Author Archives: jhochberg

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

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. 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, 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, 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.

Mind your y’s and o’s

After all these years, I’m still refining my knowledge of Spanish. Just this week I learned a subtle detail about an obscure but genuine rule of Spanish: the occasional change of y and o (‘and’ and ‘or’) to e and uY and o are pronounced ee and oh, and this change happens when one of these words comes before a word that begins with the same sound. So, for example, we say bonita e inteligente ‘pretty and smart’ and siete u ocho ‘seven or eight’ to keep the vowels from merging into each other at the boundary of y and inteligente, and likewise of o and ocho.

We have a similar phenomenon in English, where a changes to an before words that begin with a vowel, so that we say, for example, an apple and an elephant as opposed to a pear and a zebra. Just as in the Spanish case, this prevents the vowel of the word a from running into the first vowel of the following word. The linguistic term for such a change is dissimilation.

I would describe the y/o rule as “basic advanced Spanish”, meaning that anyone who wants a good command of the language will eventually learn it. I always get a kick out of teaching it: students are surprised to learn that these basic words, which they may have been using for years, have two different forms. That’s when I bring in the a pear/an apple example from English and really blow their minds.

The detail that I just learned has to do with words that begin with hie-, such as hierro ‘iron’. The letter h is silent in Spanish, so that y changes into e before other words that begin with hi-, as in aguja e hilo ‘needle and thread’. However, in words like hierro the i takes on a consonantal y sound — that is, the word is pronounced yero — so there is no need for the ye change. A good example is the phrase madera y hierro ‘wood and iron’.

Here’s the rule as explained in the Real Academia Española’s Ortografía:

“La y copulativa mantiene su forma cuando la palabra que sigue a la conjunción comienza por un diptongo de /i/ + vocal, ya que en esos casos la /i/ del diptongo no es plenamente vocálica, sino que se acerca, en la pronunciación espontánea, al fonema consonántico /y/. Al no confluir ya dos fonemas vocálicos iguales, la y copulativa no necesita transformarse en e: madera y hierro [madéra i yérro], agua y hielo [água i yélo], alfa y iota [álfa i yóta].”

By the way, no Spanish words begin with ie-, just as none begin with ue-. At the beginning of a word the ie sequence is always spelled hie- or ye- (as in yeso ‘plaster’), and the ue sequence, hue- as in huevo ‘egg’. A fun fact for your Tuesday!

Many thanks to reader and friend Daniel Nappo for bringing this topic to my attention.

Linguistic gems from recent reading (2017 edition)

The title of this post is a shout-out to one I wrote back in 2014. That “linguistic gems” post described a nice stylistic use of the imperfect subjunctive in the Spanish novel La carta esférica, and a reminiscence about the trilled r from the Puerto Rican novel Felices días tío Sergio.

Today’s gems come from the Spanish-language novel that I’m currently reading, Sofía Segovia Huracán. It was this Mexican author’s first novel; she revised and republished it last year after the great success of her second novel, El murmullo de las abejas. I’m 50 pages into Huracán and completely hooked.

So far, Huracán is the picaresque tale of a Mexican boy who is given away (regalado) to a farmer because his family can’t afford to keep him. He eventually runs away and makes his living as a petty thief. I’m waiting for him to figure out how to redeem his life — and, of course, I’m waiting for the actual hurricane of the title.

In the meantime, I’m especially enjoying two aspects of the author’s Spanish. First, Segovia often puts into written form her characters’ “improper” Spanish, as shown in the selection below:

¡Ya nos mandastes al demonio! ‘You sent us to the devil!’
¿Adónde vamos? ‘Where are we going?
Nosotros agarramos pa Tabasco. Tú lo matastes, tú te vas pa otro lado. ‘We’re heading for Tabasco. You killed him, you go the other way.’

The preterite past tense forms mandastes and matastes here have a final -s added to the standard forms mataste and mandaste. This is a very natural extension of the final -s that ‘you’ forms have in all other verb tenses, such as matas ‘you kill’, mandarás ‘you will sent’, and mandabas ‘you used to send’. I’ve read about this phenomenon but have never seen it in print. Pa as a shortened version of para ‘for’ that is common in colloquial Spanish in several countries, including Mexico. I’ve seen it written elsewhere as pa’. 

The other aspect of Segovia’s Spanish that I particularly enjoy is her deliberate and even playful exploitation of some of the grammatical contrasts that are a Spanish instructor’s bread and butter. In this sentence, about the protagonist’s time in a street gang, Segovia plays with gender:

Aniceto no estaba acostumbrado a tanta orden y tanto orden. ‘Aniceto wasn’t used to so many orders and so much organization.’ (“command and control’?)

Orden is one of a set of Spanish words whose meaning changes with its gender; some other examples are el capital ‘money’ and la capital‘, el cura ‘priest’ and la cura ‘cure’, and el coma ‘coma’ and la coma ‘comma’. You will find a longer list here.

Also on the subject of the street gang, Segovia plays with the por/para contrast:

Si no era [el jefe] él quien hacía cumplir su ley, era el resto del grupo el que lo hacía por él y para él. ‘If the gang leader didn’t make Aniceto obey, the rest of the gang would do it in his place and for his benefit.’

The Spanish version is much more elegant, ¿no?

I’m looking forward to unearthing more gems as I make my way through Huracán!

