I don’t know what inspired me to create the slideshow below. It popped into my head while I was driving home from the gym yesterday. I had a lot of fun fleshing it out last night and today. I hope you enjoy it, too.
I feel sheepish about writing this blog post — hence the “guilty conscience” — since the perpetrator this time around is a most worthy organization: SOMOS Community Care, a network of community-based health medical providers in New York City who serve Medicaid recipients, many of whom are Spanish speakers.
I saw this promotion for SOMOS on a window on the north side of East 42nd street in Manhattan, just down the block from Grand Central Station:
The error is the unneeded accent mark on the last word of this promotion, which should have been just plain ti. People often put an accent mark on ti because the similar word mí (as in para mí) has one. But that mark distinguishes the pronoun mí ‘me’ from the possessive adjective mi ‘my.’ It’s akin to the accent marks on sí ‘yes’ (versus unaccented si ‘if’), tú ‘you’ (vs. tu ‘your’), más ‘more’ (vs. mas ‘but’), and a number of other word pairs. in contrast, Spanish only has one word ti, so there’s no need for an accent mark.
I am totally at a loss to understand the top line of this promotion: The inside’s. I don’t even know if it’s part of the SOMOS promotion. But it reminds me of an adage I’ve come up with: accent mark mistakes in Spanish are like apostrophe marks in English. They’re ubiquitous, and make a bad impression.
SOMOS’s app, MiSOMOS, includes a terrific set of “Dr. Del Barrio” videos that explain annual checkups, diabetes, prostate cancer, and other important topics. The text in the sample video I watched (“Ver a tu doctor”) also has a few accent mark mistakes, as does the text below the video. I suggest that the good people at SOMOS enlist a Spanish teacher, or someone else familiar with this aspect of Spanish spelling, to review their content. I’d be happy to volunteer.
No sooner had I published my previous blog post, on the unexpectedly transitive Spanish verbs desayunar, almorzar, and cenar, when I had a headlong collision with an unexpectedly intransitive verb: comprar ‘to buy.’ I’ve been using this basic verb for ages, but always as a transitive verb, i.e. with a direct object, as in:
- Voy a comprar un libro. (the direct object is el libro)
- He comprado demasiadas papas. (the direct object is demasiadas papas ‘too many potatoes’)
- Compro mucha comida en Trader Joe’s. (the direct object is mucha comida ‘a lot of food’)
Spanish has a related intransitive expression ir de compras ‘to go shopping.’ But I never imagined that the verb comprar itself can be intransitive until one of my colleagues put the following sentence on a test we were writing together. I’ve changed it a little in case one of our students is reading this blog.
- No hay nada de sal en la cocina. Tenemos que comprar.
‘There is no salt in the kitchen. We have to buy.’
For this native English speaker at least, the intransitive comprar sounded woefully naked. I expected some object to accompany the verb, as in La tenemos que comprar ‘We have to buy it,’ Tenemos que comprarla (same translation), or Tenemos que comprar más ‘We have to buy more.’
However, after asking with other Spanish speakers, it is clear that Tenemos que comprar is fine by itself. I also checked the verb’s entry in the Real Academia Española dictionary, and indeed the third definition is intransitive:
- intr. Realizar una compra, especialmente si se hace de forma habitual. Compramos en tiendas del barrio.
although this sounds synonymous with ir de compras ‘to go shopping’ rather than shopping for a specific item.
My fellow test-writer also said that you could only say Tenemos que comprar más if you still had some salt and wanted to supplement it. Other speakers whom I consulted were divided on this nuance.
This comprar surprise, and my recent reckoning with desayunar and its transitive friends, have reminded me forcibly that I will never be a native speaker. To bolster my wounded self-esteem I keep reminding myself that my Spanish is actually really good and my English is even better! Plus I speak decent French, know a fair amount of Hebrew, and a little German. Really, I can hold my head high as a linguist, and should enjoy the subtle surprises that Spanish still holds for me rather than taking them personally. Most of the time, I do.
Boy, does this sound like a boring topic for a blog post!
Au contraire, the Spanish verb desayunar ‘to eat breakfast,’ and likewise almorzar and cenar ‘to eat dinner/lunch,’ beautifully illustrates how subtle differences between languages can be problematic for a learner — or a teacher.
Spanish uses simple verbs like desayunar to talk about eating a meal, whereas English uses multi-word expressions like to eat breakfast or to have lunch. In linguistic terminology, we say that these meanings are “lexicalized” in Spanish whereas the equivalent English expressions are “periphrastic.” Spanish and English verbs can go the other way, too. For example, English has lexicalized the concept ‘drop’ as drop (duh), whereas Spanish uses the periphrastic expression dejar caer ‘to let fall.’
