Author Archives: jhochberg

Rules are made to be broken — “siempre” edition

Back in 2013 I wrote about the drawbacks of teaching students formulaic rules instead of general principles for certain aspects of Spanish grammar and vocabulary. The prime example I gave was the two versions of the Spanish past tense: the preterite, or simple past, and the imperfect. I teach my students the general principle that the preterite is used to narrate the bare bones of ‘what happened’ in a sequence of events, and that the imperfect adds color to this sequence. You can see this distinction in the following sentence, where I’ve underlined preterites and colored imperfects red. (In class we work through a fairy tale on a whiteboard, using different-colored markers.)

Llovía cuando entré, me senté, y le dije “Buenos días” a mi amiga, quién se llamaba Juanita y llevaba un vestido espléndido.

‘It was raining when I entered, sat down, and said “Good morning” to my friend, who was called Juanita and wore a splendid dress‘.

Nevertheless, certain rules are extremely useful in deciding which past tense to use. For example, mientras ‘while’ always triggers the imperfect, and the mention of a specific time or time interval, like a las tres or durante cinco días, usually triggers the preterite.

The adverb siempre ‘always’, like mientras, has long been on my mental list of reliable imperfect triggers, and it is one that I teach to my students. I was therefore surprised when a participant in Reddit’s /s/Spanish subreddit recently mentioned that siempre can occur with the preterite, too. In the spirit of “If you build it, they will come”, within 24 hours I’d come across several instances of this in the Spanish novel I’m currently reading, Alberto Fuguet’s Las películas de mi vida.

tempI’ve listed some examples below; the ones that are most striking to me combine a siempre preterite with an imperfect or two elsewhere in the same sentence.

  • Pero mi abuelo sintió siempre que hacía menos de lo que podía hacer. ‘But my grandfather always felt that he accomplished less than he was capable of.’
  • Mi abuelo siempre sintió que lo miraban en menos. ‘My grandfather always that they looked down on him.’
  • Siempre supe que eras brillante. ‘I always knew you were brilliant.’
  • Siempre me llamó la atención que [el aeropuerto] no tuviera un nombre. ‘It always struck me that the airport didn’t have a name.’
  • Los Zanetti y los Soler siempre fueron inmigrantes. ‘The Zanettis and Solers were always immigrants.’

One could probably write an article about the use of the two past tenses with siempre based on this novel alone. You could also broaden the field of inquiry to other authors, from around the Spanish-speaking world, as well as to actual speech — and then you’d have yourself a nice dissertation! But at a rough glance, Fuguet appears to be using the siempre preterites to give his overall assessment of how something was in the past, whether it was his grandfather’s feelings, a friend’s intelligence, an airport’s name, his families’ assimilation, and so on. This reminds me of a rule of thumb a Spanish teacher once shared: that fue (‘it was’ in preterite) is used to give an overall ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ assessment. The imperfects in these sentence would then serve to flesh out the factors behind these assessments.

What do you think?

Report on ANLE event with Francisco Moreno Fernández

On Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending the induction of Francisco Moreno Fernández, the Executive Director of the Instituto Cervantes at Harvard University, as the newest member of the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española (ANLE).  Moreno Fernández’s specialty is sociolinguistics, and he is currently focusing on Spanish in the United States.

The main point of Moreno Fernández’s inaugural lecture was that United States Spanish has two manifestations. The first is “Spanglish”, the casual form of speech characterized by frequent code-switching, or alternation, between Spanish and English. The second, used in more formal contexts, is an American* version of Spanish (español estadounidense) that has borrowed hundreds of English words, in many cases crowding out their normal Spanish counterparts.

My favorite part of the talk was the data that Moreno Fernández showed on the degree of penetration of specific English borrowings in different parts of the United States. He walked us through three examples: registración, which has mostly replaced inscripciónflu, which is threatening gripe, and dil (a Spanish spelling of deal), which hasn’t obtained much of a foothold.

As in the previous ANLE induction I attended, it was a pleasure to immerse myself in the beautiful Spanish of all the evening’s speakers: not just Moreno Fernández but the scholars who introduced him, formally responded to his talk, and officially inducted him. Coincidentally, two of these presenters were native speakers not of Spanish, but of other Romance languages (Italian and Romanian). As a non-native speaker myself, I was heartened to see them accepted as full colleagues and participating in the Spanish academy system.

