Monthly Archives: December 2016

Cervantes on the beach

I’ve just returned home from a glorious visit to the Caribbean. My husband and I resolved to do nothing but relax during our stay, and for the most part we managed to honor this commitment. However, my passion for Spanish linguistics is irrepressible! Even while lazing on the beach, I couldn’t resist taking note of several linguistically interesting passages in one of the Spanish books I tossed into my suitcase: a collection of three Novelas ejemplares by Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quijote.

Cervantes published these novelas — actually, short stories — in 1613, between the two volumes of Don Quijote. El licenciado Vidriera, the first story I read, takes place in the academic and courtly communities of Salamanca and Valladolid. La gitanilla focuses on an itinerant gypsy tribe, while Rinconete y Cortadillo describes the initiation of two teenage boys into a gang of street criminals in Seville. The three stories thus offer diverse perspectives on the people and places of Golden Age Spain. 

I will be writing several blog entries about the Novelas ejemplares in the upcoming days. Here are the topics I’ll cover; I’ll add links to the individual entries as I write them:

  • the use of the noun color with feminine gender;
  • sentences that, while lacking the explicit Spanish words for ‘former’ and ‘latter’ (aquel and este), follow the Spanish convention of putting ‘latter’ before ‘former’;
  • camarada, a nice example of a noun ending in -a that can be either masculine or feminine;
  • an explicit reference to the dialectal phenomenon of ceceo;
  • two examples of gustar used in a ‘forwards’ rather than its normal ‘backwards’ fashion;
  • a case study in how to learn a new word (the innocent-sounding piedeamigo);
  • the antiquated word hestoria;
  • exciting (to me) examples of the future subjunctive “in the wild”.

 

 

Say it isn’t so, (Trader) Joe

I love Trader Joe’s. We live about midway between two of their stores, so I end up shopping there two or three times a week. My husband would probably starve to death if I didn’t keep our freezer stocked with Chicken Tikka Masala, Mac ‘n Cheese, and the like for his lunches. And their goat milk brie reminds me of the excellent cabra cheese I enjoyed in Spain last summer, with a firm crust and a soft center.

But ever since TJ’s introduced their Chicken Asada, my happy shopping mood is punctured every time I cruise the refrigerator case. The problem is that chicken (pollo) is masculine in Spanish, so Asada should really be be Asado. The abominably feminine Asada is no doubt a carry-over from the more famous Carne Asada, which Trader Joe’s also sells. However, TJ’s gets chicken gender right in their Pollo Asado (this is just chicken, no vegetables or sauce), and Pollo Asado pizza.

Wrong gender! Abomination!

pollo-carne

Correct gender for pollo (with or without pizza) and carne

If you care about Spanish grammar, please contact Trader Joe’s to complain — maybe they’ll fix the product name if they hear from enough hispanophiles! Here is some suggested wording.

Please change the name of your Chicken Asada product to Chicken Asado, to match the (correct) gender you use for your ‘Pollo Asado’. Chicken (‘pollo’) is masculine in Spanish, so ‘asada’ is just plain wrong. ‘Asada’ is correct in ‘Carne Asada’, but that’s because meat (‘carne’) is feminine.

 

Teacher dreams

I was in fourth grade when I had my first panic dream about school. In this dream I forgot to write an assigned paper about English history; as punishment, my teacher — in real life, a particularly cool guy who drove a Triumph TR6 — “strung me up by my thumbs”, whatever that means. This dream so disconcerted me that at school the next day I delicately inquired among my classmates first thing to make sure we didn’t really have a paper due.

When I started teaching, over ten years ago, my student panic dreams morphed into “teacher dreams” in which I was late to class, horribly unprepared, or otherwise made a mess of my new responsibilities. According to colleagues such dreams aren’t unusual, and in fact Rookie Teaching for Dummies devotes an entire (small) section to the phenomenon. These dreams have definitely declined in frequency as I’ve gained in experience and confidence, but they do come back from time to time.

I wasn’t surprised when I had a doozy of a teacher dream a few nights ago, because this spring I’ll be teaching, for the first time, a higher-level Spanish class with less emphasis on grammar (my comfort zone) and more on reading, writing, and class discussion. In real life I’m looking forward to taking on a new challenge, but obviously my subconscious hasn’t yet gotten the message. In this particular dream I neglected to prepare a lesson plan, left my house late, and then couldn’t find my classroom. A triple failure!

In real life I expect to be ultra-prepared for my new class — not just on day one, but throughout the semester. I hope that with effort, Fordham’s usual terrific students, and a bit of luck, my teaching will grow, my students thrive, and my subconscious give me a break.

