For the last several weeks I’ve been making slow but steady progress through Juan Manuel de Prada’s towering novel El séptimo velo. Like this blog, it’s been taking back seat to my teaching. As described in an earlier post, El séptimo velo is a romantic novel set mostly in post-war France and contemporary Spain. I learned of it from a reading list distributed by a professor at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.
This novel is unbelievably rich in vocabulary. My Spanish is excellent, I think, good enough to tear through a sophisticated thriller like Guillermo Martínez’s La muerte lenta de Luciana B. in a matter of hours, and in a typical book I rarely find more than two or three new words on a page. De Prada’s Spanish came as such a shock that I decided, as an intellectual exercise, to (i) write down all the new words I encountered on a random page, (ii) record what I thought they meant, and why (iii) look up their actual meanings, and (iv) blog the results. The random page was p. 315 of the 2008 Harper Collins Planeta paperback.
This humbling experiment turned up 30 new words on one page!!! — of which I correctly interpreted more than half. The first part of this statistic gave me second thoughts — and even third and fourth — about writing this post. Revealing how much Spanish vocabulary I still don’t know, after years of studying and teaching the language, is somewhat embarrassing. But I decided to go ahead because vocabulary, and how we learn it, is such an important topic.
For one thing, while English speakers may be aware that English has an enormous lexicon — over 450,000 words, according to David Crystal — they may not realize the extent of the Spanish lexicon. The Real Academia‘s dictionary has about 162,000 words, almost 100,000 more than an educated person learns in a lifetime (again according to Crystal). The Spanish lexicon combines a native Latin base with substantial borrowings, mostly from Arabic, Germanic, other Romance languages, Latin (again) and Greek, English, and native American languages.
Second, since I’m always telling my students to use context, cognates, and familiar Spanish vocabulary to deduce meanings, I was curious to see how far this actually takes a reader (i.e., me). The use of context in particular is of broad linguistic interest, because it enables babies to learn language, and adults to communicate under difficult conditions, for example over a poor telephone connection.
Finally, I’ve become fascinated with de Prada’s Spanish. His vocabulary is not only immense but also erudite. Elsewhere in the book, for example, he uses preñada, instead of embarazada, to mean “pregnant”. I would love to hear how native Spanish readers of this blog respond to the vocabulary listed below. How obscure is it?
The table below details the fruits of my analysis. As a summary:
- The only word I couldn’t even guess at was chabola.
- I misinterpreted several words: troncho, deje, forzar (in a weird context), barullo, ráfaga, metralla and ametrrallada, atronar, cordura, quincalleros, and zalamero. Of these, I came closest on deje (“accent”), recognizing its connection with dejar, and with barullo “racket, din” — I guessed “crowd”. The most personally galling were metralla and ametrrallada, because I’ve tried to memorize the word ametralladora (“machine gun”) several times. I’ve also run into zalamero and may even have flash-carded it a few years ago.
- I correctly deduced the general semantic category of several words from context, like a good Spanish student (or baby). For example, I assumed that berza “cabbage” was a kind of food, and batahola “racket, din” a kind of noise. Other words in this category were chalán, prole, enjuto, estrépito, apelmazado, esportillero, and arrumbadero. The last two were quite obscure. Esportillero wasn’t in wordreference.com, though I found it in the RAE. Arrumbadero was in neither. I “looked it up” by consulting the friendly and expert participants in the Word Reference Spanish vocabulary forum.
- I figured out several meanings thanks to English cognates and my existing Spanish vocabulary. For example, English amble and ambulatory gave me deambuló, and Spanish hormiga “ant” gave me hormiguear “to swarm”.
- Context made estraperlo and traquateo absolutely clear. Onomatopoeia also helped with the latter.