Monthly Archives: February 2018

¡El Ministerio del Tiempo has arrived!

For months I’ve been hearing about El Ministerio del Tiempo, a popular science-fiction TV show from Spain. It has just come out on Netflix in the USA, and I’m in the middle of the first episode. It’s awesome!

Image result for ministerio del tiempo

The show is about a secret Spanish government agency that controls a set of portals to Spain’s past. As best as I understand it so far, their mission is to stop nefarious time travelers from changing history. In the first episode they recruit new agents from the 1500s, 1800s, and the present (shown left to right in the picture). The show features a star turn by Diego Velázquez and multiple shout-outs to Arturo Pérez-Reverte‘s Capitán Alatriste.

As a linguist I am of course enjoying the older Spanish spoken in the 1500s scenes. And so far the plot and characters seem to be lots of fun.

Try it yourself!


I didn’t wake up this morning expecting to write a blog post about sangría. But while preparing a handout with instructions for student compositions, I realized that I didn’t know how to say indentation in Spanish. And when I looked it up in Word Reference (my favorite dictionary resource), to my surprise I learned that the correct Spanish word is sangría.

¿Sangría? As in sangría? This definitely called for some further investigation.

Image result for sangria

Again consulting Word Reference, it turns out that sangría has three basic uses. First, there is the refreshing summer drink made from wine, fruit, and other ingredients. Second, there are a few meanings clearly derived from the word sangre ‘blood’. These include ‘bloodletting’, ‘bleeding’, and ‘phlebotomy’; ‘the inside of the elbow’ (where blood is drawn) — this is an unnamed body part in English, what fun!; and, more figuratively, ‘drain’ or ‘loss-maker’. Third, there is the typographical meaning this post started with: ‘indentation’. Likewise, sangrar means both ‘to bleed’ and ‘to indent’.

Leaving aside the indentation meaning for a moment, the question naturally arises: does the beverage sangría get its name from its red color? While the English-oriented Etymology Online website claims that it does, the higher authority of Joan Corominas dismisses this possibility. He explains that sangría was not used with this meaning in Spanish until 1832, and that

It is unlikely that this is a figurative use of sangría ‘bleeding’, mostly because the English sangaree was already seen in 1736 (and Portuguese sangría, 1813); from English it soon passed to Minorcan in the form sèngri — which proves that the word was not used then in either Castilian or Catalan — and in American Spanish it is relatively unpopular. It probably comes from India, from a word derived from Sanskrit çarkarā ‘sugar’, which became sakkarā in Pali, çakkar in Hindi, and šakr in Urdu (perhaps a feminine sakkarī or *sankarī applied to sugared wine).

Corominas doesn’t address the typographical meaning of sangría, However, it occurred to me that bleed has a typographical meaning in English as well, where (to quote Wikipedia) “bleed is printing that goes beyond the edge of where the sheet will be trimmed. In other words, the bleed is the area to be trimmed off.”

I can easily see the origin of the English meaning, since the ink bleeds, or extends, beyond the intended trimming boundary. The Spanish typographical sangría is more opaque to me, since an indentation is a reduction rather than an extension. Maybe it comes, instead, from the ‘inside of an elbow’ meaning, since an indentation is like the bend of an elbow?

Spanish language Nobel Prizes in literature

Every Spanish speaker can be rightly proud that “our” language is so international. It is an official language in twenty-one countries in North, Central, and South America, Europe, and Africa. The Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española provides oversight and stability while respecting dialectal differences.

Another measure of the success of Spanish as an international language is the fact that Spanish speakers from four continents — Europe and the three Americas — have won Nobel Prizes in Literature. The chart below summarizes this achievement. The commendations are from the “Official Website of the Nobel Prize”.

Spanish words of mystery

Spanish is surely one of the best-understood languages in the world from a linguistic perspective. Linguists have access to written Spanish texts beginning with the early 13th century Poema del mío Cid. Moreover, Spanish descends from another known language, Latin. Most of the other languages that have influenced Spanish, such as Arabic, French, and English, are themselves well understood as well.

