Author Archives: jhochberg

New words for old

I enjoyed this article, in the magazine Perfil, about words that have recently been admitted to the Real Academia Española’s official dictionary. The RAE had previously prohibited them because they were “incorrect” in some sense: vulgar, archaic, or borrowings that encroached on existing Spanish vocabulary.

What most interests me about these words is their linguistic variety.

  • My favorite word on the list, vagamundo ‘vagabond,’ is a modification of standard Spanish vagabundo, which descends from Latin vagabundus ‘strolling about.’ It is a perfect example of ‘folk etymology,’ a process by which speakers reshape a word to reflect a plausible (though incorrect) theory of its origin. A classic example in English is female, a reshaping of Middle English femelle that implies a (fictional) relationship to the word male. The reformulated vagamundo implies that the word combined vagar ‘to roam’ and mundo ‘world’; i.e., someone who roams the world. This reformulation is so tempting that it appeared in written Spanish as early as the fifteenth century, not long after vagabundo itself (1387). In addition, the ‘vulgar’ verb vagamundear ‘to roam (as a vagabond)’ preceded its proper sibling, vagabundear, by more than a century.
  • Another personal favorite, murciégalo ‘bat’, appears to be a metathesis (transposition) of standard Spanish murciélago — but in fact, the metathesis went the other way around! Murciégalo is the original form of the word, a compounding of the (now archaic) mur ‘rat’ and ciego ‘blind.’ It has mostly been supplanted by the modern murciélago, but the RAE considers it common enough to have earned a spot in the dictionary. In either form, this is my go-to example of a palabra panvocálica, i.e. a word that contains all five Spanish vowels.
  • Speaking of metathesis, crocodilo is a transposed version of the standard Spanish cocodrilo, perhaps under the influence of English crocodile. What makes this example interesting is that the original Latin word, based on Greek, was crocodilus. So the word underwent a first metathesis in the transition to Spanish, which is now reversed in the word’s alternative version.
  • Güisqui ‘whisky’ and cederrón ‘CD-ROM’ are borrowings from English. I love their Spanish spellings.
  • Bacón ‘bacon’ is a more problematic (though now accepted) borrowing because Spanish already has a perfectly good word for ‘bacon’: the venerable tocino, first attested in 1061.
  • Asín ‘so,’ from así, and toballa ‘towel’, from toalla, both exemplify epenthesis, or the insertion of a sound. The RAE speculates that the -n added to así is related to the -n “in other particles”: meaning, I assume, en ‘in/on’ and con ‘with.’ Perhaps the added b in toballa was inspired by the word tobillo ‘ankle.’
  • Almóndiga is a common variation of albóndiga ‘meatball,’ a popular Spanish tapa. Like many other Spanish words that begin with -alalbóndiga is a word of Arabic origin. Perhaps the b changed to an m under the influence of other common almo– words such as almohada ‘pillow’, almoneda ‘auction’, and almorzar ‘to eat lunch’ (not an Arabic word).

 

 

More fruit, please

Today, still focused on gender, I reread Christopher Pountain‘s 2006 article “Gender and Spanish agentive suffixes: Where the motivated meets the arbitrary,” published in the Bulletin of Spanish Studies: Hispanic Studies and Researches on Spain, Portugal and Latin America (81:19-42). As its title implies, the article focuses mostly on the suffixes -dor and -dora. Pountain makes the case that when applied to non-animate objects, masculine -dor usually denotes an “implement or material, sometimes even a machine,”  while feminine -dora “appears only to denote a machine.” One example pair is asador, meaning ‘spit’ or ‘roaster’ versus asadora ‘electric griddle.’ Pountain also points out the large number of cases where a non-animate feminine, such as pisadora ‘grape press,’ contrasts with an animate masculine: here, pisador ‘grape treader.’

This major point aside, I was delighted to see that Pountain begins his article with the topic of the ‘feminine fruit, masculine tree’ word pairs that I discussed in my previous post. He mentioned two examples that were lacking in that post (but which I’ve now added): lúcuma/oeggfruit (tree)’ and frambuesa/o ‘raspberry (cane).’ These examples are particularly significant because lúcuma and frambuesa are both borrowings, the former from Quechua and the latter from French. The fact that they were sucked into this pattern demonstrates its vigor.

