Author Archives: jhochberg

All in the family: Etymologies of Spanish kinship terms

Now that the semester has ended, I’m turning my attention back to a research project on Spanish etymologies that I’ve neglected for months. I owe my readers a blog post introducing this project, but for the time being I’ll share this teaser on the etymology of kinship terms like madre and padre. These words are fun to look at because (i) all languages have a set of such words, which (ii) reflect culture, especially gender roles, and (iii) have surprisingly varied etymologies, many of which (iv) have interesting twists and turns.

All etymologies presented here are from Juan Corominas’ Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana (1961).

To begin with, five pairs of Spanish kinship terms derived their masculine variant from Latin and their feminine variant from the Spanish masculine. This is the largest class of kinship terms we will see here, which is to be expected given that in Spanish, as in most languages, the masculine gender is dominant, or ‘unmarked.’ Thus new words usually enter the language as masculine even if they end in an -a (e.g. yoga, from Sanskrit, and centinela, from Italian), and many feminine words add suffixes to masculine bases (e.g. actor/actriz, español/española).

Note that all pairs of this type except for hijo/hija feature an interesting etymological twist or turn.

Terms


Etymology of masculine term
(In all cases, the Spanish feminine term is derived from the Spanish masculine by changing final -o to ‑a.)
hijo/hija ‘son/daughter’Latin filius ‘son’
hermano/hermana ‘brother/sister’Latin germanus ‘of the same parents,’ from frater germanus ‘true brother, i.e. of the same parents’
primo/prima ‘cousin’Latin primus ‘first,’ from consobrinus primus ‘first cousin’
sobrino/sobrina ‘nephew, niece’Latin sobrinus ‘first cousin once removed,  second cousin, etc.’, replacing Latin nepos ‘nephew, grandson’ (as in English nepotism)
cuñado/cuñada ‘brother/sister-in-law’Latin cognatus ‘blood relative’ (con + natus ‘born with’) > ‘any type of relative’ > ‘in-law’ > ‘brother-in-law’

Three pairs of kinship terms developed in the opposite direction from those above: their feminine variants came directly from Latin, and then served as the source of their masculine variants. You might be able to guess that two of these these are terms for grandparents and in-laws. After all, many grandmothers play a large supporting role in their grandchildren’s lives (more so than most grandfathers do) and mothers-in-law loom large in legend and marital strife (more so than fathers-in-law do, unless creepy).

Terms


Etymology of feminine term
(In all cases, the Spanish masculine term is derived from the Spanish feminine by changing final -a to ‑o.)
abuela/abuelo
‘grandmother/father’
Latin aviola, the diminutive form of avia ‘grandmother’ (like Spanish abuelita)
[Note: abuelo replaced the expected descendent of Latin avus ‘grandfather’]
suegra/suegro
‘mother/father-in-law’
Vulgar Latin socra ‘mother-in-law’, which “feminized” the masculine-sounding ending of Classical Latin socrus
[Note: suegro replaced the expected descendent of Latin socer ‘father-in-law’]
nieta/nieto ‘granddaughter/son’Vulgar Latin nepta ‘granddaughter’ or ‘niece,’ which “feminized” the ending of Classical Latin neptis
[Note: nieto replaced the expected descendent of Latin nepos ‘nephew, grandson’]

A few Spanish kinship terms come from unrelated masculine and feminine Latin roots.

TermsEtymology
padre/madre ‘father, mother’padre: Latin pater ‘father’
madre: Latin mater ‘mother’
yerno/nuera ‘son/daughter-in-law’yerno: Latin gener ‘son-in-law’
nuera: Vulgar Latin nora ‘daughter-in-law’, which “feminized” the masculine-sounding ending of Classical Latin nurus

Two final pairs of Spanish kinship terms are each sui generis.

TermsEtymology
tío/tía ‘uncle/aunt’Latin thius/thia ‘uncle/aunt’, from Greek thêios/théia ‘uncle/aunt’. These are rare examples of borrowed kinship terms.
padrastro/padrastra ‘stepfather/stepmother’padrastro: Vulgar Latin padraster ‘stepfather,’ derived from pater by adding the Latin pejorative suffix -aster; it replaced Classical Latin vitricus.
madrastra: Spanish derivative of madre, with the Spanish pejorative suffix -astra (from Latin ‑aster)

Some of the twists and turns described above reflect similar developments in the history of other words.

