Monthly Archives: July 2016

Wrapping up our tour in Barcelona

[This is a much-procrastinated final post about my linguistic tour of northern Spain in June.]

A visit to the Museu d’Arqueologia de Catalunya, in the Montjuic area of Barcelona, was the perfect capstone for my trip to Spain. This first-rate museum covers the human history of Catalonia from prehistory through the Visigoths. It is well laid out and the wall labels are consistently informative. (Some are in Catalan only, and some in Catalan, Spanish, and English.) A full visit would take two to four hours, and so can easily be combined with other Montjuic attractions including the Joan Miró museum.

The Museu d’Arqueologia’s collections of Iberian, Greek, and Roman artifacts reinforced what my friend Sue and I had already seen in person at Ullastret and Empúries on the Costa Brava. The museum also explained the active role of Phoenicians in pre-Roman Spain. We learned about Phoenician settlements such as Sa Caleta, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Balearic Island of Ibiza. My previous knowledge of Phoenician activity in Spain was, of course, limited to linguistics. I knew that several Spanish place-names are Phoenician, including España itself (probably from an expression meaning ‘land of rabbits’), Cádiz (‘fortress’), MálagaCartagena (after Carthage), Ibiza, and Mahón (the capital of Minorca). In addition, the Phoenician alphabet was the basis of the Iberian alphabet seen in artifacts such as those found at Ullastret.

The slideshow below shows some of my favorite artifacts from the museum.

 

Tú and usted in the Spanish Civil War

I just finished reading Spain in our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. This is the second book I’ve read by Adam Hochschild; the first is King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. I strongly recommend both of them. Spain in our Hearts masterfully blends a military history of the Spanish Civil War with the personal stories of Americans who were involved in the war as soldiers, medics, writers, and advocates. The main focus is on Americans who supported the Republican (anti-Franco) cause, but a handful on the other side are profiled as well. Hochschild also describes how internal political conflicts in the United States, Soviet Russia, and other countries shaped their role in the war.

In addition to its historical insights, Spain in our Hearts includes an interesting linguistic anecdote, about the use of the informal versus formal usted (both meaning ‘you’). An ambulance driver en route to a field hospital, realizing that he might have chosen the wrong road, hailed a group of men “sitting by a fire 200 yards away, whose uniforms he could not see in the dark. When the answer came back, ‘¿Qué quieres tú?‘ he relaxed, knowing they were Republicans. ‘If I had been answered ‘Usted‘ instead of ‘Tú,’ I should have been speaking to fascists.” This anecdote especially intrigues me because it contradicts the claim, in an essay by the Spanish sociologist and language commentator Amando de Miguel, that the widespread use of  in Spain began as “una ilusión igualitarista que se impuso en la última guerra civil, en los dos bandos“, i.e. on both sides in the war. I’d be happy to hear from readers who might know something about this question. Was  a sign of a Republican, or was its use more widespread?

Spain in our Hearts came into my hands at just the right moment. As a relatively new book with rave reviews, it is in heavy demand at my local library. I added my name to my library’s wait list months ago. By the time I got to the top of the list, and was able to check out the book, my interest in the Spanish Civil War had been primed by a bundle of other factors. I had read El tiempo entre costuras, which takes place during the war, and in the early years of Franco’s regime, and three books from Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Inspector Mascarell series), which take place just before and after Franco’s conquest of Barcelona. (My blog posts referring to these books can be found here and here.) On my recent trip to Spain I spent time in Burgos, which served as Franco’s headquarters during the war, and in Madrid and Barcelona, two cities that were besieged. Seeing the turnoff for Teruel on the road from Burgos to Girona reminded me of how little I knew about the crucial battle there — the site of the tú/usted anecdote, incidentally. Now that I’ve read the book, I’ll have to go back to Spain yet again, and see these places through fresh eyes. I might even try a commercial Civil War tour of Barcelona, Madrid, or battlefields.

 

Azúcar: ¿morena o moreno?

The gender of sugar (azúcar)

I drank a lot of coffee when I was recently in Spain, partly because of jet lag and partly because the coffee was so good. As in the U.S., it was always served with a small paper container of sugar. Who ever reads these containers? I do — when I’m in Spain — and was rewarded with a linguistic gem: one sugar packet I opened was labeled azucar morena (see picture). This was truly surprising, not because of the missing accent mark on azúcar, but because morena is a feminine adjective, and azúcar is masculine.

Or is it?

Although I had learned azúcar as a masculine noun, and had always seen it treated as such, It turns out that azúcar is one of a handful of Spanish nouns that are ambiguous in gender, meaning that either morena or moreno is legitimate. You can see this for yourself on wordreference.com or in the Real Academia Española dictionary.

