I don’t know what inspired me to create the slideshow below. It popped into my head while I was driving home from the gym yesterday. I had a lot of fun fleshing it out last night and today. I hope you enjoy it, too.
Today I taught a lesson that compared the current war in Ukraine to the Spanish Civil War. The lesson was built around a wonderful video from the good folks at Dreaming Spanish. (Be forewarned that the first few seconds are glitchy.) My PowerPoint for the lesson is available here.
Before starting the video, we talked about the war in Ukraine: how were the students following the situation, did they have Ukrainian friends, and the characteristics of the two sides in the war. We also previewed vocabulary that would appear in the video.
During the video, I hit the pause button often to check for comprehension, to highlight similarities between the two wars, and to enrich the presentation with further information regarding Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and Picasso’s Guernica.
The bottom line was that both conflicts involve a spirited democracy, fighting with a force that includes professional soldiers and ordinary citizens, against a better-armed autocracy (in the Spanish case, a future autocracy) that does not hesitate to take civilian lives. Unlike the Spanish Republicans, the Ukrainians are united behind a charismatic leader and have extensive international support.
The final part of the class focused on Spanish Civil War posters. I had prepared a Google Slides presentation with a number of posters from both the Republican and Nationalist sides. I had shared this presentation with my students ahead of time and had asked them to bring their laptops. Working in pairs, students chose one of the posters, did some quick research on it (mostly, looking up unfamiliar words), and then presented ‘their’ poster to the class.
Teachers: if you try this lesson, please let me know how it goes for you.
Although the Routledge website and Amazon still say that my new book won’t ship until next month, the copy that my father pre-ordered arrived last week, and my own copies a few days ago. So those of you who have been looking forward to reading the book shouldn’t hesitate to place an order, or to request that your library do so. According to Amazon many readers have already taken the plunge:
I am very happy with the look of the book, including the cover. The crucial center illustration is hard to read in the screenshot above, though, so below please see a clearer version. The speech bubbles represent topics (e.g., acquisition), types of student activities and projects (e.g., WebQuest), and the overarching and organizing theme of essential questions.
The book is slender for its price, but of course half of the work on this project went into the 300+ accompanying PowerPoint slides which are available on the Routledge website. The slides are under copyright, and I do hope that anyone who finds them of value will show some respect for my time and effort by purchasing a copy of the book. Ahem.
What next? Besides teaching and blogging, I’ve had two book ideas on a far-back burner for some time. One is The Story of Spanish in 100 Words: a version, for Spanish, of David Crystal’s delightful book about English. I should be able to write that in my sleep, right? Another idea would be a major departure for me, though still language-related: a book about “grand-names,” meaning the names grandparents choose to be called — or their grandchildren choose to call them. This book would be timely as more and more Baby Boomers are becoming grandparents.
Or…I could decide to just spend a lot of time with my own grandchildren. Time will tell.
This morning I had an unexpected cross-linguistic learning experience.
When not obsessing about Spanish, one of my other passions is learning and chanting weekly portions of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) for a local Jewish prayer group. My Hebrew is nowhere near as good as my Spanish; I read Biblical Hebrew with language skills acquired in a one-year college course on Modern Hebrew in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, for my own pride and interest I always strive to understand the vocabulary and grammar of every portion I read.
This morning, as I was studying a passage from the book of Exodus for later this month, I was struck by a sentence that began
Vayomer Moshe v’Aharon… ‘Said Moses and Aaron…’
Verb-first word order was common in Biblical Hebrew, but I was surprised to see the singular verb vayomer accompanying the plural subject Moshe v’Aharon. The Spanish equivalent would be *Les dijo Moisés y Aaron (instead of dijeron).
To better understand this phenomenon I asked about the sentence on www.reddit.com/r/Hebrew, including the comparison with Spanish. A participant soon informed me that singular verbs with plural subjects are common in verb-first Biblical Hebrew sentences, and that in Standard Arabic (also a Semitic language) this is not just common, but actually mandatory. This “redditor” pointed out, somewhat snarkily, that “well Hebrew is not Spanish.”
As I thought about this response it occurred to me that Hebrew and Spanish aren’t as different in this regard as I had assumed. There are two common cases in which Spanish uses a singular verb with a plural subject. Can you think of what they are?
The first case involves the first gustar ‘to please,’ which Spanish uses (in a ‘backwards’ fashion) to mean ‘to like.’ If you like two or more activities, such as singing and dancing, you express this with singular gusta instead of plural gustan, which is used if you like two or more things:
- Me gusta bailar y cantar.
- Me gustan Star Wars, Harry Potter, y La casa de papel.
The second case is the existential hay, which means either singular ‘there is’ or plural ‘there are’ (depending on context), and its equivalents in other tenses. Some examples:
|Present||Hay una prueba mañana.|
‘There is a quiz tomorrow.’
|Hay muchas pruebas en esta clase.|
‘There are many quizzes in this class.’
|Past||Hubo un terremoto.|
‘There was an earthquake.’
|Había tres estudiantes en la clase.|
‘There were 3 students in the class.’
|Future||Habrá un baile en el zócalo.|
‘There will be a dance in the square.’
|Habrá nuevas elecciones en 2022.|
‘There will be new elections in 2022.’
The literal bottom line, then, is that principled exceptions to verb agreement are another coincidental similarity between Spanish and Hebrew.