  • Just as suegra, nuera, and nieta “feminized” the masculine-sounding endings of Latin’s socrus and nurus, and the unrevealing -is ending of neptis, so too Latin infante ‘princess’ and seniore ‘lady’ became Spanish infanta and señora. Ralph Penny calls this process “hypercharacterization,” a phenomenon also seen when masculine Latin nouns like passare ‘bird’ and cortice ‘cork’ took on the standard -o ending to become Spanish pájaro and corcho.
  • Just as abuela absorbed the diminutive ending of Latin aviola, so too mantequilla ‘butter’ and various words ending in -eja, such as oveja ‘sheep,’ oreja ‘ear,’ and abeja ‘bee,’ come from Latin diminutives.
  • Cuñado‘s semantic transformation from Latin ‘blood relative’ (i.e., not an in-law) to ‘brother-in-law’ is no more far-fetched than that of ‘milestone’ to ‘doll’ or ‘wrist,’ or that of ‘broma’ from ‘shipworm’ to ‘joke.’

As a charming closing factoid, I learned that madre is related to the Spanish and English words metrópoli/metropolis, metropolitano/metropolitan, and metro (in the sense of ‘subway’), all via the Greek word metrópolis, meaning ‘mother city’ (ciudad madre).

It’s all in the family.

Accent marks in Spanish are like apostrophes in English

Lately I’ve been struck by some parallels between accent marks in Spanish and apostrophes in English.

First, accent marks can distinguish otherwise identical word pairs such as Hable ‘Speak!’ and Hablé ‘I spoke’, or  ‘you’ and tu ‘your’. This is analogous to it’s versus its in English.

Second, they can help you pronounce a word correctly. For example, teléfono is pronounced on the third-to-last syllable (le), not the next-to-last as you would expect for a word that ends in a vowel (like cucaracha). Likewise, the apostrophe in English I’ll changes its pronunciation vis-a-vis ill.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, correct use of accent marks is a sign of an educated Spanish speaker. Even speakers who don’t bother to type accent marks in emails and text messages need to include them in more formal texts, such as school assignments and business letters. Omitting an accent mark is as offensive to many readers as is, for example, confusing they’re and their in English.

End-of-semester thoughts on teaching Spanish online

Today is the last day of my teaching semester. My students will take their (online) final exam this afternoon and I should have their grades in by dinner.

Teaching Spanish online has been interesting, but it isn’t an experience I’d care to repeat, for several reasons.

The first is that despite being friendly and outgoing, I am fundamentally not much of a “people person.” This is in part because I am face-blind, but I expect it’s a more deeply-wired characteristic. For example, I struggle to keep track of my friends’ offspring — their kids’ names, ages, and so on — and have to store this information in my Google Contacts and/or rely on my husband to remind me of it before a get-together. I could never be a politician.

This deficit means that getting to know my students is a major hurdle that I face every semester. Multiple students with the same name, or multiple girls with the same hairstyle, are particularly challenging.

Teaching online plays into this weakness because the students appear as squares on my Zoom screen, with their names conveniently displayed so I don’t have to make the effort to learn them. They are abstracted away from their actual selves. Moreover, the routine activities that usually help me learn my students’ names and faces, such as taking attendance (in person) and handing back corrected papers, no longer exist. The result is that even now, at the end of the semester, there are a handful of students that I feel I don’t know at all.

A second reason is that, from my own experience attending online meetings, I know that just because a Zoom participant is focused on the screen, this doesn’t mean that they are actually paying attention. They could be reading the newspaper, playing a game, or chatting with a friend online. (I have been guilty of all of these distractions myself during meetings.) Sometimes when I call on a student it is clear from their response that although their face was on my Zoom screen, their brain had been somewhere else. Not good.

