Category Archives: Spanish in the world

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.

The linguistics of “Despacito”

The Puerto Rican hit song and video Despacito recently passed Justin Bieber’s Sorry to become the most-streamed song in history. The original video (below), by Luis Fonsi with rapper Daddy Yankee,  currently has 2,704,830,813 views, while the remix including Bieber’s vocals (in English and Spanish) adds 37,439,624 views to the record.

I’ve personally contributed to this phenomenon by watching the original video at least a dozen times. (Also check out this video of a little girl who can’t stop dancing to the song, and this one of three Italian men in a car who diss it.) I love everything about Despacito except the obligatory scantily-clad women: the infectious, up-beat rhythm and melody, the lively street and bar scenes, the dancing, and the enthusiasm of everyone on screen. And, of course, the Spanish.

From a linguistic perspective, Despacito is above all a celebration of Spanish diminutives. As I described in an earlier post, these word endings often express affection instead of literal small size. Thus the song’s title, which adds the diminutive ending -ito to the word despacio ‘slow’, translates literally as ‘a little slow’, but more accurately as ‘nice and slow’. This is, in fact, the message of the song, whose lyrics are all about taking one’s time in bed (hence the scantily clad women). Over and over again, the song repeats the title and three other diminutives: suavecito, pasito a pasito, and poquito a poquito. Suavecito means ‘a little gentle’, or, again, ‘nice and gentle’. In the song it always occurs in the phrase suave suavecito, a construction often seen in nursery rhymes such as Araña arañita (the equivalent of The Itsy Bitsy Spider). Pasito a pasito ‘little step by little step’ can be taken more literally; in poquito a poquito ‘little by little’, the diminutive endings intensify the usual expression poco a poco.

All these diminutives made it easy for Fonsi and his collaborators to produce a song that abounds in pleasing rhymes. The diminutives are fully rhymed with other words that coincidentally end in -ito: manuscrito ‘manuscript’, originally a past participle (‘hand written’), grito ‘shout’ (from gritar ‘to shout’), and favorito ‘favorite’, an Italian word that entered Spanish via French. By assonance, or vowel rhyming, the diminutives are also matched with words ending in other i-o syllables: apellido, conmigolaberinto, oído, peligro, and ritmo. I also love Daddy Yankee’s rap sequence that uses the direct object pronoun lo ‘it’ to rhyme the command dámelo ‘give it to me’ with the gerunds pensándolo ‘thinking about it’, intendándolo ‘trying it’, and dándolo ‘giving it’. The antepenultimate stress (three syllables from the end of the word) on these verbs gives these lines an unusual and driving rhythm.

The first few times I heard the song I was confused by a word that sounded like diguay. This turned out to be DY, Daddy Yankee’s initials, as pronounced in English. The Spanish equivalent would be de i griega (y is a “Greek i”), and I guess the English version sounds better.

One final, non-linguistic note. Hispanic music, just like literature, film, and other aspects of Hispanic culture, benefits from the wide diversity of the Hispanic community. Fonsi and DY are Puerto Rican, but Erika Ender, the song’s third writer, is Panamanian, and the song’s two producers, Andrés Torres and Mauricio Rengifo, are Colombian. Bravo to all of them!

 

A Rotary talk on Spanish in the United States

I recently gave a talk to my local Rotary Club about Spanish in the United States, as part of my ongoing effort to promote my book. It was fun in multiple ways. First, I didn’t know anything about the Rotary organization beforehand, so I got to learn a bit about what they do. The group included local business people, the chief of police, a judge, and other upstanding citizens. Second, I picked the topic of “Spanish in the United States” because I figured it would be of general interest, and it was — most gratifying. Third, this was the first time I’ve tried speaking to a group that knew nothing about either linguistics or Spanish, and it went fine. This bodes well for hypothetical future speaking gigs.

Here is a rough outline of my talk. Note that it was organized in reverse chronological order.

  1. Predicting the future
    1. General pattern of immigrant languages being lost (Yiddish, Italian, German, etc.)
    2. Researchers concur that Spanish fits the same pattern, despite large numbers of Spanish speakers
      1. previous waves of immigration had huge numbers, too
    3. Specific prediction: Spanish will be gone in a few generations unless new immigrants continue to replenish population of speakers
      1. anecdotal evidence from my students: “I wish my parents had insisted that I speak Spanish with them”.
  2. Describing the present
    1. Features that show loss in progress
      1. U.S.-born Hispanics speaking more basic form of language
        1. keeping fundamental parts, e.g.
          1. gender
          2. preterite/imperfect
        2. loss of
          1. sophisticated structures, e.g. complex If..then structures (‘If I hadn’t spent all my money yesterday I wouldn’t have had to borrow more this morning’)
          2. some verb tenses
          3. some irregular verbs
      2. English influence
        1. borrowing, e.g. registración for inscripciónflu for gripe
          1. excursus on borrowing of Spanish vocab into English (plug for Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries)
        2. grammar (examples from Silva-Corvalán and Lipski)
          1. possessives for body parts (Me pegó en mi brazo)
          2. superfluous subject pronouns (Yo creo)
          3. noun-adjective order (machucado español ‘chopped-up Spanish’)
        3. code switching
    2. Most important characteristic unrelated to language loss = variety
      1. No such thing as “United States Spanish”; plug for Lipski’s Varieties of Spanish in the United States)
      2. Main concentrations are PR/DR in NE, Mexican in SW, Cuban in SE
      3. Interesting research on dialects in contact: linguistic accommodation, leveling
  3. A little history
    1. Modern migration from other countries is second phase of Spanish in the U.S.
      1. First phase = Spanish colonial period
      2. Relics still in New Mexico and Colorado (norteños), Louisiana
        1. another plug for Varieties of Spanish in the United States (ch. 12)
    2. What kind of Spanish? Andalusian
      1. no th sound (cerveza)
      2. final -s deletion (lo libro)
      3. ustedes but not vosotros