“Eggfruit” is a new fruit for me. I am definitely going to try it the next time I travel to the Andes.

By OtterAM – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42752568

Fruit, trees, and gender

Having recuperated from three weeks’ intensive travel in Spain, and a long weekend with the grandbabes, I’m back to working full time on my new book. It’s coming along nicely, albeit slowly.

As part of a book section on gender I had a close look at the question of the gender of words for fruit and trees. Many readers are undoubtedly aware of the frequent gender pattern of “feminine fruit, masculine tree” exemplified by manzana ‘apple’ and manzano ‘apple tree’. I did a somewhat exhaustive survey of fruit and tree vocabulary to see how regular this pattern is. Linguee was my best friend in this quest.

It turns out that for feminine fruit names, the pattern holds strong. As you can see in the table below, most feminine fruits do have a corresponding masculine tree name, though a few have less frequent alternatives as well (shown in italics). The one major exception is morera ‘mulberry’, whose tree is the same word, morera. Spanish obviously needs a morero tree.

Feminine fruit Masculine tree -ero árbol de ____ same word
naranja ‘orange’ naranjo
oliva/aceituna ‘olive’ olivo/aceituno
lúcuma lúcumo
frambuesa frambueso
banana banano platanero
manzana ‘apple’ manzano árbol de manzanas
cereza ‘cherry’ cerezo
pera ‘pear’ peral
ciruela ‘plum’ ciruelo
morera ‘mulberry’ morera

Not all fruits are feminine, however, and the treatment of masculine fruits is much more varied. The tree of the higo is actually the feminine higuera, thus a major counterexample to the regular pattern shown above. Other fruits rely on the -ero suffix for their tree name, a sometimes ungainly solution (albaricoquero, anyone?). Some fruits have no dedicated tree name, and rely on the periphrastic árbol de construction (also listed as a backup for higueramelocotonero, and albaricoquero). The treatment of aguacate ‘avocado’ varies depending on where you look. According to WordReference and the Real Academia aguacate, like morera, does double duty as a tree and a fruit, with the “tree” meaning primary. WordReference also lists aguacatero as an alternative for ‘avocado tree’, but the Real Academia defines it merely as ‘pertaining to the avocado’ — nothing arboreal there. In the meantime, Linguee defines aguacate as a fruit, not a tree, and gives aguacatero as its only translation for ‘avocado tree.’

Masculine fruit Feminine tree -ero árbol de same word
higo higuera árbol de higo
melocotón, durazno melocotonero árbol de durazno
albaricoque albaricoquero árbol de albaricoque
aguacate aguacatero   aguacate
membrillo árbol de membrillo
mango árbol de mango

If I were the goddess of Spanish I would clean up this situation by changing the gender of some of the masculine fruits so they could have nice masculine tree names. Perhaps the next generation of Spanish speakers will get this job done.

True North (ern Spain)

Readers who find this post tl;dr can search ahead for the trip’s highlights: Tito Bustillo cave, As Catedrais beach, A Chavasqueira thermal baths, and a hike from Santiago de Compostela to Negreira. 

I have just returned from my third trip to Spain in the last four years. The first trip, in 2016, was a linguistically-inspired itinerary through what I referred to as “Northern Spain.” To be more accurate, that trip went roughly from west to east across the northern half of the country, but not to the northern coast itself. Last year I went to Andalucía (southern Spain). So this year I determined to head to Spain’s true north: the provinces of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country. It was a wonderful trip, combining natural beauty with man-made pleasures, and for the most part free of the hordes of tourists that plague Andalucía and Barcelona.

The trip involved three weeks of travel by train, car, and bus with three different companions: first my husband, then two friends (separately), one of whom I met through the website thelmandlouise.com. (I’ll use “we” generically in this post.) Below is a map of our itinerary. We went from east to west in order to wrap up the trip in the pilgrimage destination of Santiago de Compostela.

