Author Archives: jhochberg

Added: erratum page for ¿Por qué?

I finally added a feature to this blog that has been on the back burner for ages: a list of  errata and other possible changes to my book ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish. I have been keeping this list in the event that Bloomsbury (or another publisher) ever puts out a second edition, and have just posted it as a new page on the blog. This is for the benefit of both readers and myself, as I hope readers will contact me with additions to the list. Hopefully most of these will be suggestions rather than further errata!

The most important errata concern factual errors. Others point out typographical errors and problems with references.

The page is organized by question number.

Have at it!

One fish two fish pez pescado

Never having caught a fish in my life, I certainly didn’t imagine that I would ever write a blog post about our aquatic pals, let alone two. Nevertheless this is my second post on the topic. I guess everything is more interesting in Spanish.

As I explained in my first fish post back in 2016, Spanish has two words for fish: pez for a live fish and pescado for one that you see in a pescadería (fish store), supermarket, or restaurant. The verb pescar means ‘to fish’ and pescado is its past participle. So a pescado is simply a pez that has been fished, or caught.

Pez and pescado were at the root of an amusing incident that took place while I was visiting my grandkids in May. This was during the first wave of COVID-19 in the Northeast and my grandsons’ classes had gone online. My younger grandson’s Montessori kindergarten had a weekly Spanish lesson via Zoom and we both thought it would be fun for me to sit in. I have to confess that I stayed out of camera range and fed Zachary answers to the teacher’s questions. (Wouldn’t you?) As you can imagine he was the star of the lesson, getting everything right and amazing the teacher…UNTIL the class started to go through a set of animal words and they got to ‘fish.’

The teacher showed a picture of a pet fish in a bowl and asked if anyone knew ¿Qué es esto? Zachary was the only student to raise his hand. The teacher called on him and he said, correctly, Es un pez, to which the teacher replied No, es un pescado. They went back and forth a few times and the teacher held her ground.

Es un pez

 

During the rest of the lesson I noticed other mistakes in the teacher’s Spanish. She said that a ‘kangaroo’ was a cangarú, which is basically a Spanish rendering of the English word instead of the proper Spanish word canguro. She also made a gender mistake, saying el serpiente instead of la. Given the teacher’s impeccable accent I concluded that she was a heritage speaker, meaning someone who grew up speaking Spanish at home but never had a formal education in the subject. Such speakers can have gaps in their knowledge.

According to Prof. Zyzik’s comment on this blog, heritage speakers are more prone to gender errors when using words such as serpiente, which lack a telltale -a or -o ending. Kids make such errors as well.

When I was back home in New York the next week, my daughter told me that Zachary had tried to answer el pez again during Spanish class and was again shot down. At this point I decided to do some research, looking up pescado on the Real Academia Española’s online Diccionario de americanismos. The first bullet in the entry read:

MxGuHoESNiPaCuPRCoVeEcPeBoPy. Pez, ya esté dentro o fuera del agua, sea comestible o no.

That is, in a number of Latin American countries pescado can mean a fish ‘in or out of the water, and edible or not.” So now I know.

In retrospect this dialectal variation might also explain the restaurant painting that inspired my first pez/pescado post, which showed a so-called pescado that was in the water (though hooked on a line). Chances are it was painted by someone with a similar background to Zachary’s teacher.

Stay tuned for my next fish post, four years from now.

Bad Spanish: Tampa Bay edition

Today’s Tampa Bay Times has an article about Joe Biden’s upcoming town hall with undecided voters at the Pérez Art Museum. I was surprised to see that the newspaper misspelled the museum’s name as Peréz.

Should be Pérez, not Peréz. Duh.

I was surprised for two reasons. First, the museum is a major Tampa cultural institution, and the city’s hometown newspaper should be able to spell its name properly. For crying out loud, they could have checked Wikipedia if they weren’t sure. You can see the name of the museum in both the text and the illustration of the Wikipedia entry, accent mark neatly in place.

Second, the misplaced accent mark is such an obvious Spanish mistake that someone at the the Tampa Bay Times should have caught it. As any Spanish teacher will tell you, Spanish words that end in a consonant, including z, are normally stressed on the last syllable. The accent mark on Pérez indicates an exception to this rule: the name is pronounced PErez, not peREZ. In other words, NO Spanish word that ends with z will ever have an accent mark on its final syllable.

Please be more careful, TBT.

The linguistics of Covid-19

At times like these, with death tolls continuing to mount in New York, where I live, and in Madrid, which I have visited so many times for learning and pleasure, it is reassuring to know that the Real Academic Española is on top of the situation — from a linguistic perspective, at least.

In a recent series of tweets, the RAE weighed in on both the gender and the proper capitalization of Covid-19. Covid-19 falls into the category of nouns that lack obvious gender because they don’t end in -o or -a. One frequent treatment of such nouns is for them to adopt the gender of their broader category. For example, I was always taught that catedral is feminine because it is a kind of church (la iglesia). Likewise, capital is masculine in the sense of money (el dinero) but feminine in the sense of city (la ciudad).

This practice can even make -a nouns masculine. This can be seen in words for masculine players of feminine instruments (el corneta ‘bugler’), masculine users of feminine tools (el espada ‘swordsman’), varieties of wine and liquor named after feminine regions of origen (el champaña, el rioja), since el vino and el licor are both masculine, and el caza ‘fighter plane,’ a type of avión (masculine).

According to this practice, the gender of Covid-19 depends on whether it is a virus or an illness, because el virus is masculine and la enfermedad is feminine. The RAE recommends the masculine gender, in keeping with other virus names such as el zika and el ébola (note that both end in -a), but says that feminine gender is also acceptable when focusing on the illness rather than the virus itself.

Moreover, the RAE’s tweets recommend the use of all-caps when writing the name of the virus (COVID-19), since it is “a recently created acronym,” but envisions switching to lower-case covid-19 if the disease becomes “a common disease name.” In other words, for the time being the appropriate treatment is all-caps with masculine gender, but time may lead to a switch to lower-case letters and feminine gender.

Now, if the RAE could only do something about the shortage of papel higiénico we would all be sitting pretty.

Say it isn’t so, Trader Joe’s (4x)

As much as I love Trader Joe’s, they do have a history of playing fast and loose with their Spanish language products. I have previously blogged to complain about their Café Pajaro (no accent on pájaro), their description of their Carne Asada as both autentica (another missing accent) and bueno (should be buena), and their Chicken Asada (should be asado). The third of these posts inspired a reader’s comment on the use of pollo versus gallina.

Having complained about accent marks and gender, it was almost refreshing to see a number agreement error when I visited TJ’s this morning. As shown in the picture below, the product in question is Chicken enchiladas verde, which should, of course, be Chicken enchiladas verdes.

Chicken enchiladas verde

I encourage all concerned readers to contact Trader Joe’s and complain about this ugly mistake. Perhaps they will clean up their act if properly chastised.

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.