For the most part, the lexicalized Spanish meal verbs and their pheriphastic English counterparts work the same way. You can use them to say who eats a meal, where they eat, when they eat, and even how and why they eat, as in the following examples.
- Mi padre desayuna ‘My father eats breakfast’
- Almuerzo en la cafetería ‘I eat lunch in the cafeteria’
- Los españoles cenan muy tarde ‘Spaniards eat dinner late’
- Desayunas demasiado rápido porque tienes prisa ‘You eat breakfast too quickly because you are in a hurry’
However, Spanish and English differ in how they say what someone eats. Spanish meal verbs can have a food noun as a direct object, as in:
- Mi padre desayuna huevos [eggs].
- Almuerzo comida muy mala [bad food] en la cafetería.
In other words, these verbs can be transitive. However, the English expressions already have a direct object: breakfast in My father eats breakfast, lunch in I have lunch in the cafeteria, and so on. For this reason, when saying in English what someone eats at a meal, you can’t just add the food to the usual periphrastic verb phrase, as in:
- *My dad eats lunch bad food.
Instead you must say something like
- My dad eats bad food for lunch.
which substitutes bad food as a direct object in place of lunch, which then becomes part of the adverbial phrase for lunch.
The fact that Spanish meal verbs like desayunar can be transitive, but their periphrastic English counterparts cannot, is the kind of subtle linguistic difference that challenges both students and teachers of Spanish. A native English speaker can learn the Spanish verbs desayunar, almorzar, and cenar and use them happily for years, but then freak out when they hear a sentence like Nunca almuerzo sopa, or try to understand and answer a question like ¿Qué cenas? These are genuinely difficult for a native English speaker to process. At the same time, a native Spanish-speaking teacher will most likely not realize that this aspect of Spanish is difficult for their English-speaking students.
I have been on both sides of this conundrum. I had been speaking Spanish for decades before I ever heard a transitive use of these meal verbs. In my own speaking I would use English-style syntax in statements like Como huevos en el desayuno ‘I eat eggs for breakfast’ or in questions like ¿Qué comes en el almuerzo? ‘What do you eat for lunch?’ I only became aware of the transitive uses of these verbs when teaching Spanish alongside native speakers who included them in class materials and even tests. While my first reaction was to shelter my students from these odd-sounding statements and questions, I then realized that it’s my responsibility as a teacher to point them out to my students as an interesting difference from English, and to practice the transitive uses with my students until they feel more or less natural, or at least until the students can interpret them correctly.
I enjoy teaching Spanish partly because I enjoy working with college students, partly because I love Spanish, and mostly because I believe everyone should strive be bilingual. Discovering new aspects of the language and its differences from English is intellectual icing on the pedagogical cake. A similar example for me was the Spanish preposition en, which can mean ‘in,’ ‘on,’ and ‘at.’ I was never aware of the broad semantic scope of this preposition until I had to correct students who said things like *Estoy a la playa ‘I am to the beach’ instead of Estoy en la playa ‘I am at the beach.’
As an etymological coda, the three Spanish meal verbs are the product of two different evolutionary paths: a kind of chicken/egg situation, with nouns as the chickens and verbs as the eggs (or the other way around). According to my trusty Spanish etymological dictionary, almorzar and cenar are derived from the nouns almuerzo ‘lunch’ and cena ‘dinner,’ whereas desayunar is derived from the verb ayunar ‘to fast.’ Its corresponding noun (desayuno) was coined from the verb desayunar more than two hundred years later.
Today I taught a lesson that compared the current war in Ukraine to the Spanish Civil War. The lesson was built around a wonderful video from the good folks at Dreaming Spanish. (Be forewarned that the first few seconds are glitchy.) My PowerPoint for the lesson is available here.
Before starting the video, we talked about the war in Ukraine: how were the students following the situation, did they have Ukrainian friends, and the characteristics of the two sides in the war. We also previewed vocabulary that would appear in the video.
During the video, I hit the pause button often to check for comprehension, to highlight similarities between the two wars, and to enrich the presentation with further information regarding Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and Picasso’s Guernica.
The bottom line was that both conflicts involve a spirited democracy, fighting with a force that includes professional soldiers and ordinary citizens, against a better-armed autocracy (in the Spanish case, a future autocracy) that does not hesitate to take civilian lives. Unlike the Spanish Republicans, the Ukrainians are united behind a charismatic leader and have extensive international support.
