Category Archives: Uncategorized

Tildes in logos

Lately I’ve been on a mini-quest for tildes in logos. By “tilde”, I mean the curvy mini-N that forms the top part of the distinctive Spanish letter ñ. (Just to be confusing, in Spanish itself, tilde also refers to diacritical marks in general, including those seen in words like café.)

Here are some of my findings, in no particular order:

A weekly Spanish publication distributed with the Friday edition of the newspaper “El Mundo”. Available online at


A Spanish blog having to do with the language of sports.

The international organization devoted to Spanish education and culture.

A subreddit for educational talk about Spanish-language matters.

This bizarre use of the tilde gets the message across for this Spanish hotel chain.

Even more bizarre is the s+tilde in this logo for Cantabria-based Link Seafood Sources.

I think “CNN en español” hit it out of the park with this one.

I see a tilde here in the curves on the left-hand side of the logo. Do you?



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”.

Spanish words of mystery

Spanish is surely one of the best-understood languages in the world from a linguistic perspective. Linguists have access to written Spanish texts beginning with the early 13th century Poema del mío Cid. Moreover, Spanish descends from another known language, Latin. Most of the other languages that have influenced Spanish, such as Arabic, French, and English, are themselves well understood as well.

Therefore it is surprising, and somehow refreshing, that the origins of some Spanish words remain obscure. Here are some examples, in alphabetical order. The etymological information is from Joan Corominas’s priceless Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana, which is never far from my desk.

This list is by no means exhaustive; I’ve picked words that are relatively common. My favorites are baratobrisa, burlasien, and tomar simply because they are so very common.

Word Notes
añicos ‘pieces‘ Corominas suggests a possible pre-Roman origin.
ascua ‘embers‘ I had to include this word because of my earlier post on the saying Cada cual arrima el ascua a su sardina.
bache ‘pothole‘ Of possible Basque origin. Reinforcing Corominas’s doubts is R.L. Trask’s authoritative The History of Basque, which disputes Basque origins for all Spanish words except for izquierda.
barajar ‘shuffle (cards)‘ The word’s original meaning was ‘fight’; in this sense it is shared by other Romance languages, e.g. Catalan barallar.
barato ‘cheap‘ Perhaps pre-Roman, cognate with proto-Celtic *mratos ‘trick’.
batea ‘tray, trough‘ Possibly from Arabic bâtiya.
brisa ‘breeze‘ Shared by all Western Romance languages.
burla ‘taunt, joke, trick‘ Shared by Catalan and Portuguese.
cuchitril ‘hovel, shack, hole-in-the-wall‘ Possibly from Vulgar Latin *cohortile ‘corral’, with influence from cochinera ‘swill’.
curtir ‘‘to harden, tan (skin)’‘ Shared by Portuguese. Corominas suggests a possible origin in corto ‘short’, since hides and fruits shrink as they are tanned’, or the Vulgar Latin *corretrire, meaning ‘wear away by rubbing’.
cuy ‘guinea pig‘ A character in Michael Moore’s “shockumentary” Roger & Me notoriously asked “Pets or meat?” when selling rabbits. The cuy is both: a pet in the United States, and a tasty meal in South America. In either case, its etymology is unknown. Corominas suggests two possibilities: either onomatopoeia from the animal’s squeal, or, less likely, the Basque word kui ‘rabbit’. The Real Academia Española disagrees, stating that the word is of Quechua origin.
gacha, gachas ‘‘mush, porridge, oatmeal’‘ Corominas suggests that this word, while of “origen incierto”, may come from the word cacho ‘bit, piece’, since mush can be made from bread crumbs.
gamberro ‘joker, vandal, rake‘ Perhaps from Valenciano gran verro ‘big pig’.
gancho ‘hook‘ Probably pre-Roman. This word has spread to Arabic, Turkish, and various Balkan languages as well as Catalan and Italian.
garbanzo ‘chickpea‘ Probably pre-Roman and Indo-European.
mendrugo ‘crust‘ Its secondary meaning of ‘idiot’ suggests a possible relationship with mandría ‘worthless individual’, of Italian origin.
sien ‘temple (side of forehead)‘ Perhaps of Germanic origin.
tomar ‘to take‘ It blows me away that this super-common verb, shared by Portuguese, is of “origen incierto”. Who knew?