Mandatos (commands) summary chart

An upcoming review session with a student who is struggling with Spanish commands inspired me to make this chart. Some notes:

  • I used boldface for the subjunctive box and the lines leading into it in order to emphasize that in most cases, the command form is just the subjunctive.
  • I left out two details:
    • dropping the final s on affirmative nosotros commands before nos (e.g. quedémonos ‘let’s stay’) or se (e.g. enseñémosela ‘let’s teach them it’);
    • the irregular affirmative vosotros command idos (for ir).
  • The accent marks usually needed when a pronoun is added simply follow the regular rules for Spanish. That’s why you see one on háblame ‘talk to me’ (same stress pattern as e.g. teléfono) but not on dime ‘tell me’ (same stress pattern as cine).
  • The irregular affirmative  commands are listed in the order of the mnemonic “Vin Diesel has ten weapons, eh?”

A subtle case of the subjunctive

Today I’ll start by sharing a gorgeous example of the subjunctive/indicative contrast that I recently noticed in one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero. Then I’ll circle around and explain what makes it so gorgeous.

Lo ha matado al salir de aquí, después de estar contigo….El objetivo eras tú [Patro], por lo que sabes o puedas contar.
‘They killed him when he left after seeing you. The real target was you [Patro], for what you know or might say.

A bit of background: I like to tell my students that the subjunctive/indicative distinction is easier to master than the the preterite/imperfect distinction. The contexts, or triggers, that require the subjunctive are usually clear-cut, whereas there’s often a lot of subjectivity in deciding whether a given past tense context triggers the preterite or the imperfect. For example, Ojalá ‘God willing’ always triggers the subjunctive, whereas ayer ‘yesterday’ can be followed by either the preterite or the imperfect, depending on how the speaker perceives what happened yesterday.

For this reason, I’m intrigued by subjunctive/indicative contexts that allow more flexibility. Certain triggers are famously ambiguous. For example, tal vez and quizás, both meaning ‘maybe’, can be followed by either the subjunctive or the indicative, depending on whether you are pessimistic or optimistic:

  • Tal vez venga ‘He might come, but probably won’t’ (subjunctive)
  • Tal vez viene‘ He might come, and probably will’ (indicative)

Most Spanish grammar guides (e.g. here) cover in depth a second flexible context: so-called “adjective clauses”, or relative clauses that describe (give more information about) a noun, i.e. a person, place, or thing. A subjunctive In an adjective clause indicates that the clause describes a hypothetical person, place, or thing while an indicative indicates that the noun is real. Consider, for example, the sentence pair below, which I remember from tenth grade (!!), and which distinguishes between a hypothetical and an actual secretary:

  • Busco una secretaria que sepa escribir a máquina ‘I’m looking for a (hypothetical) secretary who can type’ (subjunctive)
  • Busco una secretaria que sabe escribir a máquina ‘I’m looking for an (actual, specific) secretary who can type’ (indicative)

Not all flexible relative clauses are adjective clauses. This brings us back to the example I started this post with, in which the relative clause functions as a noun.

Lo ha matado al salir de aquí, después de estar contigo….El objetivo eras tú, por lo que sabes o puedas contar.
‘They killed him when he left after seeing you. The real target was you, for what you know or might say.

I love this example because it contains both an indicative and a subjunctive within a single relative clause! This combination subtly mirrors the progression of the speaker’s thoughts: from the murderer’s certain motive for killing Patro — what she knew — to the murderer’s hypothetical motive — what Patro might say. As with the venga/viene and sepa/sabe examples, the subjunctive and indicative forms of the verb provide a compact and elegant way to achieve this distinction.

Frankly, having looked through my collection of grammar books and websites, I’m not sure what category the puedas subjunctive falls into. The noun clauses with the subjunctive presented in grammars typically follow classic WEIRDO triggers like Espero queEs triste que, Ojalá que, and Dudo que. Nevertheless, the puedas example strikes me as splendid Spanish. Any ideas?

My talk at HLCCNY’s Feria del Libro

It was a real thrill to participate in this weekend’s Feria del Libro Hispana/Latina, organized by the Hispano/Latino Cultural Center of New York. Here are some takeaways from the event.

  1. There was genuine interest in my book! I sold several copies, and my talk on “Aspectos sobresalientes del español” (video below, text here) was well received. While I have always believed that ¿Por qué? should be of interest to Hispanics as well as Spanish teachers, students, and linguists, this is my first proof. I will continue to work to identify other ways of reaching this community, and welcome any reader suggestions.

2. I fell in love with this year’s Feria’s honoree, the poet and translator Rhina Espaillat. She is one warm and classy lady, both accomplished and approachable. She gave a wonderful talk about the art of translation which included several examples of poems she has translated from English to Spanish and vice versa.

3. Another highlight was, surprisingly, a presentation by Mayra Faña on her new book El vino, La bebida intelectual. I say “surprising” because a wine book was the last thing I would have expected to be on the program, which leaned toward poetry. However, Sra. Faña is passionate about wine — her day job is, I think, in engineering, but she gives wine appreciation classes — and wrote the book as part of her crusade to increase appreciation and consumption of wine in the Hispanic community. Her talk was excellent; my favorite part was her discussion of the difference between Argentinian and Chilean wines.
I am myself rather lazy/timid in the wine department, and buy only through established wine clubs. But if I wanted to read a book about wine, it would be this one.

4. I shared a table with Altagracia Cabrera, who has recently published a novel, ¡Dios hazme blanca!, about racial prejudice in the Dominican Republic. She brought her adorable granddaughter and grand-niece to the fair. In this picture you can see them holding copies of the book while wearing their abuela’s promotional T-shirts.

5. The event was catered by La Brisa restaurant in Jackson Heights. So good! But after three days of eating roast pork and tostones (fried plantains), it was a relief to cook up a batch of one of my favorite vegan soups, featuring yellow split peas and lots of vegetables.