Category Archives: Spanish in the world

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.

Obama’s Spanish slip-ups

With civilization under attack from both terrorists and demagogues, the idea of a blog post nit-picking President Obama’s Spanish definitely feels — trivial. However, we all do what we can. I have no idea how to bring about world peace. But I hope that by sharing some useful insights into the world’s second-most-spoken language, I might, in my own way, bring the world a little closer together.

Terry Byrne of USA Today pointed out to me that Obama mistakenly said Es un nueva día ‘It’s a new day’ in his introductory remarks at his joint press conference with Raul Castro. This occurs toward the end of the clip below. Because día is masculine, the correct Spanish would have been un nuevo día. I also noticed that Obama began his remarks by wishing the audience Buenos tardes ‘Good afternoon’ instead of Buenas tardes, with the -as ending on buenas matching the feminine gender of tardes.

 

Noun gender — the difference between masculine and feminine nouns — poses a steep challenge to English speakers. The fact that Obama made these mistakes even though the correct Spanish was surely written in his notes reflects this difficulty. Beginners tend to ignore gender completely, especially when adjectives are separated from their controlling nouns (e.g. La casa es bonita). Even advanced non-native speakers make mistakes. I know that I still do, from time to time.

While Obama’s two mistakes — buenos for buenas and nueva for nuevo — both involved gender, they had different triggers. The first mistake was most likely a carry-over from the more common expression Buenos días. The fact that tarde ends in an -e, so that its gender is not obvious, may have played a contributing role. The second mistake was undoubtedly driven by the fact that día appears to be feminine because it ends in -a. In an earlier post I explained the historical roots of this irregularity. Essentially, dies, the Latin source of día, was the lone masculine among a set of Latin words (the “fifth declension”) that all came to have -a endings in Spanish. Others include materia/madera (both from Latin materies), especia (from species), and rabia (from rabies).

It’s particularly interesting that Obama correctly said un (masculine) and then changed the next word, nuevo, to nueva (feminine). I can think of two reasons why this happened. The first is that un isn’t as obviously masculine as nuevo because the final -o of uno is dropped in this context. The second is that nuevo immediately precedes día, so that the -a ending of día might have exerted a stronger pull.

Changing gears from linguistics to literature: in the speech that Obama gave in Cuba the next day, he quoted the Cuban poet José Martí’s “Cultivo una rosa blanca”, which alludes to the possibility of peace between long-time enemies. You can hear this reference at 1:30 in the clip below. I got a big kick out of this quote because I had just assigned the poem in my intermediate Spanish class. I can’t think of a better, and more timely, demonstration of the importance of literature!

Thinking of Spanish in Amsterdam

I am enjoying a short vacation in Amsterdam. It’s one of my favorite cities: tremendously livable and walkable, with beautiful parks and museums. While surrounded by the Dutch language, though, I find my thoughts drifting toward Spanish. This is partly because I’m always thinking of Spanish anyway, but there are also four specific reasons.

  1. There are many Spanish-speaking tourists in Amsterdam these days; most of them, from the sound of it, from Spain. I love all Spanish dialects, but this is a fun change from what I usually hear in New York. I’ve had the chance to use my Spanish a fair amount just chatting with fellow tourists.
  2. I’m in the middle of a terrific Spanish novel: Jordi Sierra I Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, a police novel set in Barcelona in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War. Reading Spanish for pleasure is one of my favorite pastimes and, as usually, I’m encountering some interesting linguistic phenomena in the book. I hope to be blogging about them soon.
  3. Our hotel happens to be across the street from an architectural landmark: Amsterdam’s Zevenlandenhuizen, or Houses of Seven Countries. This is a row of houses built in 1894 by the Dutch architect Tjeerd Kuipers in the style of seven different European countries: Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Russia, the Netherlands, and England. The Spanish house, 24 Roemer Visscherstraat, is shown below. It mimics Spain’s mudejar ‘Moorish’ architectural style, with keyhole arches and stripes of (faux) brickwork in alternating colors. In the picture you can just see the word “Spanje” (Dutch for “Spain”) over the front door.

  1. The legacy of the historical ties between the Netherlands and Spain is palpable here. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this aspect of European history, Spain controlled the Low Countries (today’s Netherlands and Belgium) during the apex of the Spanish Empire. Their drawn-out battle for independence from Spain divided the territory in both religion and politics. The northern portion, today’s Dutch Republic, achieved independence first and is predominantly Protestant; the lower portion, today’s Belgium, remained, like Spain, primarily Catholic.

This divide indirectly explains a geographical oddity: the city of The Hague, some 41 miles south of Amsterdam, is the seat of government of the Netherlands today even though Amsterdam is the country’s constitutional capital. To quote Wikipedia (since I’m a linguist, not a historian): “After the Napoleonic Wars, modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands were combined in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands to form a buffer against France. As a compromise, Brussels and Amsterdam alternated as capital every two years, with the government remaining in The Hague. After the separation of Belgium in 1830, Amsterdam remained the capital of the Netherlands, while the government was situated in The Hague.” Who knew?

Painting after painting in the Rijksmuseum, which I visited today, portrays the war between the Netherlands and Spain from the Dutch perspective. An example shown below is Gerard ter Borch’s depiction of the ratification of the 1648 Treaty of Münster, which ended the war between Spain and the northern provinces.

By Gerard ter Borch - www.geheugenvannederland.nl : Home : Info : Pic, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=337672

By Gerard ter Borch – www.geheugenvannederland.nl : Home : Info : Pic, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=337672

I’m planning a trip to Spain this summer and am looking forward to revisiting the paintings in its collection that show the same war from the Spanish perspective: most notably, Diego Velázquez’s La rendición de Breda, which celebrates a 1625 victory. Maybe I’m biased, but I think Velázquez blew ter Borch out of the water.

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