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!


8 thoughts on “The linguistics of “Despacito”

  1. Jon Aske

    The song does not appeal to me. I’m not into commercial Latin pop music. I had heard about it but had not heard it until now. Thanks for sharing.

    One thing that shocked me right away was the ungrammatical sentence (from the perspective of standard Spanish): “Muéstrame el camino que yo voy”. Since “ir” is intransitive, this sentence is nonsense. Even if the sentence was made grammatical by adding the words “por el”, the sentence would be semantically odd (“Show me the path I’m taking”?) Did I miss something?

    Unfortunately, it is this kind of cheap, sex-infused, cheap stuff that Hispanic culture is primarily associated with in our country.

    1. jhochberg Post author

      Well, I guess we can agree to disagree about the musical merits of the song. But I 100% agree with you about the weirdness of the “el camino que yo voy” which has been bugging me since the first time I heard the song. Surely we have ungrammatical lyrics in English-language pop music, too?

    2. RRaattuukk

      I’m Spanish. “Muéstrame el camino, que yo voy” isn’t ungrammatical as long as you don’t forget the comma. This “que” is not the typical one that gets translated as “that” or “which”. Rather, it indicates that the next clause is a consequence of the previous one. The sentence can be translated like this: “Show me the way, and I’ll go”. It usually appears after an imperative sentence, and the “que” introduces an explanation of what will happen if the order is carried out. More examples:

      Déjame la bici, que te la arreglo. –> Lend me your bike, I’ll fix it for you.
      Ven enseguida, que tengo algo que decirte. –> Come here at once, I have something to tell you.

  2. Pingback: Despacito redux | Spanish Linguist

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