Jordi Sierra’s off-and-on leísmo

When I could distract my brain from the engrossing plot of Jordi Sierra I Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, and pay attention to Sierra’s language, I was struck by his off-and-on leísmo. For readers who are unfamiliar with this term, leísmo refers to the use of the masculine indirect object pronoun le ‘to him’ instead of the masculine direct object pronoun lo ‘him’, as in the first row of Table A, below. Leísmo, a centuries-old speech pattern, is most common in Spain. Most Spanish textbooks in the United States therefore teach the non-leísta pattern shown in the second column. Note that leísmo normally only applies to human direct objects.

Table A

Sierra’s object pronoun usage is fascinating because he isn’t strictly leísta or non-leísta, but alternates between the two styles of pronoun usage. An example is the following sentence, at the beginning of Chapter 2, which uses one les and two los.

Todos los soldados más o menos útiles estaban siendo sacados del lugar con urgencia, tal vez para llevarles a combatir, tal vez para trasladarlos a la última resistencia, Valencia, tal vez para conducirlos a Francia.

‘All the soldiers who were more or less fit were being taken away urgently, perhaps to carry them to combat, perhaps to move them to Valencia, the last city of the resistance, perhaps to take them to France.

The same approximate ratio of two instances of lo (or los) for each one of le (or les) holds more broadly in Cuatro días de enero, as can be seen in Table B, which contains all examples of masculine human direct objects in the book’s first two chapters.

Table B: Masculine human direct object pronouns in Cuatro días de enero, caps. 1-2

A serious look at leísmo in Sierra’s writing would of course have to analyze much more text, ideally pulling it from a variety of his books. It would have to take into account Sierra’s Catalonian origins: Sierra is from Barcelona, and writes in both Castilian Spanish and in Catalán. Perhaps his bilingualism plays a role in his pronoun usage? And to a linguist, an analysis of leísmo in spoken Spanish will always be fundamentally more interesting than one based on written Spanish.

Nevertheless, an interesting pattern immediately emerges from the data in Table B: Sierra’s use of leísta and non-leísta pronouns appears to be governed by semantics rather than syntax. Sierra uses the two types of pronouns in the same syntactic contexts: in both single and double pronoun structures (e.g. Se les necesitabaSe los llevaron), in reference to both singular and plural people, and both before and after verbs. However, as shown in Table C (based on the examples in Table B), most of the verbs used with lo and los express physical actions, while most of those used with le and les express cognition. These are tendencies rather than absolutes: llevar (used with le) and entender (used with lo) are obvious exceptions.

Table C: Verbs with le and les vs. lo and los in Cuatro días de enero, caps. 1-2
(based on Table B)

This pattern is doubly logical. The object of a physical action — the person who is killed, accompanied, trapped, and so on — is closer to the canonical idea of a direct object than one who is seen, believed, needed, and so on. In addition, the use of le and les is already associated with non-physical verbs of the gustar type: someone who is pleased (me gusta), surprised (te sorprende), bothered (le molesta), and the like. The next task on my to-do list is to hit the literature to review what has already been written on this topic.

Incidentally, in Siete días de julio, the sequel to Cuatro días de enero, I noted an example of le being used to refer to a non-human direct object: Su…llamémosle trabajo no era precisamente agradable ‘Her…let’s call it work…wasn’t exactly pleasant.’ According to Inés Fernández Ordóñez (a leading leísmo scholar), the use of le with llamar is quite common in much of Spain. There are no such examples in the first two chapters of Cuatro días.

[See follow-up post here.]

3 thoughts on “Jordi Sierra’s off-and-on leísmo

  1. Jon Aske

    These examples are very interesting. As a leista speaker from northern Spain I absolutely get them. I can attest that the use vs. non-use of leísmo is not random. There may be some influence of (non-leísta) normative use but for the most part leísmo is used to add a nuance to the sentence, primarily having to do with human objects that are highly involved in the action or that something is being done for them, as opposed to to them. A good example of this difference would be with llevar. If a friend asks me to take him home in my car, I would never say Lo llevé a casa. It must be Le llevé a casa: He’s a friend, he asked me to tak him. On the other hand, if the person I take home is not as involved in the action, I would be much more likely to use lo, e.g. Encontré a un mendigo en la calle y lo llevé a casa. (I could say le here, but it is less likely and it would imply a more personal involvement). Also, leísmo is more common with everyday verbs than with fancy verbs, no doubt. Like I said, interesting stuff. I’m pretty sure someone has written about this, but I just can’t remember where I’ve seen it.

    1. jhochberg Post author

      Thank you — very interesting (as always). I’ve been combing the literature and coming up pretty dry.

  2. Pingback: Leísmo and verb subject properties | Spanish Linguist

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