A third reason is that even when students are paying attention, it’s hard to get a brisk oral rhythm going. During my live classes students are always answering my questions, repeating or otherwise reacting to other students’ answers, asking questions of other students, and so on. A brisk pace really helps with this type of learning, and is hard to achieve in an online class. There is always a lag.

A fourth reason is that many ingredients in my usual bag of tricks are useless when teaching online. Some examples are conjugation (and other) drills that student pairs randomize with dice (1 = yo, 2 = , and so on); one-page ‘booklets’ with questions on the outside and answers inside, which students use while working in “teacher-student” pairs; and little slips of paper with questions (or prompts) that students use in quiz-quiz-switch fashion as they circulate and converse with each other.

As still another reason, all my students’ work this semester has been in electronic form, and I prefer to grade on paper. I usually write a lot of free-form comments that are difficult to replicate on a screen. I have ended up highlighting different parts of an essay in color and then writing notes below in the same color. This takes a long time. Also, when I grade tests I prefer to grade one question at a time rather than one test at a time. Blackboard (our online teaching system) has a mechanism for doing this, but it is awkward to use so I always end up grading one test at a time. Finally, if I want to change some aspect of my grading in retrospect I have to go back and find the tests affected. This is much easier with a stack of printed exams.

Even though our students all commit to doing their own work, as opposed to using Google Translate or other systems, I am less confident under these circumstances that I am getting a true picture of their actual Spanish abilities.

I even missed my commute! Taking the train to Fordham guarantees me almost an hour of walking in total, some peaceful minutes in the train, the beauty of Fordham’s campus, and a myriad of small social interactions. Humans are social creatures, and it’s good to be out and about.

For all these reasons, I am looking forward to teaching in a real classroom again this fall.

Flash sale on ¿Por qué?

Blackwell’s, a British bookseller, is randomly selling new paperback copies of ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish for only $14.62, including shipping to the U.S. This is a great deal as the list price is $32.96. I have verified with Blackwell’s that these are in fact new books, not secondhand.

So if you have been thinking of buying a copy for yourself, or already have a copy but want to give one to your favorite Spanish teacher or hispanophile, now is the time.

My new book is out — and selling briskly!

Although the Routledge website and Amazon still say that my new book won’t ship until next month, the copy that my father pre-ordered arrived last week, and my own copies a few days ago. So those of you who have been looking forward to reading the book shouldn’t hesitate to place an order, or to request that your library do so. According to Amazon many readers have already taken the plunge:

¡¡#1!!

I am very happy with the look of the book, including the cover. The crucial center illustration is hard to read in the screenshot above, though, so below please see a clearer version. The speech bubbles represent topics (e.g., acquisition), types of student activities and projects (e.g., WebQuest), and the overarching and organizing theme of essential questions.

The book is slender for its price, but of course half of the work on this project went into the 300+ accompanying PowerPoint slides which are available on the Routledge website. The slides are under copyright, and I do hope that anyone who finds them of value will show some respect for my time and effort by purchasing a copy of the book. Ahem.

What next? Besides teaching and blogging, I’ve had two book ideas on a far-back burner for some time. One is The Story of Spanish in 100 Words: a version, for Spanish, of David Crystal’s delightful book about English. I should be able to write that in my sleep, right? Another idea would be a major departure for me, though still language-related: a book about “grand-names,” meaning the names grandparents choose to be called — or their grandchildren choose to call them. This book would be timely as more and more Baby Boomers are becoming grandparents.

Or…I could decide to just spend a lot of time with my own grandchildren. Time will tell.

Teaching Spanish online

I am now two weeks into teaching my first online Spanish class at Fordham University. I took the spring semester off in 2020 to finish my second book, and then fall semester off because of COVID-19 caution: I didn’t want to commute by train, nor teach in a classroom. So my return to teaching after a year’s absence has coincided with having to learn a new way of doing my job.

My tech background has given me a big head start in this process. Before a dandy mid-life career crisis inspired me to return to my original love of Spanish, I worked for fifteen years as a computational linguistics researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Soliloquy (a start-up that stopped), and IBM’s TJ Watson Research Center. I wrote software for a variety of applications including speech recognition, language identification from document images, dialog analysis, and identification of classified documents. Because of this background, technology doesn’t intimidate me: I enjoy it and retain some decent skills. My heart goes out to instructors who are making the same transition with a more conventional, purely liberal arts background.

