Category Archives: Spanish in the world

Neruda en México — sort of

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

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

IMG_20170122_160226

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

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

Spanish versus Portuguese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A visit to the Real Academia Española

Today was a dream come true for me: I visited the seat of the Real Academia Española. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably already know that I’m a big fan of the RAE. This visit was therefore a top priority for my linguistic tour of northern Spain. I also wanted to use the RAE’s library to look at a specific book that is not available in the United States.

The seat of the Real Academia Española, just behind the Museo del Prado.

The RAE is not generally open to the public, but the head of the Academia Norteamérica de la Lengua Española, Gerardo Piña-Rosales, kindly contacted the RAE to arrange for me to take a tour. As it happened, a local public school had scheduled a class trip to the RAE on my preferred date and time, so I was simply added to this group of very well-behaved kids. We saw a video about the RAE (see below) and then visited the principal rooms, including meeting rooms, the lecture hall, and various libraries.

My two favorite rooms were the coat room and the plenary meeting room. The coat room is fun because each hook is labeled with a member’s name, and they are ordered by their year of admittance to the RAE.  I was happy to see the designated hooks for one of my favorite writers, Arturo Pérez-Reverte (whose work has popped up in my blog here and here), and the linguist Inés Fernández Ordóñez, whose research on leísmo I’ve cited here. The plenary meeting room is where the RAE convenes to vote on proposed changes to their dictionary, spelling guide, or grammar. One letter of the Spanish alphabet, either upper-case or lower-case, is carved into each chair around the table. This reflects that fact that each membership position on the RAE corresponds to a letter: when member P dies, for example, a new member is appointed to position P. Our tour guide made sure to point out, however, that each member is NOT responsible for the section of the dictionary corresponding to his or her letter. (Perhaps this is a common misconception?) They aren’t even required to sit in their corresponding chair.

RAE plenary meeting room. A different letter of the alphabet is carved into each chair.

When I get home, I’ll have to write additional posts to share other tidbits I learned about the RAE, and also the fruits of my research session in the RAE library.

Saludos desde Madrid

I arrived in Madrid this morning and am taking a jet lag day before beginning my linguistic itinerary in earnest tomorrow. I’m happy as a clam to be back in Spain and surrounded by Spanish — specifically, Spanish Spanish. I’ve already seen a nice example of the typically Spanish extended use of (our airplane breakfast was served in a box that wished Que tengas un buen viaje), and an advertising poster with the vosotros verb form sois.

The most Spanish thing I’ve seen so far, leaving aside the language, is this “No food or drink” decal on the airport tram:

airport train

A similar sign in the U.S. would never in a million years feature a wine glass!

Spanish translations of Harry Potter

Here is a fun and obsessive blog post about regional variation in different Spanish translations of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone in the American version).

Click on image to reach the blog post

The author, “Urbanabydos”, analyzes 24 different Spanish editions of the book, dividing them on linguistic grounds into European, Southern Cone (Argentina +), and other Latin American.

Differences in subject pronoun usage are an obvious feature to look for. Surprisingly, Urbanabydos doesn’t mention voseo. However, for ustedes (Europe) versus vosotros (Latin America, including Southern Cone), (s)he gives the example of Harry’s reaction when he finds out his aunt and uncle already knew about Hogwarts: ¿Ustedes sabían? versus ¿Vosotros lo sabíais?

Besides ustedes/vosotros, the author identifies four phrases with consistent regional treatments:

In later editions, “tawny owl” changed to búho pardo in the Southern Cone and Europe editions. Urbanabydos’s post analyzes the difference between lechuza and búho and why the word choice may have evolved over time.

My favorite part of the post explains that early editions translated ‘The mirror of Erised’ as El espejo de Erised, but that as editors (and the general public) figured out that Erised was Desire read backwards, this changed to El espejo de Oesed (Deseo backwards).

A must-read for fans of both Spanish and Harry Potter!

An update, an anecdote, an apology

The most-viewed post on this blog, with more than 11,000 page views, is “The top 5 Spanish-speaking countries”. I wrote this post almost three years ago. Many visitors find it via Google (or other) searches such as “top 5 Spanish speaking countries”, “best Spanish speaking countries”, or even “coolest Spanish speaking countries”.

I based the post on the language statistics in the CIA World Factbook. This is an excellent website, rich in content and also user-friendly. As an American taxpayer I’ve been funding the CIA for years, and I liked the idea of getting some non-lethal return on my (involuntary) investment.

The post reported that, according to the Factbook, there are more first-language speakers of Spanish in the United States than in Spain, because more than a quarter of Spaniards speak Catalan, Galician, or Basque as a first language instead of Castilian Spanish. In the years after writing this post, I came to doubt this “fact”. Both the 2001 national census of Spain (the most recent census to ask about languages) and the Ethnologue database give lower numbers for the non-Castilian languages. Ethnologue, a widely cited resource, reports that 8% of the population speaks Catalan as a first language, 5% Galician, and 1% Basque.

Earlier this year, while editing the relevant chapter of my book, I decided to get to the bottom of this discrepancy. I emailed the CIA, using the contact information on the Factbook website, and asked why their numbers for non-Castilian languages were so high. I heard back promptly from Molly Hale (the “public voice of the CIA”, not the Pokemon character):

Thank you for your interest in The World Factbook.  Our information on languages in Spain is, unfortunately, extremely dated.  We are currently in the midst of a long-term project to update our fields on language, religion, and ethnic groups, but have not yet found any new language data for Spain.  Spain’s last two national censuses in 2011 and 2001* did not ask a question about primary language used at home or mother tongue, and we have not found another source of information.  Ethnologue, as you mention, has some estimates for each language used in Spain, but they are based on different sources, dates of information, and methodologies, which complicates using them together to construct an overall breakdown.  Nevertheless, this may be your best option, if a better data source cannot be found.

*No, there is 2001 census data (see link above)

Accordingly I have now updated my 2013 post using the Ethnologue data. I apologize for leaving the inaccurate data up for so long. The moral of the story? Never trust the CIA!

No hay pan para tanto chorizo

I like to participate on Reddit (/r/Spanish) because it gives me the chance to help people around the world who are learning Spanish. It makes me feel just a little young and cool. And it also helps me improve my own Spanish.

The latest Spanish expression I picked up on Reddit is this post’s title: “No hay pan para tanto chorizo”. This translates literally as ‘there isn’t enough bread for all that sausage’:

foto de José Andrés, http://joseandres.eu/

You can guess the expression’s figurative meaning if you do a Google search, finding images like those below. (I recommend that you do this search yourself, too, to see the variety of images.)

   

[The use of pa instead of para in the poster on the right, by the way, is a common abbreviation in casual speech that is often reflected in informal writing, such as music lyrics and texting.]

   

[I love the way the cigar, monocle, and top hat transform the sausage on the left into a “fat cat”.]

Chorizo is a pork sausage, but has the secondary meaning of “crook, thief” (who knew?). Pan ‘bread’ can be used, as in English, with the metaphorical meaning of “daily sustenance”. As one Redditor explained, when you put these meanings together you get something like “The thieves (corrupt politicians) are taking away our food and money”. It is therefore a popular slogan to use in political demonstrations.

The English expression “pork barrel politics” feels somewhat related, although the Spanish inclusion of pan brings it home to the average Joe.