The final part of the class focused on Spanish Civil War posters. I had prepared a Google Slides presentation with a number of posters from both the Republican and Nationalist sides. I had shared this presentation with my students ahead of time and had asked them to bring their laptops. Working in pairs, students chose one of the posters, did some quick research on it (mostly, looking up unfamiliar words), and then presented ‘their’ poster to the class.
Teachers: if you try this lesson, please let me know how it goes for you.
After publishing my recent post about Spanish commands and accent marks, which featured a short PowerPoint on this topic, I posted the same PowerPoint on the /r/Spanish subreddit and also on a few Facebook groups for Spanish teachers. I got unexpected pushback in those media about Anglicisms in the PowerPoint: Spanish words that I used with an English meaning. Specifically, I used the word estrés to refer to phonological (spoken) stress, i.e. a word’s most prominent syllable, and the word acento to refer to the written accent mark. Both these uses reflect English usage rather than standard Spanish.
- In Spanish estrés refers to physical or psychological stress. The correct translation of phonological stress (in the English sense) is acento, as in El acento recae en la penúltima sílaba ‘Stress falls on the next-to-last syllable.’ One can also refer to the sílaba tónica (the ‘stressed syllable’), as in La sílaba tónica es la penúltima ‘The stressed syllable is the next-to-last one.’
- The normal Spanish term for the written accent mark is tilde, which in English refers specifically to the ~ that turns an n into an ñ.
This table summarizes the above:
|Meaning||Standard Spanish term||Anglicized term|
|written accent mark||tilde||acento|
I used the Anglicized terms because the related topics of phonological stress and written accent marks are already very challenging on their own. First, the rules that govern phonological stress in Spanish, and which underlie the language’s use of written accent marks, are simple to a linguist but not to a layman. For instance, although the primary use of accent marks is to indicate exceptions to the basic stress rules of Spanish, such as caFÉ or teLÉfono, where one would expect penultimate stress (as in HAbla) since the words in a vowel, this pattern fails if a word ends in an -n or -s, as in HAblan or HAblas. It also doesn’t explain the written accent in words like ¿Qué? ‘What?’ and más ‘more.’ Second, even if students understand these rules, they are not used to paying attention to phonological stress: they are generally unaware, for instance, that English features word pairs such as proJECT (verb) and PROject (noun). So mastering this topic requires picking up an ‘ear’ for an aspect of language that one has blissfully ignored for years or even decades.
I should add that native speakers of Spanish also have difficulty with accent marks, just as native speakers of English have difficulty with apostrophes.
Fordham’s curriculum doesn’t allow time to teach a full lesson on accent marks, so instead I present the topic in short bursts, as needed. For example, my second-semester students recently learned command forms such ¡Duerme! ‘Sleep!’, ¡Duérmete! ‘Fall asleep!’, ¡Sé! ‘Be!’ and ¡Ve! ‘Go!’ This topic inevitably raises the question of which commands have accent marks and which don’t — and why. The PowerPoint in my earlier post answers this question accurately and quickly. It does so in part because it uses the anglicized terms estrés and acento instead of the proper Spanish counterparts. Having to explain the Spanish meanings of acento and tilde would gum up the works. So in this case I believe that the ends justify the means. I suspect that many Spanish teachers do the same.
Two other factors besides pragmatics justify my use of the Anglicized terms. The first is that both wordreference.com and linguee.es, both of which are reputable resources, give ‘accent mark’ (or ‘stress mark’) as one meaning of the word acento (although estrés never means phonological stress). The second is that Spanish has a long history of adding Anglicized meanings to existing vocabulary. Some examples are estrella meaning ‘celebrity’ (like English star), modelo meaning ‘fashion model,’ and blanco meaning ‘blank space to fill in.’ While purists may frown on such usages, I like to point out that Simón Bolívar, the great South American revolutionary hero, used papel ‘paper’ in the English sense of ‘newspaper’, and americano ‘American’ to mean someone from the United States, rather than the American continents more generally—a usage that is anathema to many contemporary Hispanics.
If Bolívar could get away with papel and americano, surely the gods of Spanish will forgive my use of estrés and acento in the service of pedagogy?
I made this short PowerPoint to explain why some command forms have accent marks (some only when pronouns are added) and some don’t.
Now that the semester has ended, I’m turning my attention back to a research project on Spanish etymologies that I’ve neglected for months. I owe my readers a blog post introducing this project, but for the time being I’ll share this teaser on the etymology of kinship terms like madre and padre. These words are fun to look at because (i) all languages have a set of such words, which (ii) reflect culture, especially gender roles, and (iii) have surprisingly varied etymologies, many of which (iv) have interesting twists and turns.