Two resources have been particularly helpful in this process: a video by SheriAnn Simpson, the founder of EduNovela.com, and a tool, Google Jamboards.

Dr. Simpson makes a wonderful analogy in her video: teaching in a classroom versus online is like cooking in a kitchen versus a campground. In a kitchen you have all the ingredients and tools that you could possibly need, and can whip up complicated dishes. At a campground you have a smaller set of ingredients and tools, and so are bound for trouble if you try to duplicate in this new venue the same dishes you would attempt at home. Instead, you have to ask yourself, “What kind of dishes can I cook at a campground?” Ideally, you will identify some dishes, such as s’mores, that you could never cook as well at home.

Likewise, you shouldn’t try to duplicate online the same things you do in a classroom. Instead you need to find out what will work online — including techniques that don’t work in the live classroom.

I nodded along with Dr. Simpson when she made this analogy, and shared it with friends, family, and colleagues as I was getting ready to start teaching. But didn’t really sink in until my second online lesson, in which — wouldn’t you know? — I used too many kinds of materials and struck too fast a pace because I was trying to imitate my classroom methodology. Boy, Dr. Simpson sure was right.

In my more recent classes, which have gone better, to avoid overcrowding my lessons I have attempted to apply a second nugget of wisdom from Dr. Simpson’s video. She describes a process of “deconstructing” a syllabus, whereby you identify the main types of activities and assessments that take place during the semester, then choose a limited palette of tools and tasks to accomplish them online. I have been doing this at the level of the individual class, thinking about what I want the class to accomplish and identifying the simplest set of activities and tools that will get us there online.

Specifically (if memory serves), Dr. Simpson recommends not having students use more than two or three different types of software during the semester. Since our students are already using Blackboard (for course communication and some assignments), MyLab (the online component of our textbook), and Zoom, I have decided to keep things simple and only use one software tool during my classes. In January, as I ramped up to teach, I learned about a wide range of tools including Panopto, Screencastify, Peardeck, Edpuzzle, Charlala, Flipgrid, Goformative, Gimkit, Blooket, Nearpod, and Genius Scan. In the end I settled on Google’s Jamboard program because it is so versatile.

In my online classroom, Jamboard takes the place of three tools I use every day in my live classroom: PowerPoint, a whiteboard, and handouts.

  • Like a PowerPoint, a Jamboard can have multiple slides (called “frames”), and can combine text and images. It is less powerful than PowerPoint — for example, you can’t select and arrange multiple objects — but if I have trouble creating something in Jamboard I just make it in PowerPoint and then cut-and-paste it into the day’s Jamboard.

    During the teacher-led portions of my online Zoom classes I screenshare the day’s Jamboard with my students, and use the laser tool to point to different parts of the display. Since Zoom doesn’t let you do a screenshare during a breakout session, I also give my students access to the Jamboard via Google Drive’s sharing settings, so that they can each see the Jamboard on their own devices while in breakout rooms. This is a HUGE advantage.
  • During a live class I write on the whiteboard and often have my students write on it as well. I can do both in Jamboard, the latter by giving students edit access to the Jamboard through Google Drive’s sharing settings. Here is an example, from my most recent class, in which students came up with examples of adjectives with quantifiers. I set up this frame (aka slide) with adjectives as column headings, the vocabulary list on the left, and some examples (the ones labeled “Profe”). The students did the rest, using Jamboard’s sticky notes.

We then went into breakout rooms, during which pairs of students used mas.que, menos…que, and tan…como to compare the people described on this frame. They wrote their comparisons on the next frame (using Jamboard text boxes, not stickies) while I played omniscient teacher and pointed out problems. We then came back as a class and went over their examples.

  • Jamboard also takes the place of handouts. Any informational handout that I would normally distribute in class can be cut-and-pasted into the day’s Jamboard instead. Any handout that I would normally use as the basis for an activity has to be examined and possibly “deconstructed.” In particular, Jamboard doesn’t have tables, so I have to transform any “fill in a table” activity into an alternative format based on stickies or simple text boxes. This is a major nuisance, but Jamboard’s advantages still outweigh this disadvantage (and others).

