Monthly Archives: July 2017

Rave review of “¿Por qué?” in Babel Magazine

Babel Magazine,  a British quarterly about language and linguistics for a popular audience (think Scientific American), has just reviewed ¿Por qué? — and it’s a rave! I’m not hugely surprised, because Babel‘s linguistic consultant, David Crystal, already contributed a favorable blurb for the book’s back cover. But I am absolutely thrilled nevertheless. I thought that the reviewer, Iulia Bobăilă, really captured my intention to present technical material in an approachable way.

When I read that Dr. Bobăilă is a Lecturer at Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, I had to look up this wonderfully-named city. It turns out to be, according to Wikipedia, not only the second-largest city in Romania, but also “the unofficial capital of the Transylvania region”. How cool is that? It looks like a beautiful city, too — definitely one for the bucket list.

Here’s the review:

Curiosas y curiosos

When rereading one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, which I’ve written about previously here and here, a sentence I’d missed the first time caught my eye:

El cadáver de Reme y el círculo de curiosas y curiosos, hablando en voz baja, observando aquel quebranto de la vida en forma de muerte inesperada.

‘Remy’s corpse and the circle of curious women and men, speaking in soft tones, observing that devastation in the form of unexpected death.’ (my translation)

The interesting Spanish here is curiosas y curiosos. It’s noteworthy because mixed-sex groups are usually described using the masculine gender only; the expected wording here, then, would simply be curiosos. (I occasionally tell a girl student that in Spanish, “boys have cooties”, so that a single masculine item in a group contaminates the whole group.) Sierra i Fabra is obviously circumventing this rule in order to emphasize that there were more woman than men ogling the dead body. This may sound like a minor detail, but the story is set in Barcelona in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, and this is one of many instances where Sierra i Fabra calls attention to the lack of men after years of fighting.

My English translation gets the same message across by mentioning “women and men”, where the usual expression is “men and women”, but curiosas y curiosos is an even more striking — and attention-calling — deviation from the norm.

I love to find examples, such as this one, where a grammatical feature of Spanish adds to its expressive power.

The linguistics of “Despacito”

The Puerto Rican hit song and video Despacito recently passed Justin Bieber’s Sorry to become the most-streamed song in history. The original video (below), by Luis Fonsi with rapper Daddy Yankee,  currently has 2,704,830,813 views, while the remix including Bieber’s vocals (in English and Spanish) adds 37,439,624 views to the record.

I’ve personally contributed to this phenomenon by watching the original video at least a dozen times. (Also check out this video of a little girl who can’t stop dancing to the song, and this one of three Italian men in a car who diss it.) I love everything about Despacito except the obligatory scantily-clad women: the infectious, up-beat rhythm and melody, the lively street and bar scenes, the dancing, and the enthusiasm of everyone on screen. And, of course, the Spanish.

From a linguistic perspective, Despacito is above all a celebration of Spanish diminutives. As I described in an earlier post, these word endings often express affection instead of literal small size. Thus the song’s title, which adds the diminutive ending -ito to the word despacio ‘slow’, translates literally as ‘a little slow’, but more accurately as ‘nice and slow’. This is, in fact, the message of the song, whose lyrics are all about taking one’s time in bed (hence the scantily clad women). Over and over again, the song repeats the title and three other diminutives: suavecito, pasito a pasito, and poquito a poquito. Suavecito means ‘a little gentle’, or, again, ‘nice and gentle’. In the song it always occurs in the phrase suave suavecito, a construction often seen in nursery rhymes such as Araña arañita (the equivalent of The Itsy Bitsy Spider). Pasito a pasito ‘little step by little step’ can be taken more literally; in poquito a poquito ‘little by little’, the diminutive endings intensify the usual expression poco a poco.

All these diminutives made it easy for Fonsi and his collaborators to produce a song that abounds in pleasing rhymes. The diminutives are fully rhymed with other words that coincidentally end in -ito: manuscrito ‘manuscript’, originally a past participle (‘hand written’), grito ‘shout’ (from gritar ‘to shout’), and favorito ‘favorite’, an Italian word that entered Spanish via French. By assonance, or vowel rhyming, the diminutives are also matched with words ending in other i-o syllables: apellido, conmigolaberinto, oído, peligro, and ritmo. I also love Daddy Yankee’s rap sequence that uses the direct object pronoun lo ‘it’ to rhyme the command dámelo ‘give it to me’ with the gerunds pensándolo ‘thinking about it’, intendándolo ‘trying it’, and dándolo ‘giving it’. The antepenultimate stress (three syllables from the end of the word) on these verbs gives these lines an unusual and driving rhythm.