The trip began in San Sebastián, a small city famous for its perfect, shell-shaped main beach (appropriately named La Concha), and for its food culture. The weather was cool and drizzly, but as we hadn’t counted on swimming this wasn’t a real problem. We enjoyed walking along the beach, and took a fun and filling “Pintxos tour” with a guide we found on airbnb (pintxos are the Basque version of tapas). We splurged on an ocean-view room at a “Grand Dame” beach hotel, El hotel de Londrés y de Inglaterra.

Bilbao became a major tourist destination in 1997, when the Guggenheim Museum opened a Frank Gehry-designed branch there. The architecture is stunning. The art inside was another story: the museum does not have a comprehensive permanent collection, but rather specializes in temporary exhibitions, none of which we particularly cared for. However, we loved Richard Serra’s “The Matter of Time“, on display at the Guggenheim since 2005. It is a group of enormous steel sculptures that invite you to walk in and around them, as in a labyrinth. Bilbao’s older museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, was also worth seeing, especially this Zurburán.

By the way, we found Richard Serra exhibit so compelling that we brushed up on the artist’s life. We hadn’t realized that Serra is half-Spanish, or that his brother was the inspiration for the movie True Believer, one of our long-time favorite films, starring James Woods and a young Robert Downey, Jr.

Santander is a terrific city! It doesn’t have a historical district because it suffered a major fire in 1941, but it has a wonderful seaside location, with beaches, ferries, and walking paths, as well as top-notch shopping. Practically tourist-free, too (at least in early June). We had an enormous room at the Hotel Bahía, which is on the waterfront though not on a beach.

On the map above, Comillas is the unlabeled stop between Santander and Llanes. We stopped there to tour “El Capricho”, a house that the famous Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí built early in his career, in his late 20s. I’ve toured Gaudí’s better-known buildings in Barcelona but this was by far my favorite. It is drop-dead gorgeous on the outside, and very much a Gaudí building, with a fairy-tale tower and many nature-inspired forms. At the same time, the inside is welcoming and even practical: the kind of house that someone would actually want to live in. At least I would. PS I have been kicking myself for not buying the 1000-piece Ravensburger jigsaw puzzle sold in the Capricho’s gift shop. It turns out not to be available anywhere else!!! It would have fit in my suitcase if I had put the pieces in a bag and kept only the top of the box (with the picture). If you live in the NY area and are going to Comillas, let me know; maybe we can work something out.

The small village of Llanes becomes a tourist mecca in the summer. Since it was still too cold to swim when we were there, things were pretty peaceful. We liked Llanes for its wonderful Hotel Don Paco (our favorite lodging from the entire trip), its small medieval section, and the wonderful walks we took along the seaside cliffs.

Llanes is also a good jumping-off point for trips into Picos de Europa. a Spanish national park that encompasses a spectacularly beautiful mountain range: “the Switzerland of Spain,” as it were. One day we attempted the popular “Garganta del Cares” trail. After hiking two miles from a satellite parking lot to the trailhead, we were defeated by the utter lack of shade on the trail itself. A second outing was more successful; we hiked a peaceful and mostly shady five-kilometer loop trail that began in the hamlet of San Pedro de Bedoya and continued through a series of fields and even smaller hamlets. (It’s the sixth “short walk for motorists” in Teresa Farino’s very useful book about Picos hiking.) We then spent the night at the Parador in Fuente Dé, which has a spectacular setting in the heart of the mountains, at the base of a popular gondola, but is an architectural failure. I can’t recommend the hotel, though the gondola was great.

En route from Llanes to Oviedo we visited the Cueva de Tito Bustillo, just outside Ribadesella, to see its famous prehistoric cave paintings. This was (and is) an extraordinary opportunity, given that only five tourists a week (!!!) are allowed to visit the Altamira cave, also in Northern Spain, and the Lascaux cave in France is closed to visitors. However, it is essential to reserve a spot on a specific tour well in advance. Our cave guide was excellent. Inter alia he pointed out how the prehistoric artists carefully located their drawings on parts of the cave wall whose bumps and dips added a realistic third dimension to their drawings, as in the full cheek on the horse’s head below.