Therefore it is surprising, and somehow refreshing, that the origins of some Spanish words remain obscure. Here are some examples, in alphabetical order. The etymological information is from Joan Corominas’s priceless Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana, which is never far from my desk.

This list is by no means exhaustive; I’ve picked words that are relatively common. My favorites are baratobrisa, burlasien, and tomar simply because they are so very common.

Word Notes
añicos ‘pieces‘ Corominas suggests a possible pre-Roman origin.
ascua ‘embers‘ I had to include this word because of my earlier post on the saying Cada cual arrima el ascua a su sardina.
bache ‘pothole‘ Of possible Basque origin. Reinforcing Corominas’s doubts is R.L. Trask’s authoritative The History of Basque, which disputes Basque origins for all Spanish words except for izquierda.
barajar ‘shuffle (cards)‘ The word’s original meaning was ‘fight’; in this sense it is shared by other Romance languages, e.g. Catalan barallar.
barato ‘cheap‘ Perhaps pre-Roman, cognate with proto-Celtic *mratos ‘trick’.
batea ‘tray, trough‘ Possibly from Arabic bâtiya.
brisa ‘breeze‘ Shared by all Western Romance languages.
burla ‘taunt, joke, trick‘ Shared by Catalan and Portuguese.
cuchitril ‘hovel, shack, hole-in-the-wall‘ Possibly from Vulgar Latin *cohortile ‘corral’, with influence from cochinera ‘swill’.
curtir ‘‘to harden, tan (skin)’‘ Shared by Portuguese. Corominas suggests a possible origin in corto ‘short’, since hides and fruits shrink as they are tanned’, or the Vulgar Latin *corretrire, meaning ‘wear away by rubbing’.
cuy ‘guinea pig‘ A character in Michael Moore’s “shockumentary” Roger & Me notoriously asked “Pets or meat?” when selling rabbits. The cuy is both: a pet in the United States, and a tasty meal in South America. In either case, its etymology is unknown. Corominas suggests two possibilities: either onomatopoeia from the animal’s squeal, or, less likely, the Basque word kui ‘rabbit’. The Real Academia Española disagrees, stating that the word is of Quechua origin.
gacha, gachas ‘‘mush, porridge, oatmeal’‘ Corominas suggests that this word, while of “origen incierto”, may come from the word cacho ‘bit, piece’, since mush can be made from bread crumbs.
gamberro ‘joker, vandal, rake‘ Perhaps from Valenciano gran verro ‘big pig’.
gancho ‘hook‘ Probably pre-Roman. This word has spread to Arabic, Turkish, and various Balkan languages as well as Catalan and Italian.
garbanzo ‘chickpea‘ Probably pre-Roman and Indo-European.
mendrugo ‘crust‘ Its secondary meaning of ‘idiot’ suggests a possible relationship with mandría ‘worthless individual’, of Italian origin.
sien ‘temple (side of forehead)‘ Perhaps of Germanic origin.
tomar ‘to take‘ It blows me away that this super-common verb, shared by Portuguese, is of “origen incierto”. Who knew?




¿Pollo or gallina?

Georgina Margan, a reader and professional translator from Tucson, Arizona, emailed me to give Trader Joe’s “a pat on the back for their Chicken Asada“, the subject of a “Bad Spanish” post on my blog. Whereas I complained that the product should be called Chicken Asado because pollo ‘chicken’ is masculine, she made the point that ‘chicken’ can also be feminine — and, in fact, that the feminine gender rules when chickens are plural:

The agreement between chicken and asada is correct because chicken means gallina (hen), not only pollo. You see, when chicks are born it’s next to impossible to tell females and males apart…unless you cut them open. Only when they grow up the difference between gallinas (feminine) and pollos (masculine) becomes evident. Pollos turn into gallos (roosters), if they are given the time. When both sexes are together in a flock, they are collectively referred to as las gallinas. This is one of the very, very few instances where a group of both sexes is referred to using the feminine noun. and the Real Academia certainly back up Gina’s point about the feminine collective plural gallinas. The former lists three earthy refranes (‘proverbs’):

