Monthly Archives: April 2022

Bad Spanish – Guilty conscience edition

I feel sheepish about writing this blog post — hence the “guilty conscience” — since the perpetrator this time around is a most worthy organization: SOMOS Community Care, a network of community-based health medical providers in New York City who serve Medicaid recipients, many of whom are Spanish speakers.

I saw this promotion for SOMOS on a window on the north side of East 42nd street in Manhattan, just down the block from Grand Central Station:

The error is the unneeded accent mark on the last word of this promotion, which should have been just plain ti. People often put an accent mark on ti because the similar word (as in para mí) has one. But that mark distinguishes the pronoun ‘me’ from the possessive adjective mi ‘my.’ It’s akin to the accent marks on ‘yes’ (versus unaccented si ‘if’), ‘you’ (vs. tu ‘your’), más ‘more’ (vs. mas ‘but’), and a number of other word pairs. in contrast, Spanish only has one word ti, so there’s no need for an accent mark.

I am totally at a loss to understand the top line of this promotion: The inside’s. I don’t even know if it’s part of the SOMOS promotion. But it reminds me of an adage I’ve come up with: accent mark mistakes in Spanish are like apostrophe marks in English. They’re ubiquitous, and make a bad impression.

SOMOS’s app, MiSOMOS, includes a terrific set of “Dr. Del Barrio” videos that explain annual checkups, diabetes, prostate cancer, and other important topics. The text in the sample video I watched (“Ver a tu doctor”) also has a few accent mark mistakes, as does the text below the video. I suggest that the good people at SOMOS enlist a Spanish teacher, or someone else familiar with this aspect of Spanish spelling, to review their content. I’d be happy to volunteer.

Enough with the (in)transitive verbs already

No sooner had I published my previous blog post, on the unexpectedly transitive Spanish verbs desayunar, almorzar, and cenar, when I had a headlong collision with an unexpectedly intransitive verb: comprar ‘to buy.’ I’ve been using this basic verb for ages, but always as a transitive verb, i.e. with a direct object, as in:

  • Voy a comprar un libro. (the direct object is el libro)
  • He comprado demasiadas papas. (the direct object is demasiadas papas ‘too many potatoes’)
  • Compro mucha comida en Trader Joe’s. (the direct object is mucha comida ‘a lot of food’)

Spanish has a related intransitive expression ir de compras ‘to go shopping.’ But I never imagined that the verb comprar itself can be intransitive until one of my colleagues put the following sentence on a test we were writing together. I’ve changed it a little in case one of our students is reading this blog.

  • No hay nada de sal en la cocina. Tenemos que comprar.
    ‘There is no salt in the kitchen. We have to buy.’

For this native English speaker at least, the intransitive comprar sounded woefully naked. I expected some object to accompany the verb, as in La tenemos que comprar ‘We have to buy it,’ Tenemos que comprarla (same translation), or Tenemos que comprar más ‘We have to buy more.’

However, after asking with other Spanish speakers, it is clear that Tenemos que comprar is fine by itself. I also checked the verb’s entry in the Real Academia Española dictionary, and indeed the third definition is intransitive:

  • intr. Realizar una compra, especialmente si se hace de forma habitual. Compramos en tiendas del barrio.

although this sounds synonymous with ir de compras ‘to go shopping’ rather than shopping for a specific item.

My fellow test-writer also said that you could only say Tenemos que comprar más if you still had some salt and wanted to supplement it. Other speakers whom I consulted were divided on this nuance.

This comprar surprise, and my recent reckoning with desayunar and its transitive friends, have reminded me forcibly that I will never be a native speaker. To bolster my wounded self-esteem I keep reminding myself that my Spanish is actually really good and my English is even better! Plus I speak decent French, know a fair amount of Hebrew, and a little German. Really, I can hold my head high as a linguist, and should enjoy the subtle surprises that Spanish still holds for me rather than taking them personally. Most of the time, I do.

“Desayunar” can be a transitive verb

Boy, does this sound like a boring topic for a blog post!