With only four classes under my belt I still have a lot to learn!!! But I thought it might be helpful to share these first impressions.

How to type accent marks (etc.) in Spanish

This topic has nothing to do with linguistics, but “How do I type accent marks?” is such a frequent question that I figured it was worth a blog post. Also, I just revisited this topic when preparing a handout for my students.

For both Windows and Mac users I recommend a so-called “dead key” approach in which you press one key to set up an accent mark and a second key to actually type it. There are other techniques available for both platforms, but dead keys are the fastest.

On a Windows computer you first have to activate the “U.S. International keyboard” that is part of the Windows operating system, though most users are unaware of it. You only have to do this once. On a Windows 10 computer:

  1. Type “language” in the search bar at the bottom left of the screen.
  2. Click on “language settings” which should be the top item returned.
  3. Under “Preferred languages” click “English (United States).” Don’t be tempted to change the language to Spanish!
  4. You should now see “Options.” Click on this.
  5. On the Language options screen that comes up, click “Add a keyboard,” then scroll and select “United States-International.”

You will now be able to toggle between “ENG” and “ENG INTL” on the taskbar, just to the left of the time and date. (On an older computer the steps to activate the US International keyboard are slightly different, and you will toggle by clicking on a keyboard icon.) When in “ENG INTL” mode,

To typeDo this
an accented vowel like é or óPress the apostrophe key (‘), then the desired vowel
ü as in pingüino or guëroUse the shift key to type a double quote (“), then u
¿Press the right-alt key (might be labeled “AlgGr”), then the slash (/), which shares a key with ?
¡Press the right-alt key (might be labeled “AlgGr”), then 1, which shares a key with !
ñUse the shift key to type a tilde ~ (to the left of the number 1), then type n
apostrophe or double quoteType the punctuation mark, then hit the space bar to “release” it

On a Mac, according to my Internet research rather than personal experience, to type:

  • an accented vowel: press Option-e, then the vowel
  • ñ: press option-n, then n
  • ¿: press option-? (including shift key)
  • ¡: press option-1
  • ü: press option-u, then u

Gracias, Meg Cabot

The COVID-19 pandemic has really done a number on my brain. I’m not talking about the notorious, long-lasting “brain fog” reported by many survivors of the coronavirus. I haven’t caught the disease and, God willing, will stay healthy until I eventually acquire immunity via vaccination. Rather, I’m talking about a general lack of sharpness. After months of anxiety and cabin fever spiked with a soupçon of political angst, everything I like to do with my normally nimble brain has become a bit harder.

True, I managed to finish, proofread, and index my second book. Maybe that’s “enough to be going on with,” as the saying goes. I’ve also made some headway on my current research project, which concerns Spanish etymology, am gearing up to teach my first online class starting in a few weeks, and have resumed posting on this blog regularly after a substantial hiatus. Beyond Spanish, I’ve forced myself to stay on top of boring but necessary matters like insurance plans and household renovations. I’ve worked with my husband on various photographic projects; those of you who know me personally are aware that this is a vital part of my life and marriage. I’ve even learned how to shop for groceries online, a transition I’ve found surprisingly challenging, both practically and emotionally.

Where I’ve most felt the loss of sharpness is in my reading. I’ve always been an avid reader; my late grandmother always described me as “going around with a book under my arm.” I have happy childhood memories of hours on end spent curled up on the couch with a book. During my junior year of high school I kept track of every book I read, knowing that Harvard’s college application would ask for such a list. This worked out to a mind-blowing average of one serious book and one light book per day, if memory serves (perhaps it doesn’t), excluding books I reread, and also excluding (out of embarrassment) all 24 of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels, of which I particularly recommend the original Tarzan of the Apes as well as Son of Tarzan and Jane and the Foreign Legion.

This reading mania was only possible because I didn’t have much of a social life, which is pretty sad in retrospect. On the other hand, the many books I read, especially those I enjoyed over and over again, became part of my mental lexicon and taught me how to write by osmosis.