Oviedo is a substantial city whose downtown boasts lively streets and also the lush and peaceful San Francisco park. Our favorite spot was the small but spectacular 9th-century Santa Maria de Naranco church, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

En route from Oviedo to Lugo, as we passed into Galicia, we stopped at another highlight of the trip: As Catedrais beach. At low tide you can walk out onto the sands and around the enormous, cathedral-like rocks. Just west of the beach we had a wonderful lunch at Restaurante La Yenka that featured scrumptious arroz negro (rice cooked with squid and squid ink). This was probably my favorite meal from the whole trip.

Judy (left) and Kat (right) at As Catedrais beach

Lugo is known for its Roman walls, which have been well-maintained over the centuries, so that you can walk all the way around the city on them. The city is small and pretty — a real jewel — though there isn’t much to see besides the walls. I liked the cathedral, and we also enjoyed hiking down from the city to the Minho River. We had a good walk along the river but then had to hike back up.

Ourense was originally settled because of its hot springs, and indeed these were the highlight of our visit there. The downtown thermal pool (As Burgas) was temporarily closed, so we walked across the river to A Chavasqueirawhere we hung out with (mostly) local folks for whom soaking in these natural hot tubs is a regular activity. Conversation flowed in both Spanish and gallego: the local Romance language, and the source of Portuguese. I really hope that tourism doesn’t eventually overwhelm Ourense; I’d hate to think that use of these baths might have to be regulated. We also walked the dramatic up-and-down pedestrian loop of the city’s brilliant Puente del Milenio, or Millenium Bridge.

The entire tourist industry of Galicia, and much of its cultural identity, revolves around the pilgrimage destination of Santiago de Compostela. According to tradition, the apostle Saint James (Santiago) preached the Gospel in Spain, was buried in Galicia after being martyred in Jerusalem, and reappeared to lead a crucial (though mythical) battle during the Reconquista (the retaking of Spain from the Moors). His relics are now in the crypt of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Believers have been walking the Camino (‘road’) to the cathedral since the tenth century; they currently number annually in the hundreds of thousands, their numbers swelled by spiritual seekers in general as well as ambitious hikers.

The cathedral is currently being renovated. Luckily for us, the scaffolding is now off the building’s main facade, which fronts the Plaza de Obraidoro, where pilgrims take off their backpacks and/or park their bicycles, lie down, and feast their eyes on the splendid setting. The cathedral’s interior is now mostly inaccessible, which must be a disappointment to genuine pilgrims who have been looking forward to celebrating the Pilgrim Mass inside.

Besides admiring the cathedral’s sparkling-clean exterior and visiting its excellent museum, we played pilgrim ourselves by hiking the first stage of a popular add-on to the Camino that heads west through the Galician countryside, from Santiago to Finisterre on the Atlantic coast. Our 20-kilometer walk, which took us as far as Negreira, was a substantial challenge, but it was fun to follow the traditional waymarkers and to exchange greetings with walkers headed in both directions.

After these three trips I’m unlikely to visit Spain again anytime soon. My top Spanish-speaking travel priority is to see more of South America, starting with Argentina and Uruguay. Maybe next year!

Words that Spanish doesn’t have

¡Feliz Año Nuevo!

This past semester, while teaching, and spending time with my new granddaughter (see below), I’ve been making incremental progress on my second book. As you might be able to tell from the description on that page, this project involves less research than ¿Por qué?, though more creativity. Nevertheless, right now I’m in the middle of a substantial research arc for the new book. It involves etymology (word origins), and is particularly satisfying because it redoes, in a more principled fashion, an analysis I did for Question #38 of ¿Por qué?: “Where does Spanish vocabulary come from?”

For that analysis, I looked up the etymologies of 500 Spanish words randomly chosen from a standard Spanish etymological dictionary. I found that roughly one-third of them were “native”, i.e. they descended from Vulgar Latin, one-third were later borrowings from Latin, and one-third were borrowed from other languages. But I wondered whether the dictionary’s selection of words might have biased my results toward borrowings.