[Later edit: Here is ANLE’s press release about the event.]

*Since I’m writing in English I’ve used the word American here to mean ‘of the United States’. This usage is problematic from a Hispanic perspective, since América, of course, includes all of North, South, and Central America, not just the United States. When speaking Spanish I would therefore never say americano to mean ‘American’ in the more limited sense, but always estadounidense. It would be helpful to have a more neutral English word like “United Statesian”. Wikipedia has an interesting discussion on this topic here.

Why ser and ir are so irregular

The purpose of this post is to share two of my favorite slides from the PowerPoint I prepared for my recent talk at the NECTFL conference. The slides summarize the history of the two most irregular Spanish verbs, ser ‘to be’ and ir ‘to go’. It turns out that each of these verbs is a historical merger of three distinct verbs. Ser merged the Latin verbs sedere ‘to sit’ and esse ‘to be’, which itself combined Proto-Indo-European verbs meaning ‘to be’ and ‘to become’. Ir merged the Latin verbs ire ‘to go’, vadere ‘to go, walk’ (a cognate of English ‘to wade’), and esse ‘to be’. As you can see from the slides, each root is responsible for a subset of each verb’s modern forms.

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The history of “ser” (‘to be’). The asterisks indicate reconstructed (hypothesized) Proto-Indo-European roots.

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The history of “ir” (‘to go’). My favorite detail here is that the singular command ‘ve’ and the plural command ‘id’ come from different Latin roots.

This type of historical process, in which one verb does a “hostile takeover” of part of another verb’s conjugation, is common enough to have its own name: suppletion. You can see suppletion in the English verb ‘to go’, whose past tense form went comes from the semantically related verb ‘to wend’. The various cases of suppletion in the histories of ser and ir are likewise plausible:

  • for sedereesse: ‘to sit’ is connected to ‘to be’ because it expresses location
  • for *hes*buh: ‘be’ and ‘become’ are obviously related
  • for irevadere: ‘walking’ is a kind of ‘going’
  • for ireesse: if you ‘are’ somewhere, it follows that you ‘went’ there. For example, you can say “I’ve never been to Barcelona” instead of “I’ve never gone to Barcelona”.

I will have to save these charts for the second edition of my book!

15 February ANLE event (NYC)

ANLE, the Academia Norteamericana de la Lenga Española, is the United States’ branch of the Real Academia Española (RAE— or, more precisely, of ASALE, the international organization of which the RAE is the best-known member. I’m a huge fan of the RAE and have previously written about it here, here, here, and here (slides 4 and 5).

Membership in ANLE is limited to fifty outstanding proponents of the Spanish language in the United States, including academicians, writers, and journalists. New members therefore join ANLE only occasionally — when an existing member retires or passes away — and their induction is always celebrated with a scholarly yet joyous event. I’ve previously attended one such induction. The order of business is always the same. First, the inductee is introduced and makes a speech (an academic discourse). Then another member gives a speech in response, and the director of ANLE officially welcomes the new member.

The next ANLE induction, on February 15 at the Instituto Cervantes in Manhattan, promises to be exceptionally interesting. The new member is Francisco Moreno-Fernández, the Executive Director of the Instituto Cervantes at Harvard University, a member of Harvard’s oddly punctuated “Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights,” and a professor of Hispanic Linguistics at Spain’s University of Alcalá. Moreno’s field is sociolinguistics, and his inaugural lecture will be on “Perfiles del español estadounidense.” You can download a flyer for the event here.

Prof. Francisco Moreno-Fernández

Prof. Francisco Moreno-Fernández

Besides the inherent interest of this event for anyone who cares about Spanish in the U.S., it will be personally meaningful for me: I studied linguistics at Harvard, and wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on a sociolinguistics topic. Small world!

Maybe I’ll see some of you there.

NECTFL report

On Friday and Saturday I had a wonderful time at the annual NECTFL conference here in New York. NECTFL stands for the NorthEast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. It started as an independent conference, but is now the largest of the regional conferences under the umbrella of ACTFL, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. I’ve attended NECTFL several times, and this year, for the first time, presented a talk.

