Monthly Archives: November 2017

Hubiera, pudiera, tuviera

Can one be obsessed with a verb tense?

My particular flame is the imperfect subjunctive. I’ve already written eleven blog posts that at least mention it, mostly because of its grammatical interest.

But the imperfect subjunctive can also be poetic. I practically started jumping up and down when I read the following passage, full of regrets, toward the end of Sofía Segovia’s Huracán. I’ve colored the imperfect subjunctives in red.

Si no le hubiera disparado, si no lo hubiera conocido, si sólo lo hubiera herido, si no hubiera cargado la 30-30, si pudiera seguir con mis amigos. Si hubiera, si pudiera, si tuviera, si hubiera. Si hubiera.

‘If I hadn’t shot him, if I hadn’t met him, if I had only wounded him, if I hadn’t carried the 30-30, if I could continue with my friends. If I had, if I could, If I kept, if I had. If I had.

Isn’t that a beautiful bit of Spanish? Doesn’t it crush the English version? Doesn’t it sing?

This is definitely one to clip out and keep to impress your friends.


By the way, the beginning of this paragraph is clearly in the third person singular, as seen by the verb forms pudonegó, and reclamó (see screen clip below). So another great aspect of the writing here is the jarring transition from the external description of what the character is doing, to the interior view of his thoughts. We don’t realize this has happened until we get through the first series of imperfect subjunctives (since hubiera and pudiera can be either first or third person) and hit mis amigos in the next-to-last line. Very interesting choice by the author, ¿no?

Why can’t I wrap my brain around the verb “restar”?

Regular readers of this blog know that I am constantly reading Spanish-language fiction — usually of the popular variety — both for pleasure and to continue improving my Spanish. I generally read without a dictionary, using context and cognates to deal with unfamiliar words, just as I advise my students to do. If I am really stuck, or just curious, or have seen a word a few times and want to “officially” learn it, I’ll look it up, usually in wordreference.com.

It’s extremely rare that after using context, cognates, and a dictionary I still find it hard to understand how a word is used. The verb restar is one of those cases.

I first ran into restar when rereading one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, which I’ve already written about on this blog seven times. In describing the awkward gait of a disabled man, Sierra i Fabra writes that

Haberse movido así durante toda su vida o parte de ella no le restaba dificultad, a pesar de que él parecía hacerlo fácil.

I easily understood the first part of the sentence (‘Having moved like this during all or part of his life’), and the last (‘even though he seemed to make it easy’ — or, more idiomatically, ‘even though he made it look easy’). The hard part was no le restaba dificultadRestaba is obviously a form of the verb restar, and this is clearly a cognate of the French verb rester, which means ‘to remain’.  But that meaning didn’t make any sense: ‘Having moved like this during all or part of his life didn’t remain him difficulty’?????

My brain kept trying to rewrite the noun dificultad ‘difficulty’ as difícil ‘difficult’. The phrase le restaba difícil ‘remained difficult to him’ made sense in isolation, but didn’t work in this context.

Restar clearly called for a dictionary lookup. Wordreference.com informed me that it means not just ‘remain’ but also ‘diminish’. The second meaning got the job done: the sentence meant ‘Having moved like this during his life didn’t diminish its difficulty, even though he made it look easy’.

This use of restar turns out to be a robust pattern; you can find examples of it with other following nouns on Linguee.com, a website I’ve been using a lot recently to find examples of Spanish words and phrases in context. Here’s a screenshot:

Restar also appears in Sofía Segovia’s Huracán, which I recently blogged about here. In this passage, Lorna notices that the only part of her awful husband’s back to escape a painful sunburn is where she had attempted to apply sunscreen herself:

Toda la espalda menos — y eso a Lorna le pareció tan gracioso que le restó seriedad al problema —  la marca blanca y nítida de dos manos, que contra la ampolla se veían hendidas.

His whole back, except for — and this struck Lorna as so funny that it reduced the seriousness of the problem — was the sharp white shape of her two hands, which seemed to cut through the blister.

It took some effort, and even a return visit to wordreference.com?, to understand this second example. Likewise, even though I now completely understand the restaba dificultad sentence, I still can’t read it smoothly, but always have to stop and think through its use of the verb.

I can think of several reasons why it’s so hard for me to wrap my brain around this verb:

  • Restar is tricky since it combines two contrary meanings, ‘remain’ (which is positive) and ‘diminish’ (negative).
  • The French verb rester, which only means ‘to remain’, is interfering with the second meaning of the Spanish verb.
  • Abstract nouns like seriedaddificultad are normally preceded by the definite article (el or la), but they aren’t in this context, which sounds odd.
  • Finally, the sentence in which I first encountered the verb is a doozy. I still don’t completely understand it. If the man ‘makes it look easy’, or ‘makes it easy’, then why does someone watching him observe that the dificultad has not diminished?

 

 

Kean Mutiny

This post has to do with linguistics, not Spanish, but please do give it a try.

Thursday night I took a Greyhound bus from New York City to Atlantic City in order to lead a workshop at the annual NJEA Convention (gotta blog about that, too!). As we barreled down the Garden State Parkway I spotted a billboard for Kean University, a public university in Union Country, New Jersey. Formerly known as Newark State College, the university was renamed in 1973 in honor the illustrious Kean family, whose members have included New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, Sr., the chair of the 9/11 Commission.

