Category Archives: Spanish in the world

Enjoying Andalusian Spanish

Since my travel companion during my recent trip to Andalucía doesn’t speak Spanish, I inevitably spoke mostly English while there. (I’m making up for this by speaking tons of Spanish while grading AP tests in Cincinnati.) Nevertheless, I had as many Spanish conversations with strangers as I possibly could, and also kept my ears open to expose myself, as much as possible, to Andalusian Spanish.

I’ve long been academically familiar with Andalusian Spanish, of course, meaning that I knew about its features from reading about them. And I knew that most of these features are shared with Latin American Spanish because, as demonstrated by Peter Boyd-Bowman, the Spaniards who immigrated to Latin America during the colonial period were disproportionately Andalusian. However, it was exciting to hear this kind of Spanish spoken around me in its home territory.

The Andalusian feature that means the most to me personally is the tendency to weaken or drop -s sounds at the ends of words and syllables. “Personally”, because my first linguistic research, as a Harvard undergraduate, was on this same phenomenon in Puerto Rican Spanish, and its possible consequences for subject pronoun usage in Puerto Rican Spanish. This research eventually led to an article published in Language, the prestigious flagship publication of the Linguistic Society of America, which as you can imagine was a healthy way to start my career. So every mimo (instead of mismo), gracia (instead of gracias), and so on sounded like a friendly blast from my past. 

One hazard of dropping your s‘s frequently is that you can forget which words actually have them, and start to make mistakes in your spelling. A case in point is this poem, by María de los Ángeles Martínez González. which we saw set into a wall along a street in Cádiz. The words escuches and madres were cast in ceramic without their final s‘s, which you can see in this online version of the poem. This linguistic point aside, the poem is heart-breaking.

Another common Andalusian feature is the weakening and deletion of the d sound between two vowels. This is actually a downstream version of the historical process of “lenition” that, centuries ago, turned Latin t‘s into Spanish d‘s, and likewise Latin k and p sounds into Spanish g‘s and b‘s (vita > vida, focum > fuegolupus > lobo).

While on the same stroll through Cádiz I did a double-take when I saw what looked like another dialect-influenced spelling mistake on a historical marker memorializing a famous flamenco artist who was both a singer and a dancer: in standard Spanish, both a cantador and a bailador. Here, these two words were spelled without their dcantaor and bailaor. After seeing the same spellings elsewhere I learned that they are, in fact, the legitimate terms for a flamenco singer and dancer. You can see the corresponding Real Academia dictionary entries here and here. So in this case lenition has gone legit.

Two final accentual anecdotes. First, struck by the non-Andalusian accent of one tchotchke seller I was chatting with in Granada, I asked if she was from out of town. She explained that she deliberately neutralized her accent when talking with non-Andalusians. Would you believe there’s a linguistic term for this? It’s called “linguistic accommodation”. Second, when I overheard a family group speaking in what I first thought was Italian and then realized was Spanish, I correctly inferred that they were from Argentina. Spanishlinguist scores! Actually, Argentinian Spanish is a softball dialect to identify…but still fun, especially when you hear it so far afield.

El burlador de Sevilla (Don Juan)

I took advantage of a 24-hour stopover in Madrid on the way home from my recent trip to Andalucía to see El burlador de Sevilla, the original Spanish play about Don Juan. According to University of Wisconsin professor R. John McCaw, the play’s exact origins are unknown. However, it was most likely written — in Madrid, not Sevilla — in the early 1620s, by the playwright Tirso de Molina.

Since I majored in linguistics rather than Spanish, I had never read El burlador de Sevilla, and in fact didn’t know much about Golden Age theater. So before heading to Spain I bought a copy of Prof. McCaw’s edition of the play and studied it seriously. Just so you know what a good student I still am, after all these years out of school, here is a scan of one page showing how I marked up the book. What I learned was so interesting that I’d like to share it with you.

Golden Age playwrights like Tirso de Molina had to be incredibly skilled. They did what any playwright does — tell an exciting story, develop their characters, and so on — while at the same time fitting their Spanish into a set of specific rhyming patterns. As Prof. McCaw explains in his introduction, most of El burlador fits into one of six rhyming patterns, each defined by four parameters:

  1. the number of lines in the pattern;
  2. the number of syllables per line (playwrights “fudge” by merging or extending some syllables);
  3. the type of rhyme: whether consonants matter (consonance), as in the rhyme of España, engaña, and caña near the top of the page in the image above, or not (assonance), as in the sequence rosaolassolalocasondassombrasalfójaradora in Tisbea’s speech at the bottom of the page;
  4. the rhyming pattern within the lines, e.g. ABBA (lines 1 and 4 rhyme, also lines 2 and 3).