All etymologies presented here are from Juan Corominas’ Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana (1961).
To begin with, five pairs of Spanish kinship terms derived their masculine variant from Latin and their feminine variant from the Spanish masculine. This is the largest class of kinship terms we will see here, which is to be expected given that in Spanish, as in most languages, the masculine gender is dominant, or ‘unmarked.’ Thus new words usually enter the language as masculine even if they end in an -a (e.g. yoga, from Sanskrit, and centinela, from Italian), and many feminine words add suffixes to masculine bases (e.g. actor/actriz, español/española).
Note that all pairs of this type except for hijo/hija feature an interesting etymological twist or turn.
|Terms||Etymology of masculine term|
(In all cases, the Spanish feminine term is derived from the Spanish masculine by changing final -o to ‑a.)
|hijo/hija ‘son/daughter’||Latin filius ‘son’|
|hermano/hermana ‘brother/sister’||Latin germanus ‘of the same parents,’ from frater germanus ‘true brother, i.e. of the same parents’|
|primo/prima ‘cousin’||Latin primus ‘first,’ from consobrinus primus ‘first cousin’|
|sobrino/sobrina ‘nephew, niece’||Latin sobrinus ‘first cousin once removed, second cousin, etc.’, replacing Latin nepos ‘nephew, grandson’ (as in English nepotism)|
|cuñado/cuñada ‘brother/sister-in-law’||Latin cognatus ‘blood relative’ (con + natus ‘born with’) > ‘any type of relative’ > ‘in-law’ > ‘brother-in-law’|
Three pairs of kinship terms developed in the opposite direction from those above: their feminine variants came directly from Latin, and then served as the source of their masculine variants. You might be able to guess that two of these these are terms for grandparents and in-laws. After all, many grandmothers play a large supporting role in their grandchildren’s lives (more so than most grandfathers do) and mothers-in-law loom large in legend and marital strife (more so than fathers-in-law do, unless creepy).
|Terms||Etymology of feminine term|
(In all cases, the Spanish masculine term is derived from the Spanish feminine by changing final -a to ‑o.)
|Latin aviola, the diminutive form of avia ‘grandmother’ (like Spanish abuelita)|
[Note: abuelo replaced the expected descendent of Latin avus ‘grandfather’]
|Vulgar Latin socra ‘mother-in-law’, which “feminized” the masculine-sounding ending of Classical Latin socrus|
[Note: suegro replaced the expected descendent of Latin socer ‘father-in-law’]
|nieta/nieto ‘granddaughter/son’||Vulgar Latin nepta ‘granddaughter’ or ‘niece,’ which “feminized” the ending of Classical Latin neptis|
[Note: nieto replaced the expected descendent of Latin nepos ‘nephew, grandson’]
A few Spanish kinship terms come from unrelated masculine and feminine Latin roots.
|padre/madre ‘father, mother’||padre: Latin pater ‘father’|
madre: Latin mater ‘mother’
|yerno/nuera ‘son/daughter-in-law’||yerno: Latin gener ‘son-in-law’|
nuera: Vulgar Latin nora ‘daughter-in-law’, which “feminized” the masculine-sounding ending of Classical Latin nurus
Two final pairs of Spanish kinship terms are each sui generis.
|tío/tía ‘uncle/aunt’||Latin thius/thia ‘uncle/aunt’, from Greek thêios/théia ‘uncle/aunt’. These are rare examples of borrowed kinship terms.|
|padrastro/padrastra ‘stepfather/stepmother’||padrastro: Vulgar Latin padraster ‘stepfather,’ derived from pater by adding the Latin pejorative suffix -aster; it replaced Classical Latin vitricus.|
madrastra: Spanish derivative of madre, with the Spanish pejorative suffix -astra (from Latin ‑aster)
Some of the twists and turns described above reflect similar developments in the history of other words.
- Just as suegra, nuera, and nieta “feminized” the masculine-sounding endings of Latin’s socrus and nurus, and the unrevealing -is ending of neptis, so too Latin infante ‘princess’ and seniore ‘lady’ became Spanish infanta and señora. Ralph Penny calls this process “hypercharacterization,” a phenomenon also seen when masculine Latin nouns like passare ‘bird’ and cortice ‘cork’ took on the standard -o ending to become Spanish pájaro and corcho.
- Just as abuela absorbed the diminutive ending of Latin aviola, so too mantequilla ‘butter’ and various words ending in -eja, such as oveja ‘sheep,’ oreja ‘ear,’ and abeja ‘bee,’ come from Latin diminutives.