The Kean family name is pronounced ‘Caine’, a fact that has apparently faded from common knowledge since Governor Kean’s time. The University has therefore embarked on a $313,000 advertising campaign to bring attention both to the university and its correct pronunciation. The billboard I saw was part of this campaign, and it was a linguistic abomination:

The // slashes indicate a phonetic transcription (spelling), but as any Linguistics 101 student could tell you, the phonetic transcription of Kean (or Cainecain, or cane) is /ken/. The transcription /cane/ represents a two-syllable word that has the vowels of latteblase, or sashay but cannot be pronounced in English, since the phonetic symbol /c/ represents a sound not found in our language. Called a “voiceless palatal stop”, it is somewhere between a /t/ and a /k/.

Kean was a major sponsor of the convention and had a large booth in its exhibit hall. Never one to pull a punch, I stopped by to complain about the billboard, and was told that the advertising campaign was meant to be humorous. Call me a goody-goody, but I don’t think that phonetic transcription is funny. To me it is an utterly serious tool for research in an important discipline.

So — grrr.

Maria Dueñas at Instituto Cervantes, NY

One advantage of living in our leafy but boring suburb is that I am only a short train ride away from the Instituto Cervantes in Manhattan. This has enabled me to easily attend events such as the U.S. inauguration of the Real Academia Española’s revised dictionary — the first major revision since the elimination of ch and ll — and a recent talk about Spanish in the United States.

Last night the Instituto Cervantes hosted a major celebrity: Maria Dueñas, the author of the bestselling Spanish novels El tiempo entre costuras ‘The Time in Between’, Misión Olvido ‘The Heart Has its Reasons’, and La Templanza ‘The Vineyard’. The specific purpose of the event was to celebrate the U.S. publication of ‘The Vineyard’ in English. Sra. Dueñas also gave us a ‘heads-up’ about her fourth novel, now in progress, which concerns Spanish immigrants living in New York in the first part of the 20th century.

I’ve read and enjoyed all three of Sra. Dueñas’s books (I previously blogged about El tiempo entre costuras here). Beyond this, I feel a connection with her because we have a lot in common. We are both middle-aged moms and academics (she was at the University of Murcia) who specialized in the linguistics of the other’s language (she studied and taught English applied linguistics) and who wrote a first book relatively late in life (she in her 40s, I in my 50s). The glaring difference, of course, is that her first book was an instant bestseller that has been translated into 35 languages and turned into a hit telenovela, whereas I’d be happy with continuing respectable sales of ¿Por qué? But still.

Her first book’s origin story, as she described it at the event, was remarkable. El tiempo entre costuras takes place partly in Madrid and partly in Morocco during the Spanish protectorate there. Some of her family members had lived in Spanish Morocco, and she grew up hearing their stories. While enjoying a peaceful sabbatical in — of all places — Morgantown, West Virginia (a great place to live, according to friends) — she decided to write a novel set in that time and place. She had never written any fiction and had no connections in the publishing world. Nevertheless, after years of painstaking research and writing, she found a publisher who committed to a first imprint of 3500 copies, and within weeks the book took off via word of mouth.

This anecdote reminded me of the preface to one of my perennial favorite books, Maria Von Trapp’s The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, which was the inspiration for The Sound of Music. Mrs. Von Trapp describes a visit with a friend who had written her first book in her forties:

I don’t know whether Sra. Dueñas ever pulled on a wishing bell — but sometimes, I guess, wishes do come true.

Different ways to ask about the weather

When I was a girl studying Spanish as a second language, I learned to use the question ¿Qué tiempo hace? to ask about the weather. It translates literally as ‘What weather is it making?’ and was, in fact, one of the first examples I every came across that showed how different languages can express the same concept it fundamentally different ways. It comes with a list of related phrases such as Hace calor ‘It’s hot’, Hace sol ‘It’s sunny’ (literally ‘It makes heat/sun’), and so on, though some other weather expressions, such as Está nublado ‘It’s cloudy’ and Está a x grados ‘It’s X degrees’, use verbs other than hacer ‘to make’.

These expressions went into my back pocket and I’ve been pulling them out for years, both when speaking Spanish myself and as a teacher.

So you can imagine my surprise to learn, via a recent discussion in /r/Spanish, that this terminology doesn’t fly in most of the New World. The discussion began with an American (US) speaker of Guatemalan heritage complaining that people don’t understand ¿Qué tiempo hace? when he visits Guatemala. Others chimed in with similar perspectives from Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Argentina. Alternative wordings from these areas are:

  • ¿Cómo está (hoy) el clima? (Mexico, Peru)
  • ¿Cómo está el tiempo? (Colombia)
  • Hay sol. (Argentina) Hay viento. (Peru)

It was especially impressive that this difference actually caused misunderstandings, with speakers in some countries interpreting any question about tiempo to be time-related.

I was amused to read one Peruvian’s perspective than “¿Qué tiempo hace? is an old construction to ask information about weather in my country. If I recall correctly it’s used in Spain, you could probably meet the term with old people most likely. Nowadays to avoid confusion Latin countries mostly use clima which translates exactly as weather. The current usage of this word makes newer generations oblivious of the former construction tho.”

So…am I old? Biased toward Spanish Spanish? Or out of touch? In any case, the next time I teach first-year Spanish I will be sure to use this topic as an opportunity to discuss dialectal differences.