Say it (still) isn’t so, (Trader) Joe’s

Last year I wrote a blog post taking Trader Joe’s to task for naming one of their products Chicken Asada even though pollo is masculine. I know, life is really too short to care about such things. But I just can’t turn off the language teacher part of my brain!

Today, TJ’s monthly Fearless Flyer arrived, and with it, a new insult to the Spanish language. As you can see from the clip below, they describe their carne asada as autentica — without an accent mark — and bueno rather than buena. To compound the insult they nailed the accent on the French word soirée in the text below.

Trader Joe’s, the United States has more than 37 million residents who speak Spanish as a first language. Can’t you hire one of them to vet your copy?

Companion website for “¿Por qué?” now available

When I turned in my book manuscript, Bloomsbury also asked me for materials for a companion website. This website is now online here.

The website includes two different kinds of materials. First, there are ideas for research projects, tied to the 101 questions, that might be appropriate in a Spanish class, or Hispanic linguistics class, that uses ¿Por qué? as a textbook.  These include:

  • Library/internet research projects (e.g. profile the current members of the United States branch of the Real Academia)
  • Database research projects (e.g. report on Spanish language usage data as presented in the United States census)
  • Text analyses (e.g. compare the uses of ser and estar in a newspaper article)
  • Surveys (e.g. survey native Spanish speakers about how well they understand different dialects)
  • Interviews/interactions (e.g. interview Spanish speakers about their use of different second person pronouns)
  • Corpus research (e.g. use Google search and other tools to compare the use of the term castellano in different Spanish-speaking countries.)

Second, there are materials that I trimmed from the book to keep it from getting too long or digressive. These include:

  • links to online information about minority language conflicts in Spain
  • a UNESCO study about linguistic diversity on the Internet
  • more on “doublets” (Spanish word pairs from the same Latin root)
  • what happened to the Jews who were expelled in 1492
  • a competing theory on the geography of proto-Indo-European
  • Columbus’s first use of canoa
  • Spanish “motherese” (how Spanish-speaking parents speak to their kids)
  • more on native speech errors
  • more on differences between Spanish and English prepositions
  • examples of ñ in the oldest El Cid manuscript
  • screenshots of the original Real Academia documents inventing ¿ and ¡
  • more examples of the use of le and lo in El Cid
  • the frequencies of the different “boot” verb types, cross-correlated with conjugation class
  • the origin of the six unpredictably irregular present tense subjunctives (seasepaestéhaya, and vaya)
  • a quantitative look at adjectives before and after the noun


Rave review of “¿Por qué?” in Babel Magazine

Babel Magazine,  a British quarterly about language and linguistics for a popular audience (think Scientific American), has just reviewed ¿Por qué? — and it’s a rave! I’m not hugely surprised, because Babel‘s linguistic consultant, David Crystal, already contributed a favorable blurb for the book’s back cover. But I am absolutely thrilled nevertheless. I thought that the reviewer, Iulia Bobăilă, really captured my intention to present technical material in an approachable way.

When I read that Dr. Bobăilă is a Lecturer at Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, I had to look up this wonderfully-named city. It turns out to be, according to Wikipedia, not only the second-largest city in Romania, but also “the unofficial capital of the Transylvania region”. How cool is that? It looks like a beautiful city, too — definitely one for the bucket list.

Here’s the review:

Curiosas y curiosos

When rereading one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, which I’ve written about previously here and here, a sentence I’d missed the first time caught my eye:

El cadáver de Reme y el círculo de curiosas y curiosos, hablando en voz baja, observando aquel quebranto de la vida en forma de muerte inesperada.

‘Remy’s corpse and the circle of curious women and men, speaking in soft tones, observing that devastation in the form of unexpected death.’ (my translation)

The interesting Spanish here is curiosas y curiosos. It’s noteworthy because mixed-sex groups are usually described using the masculine gender only; the expected wording here, then, would simply be curiosos. (I occasionally tell a girl student that in Spanish, “boys have cooties”, so that a single masculine item in a group contaminates the whole group.) Sierra i Fabra is obviously circumventing this rule in order to emphasize that there were more woman than men ogling the dead body. This may sound like a minor detail, but the story is set in Barcelona in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, and this is one of many instances where Sierra i Fabra calls attention to the lack of men after years of fighting.

My English translation gets the same message across by mentioning “women and men”, where the usual expression is “men and women”, but curiosas y curiosos is an even more striking — and attention-calling — deviation from the norm.

I love to find examples, such as this one, where a grammatical feature of Spanish adds to its expressive power.