A triple harvest of nouns

A reader asked me about the difference between cosechasiega, and mies. He likes to read the Bible in Spanish and sees all three words, whereas the English Bible uses the single word ‘harvest’.

Nice question! I really went to town on this one, using several resources to research the answer:

The first thing I learned is that cosecha is a much more common word than siega or mies. Here is the Google n-gram plot of the three words’ frequencies. Incidentally, it looks like folks don’t write about crops as much as they used to, ¿no?

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The second thing is that all three words started as past participles. Therefore, they originally meant something that is reaped, and only later took on the meaning ‘harvest’. The original verb behind cosecha is the very common verb coger ‘to take’: the g in cogecha, an obsolete irregular participle, morphed into the modern s. The verb behind siega is segar ‘to reap’; it is a cognate of English words including dissect and section, saw, sickle, and scythe, and possibly sail — because a sail is cut from a larger piece of cloth. The verb behind mies is Latin metere ‘to reap’, a cognate of English meadow and mow.

Finally, I learned that cosecha is the only one of the three words to have ‘harvest’ as its primary meaning. Mies mostly means ‘grain’, and siega, ‘mown grain’. Getting back to my reader’s original question about the Spanish Bible, perhaps these differences explain which word is used when. Check back and let me know!

 

Some nice press from the UK!

Times Higher Education, the British equivalent of The Chronicle of Higher Education, has cited ¿Por qué? as one of its “Best new books of the week”. It would be tons more exciting if it were the year instead, but I’ll settle for the week!

Screen clip below, link here.

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It’s funny that both this review and the one in El diario mention the “la la rule”, which is one of the myths I debunk in the book rather than an actual rule of Spanish. Hopefully readers will get the point.

Mirar with ‘a’

I recently finished Las chicas de alambre, one of Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s top-selling novels. It is about a reporter’s investigation of a top model’s disappearance; the alambre ‘wire’ in the title is a reference to the model’s anorexia. This was my first Sierra i Fabra novel outside of the author’s Inspector Mascarell series, and actually read a lot like a detective novel. It was a good story though I prefer the Mascarell books.

The second person the reporter interviewed for his story was the photographer who took the model’s first photographs. His description of the session included a use of the verb mirar that truly threw me for a loop.

Mirar is one of those verbs that often puzzles English speakers learning Spanish because its English translation, ‘look at’, includes a preposition (at). My students always want to add an explicit (and incorrect) preposition, Spanish a ‘at’, to the verb, as in Juan mira a la pintura ‘Juan looks at at the painting’. Spanish has plenty of verbs of this sort, mostly involving perception or motion, simply because English, as a Germanic language, favors two-part verbs, whereas Spanish, as a Romance language, does not. Other examples are buscar ‘look for’, escuchar ‘listen to’, subir ‘go up’, and sacar ‘take out’. (It’s worth noting that a few Spanish verbs require prepositions whereas their English equivalents don’t — salir de ‘leave’ and entrar en ‘enter’ come to mind — but these are clearly outnumbered.)

Mirar is especially challenging because it is correctly followed by a when its object is a person, as in Pablo mira a Juan ‘Pablo looks at Juan.’ But the a in such sentences is an instance of the untranslatable “personal a” required before human objects — also seen in sentences such as Pablo visita a Juan or Pablo ayuda a Juan ‘Pablo visits/helps Juan’ — rather than a verbal complement (if that’s the right term).

The relevant sentence in Las chicas de alambre was nadie puede enseñarte a mirar a una cámara ‘nobody can teach you how to look at a camera’. Assuming that this wasn’t a typographical error, I wondered whether this could be a most intriguing use of the personal a. Could looking at a camera be like looking at a person, since a camera, like a person, has an eye?

To investigate this question I consulted one of my favorite resources, the website wordreference.com. Its listing for the verb mirar included the specific phrase mirar a la cámara but also other uses of mirar a without a human object:

  • mirar a ambos lados antes de cruzar ‘look both ways before crossing’
  • mirar a las musarañas ‘look at the bugs’, i.e. daydream
  • mirar a otro sitio ‘look away’
  • mirar al futuro ‘look to the future, think ahead’
  • mirar al vacio ‘stare off into space’

In all these cases, including mirar a la cámara, a clearly acts as ‘toward’ rather than just ‘to’, expressing the direction of one’s gaze.

In sum, the possible personal a interpretation turned out to be a red herring, but I ended up learning more than I expected about the use of this ubiquitous Spanish verb.