A later post includes the mystery word rebaño ‘flock’.



Hubiera, pudiera, tuviera

Can one be obsessed with a verb tense?

My particular flame is the imperfect subjunctive. I’ve already written eleven blog posts that at least mention it, mostly because of its grammatical interest.

But the imperfect subjunctive can also be poetic. I practically started jumping up and down when I read the following passage, full of regrets, toward the end of Sofía Segovia’s Huracán. I’ve colored the imperfect subjunctives in red.

Si no le hubiera disparado, si no lo hubiera conocido, si sólo lo hubiera herido, si no hubiera cargado la 30-30, si pudiera seguir con mis amigos. Si hubiera, si pudiera, si tuviera, si hubiera. Si hubiera.

‘If I hadn’t shot him, if I hadn’t met him, if I had only wounded him, if I hadn’t loaded the 30-30, if I could continue with my friends. If I had, if I could, If I kept, if I had. If I had.

Isn’t that a beautiful bit of Spanish? Doesn’t it crush the English version? Doesn’t it sing?

This is definitely one to clip out and keep to impress your friends.

By the way, the beginning of this paragraph is clearly in the third person singular, as seen by the verb forms pudonegó, and reclamó (see screen clip below). So another great aspect of the writing here is the jarring transition from the external description of what the character is doing, to the interior view of his thoughts. We don’t realize this has happened until we get through the first series of imperfect subjunctives (since hubiera and pudiera can be either first or third person) and hit mis amigos in the next-to-last line. Very interesting choice by the author, ¿no?

Kean Mutiny

This post has to do with linguistics, not Spanish, but please do give it a try.

Thursday night I took a Greyhound bus from New York City to Atlantic City in order to lead a workshop at the annual NJEA Convention (gotta blog about that, too!). As we barreled down the Garden State Parkway I spotted a billboard for Kean University, a public university in Union Country, New Jersey. Formerly known as Newark State College, the university was renamed in 1973 in honor the illustrious Kean family, whose members have included New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, Sr., the chair of the 9/11 Commission.

The Kean family name is pronounced ‘Caine’, a fact that has apparently faded from common knowledge since Governor Kean’s time. The University has therefore embarked on a $313,000 advertising campaign to bring attention both to the university and its correct pronunciation. The billboard I saw was part of this campaign, and it was a linguistic abomination:

The // slashes indicate a phonetic transcription (spelling), but as any Linguistics 101 student could tell you, the phonetic transcription of Kean (or Cainecain, or cane) is /ken/. The transcription /cane/ represents a two-syllable word that has the vowels of latteblase, or sashay but cannot be pronounced in English, since the phonetic symbol /c/ represents a sound not found in our language. Called a “voiceless palatal stop”, it is somewhere between a /t/ and a /k/.

Kean was a major sponsor of the convention and had a large booth in its exhibit hall. Never one to pull a punch, I stopped by to complain about the billboard, and was told that the advertising campaign was meant to be humorous. Call me a goody-goody, but I don’t think that phonetic transcription is funny. To me it is an utterly serious tool for research in an important discipline.

So — grrr.

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.

Grading Spanish AP tests in Cincinnati

Last month I was among the hundreds of high school and college Spanish instructors who convened in Cincinnati, Ohio to grade Spanish Advanced Placement (AP) tests. [AP tests are a way for U.S. high school students to earn college credit and/or impress the colleges they apply to.] Half the test is multiple choice and is machine-graded. The rest of the test — two speaking tasks and two writing tasks — is graded by humans. I was on the team that graded the writing tasks.