Since then, I’ve learned about the World Loanword Database (WOLD) project, in which linguists researched the origins of roughly 1500 words, corresponding to an agreed-upon set of core meanings, in 41 different languages from around the world. Martin Haspelmath, one of the co-editors of the WOLD project (with Uri Tadmor), also co-edited the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS), which I found invaluable while writing ¿Por qué? That makes him one of my favorite linguists.

The data for each of these languages are available on the WOLD website, and the results were published in a very expensive book. (Maybe if such books were cheaper, more people would buy them. Ahem.) The #1 borrower was Selice Romani (a variety of Romani), with 73% loanwords, and the #41 borrower was Mandarin Chinese, at 1.2%.

Because WOLD aimed for broad coverage of the world’s languages, it included only one Romance language: Romanian. I decided to apply the WOLD methodology to Spanish myself so that I could compare Spanish to other languages in terms of its borrowing patterns. The 1500 WOLD meanings are divided into different semantic categories, such as clothing and cognition, so I’ll be able to make this comparison within each of these categories as well as overall.

Honestly, you have to be a total nerd to perform this kind of analysis voluntarily, and a little crazy to do it twice. The 500-word analysis took roughly forever, and tripling this volume is, of course, taking even longer, especially since this time around I’ve had to choose the best Spanish word (or words) to fit each WOLD meaning, whereas in my first analysis, the 500 Spanish words were already in Spanish! I’m hoping that my results will be interesting enough to write up as a journal article, perhaps for Hispania.

I don’t have final results yet: right now, I’m double-checking the etymologies. However, the borrowing rate appears to be much lower than in my first analysis: roughly, 1/3 borrowings versus 2/3. This puts Spanish safely in WOLD’s category of “high borrowers,” roughly on a par with Japanese (35%) though lower than English (41%) and Romanian (42%).

In advance of definitive results, the point of this blog post is to share with you some of the interesting aspects of Spanish vocabulary — or, precisely, non-vocabulary, or meanings NOT expressed in Spanish — that I’ve come across while selecting the Spanish words for the WOLD meanings.

Some of these missing meanings, as you might expect in a project that deliberately spans the globe, are culturally specific. For example, kinship terms in some languages are more sex-specific than in Spanish (or English). Your tío ‘uncle’ is a tío whether he’s your father’s brother or your mother’s, but some languages have separate terms for these relationships. Similarly, your yerno ‘son-in-law’ is a yerno whether you are a man or a woman, but some languages encode this difference. Looking beyond kinship terms, WOLD meanings include such culturally-specific words as ‘manioc bread’, ‘grass skirt’, ‘men’s house’, ‘digging stick’, ‘net bag’, ‘fish poison’, and ‘fish trap.’ Of course one can figure out ways to convey such meanings in Spanish, but it would be stretching things to call them standard Spanish phrasal expressions on a par with, say, oso hormiguero ‘anteater’ or dejar caer ‘to drop.’

Three other categories of ‘missing meanings’ are of particular interest to me.

