Monthly Archives: October 2014

Linguistic gems from recent reading

Ages ago I discovered the joys of reading Spanish novels for fun. It helps to keep up my fluency and build my vocabulary, while adding bits of cultural knowledge. Of course, I always keep my linguistics hat on in case I find anything particularly interesting. This post describes two such findings.

The first is from La carta esférica, a novel about a sailor who joins a mysterious woman on a treasure hunt for a sunken ship carrying a priceless cargo of Jesuit emeralds. It’s by one of my favorite Spanish authors, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, best known for the Capitán Alatriste series. Besides its pleasantly page-turning plot, this novel features the best example I’ve ever seen of the stylistic exploitation of the two different versions of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive. Here, the narrator alternates between -ra and -se subjunctives as he waits for the mysterious lady of the emeralds to stop him from walking out. This alternation adds an extra back-and-forth rhythm to the parallel structure of the successive que clauses.

Todo el rato, hasta que cerró [la puerta] detrás de sí, estuvo esperando que fuese hasta él y lo agarrara por el brazo, que lo obligase a mirarla a los ojos, que contara cualquier cosa para retenerlo.

“The whole time, until the door closed behind him, he hoped that she would go to him, take him by the arm, make him look her in the eye, and say anything to keep him there.

Right now I’m reading Magali García Ramis’s memoir of growing up in Puerto Rico, Felices Días Tío Sergio. I first learned about García Ramis when she was inducted into the Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española (basically, the Puerto Rican branch of the Real Academia Española). In a previous post I described her inaugural lecture, on the Puerto Rican /r/. I bought a copy of Felices Días back then but only recently got around to reading it. It is absolutely delightful, written in simple Spanish that would make it a good first novel for a student to read.

The passage that caught my linguistic eye has to do with another cardinal aspect of Puerto Rican pronunciation, the aspiration of final -s. Here the protagonist, a young girl, is asking her mother to make cat-shaped cookies for the funeral in absentia of their lost cat, Daruel. It’s an interesting passage from a sociolinguistic perspective because it shows the two speakers’ awareness that this is a stigmatized feature. In the first line, Ramis uses the letter j to show the aspirated /h/ pronunciation of the /s/ of los.

— ¿Ah Mami? ¿Ah, nos laj haces? [Mom, will you make them for us?]
– Nos lassss hacesss – corrigió Mami [Will you make them for us? – Mom corrected]
– Bueno, nosss lass hacesss ¿Sí? [OK, will you make them for us?]

I love the exaggeration of the multiple ssss and the way the daughter extends them to nos, which she seems to have pronounced correctly from the start.

Spanish sign language

First, a personal note: I’m delighted to announce that I’ve signed a contract with Bloomsbury Academic Press to publish the book I’ve been working on the last few years, tentatively titled ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish. If you like my blog, you’ll love the book! Stay tuned for updates on the publication process. So far I’ve written 70 questions, so there’s a ways yet to go.

Lately I’ve been looking into Spanish sign language and wanted to share a terrific website, Sé, an on-line video dictionary of Lengua de signos española (LSE) and Lengua de signos catalana (LSC). Yes, there are separate sign languages for castellano and catalán (wouldn’t you know?) Here are the signs for artista in LSE and LSC.

The LSE/LSC split is just the beginning of the diversity of the Spanish sign language situation. Every Spanish speaking country has its own sign language, or even more than one. Some of these, including the sign languages of El Salvador, Bolivia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, derive from American Sign Language (which itself comes from French Sign Language, or LSF). Mexican sign language comes also from LSF, while Venezuelan sign languages is based on LSE. Many countries developed their own sign languages independently. This group includes Spain, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Nicaraguan sign language has given researchers a rare opportunity to observe the genesis of language, both first-hand and retrospectively. The Nicaraguan deaf community only coalesced in 1977, when a special education school opened in Managua, soon joined by a vocational center attended by many of the school’s graduates. Within six years enrollment in the two institutions had topped 400: a critical mass. By 1986 the idioma de señas de Nicaragua had taken shape and linguists began to catalog its progress. Today’s Nicaraguan deaf community includes the full spectrum of ISN signers, from children who are learning ISN as a first language to middle-aged Nicaraguans who participated in its creation. It’s a great population to study.