- Cuñado‘s semantic transformation from Latin ‘blood relative’ (i.e., not an in-law) to ‘brother-in-law’ is no more far-fetched than that of ‘milestone’ to ‘doll’ or ‘wrist,’ or that of ‘broma’ from ‘shipworm’ to ‘joke.’
As a charming closing factoid, I learned that madre is related to the Spanish and English words metrópoli/metropolis, metropolitano/metropolitan, and metro (in the sense of ‘subway’), all via the Greek word metrópolis, meaning ‘mother city’ (ciudad madre).
It’s all in the family.
Lately I’ve been struck by some parallels between accent marks in Spanish and apostrophes in English.
First, accent marks can distinguish otherwise identical word pairs such as Hable ‘Speak!’ and Hablé ‘I spoke’, or tú ‘you’ and tu ‘your’. This is analogous to it’s versus its in English.
Second, they can help you pronounce a word correctly. For example, teléfono is pronounced on the third-to-last syllable (le), not the next-to-last as you would expect for a word that ends in a vowel (like cucaracha). Likewise, the apostrophe in English I’ll changes its pronunciation vis-a-vis ill.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, correct use of accent marks is a sign of an educated Spanish speaker. Even speakers who don’t bother to type accent marks in emails and text messages need to include them in more formal texts, such as school assignments and business letters. Omitting an accent mark is as offensive to many readers as is, for example, confusing they’re and their in English.
Today is the last day of my teaching semester. My students will take their (online) final exam this afternoon and I should have their grades in by dinner.
Teaching Spanish online has been interesting, but it isn’t an experience I’d care to repeat, for several reasons.
The first is that despite being friendly and outgoing, I am fundamentally not much of a “people person.” This is in part because I am face-blind, but I expect it’s a more deeply-wired characteristic. For example, I struggle to keep track of my friends’ offspring — their kids’ names, ages, and so on — and have to store this information in my Google Contacts and/or rely on my husband to remind me of it before a get-together. I could never be a politician.
This deficit means that getting to know my students is a major hurdle that I face every semester. Multiple students with the same name, or multiple girls with the same hairstyle, are particularly challenging.
Teaching online plays into this weakness because the students appear as squares on my Zoom screen, with their names conveniently displayed so I don’t have to make the effort to learn them. They are abstracted away from their actual selves. Moreover, the routine activities that usually help me learn my students’ names and faces, such as taking attendance (in person) and handing back corrected papers, no longer exist. The result is that even now, at the end of the semester, there are a handful of students that I feel I don’t know at all.
A second reason is that, from my own experience attending online meetings, I know that just because a Zoom participant is focused on the screen, this doesn’t mean that they are actually paying attention. They could be reading the newspaper, playing a game, or chatting with a friend online. (I have been guilty of all of these distractions myself during meetings.) Sometimes when I call on a student it is clear from their response that although their face was on my Zoom screen, their brain had been somewhere else. Not good.
A third reason is that even when students are paying attention, it’s hard to get a brisk oral rhythm going. During my live classes students are always answering my questions, repeating or otherwise reacting to other students’ answers, asking questions of other students, and so on. A brisk pace really helps with this type of learning, and is hard to achieve in an online class. There is always a lag.
A fourth reason is that many ingredients in my usual bag of tricks are useless when teaching online. Some examples are conjugation (and other) drills that student pairs randomize with dice (1 = yo, 2 = tú, and so on); one-page ‘booklets’ with questions on the outside and answers inside, which students use while working in “teacher-student” pairs; and little slips of paper with questions (or prompts) that students use in quiz-quiz-switch fashion as they circulate and converse with each other.
As still another reason, all my students’ work this semester has been in electronic form, and I prefer to grade on paper. I usually write a lot of free-form comments that are difficult to replicate on a screen. I have ended up highlighting different parts of an essay in color and then writing notes below in the same color. This takes a long time. Also, when I grade tests I prefer to grade one question at a time rather than one test at a time. Blackboard (our online teaching system) has a mechanism for doing this, but it is awkward to use so I always end up grading one test at a time. Finally, if I want to change some aspect of my grading in retrospect I have to go back and find the tests affected. This is much easier with a stack of printed exams.
Even though our students all commit to doing their own work, as opposed to using Google Translate or other systems, I am less confident under these circumstances that I am getting a true picture of their actual Spanish abilities.
I even missed my commute! Taking the train to Fordham guarantees me almost an hour of walking in total, some peaceful minutes in the train, the beauty of Fordham’s campus, and a myriad of small social interactions. Humans are social creatures, and it’s good to be out and about.
For all these reasons, I am looking forward to teaching in a real classroom again this fall.