As a child and teenager I read fiction exclusively, dividing my time between meaty 19th century novels, often in translation (e.g. War and Peace and The Count of Monte Cristo), and light 20th century fiction. As an adult I have increasingly read non-fiction, particularly history and biography. I still enjoy light modern fiction but have yet to develop a taste for more serious modern writers such as Paul Auster and John Updike. In recent years I have added light Spanish fiction to the mix as an enjoyable way to continue to build my vocabulary and fluency.

During the pandemic, however, I have found it extremely difficult to muster the focus needed to tackle non-fiction, Spanish, or even, for the most part, novels I haven’t read before. Instead I’ve primarily reread light fiction voraciously, as a kind of mental “comfort food.” This includes all the Jane Austen, Dick Francis, Stephen King, and C. S. Forester novels on my bookshelf, much of the Harry Potter series, some P.D. James, and All Creatures Great and Small, just in time for the new BBC series.

The few non-fiction books I’ve been able to complete, such as Barack Obama’s memoir, have concerned contemporary politics. The one Spanish novel I’ve read, the 11th in my beloved Inspector Mascarell series, took me ages to get into. The fiction I’ve read for the first time has also been light, such as Louise Penny detective novels.

Which brings me to Meg Cabot. Best known for her Princess Diaries series, Cabot is a prolific author who mostly writes for young adults. I harbor the idiosyncratic conviction that her epistolary novel Boy Meets Girl (written for adults) is a work of genius, and am also fond of All-American Girl, which gave me some insight into the artistic process. Of course I reread both of these early in the pandemic. So when my daughter-in-law told me that she used to be into Cabot’s Mediator series, about a teenager who can communicate with the dead, I checked all six Mediator books out of our local library (let’s hear it for curbside pickup!) and had myself a fun time. The first and third books were quite good, but my favorite has to be the sixth, Twilight, which features … drum roll … a paean to learning Spanish!

Specifically, in Twilight‘s climactic scene our heroine Suze has traveled back in time (another mediator ability) to meet “in the flesh” the hunky Jesse de Silva, who was murdered 150 years ago and has been haunting Suze’s bedroom since she moved to California. Suze is unable to understand a crucial conversation between Jesse and his would-be murderer, the nefarious Felix Diego, because — get this — she doesn’t speak Spanish! Suze’s fellow mediator and frenemy Paul translates for her, but first she muses, memorably:

Why? Why had I taken French and not Spanish?”

There were so many things I liked about this scene. First, it was very funny: for me at least, probably for other Spanish teachers, and hopefully for other readers as well. Second, it was exciting. Suze and Jesse’s relationship had been building over the past five novels, and its fate would depend on the showdown between Jesse and Diego. Third, it was educational. How many young adults today know about the Spanish period in California history? Finally, it showcased the utility of learning Spanish, albeit in a weird context. I hope that this scene inspired some Mediator fans to study the language, or to take their ongoing studies more seriously.

I don’t know whether Cabot speaks Spanish, but I do appreciate her speaking up for my favorite language. ¡Gracias, Meg!

Bad Spanish — NY hospitals edition

I was happy to receive an email today from my primary care physician’s practice — in English and Spanish! — letting me know that they expect to be administering COVID-19 vaccines. I’m too young and healthy to qualify right now, and the vaccines are in short supply. Nevertheless it was good to hear that when circumstances change I should be able to get my shots locally.

My satisfaction in receiving the email was diminished, though, by the poor quality of its Spanish. I’ve copied the relevant parts below, with errors highlighted and corrected afterward. Just to give you an idea of the scale of these problems, the email substituted ano ‘anus’ for año ‘year.’ This is a notorious elementary mistake!

¿año o ano?

Estimado/a Paciente,

En ColumbiaDoctors, Weill Cornell Medicine, y NewYork-Presbyterian, estamos vacunando pacientes del COVID-19, que tienen 65 anos o mas y que viven or trabajan en el estado de Nueva York.  El estado de Nueva York recientemente a mandado que la vacuna del COVID-19 este disponible para personas elegible de esta edad.