A good place to learn more about the various sign languages of the Spanish-speaking world is the SIL International website. (Obviously that list includes other countries too, but you can skip them.) The Nicaragua entry has lots of detail and references.

¿Qué tal?

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

La pregunta informal ¿Qué tal? significa ¿Cómo estás? Una lectora me escribió con una pregunta interesante sobre ella:

Me llamo Jenny y soy maestra de español.  Unos estudiantes me preguntaron de dónde viene la frase «¿Qué tal?»  Sé que es la forma corta de «¿Qué tal estás?» y que “tal” tiene muchos usos en el idioma pero, ¿Qué significa literalmente «qué tal»?  ¿De dónde viene la frase?  
¿Sabe usted algo de los orígenes de la frase?

Para investigar, primero consulté el diccionario de la Real Academia Española. Esto explica que, en general, qué tal es un sinónimo de cómo. Por ejemplo, ¿Qué tal resultó el estreno? significa ¿Cómo fue el estreno? También confirma que la expresión específica ¿Qué tal? es una versión corta de ¿Qué tál estás?, que significa ¿Cómo estás?

En cuanto a la historia de la expresión, qué viene de quid en latín y tal viene de talis. Mi diccionario latino no incluye la expresión quid talis pero Google Translate (que en general no consulto ni de lejos, pero que fue útil en este caso) la traduce como ‘qué tipo de’. Como sabemos, estar se usa para describir las condiciones; es cognado de la palabra inglesa ‘state’. En ese caso, ¿Qué tal estás? expresa ‘En qué tipo de condición estás?

Otra manera de interpretar la situación es la siguiente.Tal es vago a propósito. Unos ejemplos de esto en Collins son tal cosa ‘anything of the sort’, a tal hora ‘at such-and-such time’, fuimos al cine y tal ‘we went to the movies and stuff’. Por otro lado, qué pide la especificidad. Por lo tanto, la combinación qué tal espera extraer lo específico de lo vago: de todas las condiciónes posibles, ¿en cuál te encuentras?

Me alegraría recibir otras interpretaciones.

The casual question ¿Qué tal? means “How are you?” or “What’s up?” A reader wrote me with an interesting question about it:
My name is Jenny and I’m a Spanish teacher. Some of my students asked me where the expression ¿Qué tal? comes from. I know that it’s short for Qué tal estás? and that tal has a lot of uses in the language, but what is the literal meaning of qué tal? Where does the expression come from?

To research this question, I first consulted the Real Academia Española’s dictionary. The RAE interprets qué tal in general as a synonym of ¿Cómo? ‘How?’. For example, ¿Qué tal resultó el estreno? translates as “How was the premiere?” The RAE also confirmed that ¿Qué tal? is indeed short for ¿Qué tál estás?. This is why it’s the equivalent of ¿Cómo estás? ‘How are you?’

As for the history of the expression, qué comes from Latin quid and tal from talis. My Latin dictionary doesn’t include the expression quid talis, but Google Translate (which in general I won’t touch with a ten-foot pole) translates it as ‘what type of’. As you may know, estar is used to describe conditions (it’s a cognate of English state). Putting the pieces together, ¿Qué tal estás? means ‘In what type of condition are you?’ or, more smoothly, ‘What sort of condition are you in?’

Another way to look at ¿Qué tal? is the following. Tal, which translates as ‘such’, is deliberately vague; some helpful examples from Collins are tal cosa ‘anything of the sort’, a tal hora ‘at such-and-such time’, and fuimos al cine y tal ‘we went to the movies and stuff’. On the other hand, qué demands specificity: ¿Qué libro? ‘which book’ and the like. Therefore, the combination qué tal serves to extract the specific from the vague: out of all possible conditions, in which do you find yourself?

I welcome other interpretations.