After marking up the entire text — this isn’t as crazy as it sounds, since the play is less then 100 pages long — I tallied how often each rhyming pattern was used. Here’s what I found:

  • The most common pattern — the default, really — was the redondilla, four lines of eight syllables each with a consonant ABBA rhyming scheme.
  • The second most common pattern was the romance, an indefinitely long sequence of eight-syllable lines with an assonant xAxAxA rhyming scheme, i.e. every other line rhymes. Tisbea’s speech above is an example. Spanish is a great language for loooooong romances because so many words rhyme! (The assonance helps.) In the play, I counted:
    • romances with a-a rhymes;
    • 2 each with e-a and o-o rhymes;
    • 1 each with o-a (above), i-a, and a-e rhymes.
  • Acts II and III each contain a sequence of octavas reales: eight lines of eleven syllables each, with an ABABABCC rhyming pattern.
  • Act II contains one sequence, and Act III two, of quintillas: five lines of eight syllables each. Amazingly, Tirso de Molina added an additional layer of structure by varying his quintillas‘ rhyming patterns. The quintillas in Act II alternate between ABBAA and AABBA, while those in the Act III sequences are all ABABA.
  • Act I has a sequence of décimas: ten eight-syllable lines with a complex consonant rhyming pattern. The end of this sequence can be seen in the image above.
  • Act III has a sequence of sextillas: six alternating lines of seven and eleven syllables (7-11-7-11-7-11) with consonant ABABABCC rhyme.

The rhyming complexity increases as the play progresses. Act I contains three patterns: redondillasromances, and décimas. Act II contains four: redondillasromancesoctavas reales, and quintillas. And Act III contains fiveredondillasromancesquintillassextillas, and octavas reales. What a tour de force!

I read the play a first time for its language and rhyming, and a second time to focus on its plot and characters. On the second read-through it became clear that although Don Juan was a lecher, his uncle was equally evil in his own way. He was a reprehensible enabler, helping Don Juan escape and lying to cover his tracks. The women in the play were uniformly admirable, and also strong, once they’d realized they’d been conned. (This cast of characters inevitably reminded me of today’s politics.)

As you can imagine, after so much preparation I was excited to finally see the play. The performance I saw was at Teatro de la Comedia, Madrid’s theater for classical theater. (See my “Bad Spanish” post about their tickets, and also the YouTube clip below.) It was an excellent production! I found Don Juan himself incredibly sexy — I could see why so many women fell for him — but in the scene where his father appears, he becomes sullen and quiet. The implication (for me) was that unresolved “Daddy issues” were at the heart of his neurosis. My favorite scene, Tisbea’s mad scene after Don Juan betrays her, was powerful. It was a real treat.

Surprisingly, after I’d worked so hard to get to know the rhyming schemes, they receded into the background once the play was “live”. The lines just sounded like beautiful Spanish.

I left the theater with a strong urge to learn more about…Shakespeare! Having never taken a Shakespeare course in college, I feel guilty that I now know more about Tirso de Molina than our greatest English playwright.

Viggo Mortensen, “el argentino”

I have Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s Capitán Alatriste books on my mind these days because El Ministerio del Tiempo, the Spanish TV show I’m currently enjoying on Netflix, has a running joke about a time-traveler from the 1500s (played by Nacho Fresneda) who resembles Pérez-Reverte’s swashbuckling hero.

The Alatriste doppelganger specifically reminded me of an amusing conversation I had a few years ago with Lorena, a friendly Mexican woman who used to have a coffee kiosk near my train station. I frequently picked up a cup of coffee there and, naturally, would also enjoy a chat in Spanish.

One morning I happened to have the first volume of the Alatriste series with me when I picked up my coffee. I showed it to Lorena and she instantly recognized the handsome man on the cover. “Es el argentino,” she said.

This tickled my funny bone since she was referring to Viggo Mortensen, who played Alatriste in a movie based on the series, and who is actually Danish-American. Mortensen lived in Argentina when he was a young boy, returning with his American mother to the United States at age 11. It’s impressive that he’s held onto his Spanish…and his Argentinian accent.