  • A few WOLD meanings express grammatical categories that Spanish lacks: a neuter pronoun meaning heshe, or it, separate versions of we that distinguish ‘you and I’ from ‘they and I,’ and distinct negatives that appear before nouns versus elsewhere, like English no versus not.
  • Some WOLD meanings seem to be randomly missing in Spanish. Maybe it’s because I’m not a native speaker, or my dictionary skills aren’t as good as I thought they were, but I don’t think there’s a standard way to express “the forked branch” (WOLD meaning 8.74), or “for a long time” (WOLD 14.332) in Spanish. You can certainly say ir a casa, but do those three words add up to a “standard phrasal expression”, as discussed above, for ‘to go or return home’ (WOLD 10.58)? (Note that volver a casa and regresar a casa are equally plausible.) Likewise, Spanish has a standard idiomatic phrase to express carrying something on your back (WOLD 10.613), (llevar a cuestas), but not carrying ‘in hand’ (WOLD 10.612), ‘on head’ (WOLD 10.614), or ‘under the arm’ (10.615). And why does Spanish, like English, lack a general term for a ‘child-in-law’ (WOLD 2.6411), forcing the awkward expression yerno o nuera (‘son- or daughter-in-law’)?
  • Finally, Spanish collapses many lexical distinctions found in other languages, as implied by their inclusion in the list of WOLD meanings. I was already aware of many of these, such as ‘in’ and ‘on’ (both en), ‘do’ and ‘make’ (hacer), ‘say’ and ‘tell’ (decir), and ‘afternoon’ and ‘evening’ (tarde). As I worked through the WOLD list I became aware of many others, including ‘cut’ and ‘chop’ (cortar), ‘fault’ and ‘blame’ (culpa), ‘bend’ and ‘fold’ (doblar), ‘paddle’ and ‘oar’ (remo), ‘spade’ and ‘shovel’ (pala). ‘livestock’ and ‘cattle’ (ganado), and ‘mud’ and ‘clay’ (barro). Other such collapsed distinctions are shared by English, such as needle/aguja for both sewing and pine needles, day/día for ‘not night’ and ’24 hours’, believe/creer for ‘trust’ and ‘opine’, and weave/tejer for both fabric and baskets (or hair).

I look forward to sharing the results of my analysis when I’m done. In the meantime, I hope you find the above of interest.

Slippery relative clauses

[See also this related post from last year.]

I happen to love the Spanish subjunctive. I love how expressive this mood can be. I love how the present and past subjunctives incorporate all the irregulars of the present and preterite indicative. And I love the two forms of the imperfect subjunctive.

IMHO the question of when to use the indicative versus the subjunctive is TONS easier than the question of when to use the preterite versus the imperfect. I tell my students that once they learn the rules, they will be okay.

Of course, my students don’t necessarily buy into my enthusiasm…But I keep trying. This year I’m experimenting with a new approach whereby I characterize indicative contexts generally as fuerte ‘strong’ and subjunctive contexts generally as débil ‘weak.’ This is actually a student-friendly version of the linguistic terminology of assertions versus non-assertions that I picked up when researching Question 87 of my book (“How can the subjunctive be used for actual events?”).

Of course I also teach my students specific uses of the subjunctive, often including the WEIRDO acronym. (Maybe one day I will try Lightspeed Spanish’s WOOPA acronym also or instead.) But I believe that it is helpful to give students an overall concept as well as the specific cases.

A PowerPoint I put together to teach the use of the indicative and subjunctive in relative (or “adjective”) clauses exemplifies this dual approach (see introductory slide below).  On the one hand, the real and hipotético descriptors reference the specific rule for relative clauses. On the other hand, the strong and weak guys hanging out next to the happy student who has a good Spanish teacher (explica), versus the sad student who’s still looking (explique), reference the fuerte and débil contexts. If you click on the image you will access the whole PowerPoint via Google Drive. (Normally I embed PowerPoints via SlideShare, but it isn’t working properly tonight.)

In class, I handed each pair of students a list of the eleven numbered sentences from the PowerPoint. (See below, where I’ve underlined the correct answers.) As I showed each slide, the student pairs tried to figure out whether the situation fit the indicative or the subjunctive. Then I called on one pair to report and explain their decision. The students really seemed to enjoy the activity, and mostly came up with the correct answers.

¿Indicativo (real) o subjuntivo (hipotético)?

  1. Estoy buscando a un profesor que enseña/enseñe portugués.
  2. Necesito un helado que se hace/haga sin azúcar
  3. ¿Conoces un restaurante que tiene/tenga comida barata?
  4. ¿Conoces a una chica de Egipto que vive/viva en mi colegio mayor?
  5. Quiero leer un libro que se llama/llame Tool of War.
  6. Necesito un helado que se vende/venda en mi vecindario
  7. Quiero trabajar con una persona que tiene/tenga mucha experiencia.
  8. Estoy buscando a un profesor que enseña/enseñe portugués.
  9. Estoy buscando un libro que me enseña/enseñe a reparar mi bicicleta.
  10. Quiero leer un libro que me explica/explique la gramática.
  11. Quiero trabajar con una persona que tiene/tenga mucha experiencia.