The talk was based, not surprisingly, on my book, but with an appropriately pedagogical twist, to focus on how foreign language teachers can bring linguistics into the classroom. The conference theme was standards for foreign language teaching, so I shaped my talk around two of ACTFL’s official standards: Comparisons (with other languages) and Connections (to other disciplines). In the talk I managed to work in two other standards: Cultural comparisons and — the big one! — Communication. The abstract is below.

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My talk had a decent turnout, especially since there were more than a dozen concurrent talks for attendees to choose from, and was well received. I had some promising follow-up conversations, including an offer of collaboration and an invitation to speak at another conference. I’m also planning to write up my talk and submit it to one of the ACTFL journals.

Bloomsbury Linguistics had rented a table in the conference’s book exhibit, and sold every copy of my book that they had with them, in addition to taking advance orders. This made me very happy. I figured that if I couldn’t sell my book at a conference for language teachers, I was in big trouble.

As in previous years I learned a lot from the talks I attended. My chore today is to go over my notes and the handouts I accumulated, and digest the specific techniques that I can implement (i) immediately and (ii) later in my own teaching. In many talks I was struck afresh by the dramatic differences between K-12 and college teaching. Most attendees, and all the presenters I heard, are K-12 teachers. They have lots of time to work with their students, and usually have a classroom to call their own. As a college Spanish teacher I have less time to cover more material, and share an anonymous classroom. On the other hand, my students are more mature who are strongly motivated to do the work and earn good grades. These environmental differences will play a large role in how I adapt the techniques I learned in the conference.

I had a final dose of Spanish after the conference, when I struck up a conversation with an Argentinian family at an excellent taquería where I stopped for a bite on my way to the train station. (It isn’t hard to recognize Argentinian Spanish, but of course I was pleased, and these tourists somewhat surprised, when I guessed their nationality.) We chatted a bit about my two idiosyncratic Argentinian obsessions: pato, the gaucho version of polo originally played with a live duck, and the linguistic isolation of Argentinian Spanish during the formative colonial period, which was the subject of my first blog post back in 2013. Now I have friends to see when I eventually visit Buenos Aires!

 

Neruda en México — sort of

I have to apologize, because I’m at it again, blogging about something other than the long-promised theme of “Cervantes on the beach.” The distracting factor this time is my trip to Washington, DC this past weekend for the Women’s March on Washington — an amazing experience, though not related to Spanish. While there, I returned to a Mexican restaurant I had enjoyed on my previous trip to the city. It is called Oyamel and features small plates that are innovative and delicious. I strongly recommend it!

As on my previous visit, I noticed that the words of my long-time favorite poem, Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche, are inscribed on the restaurant’s walls. This time I took some photographs (below). You can see the titular first line of the poem interrupted by the window in the first photo, and wrapping around the corner in the second.IMG_20170122_160253

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Puedo escribir… is one of the most famous poems by Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet. It is part of his Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada, published in 1924. Readers familiar with Hispanic literature will wonder, of course, why a Mexican restaurant is decorated with Chilean poetry. Perhaps this is because Oyamel is part of a larger restaurant group run by José Andrés, a Spanish chef, whose restaurants include cuisine from around the Spanish-speaking world.

At any rate, it was a thrill to be able to enjoy my favorite poem while enjoying a delicious lunch with friends.

Some nice local coverage

My home-town newspaper, the Scarsdale Inquirer, just published this article about ¿Por qué?. My dad, my biggest fan, was thrilled to see the article, even though it completely sidestepped his role in my ancestry. This is ironic since it was his abiding interest in Spanish that inspired me to take up the language in the first place, whereas my mom had studied French and barely spoke a word of Spanish. That wrinkle aside, it’s a nice article.

From the Scarsdale Inquirer, Friday, January 6, 2017

From the Scarsdale Inquirer, Friday, January 6, 2017

I’m still planning to get around to that “Cervantes on the beach” series, but first have to fulfill my civic duty this weekend and protest in Washington, DC. Will be back on Sunday if not in jail.

Spanish versus Portuguese

I owe my readers an apology. In my previous post I promised to write several posts about the Spanish of Cervantes. Instead, my recent days have been devoted to annoying grownup stuff (car trouble, health insurance wrangling), happy grownup stuff (visiting my grandchildren), and also sending out “blast” emails about my book. All important, yet distracting.

This makes it even more awkward that my first post since promising Cervantes is, instead, about Portuguese! But I couldn’t resist, and you’ll see why.