Coincidentally, my son Aaron just sent me this clip of Viggo Mortensen speaking six languages, including Spanish:

If you look on YouTube you will find similar videos of him speaking other numbers of languages. Wouldn’t it be great if all Americans were multilingual?

Even more coincidentally, I recently rewatched Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, starring Mortensen as Aragon. He was perfect for the role — and in a few scenes, speaks Elvish.

¡El Ministerio del Tiempo has arrived!

For months I’ve been hearing about El Ministerio del Tiempo, a popular science-fiction TV show from Spain. It has just come out on Netflix in the USA, and I’m in the middle of the first episode. It’s awesome!

Image result for ministerio del tiempo

The show is about a secret Spanish government agency that controls a set of portals to Spain’s past. As best as I understand it so far, their mission is to stop nefarious time travelers from changing history. In the first episode they recruit new agents from the 1500s, 1800s, and the present (shown left to right in the picture). The show features a star turn by Diego Velázquez and multiple shout-outs to Arturo Pérez-Reverte‘s Capitán Alatriste.

As a linguist I am of course enjoying the older Spanish spoken in the 1500s scenes. And so far the plot and characters seem to be lots of fun.

Try it yourself!

An Academia for Ladino!

Regular readers of this blog already know that I’m a big fan of the Spanish language academy system, consisting of the Real Academia Española (RAE) and its 22 sister institutions, and collectively known as the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española (ASALE).

I now have a new reason to love the Academia: the institution now expects to add a new sister academy, based in Israel, that is devoted to Ladino. Also known as Judeo-Spanish, or judeoespañol, Ladino is the language of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and their descendants. Once spoken by hundreds of thousands of Jews around the Mediterranean, especially in Turkey, the language is now in danger of extinction. Unlike Yiddish, its German-based counterpart, which is still spoken as a first language by Hasidic communities in Israel and the United States, Ladino lacks fresh native speakers, and its older speakers are dying out.

A language academy for Ladino wouldn’t save the language, but it would help to conserve, study, and honor it.

According to an article in El Cultural, the RAE/ASALE has approved the formation of the Academy and has passed the bureaucratic baton to the State of Israel. Once Israel recognizes the Academy, it can then formally apply for membership in ASALE. It is hoped that this will take place by the next ASALE convention in 2019.

Very exciting!

 

Spanish language Nobel Prizes in literature

Every Spanish speaker can be rightly proud that “our” language is so international. It is an official language in twenty-one countries in North, Central, and South America, Europe, and Africa. The Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española provides oversight and stability while respecting dialectal differences.

Another measure of the success of Spanish as an international language is the fact that Spanish speakers from four continents — Europe and the three Americas — have won Nobel Prizes in Literature. The chart below summarizes this achievement. The commendations are from the “Official Website of the Nobel Prize”.

Maria Dueñas at Instituto Cervantes, NY

One advantage of living in our leafy but boring suburb is that I am only a short train ride away from the Instituto Cervantes in Manhattan. This has enabled me to easily attend events such as the U.S. inauguration of the Real Academia Española’s revised dictionary — the first major revision since the elimination of ch and ll — and a recent talk about Spanish in the United States.

Last night the Instituto Cervantes hosted a major celebrity: Maria Dueñas, the author of the bestselling Spanish novels El tiempo entre costuras ‘The Time in Between’, Misión Olvido ‘The Heart Has its Reasons’, and La Templanza ‘The Vineyard’. The specific purpose of the event was to celebrate the U.S. publication of ‘The Vineyard’ in English. Sra. Dueñas also gave us a ‘heads-up’ about her fourth novel, now in progress, which concerns Spanish immigrants living in New York in the first part of the 20th century.

I’ve read and enjoyed all three of Sra. Dueñas’s books (I previously blogged about El tiempo entre costuras here). Beyond this, I feel a connection with her because we have a lot in common. We are both middle-aged moms and academics (she was at the University of Murcia) who specialized in the linguistics of the other’s language (she studied and taught English applied linguistics) and who wrote a first book relatively late in life (she in her 40s, I in my 50s). The glaring difference, of course, is that her first book was an instant bestseller that has been translated into 35 languages and turned into a hit telenovela, whereas I’d be happy with continuing respectable sales of ¿Por qué? But still.

