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.


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.)


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 ( 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.
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.
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.


Tú and usted in the Spanish Civil War

I just finished reading Spain in our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. This is the second book I’ve read by Adam Hochschild; the first is King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. I strongly recommend both of them. Spain in our Hearts masterfully blends a military history of the Spanish Civil War with the personal stories of Americans who were involved in the war as soldiers, medics, writers, and advocates. The main focus is on Americans who supported the Republican (anti-Franco) cause, but a handful on the other side are profiled as well. Hochschild also describes how internal political conflicts in the United States, Soviet Russia, and other countries shaped their role in the war.

In addition to its historical insights, Spain in our Hearts includes an interesting linguistic anecdote, about the use of the informal versus formal usted (both meaning ‘you’). An ambulance driver en route to a field hospital, realizing that he might have chosen the wrong road, hailed a group of men “sitting by a fire 200 yards away, whose uniforms he could not see in the dark. When the answer came back, ‘¿Qué quieres tú?‘ he relaxed, knowing they were Republicans. ‘If I had been answered ‘Usted‘ instead of ‘Tú,’ I should have been speaking to fascists.” This anecdote especially intrigues me because it contradicts the claim, in an essay by the Spanish sociologist and language commentator Amando de Miguel, that the widespread use of  in Spain began as “una ilusión igualitarista que se impuso en la última guerra civil, en los dos bandos“, i.e. on both sides in the war. I’d be happy to hear from readers who might know something about this question. Was  a sign of a Republican, or was its use more widespread?

Spain in our Hearts came into my hands at just the right moment. As a relatively new book with rave reviews, it is in heavy demand at my local library. I added my name to my library’s wait list months ago. By the time I got to the top of the list, and was able to check out the book, my interest in the Spanish Civil War had been primed by a bundle of other factors. I had read El tiempo entre costuras, which takes place during the war, and in the early years of Franco’s regime, and three books from Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Inspector Mascarell series), which take place just before and after Franco’s conquest of Barcelona. (My blog posts referring to these books can be found here and here.) On my recent trip to Spain I spent time in Burgos, which served as Franco’s headquarters during the war, and in Madrid and Barcelona, two cities that were besieged. Seeing the turnoff for Teruel on the road from Burgos to Girona reminded me of how little I knew about the crucial battle there — the site of the tú/usted anecdote, incidentally. Now that I’ve read the book, I’ll have to go back to Spain yet again, and see these places through fresh eyes. I might even try a commercial Civil War tour of Barcelona, Madrid, or battlefields.


Azúcar: ¿morena o moreno?

The gender of sugar (azúcar)

I drank a lot of coffee when I was recently in Spain, partly because of jet lag and partly because the coffee was so good. As in the U.S., it was always served with a small paper container of sugar. Who ever reads these containers? I do — when I’m in Spain — and was rewarded with a linguistic gem: one sugar packet I opened was labeled azucar morena (see picture). This was truly surprising, not because of the missing accent mark on azúcar, but because morena is a feminine adjective, and azúcar is masculine.

Or is it?

Although I had learned azúcar as a masculine noun, and had always seen it treated as such, It turns out that azúcar is one of a handful of Spanish nouns that are ambiguous in gender, meaning that either morena or moreno is legitimate. You can see this for yourself on or in the Real Academia Española dictionary.

I was familiar with this phenomenon from the examples of radioesperma ‘sperm’, and reúma  ‘rheumatism’. The latter two were borrowed from Greek as feminines because of their final -a, but have drifted toward masculine usage because the -ma masculine, most often seen in words of Greek origin, is associated with intellectual words such as temapoema, and apotegma.

In its Nueva gramática de la lengua española, the Real Academia points out that words of ambiguous gender are relatively rare. Besides azúcar, they list:

  • mar ‘sea’ (I believe that the feminine usage is confined to set expressions like pelillos a la mar ‘let bygones be bygones’)
  • agravante ‘aggravating circumstance’
  • armazón ‘shell, frame’ (as of a building)
  • azumbre ‘liquid measure, corresponding to 2 liters’
  • interrogante ‘question’
  • maratón ‘marathon’
  • prez ‘honor’
  • pringue ‘grease, drippings’
  • ánade ‘duck’

Now that I’ve written this post, I can finally throw out the sugar packets I brought home from Spain: a sweet reminder (jajaja) of how travel can open up new linguistic horizons.


My sister is a tax attorney, so when I saw this street sign in Barcelona I had to take a picture and send it to her. (Carrer is Catalan for ‘street’; its Spanish cognate is calle.)

"Taxdirt Street" in Barcelona.

“Taxdirt Street” in Barcelona.

I couldn’t find taxdirt in, my go-to Spanish dictionary; nor did I expect to, since it doesn’t sound at all Spanish. My next step was to ask a friendly server at a gelato shop we stopped at later that afternoon on the Ramblas. It turned out that he lived around the corner from Carrer de Taxdirt — but had no idea what it meant.

Fortunately, Google and Wikipedia soon came to the rescue. It turns out that Taxdirt is the name of a famous 1909 cavalry charge in Morocco, near Melilla (with Ceuta, one of two Spanish cities in Morocco). It has inspired a monument in Melilla, a set of toy solders (or perhaps ‘military figurines’), and even a hymn. Lyrics here.