The linguistics of “Despacito”

The Puerto Rican hit song and video Despacito recently passed Justin Bieber’s Sorry to become the most-streamed song in history. The original video (below), by Luis Fonsi with rapper Daddy Yankee,  currently has 2,704,830,813 views, while the remix including Bieber’s vocals (in English and Spanish) adds 37,439,624 views to the record.

I’ve personally contributed to this phenomenon by watching the original video at least a dozen times. (Also check out this video of a little girl who can’t stop dancing to the song, and this one of three Italian men in a car who diss it.) I love everything about Despacito except the obligatory scantily-clad women: the infectious, up-beat rhythm and melody, the lively street and bar scenes, the dancing, and the enthusiasm of everyone on screen. And, of course, the Spanish.

From a linguistic perspective, Despacito is above all a celebration of Spanish diminutives. As I described in an earlier post, these word endings often express affection instead of literal small size. Thus the song’s title, which adds the diminutive ending -ito to the word despacio ‘slow’, translates literally as ‘a little slow’, but more accurately as ‘nice and slow’. This is, in fact, the message of the song, whose lyrics are all about taking one’s time in bed (hence the scantily clad women). Over and over again, the song repeats the title and three other diminutives: suavecito, pasito a pasito, and poquito a poquito. Suavecito means ‘a little gentle’, or, again, ‘nice and gentle’. In the song it always occurs in the phrase suave suavecito, a construction often seen in nursery rhymes such as Araña arañita (the equivalent of The Itsy Bitsy Spider). Pasito a pasito ‘little step by little step’ can be taken more literally; in poquito a poquito ‘little by little’, the diminutive endings intensify the usual expression poco a poco.

All these diminutives made it easy for Fonsi and his collaborators to produce a song that abounds in pleasing rhymes. The diminutives are fully rhymed with other words that coincidentally end in -ito: manuscrito ‘manuscript’, originally a past participle (‘hand written’), grito ‘shout’ (from gritar ‘to shout’), and favorito ‘favorite’, an Italian word that entered Spanish via French. By assonance, or vowel rhyming, the diminutives are also matched with words ending in other i-o syllables: apellido, conmigolaberinto, oído, peligro, and ritmo. I also love Daddy Yankee’s rap sequence that uses the direct object pronoun lo ‘it’ to rhyme the command dámelo ‘give it to me’ with the gerunds pensándolo ‘thinking about it’, intendándolo ‘trying it’, and dándolo ‘giving it’. The antepenultimate stress (three syllables from the end of the word) on these verbs gives these lines an unusual and driving rhythm.

The first few times I heard the song I was confused by a word that sounded like diguay. This turned out to be DY, Daddy Yankee’s initials, as pronounced in English. The Spanish equivalent would be de i griega (y is a “Greek i”), and I guess the English version sounds better.

One final, non-linguistic note. Hispanic music, just like literature, film, and other aspects of Hispanic culture, benefits from the wide diversity of the Hispanic community. Fonsi and DY are Puerto Rican, but Erika Ender, the song’s third writer, is Panamanian, and the song’s two producers, Andrés Torres and Mauricio Rengifo, are Colombian. Bravo to all of them!


Grading Spanish AP tests in Cincinnati

Last month I was among the hundreds of high school and college Spanish instructors who convened in Cincinnati, Ohio to grade Spanish Advanced Placement (AP) tests. [AP tests are a way for U.S. high school students to earn college credit and/or impress the colleges they apply to.] Half the test is multiple choice and is machine-graded. The rest of the test — two speaking tasks and two writing tasks — is graded by humans. I was on the team that graded the writing tasks.

I hadn’t seen an AP Spanish test since I took one as a high school senior! Since then, the test, and its corresponding high school classes, have been divided into two: Spanish Language and Culture, and Spanish Literature. My colleagues and I were in Cincinnati to grade Spanish Language and Culture; the Spanish Literature exam was graded earlier in the month. We were in Cincinnati along with graders for the other Language and Culture tests — Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Japanese — and, oddly, Music Theory. This all took place at the gigantic and soulless Duke Energy Center in downtown Cincinnati.

I applied to be an AP grader a few years ago because my best friend had told me that her own work as an AP economics grader had been a great way to meet colleagues from around the country, and was also a lot of fun. This was the first year the timing worked out for me to participate, and I have to say that my friend was right. According to our orientation, our group included educators from all fifty states, and Spanish speakers from every Spanish-speaking country. It was great to get to know some of them. And the work itself was fascinating.