The first few times I heard the song I was confused by a word that sounded like diguay. This turned out to be DY, Daddy Yankee’s initials, as pronounced in English. The Spanish equivalent would be de i griega (y is a “Greek i”), and I guess the English version sounds better.

One final, non-linguistic note. Hispanic music, just like literature, film, and other aspects of Hispanic culture, benefits from the wide diversity of the Hispanic community. Fonsi and DY are Puerto Rican, but Erika Ender, the song’s third writer, is Panamanian, and the song’s two producers, Andrés Torres and Mauricio Rengifo, are Colombian. Bravo to all of them!


Grading Spanish AP tests in Cincinnati

Last month I was among the hundreds of high school and college Spanish instructors who convened in Cincinnati, Ohio to grade Spanish Advanced Placement (AP) tests. [AP tests are a way for U.S. high school students to earn college credit and/or impress the colleges they apply to.] Half the test is multiple choice and is machine-graded. The rest of the test — two speaking tasks and two writing tasks — is graded by humans. I was on the team that graded the writing tasks.

I hadn’t seen an AP Spanish test since I took one as a high school senior! Since then, the test, and its corresponding high school classes, have been divided into two: Spanish Language and Culture, and Spanish Literature. My colleagues and I were in Cincinnati to grade Spanish Language and Culture; the Spanish Literature exam was graded earlier in the month. We were in Cincinnati along with graders for the other Language and Culture tests — Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Japanese — and, oddly, Music Theory. This all took place at the gigantic and soulless Duke Energy Center in downtown Cincinnati.

I applied to be an AP grader a few years ago because my best friend had told me that her own work as an AP economics grader had been a great way to meet colleagues from around the country, and was also a lot of fun. This was the first year the timing worked out for me to participate, and I have to say that my friend was right. According to our orientation, our group included educators from all fifty states, and Spanish speakers from every Spanish-speaking country. It was great to get to know some of them. And the work itself was fascinating.

You don’t sign up for something like this unless you really like grading. I certainly do: it’s always interesting to see what students get right and wrong, and to get a glimpse of their thinking. This experience was, of course, very different from grading my own students’ papers. The main difference was volume. In my own teaching I never have to grade than a couple of dozen papers at a time, or for more than a few hours at a time. In Cincinnati we graded hundreds of papers, working from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm for seven days in a row. Even with morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks, it was hard to keep up one’s energy and attention. It helped that there were no distractions, and that a strong esprit de corps reigned in our giant grading room (Exhibit Hall A). Keeping the good of the test-takers in mind, we aimed to grade the last essay of the day as carefully as the first.

Another difference was that we weren’t grading our own students’ work. It felt strange to be reading essays with a completely blank slate instead of knowing who the students were. This made for a more objective review, however, and is one reason why AP tests are graded centrally instead of by each student’s teacher. it also meant that grading was a single, unidirectional event instead of part of an interactive process. Normally I grade with red pen in hand, pointing out different types of errors for students to fix in a second draft. As an AP grader I wasn’t allowed to annotate the essays I read, or to make notes, even for my own benefit.

A final difference was the type of Spanish in the essays. Most of my students speak English as a first language, and I’m used to reading essays with this population’s typical errors. In contrast, many — or most (65%), according to Wikipedia — AP Spanish test takers are native Spanish speakers. A good fraction of these have not fully mastered the ins and outs of Spanish spelling, despite a year or more of formal study of their language. This means that these essays had a different set of errors: those of someone who has learned Spanish by ear. Typical errors were missing or misapplied accent marks, missing or overused silent h, the substitution of d for r (e.g. pedo for pero ‘but’), and the confusion of ll and y and likewise b and v. (See this earlier blog post for historical examples of the same errors.) I was amazed to see that two students even misspelled the ubiquitous word yo ‘I’ as llo.

The good folks from the College Board did a phenomenal job administering the grading process. This involved recruiting, transporting, housing, and feeding the graders; keeping track of the exam papers; and — most importantly — training the graders so that our scores were calibrated. We spent hours learning how to grade each of the two writing tasks, following a detailed rubric, and had refresher training sessions after each break. Each table of seven graders had a head grader who answered our questions and spot-checked our work. As far as I could see, colleges evaluating AP test results should feel confident that the scores are reliable.

One night during the week was “Professional Night”, and my poster on “Bringing linguistics into the foreign language classroom” (see below) was accepted for the night’s mini-conference. It was well received, and I sold the few spare copies of my book that I had with me. Hooray!

A technical note: I made the poster as a single PowerPoint slide, sized to 4 x 3″, and used “Export PDF” (under the “File” menu) to create the image.