I was familiar with this phenomenon from the examples of radioesperma ‘sperm’, and reúma  ‘rheumatism’. The latter two were borrowed from Greek as feminines because of their final -a, but have drifted toward masculine usage because the -ma masculine, most often seen in words of Greek origin, is associated with intellectual words such as temapoema, and apotegma.

In its Nueva gramática de la lengua española, the Real Academia points out that words of ambiguous gender are relatively rare. Besides azúcar, they list:

  • mar ‘sea’ (I believe that the feminine usage is confined to set expressions like pelillos a la mar ‘let bygones be bygones’)
  • agravante ‘aggravating circumstance’
  • armazón ‘shell, frame’ (as of a building)
  • azumbre ‘liquid measure, corresponding to 2 liters’
  • interrogante ‘question’
  • maratón ‘marathon’
  • prez ‘honor’
  • pringue ‘grease, drippings’
  • ánade ‘duck’

Now that I’ve written this post, I can finally throw out the sugar packets I brought home from Spain: a sweet reminder (jajaja) of how travel can open up new linguistic horizons.

Taxdirt?

My sister is a tax attorney, so when I saw this street sign in Barcelona I had to take a picture and send it to her. (Carrer is Catalan for ‘street’; its Spanish cognate is calle.)

"Taxdirt Street" in Barcelona.

“Taxdirt Street” in Barcelona.

I couldn’t find taxdirt in wordreference.com, my go-to Spanish dictionary; nor did I expect to, since it doesn’t sound at all Spanish. My next step was to ask a friendly server at a gelato shop we stopped at later that afternoon on the Ramblas. It turned out that he lived around the corner from Carrer de Taxdirt — but had no idea what it meant.

Fortunately, Google and Wikipedia soon came to the rescue. It turns out that Taxdirt is the name of a famous 1909 cavalry charge in Morocco, near Melilla (with Ceuta, one of two Spanish cities in Morocco). It has inspired a monument in Melilla, a set of toy solders (or perhaps ‘military figurines’), and even a hymn. Lyrics here.

 

Trabajar por vs. trabajar para

My airplane reading for my flight home from Spain was the third book in Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” series, Cinco días de octubre. I love these books! The plots are gripping, the Spanish is lively, the links to modern Spanish history are illuminating, the Barcelona setting is vivid (Sierra’s events unfold on actual streets, parks, and whatnot), and Inspector Mascarell himself is a compelling character, from his brilliant investigative skills to his mental conversations with his dead wife.

Of course, I always have my eyes out for interesting linguistic tidbits, and I found one on p. 223 of the paperback edition. There, Mascarell reassures a nervous witness that although he is temporarily in the employ of the unscrupulous Benigno Sáez de Heredia, he isn’t Sáez’s ally. He does this by juxtaposing por and para with the verb trabajar:

Trabajo para él, accidentalmente, pero no por él, descuide.
‘I work for him, accidentally, but not for him, so relax.’

Por and para both translate as ‘for’ in English, and mastering the subtle differences between them is one of the less pleasant tasks in learning Spanish (see, for instance, the por/para handout on my Teaching page, and also this earlier post). The contrast between trabajar por and trabajar para is a standard part of this topic. However, Sierra does not exploit the contrast in the usual way.

Normally, trabajar para means ‘to work for (as an employee)’ and trabajar por means ‘to work for (as a substitute)’, as when a usual worker is sick. My por/para handout includes examples of both uses. However, in this case Sierra is using trabajar por to mean instead ‘to work for the sake of’, or ‘for the benefit of’. This is a perfectly reasonable use of por, but startling after focusing, for years (!!!), on the employee/substitute contrast.

Like other contrasts that exist in Spanish but not English, such as ser vs. estar ‘to be’ and the preterite vs. imperfect past tenses, the por/para contrast can be seen as either a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, the contrast is a genuine challenge for novice Spanish students, and even old hands: after decades of striving, I still occasionally find myself stumped as to which preposition to use. On the other hand, Sierra’s example here shows the expressive power of the por/para contrast. It accomplishes elegantly, with a single lexical choice, a difference that in English requires either dramatic emphasis on the second for (as I’ve tried to show via boldface), or a more drastic, and stiffer, rewording: perhaps ‘…but not on his behalf’. It’s always comforting to see such a useful payoff for a challenging aspect of the language.

[Other posts based on Sierra i Fabra’s books have concerned leísmo (here and here), the personal a, and the imperfect subjunctive.]