You don’t sign up for something like this unless you really like grading. I certainly do: it’s always interesting to see what students get right and wrong, and to get a glimpse of their thinking. This experience was, of course, very different from grading my own students’ papers. The main difference was volume. In my own teaching I never have to grade than a couple of dozen papers at a time, or for more than a few hours at a time. In Cincinnati we graded hundreds of papers, working from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm for seven days in a row. Even with morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks, it was hard to keep up one’s energy and attention. It helped that there were no distractions, and that a strong esprit de corps reigned in our giant grading room (Exhibit Hall A). Keeping the good of the test-takers in mind, we aimed to grade the last essay of the day as carefully as the first.

Another difference was that we weren’t grading our own students’ work. It felt strange to be reading essays with a completely blank slate instead of knowing who the students were. This made for a more objective review, however, and is one reason why AP tests are graded centrally instead of by each student’s teacher. it also meant that grading was a single, unidirectional event instead of part of an interactive process. Normally I grade with red pen in hand, pointing out different types of errors for students to fix in a second draft. As an AP grader I wasn’t allowed to annotate the essays I read, or to make notes, even for my own benefit.

A final difference was the type of Spanish in the essays. Most of my students speak English as a first language, and I’m used to reading essays with this population’s typical errors. In contrast, many — or most (65%), according to Wikipedia — AP Spanish test takers are native Spanish speakers. A good fraction of these have not fully mastered the ins and outs of Spanish spelling, despite a year or more of formal study of their language. This means that these essays had a different set of errors: those of someone who has learned Spanish by ear. Typical errors were missing or misapplied accent marks, missing or overused silent h, the substitution of d for r (e.g. pedo for pero ‘but’), and the confusion of ll and y and likewise b and v. (See this earlier blog post for historical examples of the same errors.) I was amazed to see that two students even misspelled the ubiquitous word yo ‘I’ as llo.

The good folks from the College Board did a phenomenal job administering the grading process. This involved recruiting, transporting, housing, and feeding the graders; keeping track of the exam papers; and — most importantly — training the graders so that our scores were calibrated. We spent hours learning how to grade each of the two writing tasks, following a detailed rubric, and had refresher training sessions after each break. Each table of seven graders had a head grader who answered our questions and spot-checked our work. As far as I could see, colleges evaluating AP test results should feel confident that the scores are reliable.

One night during the week was “Professional Night”, and my poster on “Bringing linguistics into the foreign language classroom” (see below) was accepted for the night’s mini-conference. It was well received, and I sold the few spare copies of my book that I had with me. Hooray!

A technical note: I made the poster as a single PowerPoint slide, sized to 4 x 3″, and used “Export PDF” (under the “File” menu) to create the image.


Great reads re: Arabic, Icelandic

Of course this blog is about Spanish, but I couldn’t resist sharing with you two recent articles about Arabic and Icelandic. Any linguistically-minded reader will find them fascinating.

The first article, from the New Yorker, is simultaneously a tale of language learning, a profile of an inspired (but anguished) language teacher, and a source of information about the current state of Egyptian Arabic. I already knew that there was a split between written, “Modern Standard” Arabic, which is homogeneous across the Arabic-speaking region, and the spoken Arabic of the different countries in the region. (For this reason, Arabic students in the United States typically start with Modern Standard Arabic, then spend some time in the country of their choice to learn the relevant spoken version.) But I didn’t know it had come to the point where educated Egyptians now use English or French as a written language instead of Arabic. It’s as if Spanish speakers had continued to write in Latin, but now, given widespread knowledge of English, found it easier to use English as a written language while maintaining Spanish as a means of oral communication. Mind-blowing.

The second article, from the Associated Press, describes the perilous state of Icelandic. The enemy here is English, spoken as a second language throughout Iceland, and used extensively in tourism and business. Apparently young people are speaking English among themselves, a dangerous sign. English is also required for anyone who interacts with technology, since modern devices don’t ‘speak’ Icelandic. Languages die out all the time, unfortunately, but these are mostly minority languages, like Native American languages with only a few hundred speakers. It’s startling to see such concerns raised about a language with hundreds of thousands of speakers, Nobel Prize-winning literature, and official support and recognition: “an army and a navy,” to use Max Weinreich’s classic formulation.


A Rotary talk on Spanish in the United States

I recently gave a talk to my local Rotary Club about Spanish in the United States, as part of my ongoing effort to promote my book. It was fun in multiple ways. First, I didn’t know anything about the Rotary organization beforehand, so I got to learn a bit about what they do. The group included local business people, the chief of police, a judge, and other upstanding citizens. Second, I picked the topic of “Spanish in the United States” because I figured it would be of general interest, and it was — most gratifying. Third, this was the first time I’ve tried speaking to a group that knew nothing about either linguistics or Spanish, and it went fine. This bodes well for hypothetical future speaking gigs.