My “blast” emails have given me the chance to reconnect with some friends and family I haven’t been in touch with for a while. One childhood friend wrote back, “I have been studying Portuguese and this has made me wonder about why Spanish is so much more complex.” In direct contrast, a cousin of my husband’s asked, “when will you do [a book] on Portuguese, in my opinion a more difficult and mysterious language?”

I hate to disappoint both my old friend and my cousin-in-law, but I have never studied Portuguese and have no idea how it compares to Spanish in difficulty. I do know some interesting factoids about the difference between the two languages:

  1. It’s easier for Portuguese speakers to understand Spanish than the other way around (the topic of an earlier post);
  2. The future subjunctive, an Iberian invention, is more frequent in Portuguese than in Spanish, where it’s only seen in legalese;
  3. Spanish and Portuguese both have the ser/estar contrast, but permanent location is expressed with ser in Portuguese, versus estar in Spanish.

However, none of these factoids has anything to do with the relative difficulty of the two languages. Perhaps some readers will write in and help with this question. Please!

In the meantime, anyone interested in Portuguese is recommended to read the delightful “not just a physics memoir” Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman. Its chapters on Feynman’s time in Brazil show how learning a foreign language can open unexpected doors.

Cervantes on the beach

I’ve just returned home from a glorious visit to the Caribbean. My husband and I resolved to do nothing but relax during our stay, and for the most part we managed to honor this commitment. However, my passion for Spanish linguistics is irrepressible! Even while lazing on the beach, I couldn’t resist taking note of several linguistically interesting passages in one of the Spanish books I tossed into my suitcase: a collection of three Novelas ejemplares by Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quijote.

Cervantes published these novelas — actually, short stories — in 1613, between the two volumes of Don Quijote. El licenciado Vidriera, the first story I read, takes place in the academic and courtly communities of Salamanca and Valladolid. La gitanilla focuses on an itinerant gypsy tribe, while Rinconete y Cortadillo describes the initiation of two teenage boys into a gang of street criminals in Seville. The three stories thus offer diverse perspectives on the people and places of Golden Age Spain. 

I will be writing several blog entries about the Novelas ejemplares in the upcoming days. Here are the topics I’ll cover; I’ll add links to the individual entries as I write them:

  • the use of the noun color with feminine gender;
  • sentences that, while lacking the explicit Spanish words for ‘former’ and ‘latter’ (aquel and este), follow the Spanish convention of putting ‘latter’ before ‘former’;
  • camarada, a nice example of a noun ending in -a that can be either masculine or feminine;
  • an explicit reference to the dialectal phenomenon of ceceo;
  • two examples of gustar used in a ‘forwards’ rather than its normal ‘backwards’ fashion;
  • a case study in how to learn a new word (the innocent-sounding piedeamigo);
  • the antiquated word hestoria;
  • exciting (to me) examples of the future subjunctive “in the wild”.

 

 

Say it isn’t so, (Trader) Joe

I love Trader Joe’s. We live about midway between two of their stores, so I end up shopping there two or three times a week. My husband would probably starve to death if I didn’t keep our freezer stocked with Chicken Tikka Masala, Mac ‘n Cheese, and the like for his lunches. And their goat milk brie reminds me of the excellent cabra cheese I enjoyed in Spain last summer, with a firm crust and a soft center.

But ever since TJ’s introduced their Chicken Asada, my happy shopping mood is punctured every time I cruise the refrigerator case. The problem is that chicken (pollo) is masculine in Spanish, so Asada should really be be Asado. The abominably feminine Asada is no doubt a carry-over from the more famous Carne Asada, which Trader Joe’s also sells. However, TJ’s gets chicken gender right in their Pollo Asado (this is just chicken, no vegetables or sauce), and Pollo Asado pizza.

Wrong gender! Abomination!

pollo-carne

Correct gender for pollo (with or without pizza) and carne

If you care about Spanish grammar, please contact Trader Joe’s to complain — maybe they’ll fix the product name if they hear from enough hispanophiles! Here is some suggested wording.

Please change the name of your Chicken Asada product to Chicken Asado, to match the (correct) gender you use for your ‘Pollo Asado’. Chicken (‘pollo’) is masculine in Spanish, so ‘asada’ is just plain wrong. ‘Asada’ is correct in ‘Carne Asada’, but that’s because meat (‘carne’) is feminine.