  • acostarse con las gallinas ‘to go to bed early’ (lit. ‘to go to bed with the chickens’)
  • ¡hasta que meen las gallinas! ‘when pigs fly’ (lit. ‘when chickens piss’)
  • Las gallinas de arriba ensucian a las de abajo ‘the underdog always suffers’ (lit. ‘the chickens on top poop on the chickens below’)

The Real Academia repeats the first two refranes and also references cólera de las gallinas (‘fowl cholera’), a nasty disease which fortunately hasn’t crossed over to humans. Yet.

However, I still think it would be better for TJ to call this product Chicken Asado because the company clearly sees chickens as pollo, not gallina, as shown in the related product names Pollo Asado and Pizza al Pollo Asado.

One of these days I should actually sample one of these products!


Reading buddies for Spanish literature

Why can’t Johnny read…Spanish?

Last semester I taught my department’s highest-level language class for the second time. This class serves as a bridge to subsequent classes that focus primarily on literature, cinema, and other aspects of Hispanic culture. For this reason its syllabus includes a handful of short stories and poems, as well as advanced grammar topics.

I’ve always felt at a loss when it comes to teaching literature. This is partly because, as you might expect from this blog, my forte as an instructor is grammar. In addition, while I distinctly remember, and even treasure, the effort it took to master different grammar topics, reading Spanish came naturally to me, and was fun from the start. This makes it hard for me to empathize with my struggling readers and to know how best to help them.

I had an “aha” moment toward the end of the previous semester, when a student came to me after class with questions about Mujer negra, a terrific poem we’d read some weeks earlier. We were looking at her copy of the poem as we spoke, and I was struck by the disparity between her obvious effort in reading the poem — she had looked up so many words! but not always correctly! — and her lingering doubts, even though we’d already discussed the poem in class.

I knew that if we were to sit down together and go through the poem more carefully, I could help her understand it better. But what instructor has the time to do this with every confused student — assuming they request it? And isn’t it our goal to teach our students to read literature without professorial hand-holding?

Accordingly, this semester I came up with the idea of assigning each student a “reading buddy” (compañero de lectura). The plan was that the students would work through each reading together, and optionally complete a joint homework. I hoped that this would help students to (i) understand the readings better, (ii) improve their reading skills, and (iii) see reading as a serious and time-worthy task.

I assigned the readings buddies semi-randomly. First, I asked students to fill out a short form (below) in class. I also asked them to indicate if there was anyone in the class they would especially like to work with. Almost all the students described their reading ability as “normal”, and all of them expressed willingness to work with a less advanced partner. I assigned buddies on the basis of this information.

At the end of the semester I administered a brief survey to gauge how useful students had found found this approach, and to decide whether I should repeat it the following semester. Overall, the results was positive. There are two ways to look at them.

First, as shown below, half of the sixteen students surveyed chose to work with their reading buddy on at least half of the semester’s four readings. Of students who didn’t work together, most cited scheduling conflicts; only four students said that they preferred to work by themselves. I was surprised that scheduling was such a big factor.

Second, almost all the students (all but two) said that assigning “reading buddies” was a good idea and that I should continue to do this in future semesters. In response to the question “Did reading with a ‘buddy’ help you understand the readings and develop your skills?”, positive answers included:

  • “definitely”
  • “could have not done [readings] as well alone”
  • “we discussed the readings in detail and shared ideas”
  • “we helped each other understand”
  • “It was quite helpful”
  • “It was nice to have someone to ask for help if needed”
  • “I was able to become very close friends with my buddy. Plus the way we worked was extremely productive.”

Overall I was encouraged, and I will definitely repeat this program. However, now that I know that scheduling is such a concern, I will encourage students to get an earlier start on each reading as it begins to loom in the syllabus.