Here is a rough outline of my talk. Note that it was organized in reverse chronological order.

  1. Predicting the future
    1. General pattern of immigrant languages being lost (Yiddish, Italian, German, etc.)
    2. Researchers concur that Spanish fits the same pattern, despite large numbers of Spanish speakers
      1. previous waves of immigration had huge numbers, too
    3. Specific prediction: Spanish will be gone in a few generations unless new immigrants continue to replenish population of speakers
      1. anecdotal evidence from my students: “I wish my parents had insisted that I speak Spanish with them”.
  2. Describing the present
    1. Features that show loss in progress
      1. U.S.-born Hispanics speaking more basic form of language
        1. keeping fundamental parts, e.g.
          1. gender
          2. preterite/imperfect
        2. loss of
          1. sophisticated structures, e.g. complex If..then structures (‘If I hadn’t spent all my money yesterday I wouldn’t have had to borrow more this morning’)
          2. some verb tenses
          3. some irregular verbs
      2. English influence
        1. borrowing, e.g. registración for inscripciónflu for gripe
          1. excursus on borrowing of Spanish vocab into English (plug for Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries)
        2. grammar (examples from Silva-Corvalán and Lipski)
          1. possessives for body parts (Me pegó en mi brazo)
          2. superfluous subject pronouns (Yo creo)
          3. noun-adjective order (machucado español ‘chopped-up Spanish’)
        3. code switching
    2. Most important characteristic unrelated to language loss = variety
      1. No such thing as “United States Spanish”; plug for Lipski’s Varieties of Spanish in the United States)
      2. Main concentrations are PR/DR in NE, Mexican in SW, Cuban in SE
      3. Interesting research on dialects in contact: linguistic accommodation, leveling
  3. A little history
    1. Modern migration from other countries is second phase of Spanish in the U.S.
      1. First phase = Spanish colonial period
      2. Relics still in New Mexico and Colorado (norteños), Louisiana
        1. another plug for Varieties of Spanish in the United States (ch. 12)
    2. What kind of Spanish? Andalusian
      1. no th sound (cerveza)
      2. final -s deletion (lo libro)
      3. ustedes but not vosotros

Book review from former local paper

I lived in Los Alamos, New Mexico, from 1989 to 2000. I’ve written a bit about this experience in posts here, here, and here. A reporter for the Los Alamos Monitor recently interviewed me about ¿Por qué?; the resulting article is here. There are a few corrections I would make, but it’s still really nice coverage. Thank you Monitor!

Bad Spanish — MTA edition

Because Spanish has so many different ways to say ‘you’ — singular and plural, informal and formal — it’s important for Spanish speakers and writers to identify the appropriate version for each person or group they address, and stick with it. I always “ding” my students if they, for example, waver between formal usage (usted) and informal () within a paragraph.

A public service poster currently on display in New York City subways features an error along these lines.

si ves algo

This is a mediocre phone snapshot, I’m afraid, but I hope you can make out, after the large black words Si ves algo, di algo ‘If you see something, say something’, the smaller black words Tome un momento para alertar a un oficial de policía o empleado de la MTA, o llame al 888-NYC-SAFE ‘Take a moment to alert a police officer or MTA employee, or call 888-NYC-SAFE’.

I have put the key verbs in red. The grammatical problem here is that ves ‘see’ and di ‘say’ are  commands, but tome ‘take’ and llame ‘call’ are usted commands. Obviously, the MTA would do better to choose one mode of address and stick to it. Specifically, they should change tome and llame to toma and llama to reflect the informal usage of the ubiquitous Si ves ago, di algo slogan.

New York is full of educated Spanish speakers. Surely some of them work for, or consult with, the Metropolitan Authority (MTA)? As someone who profoundly cares about the Spanish language, I find this kind of bureaucratic carelessness infuriating and even insulting.

While searching for a better image of this poster, I came across a blog post about Si ves algo, di algo by a professional interpreter. He complained that this slogan itself is Bad Spanish. He argues that an English speaker hearing or reading If you see something, say something naturally interprets say something as say something about it, whereas a Spanish speaker does not make the same inference.

My native English intuitions in this case have been blurred by years of exposure to the slogan, and I am not a native Spanish speaker. Therefore it is hard for me to judge whether this interpreter’s nuanced distinction is correct. Readers, help me out here!

Next day: The same sequence of Spanish (more or less) is reproduced on the back of Metro Cards (subway passes), so you can see the writing clearer. Here what bothers me is all the Bad Spanish capitalization (e.g. “Combatir el Terrorismo”).

si ves ago bis