Single subject subjunctives

Last week, several students in my intermediate Spanish class crashed and burned on what looked to me like a routine homework assignment. The topic was the subjunctive in contexts of doubt and possibility, and the format was constructing sentences “Chinese menu” style, with one element from each column.

I wasn’t wild about this activity. I would have liked to have seen more variety of subjects instead of just yo…yo…yo. Also, the activity included only one unambiguous indicative context (creo que). At the same time, it reinforced a clunky simplification that our textbook makes in introducing this topic. While in real life quizá(s) and tal vez can be followed by either the indicative or the subjunctive — this is, indeed, one of my favorite demonstrations of the power of the subjunctive — the textbook presents them as always triggering the subjunctive. I’d rather postpone quizá(s) and tal vez until students are ready to handle, and even enjoy, this flexibility.

These misgivings aside, I was surprised by the fact that many of my best students kept the indicative (podré, me tomaré, encontraré, etc.) in all of their sentences. A class discussion revealed why: they were following the rule of thumb, drilled into them in high school classes, that the subjunctive is only found in sentences with a change of subject signaled by que.

I could see where my students were coming from. In teaching the subjunctive one naturally emphasizes the difference between sentences like (1) and (2) below:

  1. Quiero salir. ‘I want to leave.’
  2. Quiero que tú salgas. ‘I want you to leave.’

Whereas English uses the infinitive ‘to leave’ in both sentences, Spanish uses the infinitive only if the two clauses have the same subject. Sentences like the second one above, which has two different subjects (yo ‘I’ and tú  ‘you’) separated by que, require the subjunctive.

A rule of thumb, however, is different from an actual rule. Expressions of doubt require que and the subjunctive even when there is no change of subject: for example, Dudo que tenga un hijo el año que viene ‘I doubt I’ll have a kid next year’, to use one of the “Chinese menu” options. While the ‘rule of thumb’ suggests the use of the infinitive instead, the resulting sentence Dudo tener un hijo el año que viene sounds less natural than the subjunctive version.

My students’ difficulty on this topic reflects the overall danger of relying on rules of thumb, including mnemonics, in teaching and learning. I’ve seen the same problem crop up in students’ reluctance to use the preterite to talk about weather (e.g. Ayer llovió ‘It rained yesterday), because somewhere along the line they learned to always use the imperfect. For more on this general pedagogical topic, please see this post from 2013.

Finally, I must include a shout-out to this discussion, which I found helpful in answering my students’ questions about this topic, and which more or less inspired this post.

Stressing about “porque”

I thought there was nothing left for me to learn about Spanish stress, a topic that encompasses both pronunciation — which syllable in a word is given the greatest acoustic prominence — and writing — the use of accent marks to indicate irregular stress (inter alia). After all, I wrote my dissertation about how children learn the relevant pronunciation rules, then spun off two papers on this topic (here and here). More recently I devoted one question in my book to spoken stress, and one to accent marks. And accent marks are always a favorite topic for me to teach, both to students and to native speakers, who are uniformly delighted to learn how systematic this part of Spanish orthography is. My top recommendation for an online summary, with some nifty exercises, is here.

So it was surprising when a conversation with a student made me question, in a small way, my understanding of this topic. I had been going over the stress rules with this student, including the basic rule that words that end in a vowel are stressed on the next-to-last syllable. (Think HEcho, partiCIpa, todopodeROso, and desafortunadaMENte.) She then asked if porque ‘because’ was an exception to this rule.

This question threw me for a loop. Porque is related both to the interrogative ¿por qué? ‘why?’ and the noun porqué, which also means ‘why’, as in el porqué de una decisión ‘the why of a decision’. These two words/phrases both stress the qué, and the student assumed that porque did as well. When I said porque out loud, at first I thought I stressed the que. But the more I repeated the word, the less certain I became of my own stress placement — a kind of Heisenberg effect.