El estado de Nueva York también anunció que los pacientes inmunosuprimidos son elegibles, pero estamos esperando obtener mas informacion sobre quién califica en este grupo. 

Aquellos pacientes que son elegibles, pueden programar una cita para vacunas a través del Connect portal de paciente a medida de que las citas estén disponibles. No llame al hospital ni a la clinica de su médico para programar una cita para la vacuna.


  • Paciente: should be paciente (lower-case)
  • The “Oxford comma” (between Medicine and y) is not used in Spanish.
  • pacientes: missing personal a beforehand (vacunando a pacientes)
  • The comma after COVID-19 is incorrect in either English or Spanish because it introduces a restrictive clause.
  • anos: should be años (see illustration), i.e. ‘years,’ not ‘anuses.’
  • mas: should be más (with accent). This error occurs twice. Mas (without an accent) means ‘but,’ not ‘more.’
  • or: should be o
  • a mandado: should be ha mandado
  • este: should be esté (with accent). Este (without an accent) means ‘this,’ not ‘be.’
  • eligible: should be plural (eligibles), to agree with personas
  • informacion: missing accent mark (información)
  • califica: not 100% sure, but I expect this should be califique (subjunctive) since they don’t yet know who qualifies
  • another useless comma between eligibles and pueden
  • Connect portal de paciente: wrong word order. Should be portal de paciente Connect, although I can’t cite a rule here (gut reaction).
  • clinica: should be clínica (with accent)

It boggles my mind that in twenty-first century New York these three large medical groups (ColumbiaDoctors, Weill Cornell Medicine, and NewYork-Presbyterian) can’t find an educated Spanish speaker to proofread their emails. The many accent mark errors, and the confusion of ha and a, suggest that they relied instead on a “heritage” speaker who lacked formal training in written Spanish.

I would be happy to volunteer my own time if contacted.

En la chimenea (without a paddle)

I’m proud of my Spanish. I’ve spoken this beautiful language for decades, taught it for more than fifteen years, and have even written two books about it. Nevertheless, from time to time I am forcibly reminded that I am not a native Spanish speaker and will never attain total proficiency.

Today was one of those days. I emailed a Spanish friend to ask how he and his family were doing in Madrid’s unexpected snowy weather. He answered, in part,

Todos bien aquí. Mucho frío y mucha familia en la chimenea!!! 

Madrid nevada

The en la chimenea bit threw me for a total loop. His family was “in the chimney?” Surely this was an idiom. Pursuing this hypothesis, I read on WordReference’s Collins Dictionary tab that chimenea can be informal slang for ‘head’ (like noggin in English), and that the expression estar mal de la chimenea means ‘to be wrong in the head.’ So I concluded that mucha familia en la chimenea probably meant that many members of my friend’s family were going nuts. In English we’d call this cabin fever.

Thanks to WordReference’s Spanish-English vocabulary forum, where I posted to confirm my hypothesis, I soon found out that I was dead wrong. My friend wasn’t speaking metaphorically, but rather simply stating that many family members were gathered around the fireplace! My botched interpretation was the result of two differences in word usage between English and Spanish within that short sentence:

  • Chimenea translates not just as ‘chimney,’ but also as ‘fireplace’ or ‘hearth.’
  • En can be translated as either ‘in,’ ‘on,’ or ‘at,’ according to context. I knew this! In fact, this broad range of meanings is an unusual feature of Spanish, and so a major theme of Question 43 in my first book (“Why are Spanish prepositions unpredictable?”) as well as a prime example in the first chapter of my second book (“How is Spanish different from other languages?”). But my misinterpretation of chimenea as ‘chimney’ made it impossible for me to see en as meaning ‘at’ (‘at the chimney???’) even though this was, in fact, the correct interpretation of the preposition in the present case. (Around the fireplace is a more idiomatic translation.)

I stand corrected…and humbled.

Stepping back a bit, episodes like this serve an important purpose: they help to keep me a more empathetic teacher. My mistakes may be less frequent than my students’, and may involve more subtle aspects of vocabulary and grammar, but essentially we are all in the same boat, trying to navigate the tricky waters of a second language. There are always unexpected rocks both behind and ahead.