Monthly Archives: December 2013

Malayalam is a palindrome

To be honest, this post only tangentially concerns Spanish, by virtue of references to the Indo-European family, and to the delightful word blablablá. And it’s more about language than linguistics. It’s my way of kicking back and celebrating the end of my teaching semester — already!

Although I’m the linguist of the family, my husband has his own way with words. He’s always playing with them in his head, turning them around, looking for palindromes and anagrams. Perhaps this compulsive mental rearrangement comes from years of playing competitive chess as a teenager? His favorite palindrome is wonton ↔ not now, which suggests the following madcap dialogue:

Person A: How do you say wonton backwards?
Person B: Not now!
Person A: No, I really want to know!
Person B: Not now!
and so on…

His skill most impressed me on the day, perhaps ten years ago, that a young driver rear-ended my car on a busy street in the nearby city of New Rochelle. The driver and I chatted while waiting for the police to come, and I learned that his parents were from Kerala in southern India. This meant that he spoke Malayalam at home. While I don’t remember our conversation too well, I’m pretty sure that, compulsively didactic as always, I explained to him that his family’s language, like other languages of southern India such as Tamil and Kannada, was part of the Dravidian language family. These survived when the original languages of northern India were overwhelmed by the Indo-European invasion that swept the subcontinent from the northwest thousands of years BCE. The effects of this invasion can be seen in Indian genetics as well as linguistics.

When I came home that day and announced that “I was rear-ended by a Malayalam teenager in New Rochelle”, my husband asked, without blinking an eye, if I knew that the word Malayalam is a palindrome. This is true, though only with Roman alphabet spelling. The original spelling in the Malayalam script is the asymmetrical


Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching two Fordham students from Malayalam-speaking families. Both were wonderful students, not only bright but gregarious, hard-working, and upbeat. When I met each of them, I of course went into my usual spiel about Indo-European versus Dravidian languages in India (blablablá, an actual, RAE-sanctioned Spanish word!, is perhaps the best way to describe this), combined with my husband’s. Both already knew that Malayalam was Dravidian, but neither had realized that their language name was a palindrome.

So, dear readers, now you know how to amaze any Malayalam-speaking acquaintance. You can tell them both the bad news — that their language is unrelated to Spanish since it’s Dravidian, not Indo-European — and the good — that its name is one for the books.



Another day, another Spanish idiom

Yesterday I came across an interesting article on El País about the founding of the Real Academia Española, one of my favorite institutions. The article relates, with a lamentable lack of detail, how a group of eight Spaniards began meeting in 1713 to create the first Spanish dictionary. Three other colleagues soon joined the project, it received royal sanction the following year, and the rest is (linguistic) history. Missing from the article are the founders’ identities (besides the Marqués de Villena) and backgrounds (more nobility? writers? scholars?). Still, it’s an inspiring tale.

As usual, I read the article with an eye out for unfamiliar vocabulary. All I encountered was a novel (to me) expression: the author compares the RAE’s founding to cuatro gatos [que] se lanzaban al abismo (“four cats who jumped into an abyss”). Lanzarse al abismo was clearly a metaphor for starting a venture into the unknown. Cuatro gatos, on the other hand, seemed purely idiomatic.

Thanks to an appeal to the friendly folks on the Spanish-English vocabulary forum, and a Google search that yielded similar results, I learned that cuatro colloquially refers to a small quantity (in English we’d say “a handful”) and gato can be slang for “person”. ( itself gives a slang interpretation of gato as “person from Madrid”, but the usage seems to be more general.) So the mystery sentence boiled down to “a small group of people started an uncertain venture”.

I love the parallel between this use of gato and the English slang meaning of cat as “a cool person”. The choice of cuatro to stand for “a handful” is also pleasing. As a rule of thumb, I think of three as “a few” and five as “several”; four is right in between. From a literary perspective it was also rather bold to mix literal numbers (8 and 11 founding members) with the metaphorical number 4.

Still, it’s hard to shake off the image of a cat playing a lemming…




3 December, 2013

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A final post on El séptimo velo

After a hiatus of several weeks, I recently took advantage of a cross-Atlantic flight to finally finish Juan Manuel de Prada’s novel El séptimo velo. It has been a tough but exciting slog. I’d recommend the book to an ambitious non-native speaker, or to a native speaker interested in a variety of topics: World War II (especially the German occupation of Paris), mental illness, circuses, or love.

In an earlier post I dissected a single metaphor used in El séptimo veloMore recently I went into a potentially embarrassing level of detail about the book’s challenging vocabulary. It was heartening to hear back from native speakers that some of the words that stumped me were unfamiliar to them as well, or at least struck them as antiguocultorural/rústico, or literario. Several other words that I didn’t know are, in fact, reasonably common, and definitely belong on my “need to know” list. One never stops learning.

Given my linguistic fascination with El séptimo velo, I was intrigued to read a blistering online review of it by Sergio Parra (in Papel en blanco) that took particular issue with the novel’s language. While Parra acknowledges that some of de Prada’s prose “shows stylistic mastery”, he describes the book as, variously:

  • mucha letra y poca historia (“many words but little to say”)
  • 650 páginas que habrían podido resumirse en 200 (“650 pages that should be 200”)
  • que incurre en …el exceso de metáforas, en el exceso de frases preciosistas trufadas de subordinadas…(“over-indulging in metaphors and gaudy sentences crammed with subordinate clauses”)
  • pesada, lenta, morosa, meándrica, superflua, barroca (“heavy, slow, morose, meandering, superfluous, and baroque”)

Personally, I enjoyed de Prada’s almost joyfully complicated prose. A prime example is a 3 1/2-page-long tour-de-force paragraph toward the end of the novel (pp. 583-6 of the Planeta edition). In alternating sentences, it simultaneously narrates both (i) a passionate bout of lovemaking between two main characters, and (ii) a weeks-long chain of events involving the French Resistance, triggered by one of the lovers’ revealing a secret to the other at the beginning of the scene. For me, it worked.

De Prada uses one of the novel’s secondary characters to gently mock his own writing style. His description of the psychologist/hypnotist Portabella is worth quoting at length (p. 518):

Portabella was a virtuoso of conversation, or, more specifically, of monologue. He talked as if speech were as necessary to him as breathing or eating; he spoke, moreover, with extreme precision, using an extensive vocabulary and constructing sentences with satisfaction and accuracy, as befits someone who for professional purposes is familiar with the spell-binding power of language [a reference to hypnotism or to writing]. He never used a common word if an erudite alternative was available; he never used a vague word if he could find a more exact one. It wasn’t a torrent that flowed from his lips, since there was nothing hurried or confused about his speech, but rather a wide river flowing down a valley. It flowed with a tranquil, yet constant force that carried away all everything that opposed its progress.

It’s even better in Spanish! Check it out if you can.