Her first book’s origin story, as she described it at the event, was remarkable. El tiempo entre costuras takes place partly in Madrid and partly in Morocco during the Spanish protectorate there. Some of her family members had lived in Spanish Morocco, and she grew up hearing their stories. While enjoying a peaceful sabbatical in — of all places — Morgantown, West Virginia (a great place to live, according to friends) — she decided to write a novel set in that time and place. She had never written any fiction and had no connections in the publishing world. Nevertheless, after years of painstaking research and writing, she found a publisher who committed to a first imprint of 3500 copies, and within weeks the book took off via word of mouth.

This anecdote reminded me of the preface to one of my perennial favorite books, Maria Von Trapp’s The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, which was the inspiration for The Sound of Music. Mrs. Von Trapp describes a visit with a friend who had written her first book in her forties:

I don’t know whether Sra. Dueñas ever pulled on a wishing bell — but sometimes, I guess, wishes do come true.

Different ways to ask about the weather

When I was a girl studying Spanish as a second language, I learned to use the question ¿Qué tiempo hace? to ask about the weather. It translates literally as ‘What weather is it making?’ and was, in fact, one of the first examples I every came across that showed how different languages can express the same concept it fundamentally different ways. It comes with a list of related phrases such as Hace calor ‘It’s hot’, Hace sol ‘It’s sunny’ (literally ‘It makes heat/sun’), and so on, though some other weather expressions, such as Está nublado ‘It’s cloudy’ and Está a x grados ‘It’s X degrees’, use verbs other than hacer ‘to make’.

These expressions went into my back pocket and I’ve been pulling them out for years, both when speaking Spanish myself and as a teacher.

So you can imagine my surprise to learn, via a recent discussion in /r/Spanish, that this terminology doesn’t fly in most of the New World. The discussion began with an American (US) speaker of Guatemalan heritage complaining that people don’t understand ¿Qué tiempo hace? when he visits Guatemala. Others chimed in with similar perspectives from Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Argentina. Alternative wordings from these areas are:

  • ¿Cómo está (hoy) el clima? (Mexico, Peru)
  • ¿Cómo está el tiempo? (Colombia)
  • Hay sol. (Argentina) Hay viento. (Peru)

It was especially impressive that this difference actually caused misunderstandings, with speakers in some countries interpreting any question about tiempo to be time-related.

I was amused to read one Peruvian’s perspective than “¿Qué tiempo hace? is an old construction to ask information about weather in my country. If I recall correctly it’s used in Spain, you could probably meet the term with old people most likely. Nowadays to avoid confusion Latin countries mostly use clima which translates exactly as weather. The current usage of this word makes newer generations oblivious of the former construction tho.”

So…am I old? Biased toward Spanish Spanish? Or out of touch? In any case, the next time I teach first-year Spanish I will be sure to use this topic as an opportunity to discuss dialectal differences.

“Spanish Thrives”…or does it?

I’m always happy to see articles about Spanish in the non-academic media. So it was with great interest that I read a recent article in the New York Times, “Spanish Thrives in the United States Despite an English-only Drive”. This article described the vibrancy of the Hispanic community in the U.S. today, touching on its multiple roots — Puerto Rico, Spain, Mexico, Central America, and Colombia are all mentioned — and its cultural manifestations, including food, music, literature, media, and sports.

However, the article also recognizes that this vibrancy is likely to wane, linking to research that predicts that English will, over time, take over as a first language among Hispanics. This buttresses my own reading on this topic. For example, in a 2001 research review, USC professor Carmen Silva-Corvalán wrote that “a pesar de las actitudes positivas, en los grupos 2 y 3 es evidente el uso cada vez menos frecuente del español, incluso en el dominio familiar” (p. 329). (‘In spite of positive attitudes [toward Spanish], second- and third-generation Americans clearly use Spanish less and less, including within the family.’)

The specific linguistic phenomena described in the Times article — “Spanglish” (alternating Spanish and English within a sentence), and the large-scale absorption of English vocabulary into Spanish — are two warning signs, like canaries in a coal mine, that indicate the ongoing erosion of Spanish competence among US Hispanics. Linguists like Silva-Corvalán also describe a third “canary”: the partial or even complete loss of certain complex grammatical structures in the speech of second and, especially, third-generation Hispanics .

Please see this earlier blog post on a related topic.

Despacito redux

“The Jackal”, the Italian comedy team that posted the video of the three comedians dissing Despacito in a car — yet unable to resist singing along with it — has now put out a sequel. It features a cameo with Luis Fonsi himself. It is, again, very funny. But make sure to watch the earlier video first; I linked to it in this post.