Category Archives: Spanish in the world

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

Paella poetry

Pablo Neruda’s Oda al tomate is probably the most famous food poem in Spanish literature, but I’ve now found my personal favorite: José María Pemán y Pemartín’s Oda a la paella. This poem celebrates the way that paella respects its individual ingredients while achieving a harmonious whole. I’ve added a rough translation.

¡Oh insigne sinfonía de todos los colores!
¡Oh ilustre paella
por fuera con su blusa de colores,
quemadita por dentro con ansias de doncella!
¡Oh policromo plato colorista
que antes que con el gusto se come con la vista!
Concentración de glorias donde nada se deja.
Compromiso de Caspe entre el pollo y la almeja.
¡Oh plato decisivo :
gremial y colectivo!
¡Oh plato delicioso
donde todo es hermoso
y todo se distingue, pero nada está roto!
¡Oh plato liberal donde un grano es un grano
como un hombre es un voto!

Oh famous multi-colored symphony!
Oh illustrious paella
on the outside a colorful blouse,
burning from within like a yearning maiden!
Oh polychromatic, colorful dish
that your eyes enjoy before your stomach!
Concentration of glories where everything counts.
Spain’s compromise between chicken and clams.
Oh decisive and collaborative dish!
Oh delicious dish
where everything is beautiful
and everything stands out, but nothing is broken!
Oh generous dish where one grain of rice is one grain
just as one man is one vote!

I came across Pemán’s Oda in the Spanish novel I’m currently reading: Los mares del Sur, one of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s many mysteries featuring the detective Pepe Carvalho. Vázquez is passionate about food — he has written a number of cookbooks — and food figures heavily in Los mares del Sur. Vázquez reproduces the Oda in a chapter about a feast Carvalho enjoys with friends from his native Galicia. Paella is on the menu and the feasters have a vigorous discussion about whether or not onion is an allowed ingredient, regional paella differences, how much pepper to add, and so on. They enjoy the paella a lo rural (‘country style’), meaning that they eat straight out of the dish, each choosing some territorio (‘territory’) within the dish — a good way to avoid one eater’s hogging all the best ingredients!

I don’t remember where I saw Los mares del Sur recommended, but Wikipedia tells us that it won the Premio Planeta in 1979, and also made one Spanish newspaper’s list of the 100 best Spanish novels of the 20th century — not bad for light fiction. It has also been made into a movie.

I’m now past the halfway point in Los mares del Sur, and so far it reminds me of a slow train ride with beautiful scenery. In other words, Vázquez takes his time with the plot, but the book has wonderful descriptions of people and places along the way. My favorite aspect (besides the paella poem) is Vázquez’s sly sense of humor, as when he describes a group of mismatched chairs as sillas de diferentes padres. I’m finding something laugh-out-loud funny every few pages. Another plus, for me at least, is that the novel is set in post-Franco Barcelona and thus provides a historical counterpart to the various Jordi Sierra i Fabra mysteries I’ve been reading, which take place in Barcelona just before and during that time period.




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.


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!