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…]

Today’s the day!

Happy book birthday!

Today is the official publication day of my book, ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish. Amazon’s book page is sort of funky — the Kindle price is wrong, and they are pessimistic about delivery times. In any case I would recommend ordering directly from Bloomsbury to take advantage of the 35% discount available with order code PQ101.

Please spread the word to your friends and colleagues who care about Spanish, and also consider asking your local and/or university library to order the book. If you patronize an independent bookstore that might be interested in stocking it, do contact me to let me know. Also, I love public speaking, and welcome any opportunities to talk to academic or civic groups within a reasonable radius of New York.

Between teaching and family obligations I have fallen behind on my blogging. Inter alia I want to write about:

  • students’ picking up on my English muletilla ‘so’
  • why ser + céntrico is confusing
  • diminutives in my latest Jordi Sierra novel

and so much more! Hopefully I will soon find the time and energy to pick up this important part of my life.

El Diario reviews my book!

With ten days to go till the publication of my book ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish, the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario has just published a full-page review in its National Hispanic Heritage Month supplement. See the scan below. I hope that this review will help my book find a readership among the Hispanic community as well as academia, a long-held dream of mine.

el-diario-review

A new online Spanish etymological dictionary

Today’s post is about a new online resource for the Spanish language lover: the Online Etymological Dictionary of Spanish, or OEDoS. A screen clip of the welcome screen is below. The website was inspired by Douglas Harper’s very useful online etymological dictionary of English. It went live in July, and has its own Facebook page. The primary resource consulted to create the entries has been Corominas’s Diccionario crítico etimológico de la lengua castellana. (This is the six-volume standard, whose shorter version is one of the “top 10 books” on my bookshelf.)

Capture

I contacted the OEDoS Team to find out more about their methodology. Via a friendly return email I learned that the dictionary began with the 2000 most frequently used words of Spanish, with others added because of etymological importance, user requests, and other reasons. My OEDoS contact’s (Patrick Welsh) explanation of how the OEDoS handles etymological disagreements was quite interesting:

As regards conflicting etymologies, we the OEDoS team recognize a dual responsibility of both accuracy and readability. We aim to capture disagreement between linguists whenever possible. In the interest of our time constraints and resources, this is not always possible. Sometimes this breeds disagreement on our side as well. For example, the etymology of hacer (http://spanishetym.com/term/hacer) sparked significant disagreement on historical accentuation and lexical borrowing; this caused the publication of the entry to be delayed for some time. We note the incisive criticism of Penny and others in the 1980s toward Meyer-Leubke, as well as very recent scholarship on Latin’s reflexes in Romance. Ultimately, we decided Meyer-Leubke’s comments were strong enough to overcome our initial wariness. Brief mention of two modern publications were included in the entry as well. Sometimes the entry you see in the dictionary is a snapshot of disagreement: not only between historical linguists at their university desks but between us as well

 

I hope that you will all visit this website and spread the word about the project.

Politics and linguistics in “Dos días de mayo”

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I am a huge fan of Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” detective novels. I’ve just finished the fourth in this series, Dos días de mayo, and found it a real page turner, and moving as well. If you love Spanish and enjoy a good read, please give it a try.

The Mascarell novels take place in Barcelona, in the waning days of the Spanish Republic and the early years of the Franco dictatorship, and their plots are very much linked to this setting. Without venturing into spoiler territory, Dos días is anchored to a specific real event, Franco’s visit to Barcelona in on June 1, 1949. In one passage, Inspector Mascarell, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, is aggrieved to see how beautiful Barcelona looks the day of the visit. His bitter reflections relate the city’s current abject position to a historical event, the Siege of Barcelona, which in 1714 definitively yoked Catalonia to the Spanish crown:

Salió al exterior y le golpeó el sol de la tarde. Otro bonito día de primavera, como si el tiempo se aliara con Franco para recibirle en la hermosa Barcelona que había puesto a sus pies.
La hermosa Barcelona.
A las putas también las engalanaban para que el cliente pagara más y se quedara satisfecho.
Se sintió culpable por ese pensamiento.
Barcelona.
Su Barcelona.
— También caímos en 1714 y nos levantamos.  –Suspiró.

A rough translation:

He left the building and was dazzled by the afternoon sun. Another beautiful spring day, as if the weather were allied with Franco to welcome him to beautiful Barcelona, which he had brought to its knees.
Beautiful Barcelona.
Whores also get dolled up so that a client will pay more and be more satisfied.
He felt guilty for this thought.
Barcelona.
His Barcelona.
“We also fell in 1714, and we got up again,” he sighed.

Given the strong Catalan identity expressed in the novels, it’s safe to assume that many of the conversations included in the book would have taken place (in “real life”) in Catalan, although the books themselves are written in Castilian Spanish. The books make occasional reference to differences between Catalan and Castilian. In one such passage, Sierra describes a policeman’s Castilian accent:

— ¿Miguel Mascarell? — Lo pronunció con marcado acento castellano, con la ‘g’ bien diferenciada y la ‘ll’ convertida en ‘l’, como si no supieran declamar ‘cuello’, ‘botella’, o ‘lluvia’ y en su lugar también dijeran ‘cuelo’, ‘botela’ o ‘luvia’.

— ¿Miguel Mascarell? — He pronounced it with a marked Castilian accent, with a sharp ‘g’ and the ‘ll’ converted in ‘l’, as if he couldn’t say ‘cuello’, ‘botella’, or ‘lluvia’ and in their place said ‘cuelo’, ‘botela’ or ‘luvia’.

In this passage Sierra shows himself to be more of a novelist than a linguist. Apparently he doesn’t know that a language’s phonology (pronunciation rules) determines not only its inventory of different sounds, such as l and ll, but also how they may be used within a word, an aspect of phonology called “phonotactics”. Castilian Spanish certainly has the ll sound but only uses it at the beginning of a word, or between vowels, whereas in Catalan it also permits it at the ends of words. You can’t blame the poor policeman!

Wrapping up our tour in Barcelona

[This is a much-procrastinated final post about my linguistic tour of northern Spain in June.]

A visit to the Museu d’Arqueologia de Catalunya, in the Montjuic area of Barcelona, was the perfect capstone for my trip to Spain. This first-rate museum covers the human history of Catalonia from prehistory through the Visigoths. It is well laid out and the wall labels are consistently informative. (Some are in Catalan only, and some in Catalan, Spanish, and English.) A full visit would take two to four hours, and so can easily be combined with other Montjuic attractions including the Joan Miró museum.

The Museu d’Arqueologia’s collections of Iberian, Greek, and Roman artifacts reinforced what my friend Sue and I had already seen in person at Ullastret and Empúries on the Costa Brava. The museum also explained the active role of Phoenicians in pre-Roman Spain. We learned about Phoenician settlements such as Sa Caleta, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Balearic Island of Ibiza. My previous knowledge of Phoenician activity in Spain was, of course, limited to linguistics. I knew that several Spanish place-names are Phoenician, including España itself (probably from an expression meaning ‘land of rabbits’), Cádiz (‘fortress’), MálagaCartagena (after Carthage), Ibiza, and Mahón (the capital of Minorca). In addition, the Phoenician alphabet was the basis of the Iberian alphabet seen in artifacts such as those found at Ullastret.

The slideshow below shows some of my favorite artifacts from the museum.