Fortunately, we live in a time that is rich in language resources. I was able to pull up wordreference’s listing for porque, which includes recordings of Mexican, Spanish, and Argentinian pronunciations. These pronunciations are divided: the Mexican pronunciation stresses the que, but the other two clearly stress the por. I then checked on Forvo, a crowd-sourced pronunciation dictionary. Again, the Mexican pronunciations stress the que, and the others — from Spain, the DR, and Argentina — stress the por. However, some examples provided of porque in context — for example, this one, recorded by a speaker from Spain — are more Mexican-style.

So the correct answer to my student’s question seems to be that in general, porque follows the rules of Spanish stress, but not in Mexico, and not always in Spain, either.

In which the blogger hears from her favorite author!

Jordi Sierra i Fabra

A few months ago I wrote to Jordi Sierra i Fabra, the Spanish author who writes the marvelous “Inspector Mascarell” series of detective novels set in Franco-era Barcelona. I have long been intrigued, or even obsessed, by Sierra i Fabra’s use of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, and wanted to know if he was manipulating this grammatical feature deliberately. My letter included the table from my most recent post on this subject in which I listed all the sentences I’d found in his recent novel Diez días de junio that combine the two versions of the imperfect subjunctive, such as Puede que ella le amara pero él no y sólo la utilizase.

I didn’t expect to hear back from Sr. Sierra i Fabra; he is one of Spain’s most popular writers and appears to be frantically busy. According to his Wikipedia page, he has published 57 novels, 20 books on the history of rock and roll, 38 biographies of rock and roll musicians, 3 books of poetry, and 115 children’s books. He also runs a foundation to support young writers, with offices in Barcelona and Medellín, and has won 14 literary and cultural prizes.

Nevertheless, Sierra i Fabra took the time to send me a very sweet reply, and didn’t seem to resent that some crazy linguist in New York was obsessed with his verbs. The gist of his answer was that not only had he not manipulated the imperfect subjunctive deliberately, but also, he had no idea what it was. He explained that he left school when he was sixteen and had never studied Spanish grammar. Again, he was very kind, writing:

Celebro que me leas. Es un honor. Y celebro haberte causado esas dudas y esas preguntas sin pretenderlo. La vida tiene estas sorpresas.

Sierra i Fabra also wrote that he would like to meet me in person if he comes to New York. (He was undoubtedly just being polite.) Another recent novel of hisEl gran sueño, is based in New York — like María Dueñas’s latest novel, Las hijas del capitán (meh), it’s about 19th century Spanish immigrants — so perhaps he will come here for some publicity?

Such a thrill…and, to me, it’s fascinating from a linguistic perspective that a pattern can be so frequent and yet not deliberate. I suppose we all have such ticks in our own writing, and that sometimes a weird outsider is the most equipped to catch them.

Punky Spanish spelling

When I was researching Spanish text messaging for Question #55 in my book, I was intrigued by the frequent substitution of the letter k for qu and c. This pattern is especially curious because the letter k isn’t native to Spanish. It normally appears only in borrowings such as kilómetro.

A friendly redditor explained this texting phenomenon as follows:

Not sure about other countries, but in Spain, substituting the “k” traditionally conveyed certain social/cultural/political leanings. It goes back to the early post-Franco years and was initially a punk way to hack the language (see Kaka de Luxe, Rock Radikal Vasco, etc.). Basque also has had an influence.

That’s a lot of power for a simple letter of the alphabet.

Given this background, I was excited to see many uses of k in business names and graffiti when I was in Spain in May. Here are some pictures, with my captions as color commentary.

Here the “cool” spelling of “katedral” contrasts with the normal spelling of “cafetería”.

In this graffiti calling for a street protest, the “k” of “kalle” is a natural fit with the gender-neutral “x” of “todxs”.

The accent mark is missing, too.

Here the street-smart “k” is coupled with another deliberate misspelling, of “z” for “c”. The full conventional spelling would be “rinconcito”.

OK, this graffiti has nothing to do with “k”. But I couldn’t resist including it because it was so striking to see a pro-Franco slogan in the year 2018, a full 43 years after the dictator’s death. Note also that the the tilde in “España” is present.