as a result of a word-by-word translation:

  • The upside-down ¡ is missing.
  • You can’t say no niños. It would have to be ningún niño. This is way too formal for a shopping cart, suggesting that a complete rewording would be better.
  • Canasta ‘basket’ is a bit iffy — depending on where you live, the correct word might be cestaCarrito ‘shopping cart’ would be safer.

I asked native speakers on reddit and many recommended something like ¡No sentar niños en el carrito! ‘No seating children in the shopping cart”.

Separated at birth — and by speech therapy!

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Hace más de dos años escribí sobre los adultos hispanohablantes que no pueden marcar las erres. Desde entonces no he podido encontrar ningún dato publicado sobre la frecuencia de este problema, ni ningún recuento publicado fuera del Internet. Esta sequía terminó esta mañana cuando leí el artículo “The Mixed-Up Brothers of Bogotá” (Los hermanos confundidos de Bogotá) en el New York Times Magazine. La historia es fascinante aun para la gente normal que no esté obsesionada con el rotaciscmo adulto. Dos parejas de gemelos mellizos colombianos con veinte y pico años (Jorge y Carlos, William y Wilber) descubren que fueron cambiados al nacer y que en realidad son dos parejas de gemelos idénticos (Jorge y William, Carlos y Wilber). William y Wilber se criaron en el campo, y Jorge y Carlos en Bogotá, haciéndoles a los cuatro hombres una prueba ideal de la importancia de la naturaleza y la crianza.

El rotacismo entra en la historia cuando Carlos y Wilber se conocen por primera vez: “Wilber empezó a hablar, pero Carlos lo tenía difícil entenderlo. En vez de marcar sus erres, Wilber habló con las /d/ duras. ¡El trastorno de habla! Carlos lo tenía de niño pero lo había superado gracias a la logopedia.”

Por supuesto, la historia de Carlos y Wilber sugiere que el rotacismo, como el tartamudeo, tiene orígenes genéticos. Pero el trastorno es bastante común entre los niños que harían falta muchos datos más para demostrar una tal conexión. ¿Acaso conoce alguien algún estudio sobre los gemelos y los trastornos de habla españoles? No he podido encontrar ninguno.

A propósito, las palabras mellizo y gemelo son otro ejemplo del fenómeno de los dobletes: parejas de palabras con el mismo origen latino. Las dos palabras vienen de la raíz latina gemellicius ‘gemelo’. Como es normal en tales parejas, la palabra más antigua (mellizo) ha cambiado en forma y significado, mientras que la palabra más reciente (gemelo) es más conservadora.

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More than two years ago I wrote about native Spanish-speaking adults who can’t roll their r’s. Since then I have searched in vain for data on the frequency of this problem, or even any published (i.e. non-Internet) anecdotal accounts. This drought ended this morning, when I read the New York Times Magazine story “The Mixed-Up Brothers of Bogotá“. The story is gripping even for normal folks who aren’t obsessed with adult rhotacism (problems with r) . Two pairs of twenty-something fraternal twins in Columbia (Jorge and Carlos, William and Wilber) discover that they were switched at birth and are actually two pairs of identical twins (Jorge & William, Carlos & Wilber). William and Wilber were raised in a rural environment and Jorge and Carlos in Bogotá, making the four young men an ideal test case for nature versus nurture.

Rhotacism enters the story when Carlos and Wilber meet for the first time: “Wilber started speaking, but Carlos was having a hard time catching what he was saying. Instead of rolling his R’s, Wilber spoke with hard D’s. The speech impediment! Carlos had one as a child but overcame it with speech therapy.”

The experience of Carlos and Wilber obviously suggests that rhotacism, like stuttering, has genetic origins. However, it is common enough among young children that it would take much more data to prove such a connection. Anyone know anything about twin studies on Spanish language speech defects? I haven’t been able to find anything.

Incidentally, while writing the Spanish version of this post I learned for the first time the word mellizo, meaning ‘fraternal twin’. It turns out that it has the same Latin root, gemellicius, as the Spanish word for twin, gemelo, making this word pair a nice example of a doublet. As is normal with doublets, the older word (mellizo) has changed in form and meaning, while the more recent word (gemelo) is more conservative.