I hadn’t seen an AP Spanish test since I took one as a high school senior! Since then, the test, and its corresponding high school classes, have been divided into two: Spanish Language and Culture, and Spanish Literature. My colleagues and I were in Cincinnati to grade Spanish Language and Culture; the Spanish Literature exam was graded earlier in the month. We were in Cincinnati along with graders for the other Language and Culture tests — Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Japanese — and, oddly, Music Theory. This all took place at the gigantic and soulless Duke Energy Center in downtown Cincinnati.

I applied to be an AP grader a few years ago because my best friend had told me that her own work as an AP economics grader had been a great way to meet colleagues from around the country, and was also a lot of fun. This was the first year the timing worked out for me to participate, and I have to say that my friend was right. According to our orientation, our group included educators from all fifty states, and Spanish speakers from every Spanish-speaking country. It was great to get to know some of them. And the work itself was fascinating.

You don’t sign up for something like this unless you really like grading. I certainly do: it’s always interesting to see what students get right and wrong, and to get a glimpse of their thinking. This experience was, of course, very different from grading my own students’ papers. The main difference was volume. In my own teaching I never have to grade than a couple of dozen papers at a time, or for more than a few hours at a time. In Cincinnati we graded hundreds of papers, working from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm for seven days in a row. Even with morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks, it was hard to keep up one’s energy and attention. It helped that there were no distractions, and that a strong esprit de corps reigned in our giant grading room (Exhibit Hall A). Keeping the good of the test-takers in mind, we aimed to grade the last essay of the day as carefully as the first.

Another difference was that we weren’t grading our own students’ work. It felt strange to be reading essays with a completely blank slate instead of knowing who the students were. This made for a more objective review, however, and is one reason why AP tests are graded centrally instead of by each student’s teacher. it also meant that grading was a single, unidirectional event instead of part of an interactive process. Normally I grade with red pen in hand, pointing out different types of errors for students to fix in a second draft. As an AP grader I wasn’t allowed to annotate the essays I read, or to make notes, even for my own benefit.

A final difference was the type of Spanish in the essays. Most of my students speak English as a first language, and I’m used to reading essays with this population’s typical errors. In contrast, many — or most (65%), according to Wikipedia — AP Spanish test takers are native Spanish speakers. A good fraction of these have not fully mastered the ins and outs of Spanish spelling, despite a year or more of formal study of their language. This means that these essays had a different set of errors: those of someone who has learned Spanish by ear. Typical errors were missing or misapplied accent marks, missing or overused silent h, the substitution of d for r (e.g. pedo for pero ‘but’), and the confusion of ll and y and likewise b and v. (See this earlier blog post for historical examples of the same errors.) I was amazed to see that two students even misspelled the ubiquitous word yo ‘I’ as llo.

The good folks from the College Board did a phenomenal job administering the grading process. This involved recruiting, transporting, housing, and feeding the graders; keeping track of the exam papers; and — most importantly — training the graders so that our scores were calibrated. We spent hours learning how to grade each of the two writing tasks, following a detailed rubric, and had refresher training sessions after each break. Each table of seven graders had a head grader who answered our questions and spot-checked our work. As far as I could see, colleges evaluating AP test results should feel confident that the scores are reliable.

One night during the week was “Professional Night”, and my poster on “Bringing linguistics into the foreign language classroom” (see below) was accepted for the night’s mini-conference. It was well received, and I sold the few spare copies of my book that I had with me. Hooray!

A technical note: I made the poster as a single PowerPoint slide, sized to 4 x 3″, and used “Export PDF” (under the “File” menu) to create the image.


Great reads re: Arabic, Icelandic

Of course this blog is about Spanish, but I couldn’t resist sharing with you two recent articles about Arabic and Icelandic. Any linguistically-minded reader will find them fascinating.