Au contraire, the Spanish verb desayunar ‘to eat breakfast,’ and likewise almorzar and cenar ‘to eat dinner/lunch,’ beautifully illustrates how subtle differences between languages can be problematic for a learner — or a teacher.

Spanish uses simple verbs like desayunar to talk about eating a meal, whereas English uses multi-word expressions like to eat breakfast or to have lunch. In linguistic terminology, we say that these meanings are “lexicalized” in Spanish whereas the equivalent English expressions are “periphrastic.” Spanish and English verbs can go the other way, too. For example, English has lexicalized the concept ‘drop’ as drop (duh), whereas Spanish uses the periphrastic expression dejar caer ‘to let fall.’

For the most part, the lexicalized Spanish meal verbs and their pheriphastic English counterparts work the same way. You can use them to say who eats a meal, where they eat, when they eat, and even how and why they eat, as in the following examples.

  • Mi padre desayuna ‘My father eats breakfast’
  • Almuerzo en la cafetería ‘I eat lunch in the cafeteria’
  • Los españoles cenan muy tarde ‘Spaniards eat dinner late’
  • Desayunas demasiado rápido porque tienes prisa ‘You eat breakfast too quickly because you are in a hurry’

However, Spanish and English differ in how they say what someone eats. Spanish meal verbs can have a food noun as a direct object, as in:

  • Mi padre desayuna huevos [eggs].
  • Almuerzo comida muy mala [bad food] en la cafetería.

In other words, these verbs can be transitive. However, the English expressions already have a direct object: breakfast in My father eats breakfast, lunch in I have lunch in the cafeteria, and so on. For this reason, when saying in English what someone eats at a meal, you can’t just add the food to the usual periphrastic verb phrase, as in:

  • *My dad eats lunch bad food.

Instead you must say something like

  • My dad eats bad food for lunch.

which substitutes bad food as a direct object in place of lunch, which then becomes part of the adverbial phrase for lunch.

The fact that Spanish meal verbs like desayunar can be transitive, but their periphrastic English counterparts cannot, is the kind of subtle linguistic difference that challenges both students and teachers of Spanish. A native English speaker can learn the Spanish verbs desayunar, almorzar, and cenar and use them happily for years, but then freak out when they hear a sentence like Nunca almuerzo sopa, or try to understand and answer a question like ¿Qué cenas? These are genuinely difficult for a native English speaker to process. At the same time, a native Spanish-speaking teacher will most likely not realize that this aspect of Spanish is difficult for their English-speaking students.

I have been on both sides of this conundrum. I had been speaking Spanish for decades before I ever heard a transitive use of these meal verbs. In my own speaking I would use English-style syntax in statements like Como huevos en el desayuno ‘I eat eggs for breakfast’ or in questions like ¿Qué comes en el almuerzo? ‘What do you eat for lunch?’ I only became aware of the transitive uses of these verbs when teaching Spanish alongside native speakers who included them in class materials and even tests. While my first reaction was to shelter my students from these odd-sounding statements and questions, I then realized that it’s my responsibility as a teacher to point them out to my students as an interesting difference from English, and to practice the transitive uses with my students until they feel more or less natural, or at least until the students can interpret them correctly.

I enjoy teaching Spanish partly because I enjoy working with college students, partly because I love Spanish, and mostly because I believe everyone should strive be bilingual. Discovering new aspects of the language and its differences from English is intellectual icing on the pedagogical cake. A similar example for me was the Spanish preposition en, which can mean ‘in,’ ‘on,’ and ‘at.’ I was never aware of the broad semantic scope of this preposition until I had to correct students who said things like *Estoy a la playa ‘I am to the beach’ instead of Estoy en la playa ‘I am at the beach.’

As an etymological coda, the three Spanish meal verbs are the product of two different evolutionary paths: a kind of chicken/egg situation, with nouns as the chickens and verbs as the eggs (or the other way around). According to my trusty Spanish etymological dictionary, almorzar and cenar are derived from the nouns almuerzo ‘lunch’ and cena ‘dinner,’ whereas desayunar is derived from the verb ayunar ‘to fast.’ Its corresponding noun (desayuno) was coined from the verb desayunar more than two hundred years later.