Monthly Archives: April 2017

Great reads re: Arabic, Icelandic

Of course this blog is about Spanish, but I couldn’t resist sharing with you these articles about Arabic and Icelandic. Any linguistically-minded reader will find them fascinating.

The first article, from the New Yorker, is simultaneously a tale of language learning, a profile of an inspired (but anguished) language teacher, and a source of information about the current state of Egyptian Arabic. I already knew that there was a split between written, “Modern Standard” Arabic, which is homogeneous across the Arabic-speaking region, and the spoken Arabic of the different countries in the region. (For this reason, Arabic students in the United States typically start with Modern Standard Arabic, then spend some time in the country of their choice to learn the relevant spoken version.) But I didn’t know it had come to the point where educated Egyptians now use English or French as a written language instead of Arabic. It’s as if Spanish speakers had continued to write in Latin, but now, given widespread knowledge of English, found it easier to use English as a written language while maintaining Spanish as a means of oral communication. Mind-blowing.

The second article, from the Associated Press, describes the perilous state of Icelandic. The enemy here is English, spoken as a second language throughout Iceland, and used extensively in tourism and business. Apparently young people are speaking English among themselves, a dangerous sign. English is also required for anyone who interacts with technology, since modern devices don’t ‘speak’ Icelandic. Languages die out all the time, unfortunately, but these are mostly minority languages, like Native American languages with only a few hundred speakers. It’s startling to see such concerns raised about a language with hundreds of thousands of speakers, Nobel Prize-winning literature, and official support and recognition: “an army and a navy,” to use Max Weinreich’s classic formulation.


A Rotary talk on Spanish in the United States

I recently gave a talk to my local Rotary Club about Spanish in the United States, as part of my ongoing effort to promote my book. It was fun in multiple ways. First, I didn’t know anything about the Rotary organization beforehand, so I got to learn a bit about what they do. The group included local business people, the chief of police, a judge, and other upstanding citizens. Second, I picked the topic of “Spanish in the United States” because I figured it would be of general interest, and it was — most gratifying. Third, this was the first time I’ve tried speaking to a group that knew nothing about either linguistics or Spanish, and it went fine. This bodes well for hypothetical future speaking gigs.

Here is a rough outline of my talk. Note that it was organized in reverse chronological order.

  1. Predicting the future
    1. General pattern of immigrant languages being lost (Yiddish, Italian, German, etc.)
    2. Researchers concur that Spanish fits the same pattern, despite large numbers of Spanish speakers
      1. previous waves of immigration had huge numbers, too
    3. Specific prediction: Spanish will be gone in a few generations unless new immigrants continue to replenish population of speakers
      1. anecdotal evidence from my students: “I wish my parents had insisted that I speak Spanish with them”.
  2. Describing the present
    1. Features that show loss in progress
      1. U.S.-born Hispanics speaking more basic form of language
        1. keeping fundamental parts, e.g.
          1. gender
          2. preterite/imperfect
        2. loss of
          1. sophisticated structures, e.g. complex If..then structures (‘If I hadn’t spent all my money yesterday I wouldn’t have had to borrow more this morning’)
          2. some verb tenses
          3. some irregular verbs
      2. English influence
        1. borrowing, e.g. registración for inscripciónflu for gripe
          1. excursus on borrowing of Spanish vocab into English (plug for Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries)
        2. grammar (examples from Silva-Corvalán and Lipski)
          1. possessives for body parts (Me pegó en mi brazo)
          2. superfluous subject pronouns (Yo creo)
          3. noun-adjective order (machucado español ‘chopped-up Spanish’)
        3. code switching
    2. Most important characteristic unrelated to language loss = variety
      1. No such thing as “United States Spanish”; plug for Lipski’s Varieties of Spanish in the United States)
      2. Main concentrations are PR/DR in NE, Mexican in SW, Cuban in SE
      3. Interesting research on dialects in contact: linguistic accommodation, leveling
  3. A little history
    1. Modern migration from other countries is second phase of Spanish in the U.S.
      1. First phase = Spanish colonial period
      2. Relics still in New Mexico and Colorado (norteños), Louisiana
        1. another plug for Varieties of Spanish in the United States (ch. 12)
    2. What kind of Spanish? Andalusian
      1. no th sound (cerveza)
      2. final -s deletion (lo libro)
      3. ustedes but not vosotros

Book review from former local paper

I lived in Los Alamos, New Mexico, from 1989 to 2000. I’ve written a bit about this experience in posts here, here, and here. A reporter for the Los Alamos Monitor recently interviewed me about ¿Por qué?; the resulting article is here. There are a few corrections I would make, but it’s still really nice coverage. Thank you Monitor!

Bad Spanish — MTA edition

Because Spanish has so many different ways to say ‘you’ — singular and plural, informal and formal — it’s important for Spanish speakers and writers to identify the appropriate version for each person or group they address, and stick with it. I always “ding” my students if they, for example, waver between formal usage (usted) and informal () within a paragraph.

A public service poster currently on display in New York City subways features an error along these lines.

si ves algo

This is a mediocre phone snapshot, I’m afraid, but I hope you can make out, after the large black words Si ves algo, di algo ‘If you see something, say something’, the smaller black words Tome un momento para alertar a un oficial de policía o empleado de la MTA, o llame al 888-NYC-SAFE ‘Take a moment to alert a police officer or MTA employee, or call 888-NYC-SAFE’.

I have put the key verbs in red. The grammatical problem here is that ves ‘see’ and di ‘say’ are  commands, but tome ‘take’ and llame ‘call’ are usted commands. Obviously, the MTA would do better to choose one mode of address and stick to it. Specifically, they should change tome and llame to toma and llama to reflect the informal usage of the ubiquitous Si ves ago, di algo slogan.

New York is full of educated Spanish speakers. Surely some of them work for, or consult with, the Metropolitan Authority (MTA)? As someone who profoundly cares about the Spanish language, I find this kind of bureaucratic carelessness infuriating and even insulting.

While searching for a better image of this poster, I came across a blog post about Si ves algo, di algo by a professional interpreter. He complained that this slogan itself is Bad Spanish. He argues that an English speaker hearing or reading If you see something, say something naturally interprets say something as say something about it, whereas a Spanish speaker does not make the same inference.

My native English intuitions in this case have been blurred by years of exposure to the slogan, and I am not a native Spanish speaker. Therefore it is hard for me to judge whether this interpreter’s nuanced distinction is correct. Readers, help me out here!

Next day: The same sequence of Spanish (more or less) is reproduced on the back of Metro Cards (subway passes), so you can see the writing clearer. Here what bothers me is all the Bad Spanish capitalization (e.g. “Combatir el Terrorismo”).

si ves ago bis