The first article, from the New Yorker, is simultaneously a tale of language learning, a profile of an inspired (but anguished) language teacher, and a source of information about the current state of Egyptian Arabic. I already knew that there was a split between written, “Modern Standard” Arabic, which is homogeneous across the Arabic-speaking region, and the spoken Arabic of the different countries in the region. (For this reason, Arabic students in the United States typically start with Modern Standard Arabic, then spend some time in the country of their choice to learn the relevant spoken version.) But I didn’t know it had come to the point where educated Egyptians now use English or French as a written language instead of Arabic. It’s as if Spanish speakers had continued to write in Latin, but now, given widespread knowledge of English, found it easier to use English as a written language while maintaining Spanish as a means of oral communication. Mind-blowing.

The second article, from the Associated Press, describes the perilous state of Icelandic. The enemy here is English, spoken as a second language throughout Iceland, and used extensively in tourism and business. Apparently young people are speaking English among themselves, a dangerous sign. English is also required for anyone who interacts with technology, since modern devices don’t ‘speak’ Icelandic. Languages die out all the time, unfortunately, but these are mostly minority languages, like Native American languages with only a few hundred speakers. It’s startling to see such concerns raised about a language with hundreds of thousands of speakers, Nobel Prize-winning literature, and official support and recognition: “an army and a navy,” to use Max Weinreich’s classic formulation.


The ‘se accidental’ and linguistic relativity

The concluding pages of Manual Vázquez Montalbán’s Los mares del Sur, which I finally finished this morning, include a remarkable example of the so-called se accidental construction, a hallmark of modern Spanish. Vázquez’s detective, Pepe Carvalho, has caught the murderer he’s been pursuing for more than two hundred pages. The murderer’s confession includes the following passage:

El chiquito al que usted rompió el brazo le dio una cuchillada. A mí de pronto se me escapó el brazo y le di otra.

This translates as

The kid whose arm you broke cut him with his knife. Then my arm got away from me and I knifed him, too.

or, more literally though less naturally, as

The kid whose arm you broke cut him with his knife. Then my arm escaped itself on me and I knifed him, too.

The se accidental construction combines a reflexive verb (se escapó) with an indirect object pronoun (me). Se me escapó is an excellent example of how Spanish speakers use this construction to deflect blame. The murderer didn’t raise his arm to attack the victim: it was the arm itself that sprang into action.

In most cases, though, the se accidental is used to describe genuine accidents. This usage is common enough to have become an Internet meme; some cute examples are shown below, along with their expressive and literal translations.


The se accidental is linguistically significant because it is has been shown to affect the way that Spanish speakers perceive events. As you can see in the meme examples, the construction shifts attention away from the person who is responsible for an accidental event. A clever study by Caitlin Fausey and Lera Boroditsky showed that Spanish speakers were therefore less likely than speakers of English to remember who caused an accident. Similar results have been found for speakers of Japanese, which has a similar structure.

The se accidental is thus a lovely example of “linguistic relativity”, the linguistic term for language differences that affect the way people think. Another common term for linguistic relativity is the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”, after the two linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The latter is notorious in linguistic circles for having spawned the now thoroughly-debunked linguistic legend that Eskimo languages have an outsize number of words for snow.

Linguistic relativity recently went to Hollywood, playing a major role in the movie Arrival. In this film a linguist (Amy Adams) pairs with a physicist (Jeremy Renner) to decipher an alien language, and finds that this process drastically changes the way she understands the world. The se accidental isn’t quite as dramatic as Adams’ new-found ability to predict the future, but it’s certainly more realistic.

By the way, my husband and I got a special kick out of Arrival because I am a linguist (like Adams’s character) and he is a former Los Alamos physicist (like Renner’s). We actually know several other linguist/physicist couples. Perhaps linguists and physicists attract each other because both fields apply scientific thinking to everyday domains. This could be the subject of yet another research project!

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.