Back in 2017, looking for ways to build my “platform,” I started answering questions about Spanish on Quora. Since then I have answered almost five hundred questions and accumulated over a hundred followers. Mostly I have had fun; really, anything that resembles teaching and gives me the opportunity to share my knowledge appeals to me.
In terms of platform-building there is no doubt that Quora has spread my writing; my answers have accumulated over 330,000 views and over 1250 upvotes.
I wrote my favorite Quora answer in 2018 in response to the question “Should I learn French or Spanish? I don’t care which language is more spoken. My reasons for learning a language encapsulate things like grammar, culture, history, arts, etc.“
Yesterday this answer received its 100th upvote. This makes me very happy because it was from the heart. I’ve copied it below, or you can read it on Quora here.
I feel passionate about this question because over the years, as a student and then teacher of Spanish, I’ve encountered so many prejudicial, knee-jerk, anti-Spanish attitudes. There was the high school classmate who told me that she chose French over Spanish because “only dirty people speak Spanish.”( She said this with a straight face and I believe she meant it.) There was my French-speaking (Swiss) cousin-in-law who was surprised when I told her that I considered Spanish art and literature to be on a par with, or superior than, their French counterparts. There was another French-speaking relative who thought it was funny that ¿Por qué?, the title of my book about Spanish, sounded, to him, like Porky. And then, of course, there is Donald Trump. While I haven’t heard him say anything good about French, he has been notoriously hostile to the Hispanic community, both abroad and in the United States.
I’d like to talk about a few of the topics that you mentioned in your question. In terms of culture, the outstanding thing about Spanish is that “Spanish culture” is more than Spanish — it is pan-Hispanic! While you “don’t care which language is more spoken”, the fact that Spanish is an official language in twenty-one countries, and is also widely spoken elsewhere (e.g. in the USA and Belize), means that the Spanish-speaking world is blessed with an enormous pool of potential talent. Thus great painters have come not only from Spain (think Velázquez) but also Mexico (Kahlo), Colombia (Botero), and the Hispanic community in the United States (Basquiat, whose mother was Puerto Rican). Nobel Prizes in literature have been won by writers from Spain, Chile, Guatemala, Peru, Chile, and Colombia.
I’m well-equipped to talk about Spanish grammar compared to French because I speak both languages and have, in fact, occasionally taught French even though Spanish is my “day job.” In my opinion Spanish grammar is more intellectually interesting than French. While the two languages share certain complexities compared to English, such as noun gender and multiple past tenses, Spanish has a more complex verb system — including, crucially, an actively used past tense subjunctive, whereas French only uses the present subjunctive — complications in its use of object pronouns, and the ser/estar contrast (both mean ‘to be’), which French lacks. It’s my impression that a lot of students sign up for Spanish because they think it’s easier than French but are sorely disappointed once they get past the early stages, in which the relatively straightforward spelling and pronunciation of Spanish do make Spanish somewhat simpler.
Finally, Spanish history rocks! It is essentially a series of conquests — the successive Roman, Germanic, Arabic, and Christian (re)conquests of Spain, followed by the Spanish conquests in the New World. Each of these has their own details and fascination, from Roman ruins to Arabic vocabulary to the fate of the indigenous peoples in the New World. (Did you know that even today, thirty million people in the Americas speak an indigenous language as their first language?)
So, if you are looking for a beautiful language spoken with pride, featuring a rich and varied culture, great books to read, and an intellectual linguistic challenge, you can’t go wrong with Spanish.
I am working ferociously to finish correcting the page proofs for my new book, and to create an index (a painful task that I actually relish), so this is just a short post to say “hello” and share an interesting article I just read in the Washington Post about the word Latinx.
Latinx is an example of gender-neutral Spanish, one of several attempts to reduce or eliminate the use of -o and -os for masculine words and -a and -as for feminine word. In standard Spanish latino (note the lower-case l) is simultaneously masculine and neutral, so it can be used to identify either a Latino male or a Latino of unknown gender, as in La empresa espera contratar un latino para ese puesto ‘The company hopes to hire a Latino for that position.’ Likewise latinos refers to either a group of Latino males or a group of Latinos of mixed gender, male and female.
As in English, where the normative use of he has ceded ground to they, in today’s Spanish many speakers (and writers) try to avoid using gender-specific endings. In Spanish-speaking countries one often sees the @ character (called arroba in Spanish) used as a neuter vowel, as in this ‘Welcome refugees’ sign I saw in Valladolid a few years ago:
The x is also used as an alternative to the @; that’s the source of Latinx, which in my experience is found more often in the United States than in Spain, at least (I can’t generalize to other Spanish-speaking countries).
Anyway, the Washington Post just ran an op-ed, by their reporter José A. Del Real, asserting that “‘Latinx’ hasn’t even caught on among Latinos. It never will.” The article is behind a firewall, so here’s the key claim in case you can’t access the article:
“The label has not won wide adoption among the 61 million people of Latin American descent living in the United States. Only about 1 in 4 Latinos in the United States are familiar with the term, according to an August Pew Research Center survey. Just 3 percent identify themselves that way. Even politically liberal Latinos aligned with the broad cultural goals of the left are often reluctant to use it.”
The anti-Latinx reasons cited in the op-ed are its awkward pronunciation (especially in the plural), the preference among LGBTQ Latinos for Latine, and resistance to stamping a broad community with a single ethnic label. (The latter makes the term Hispano equally problematic.) The op-ed reports that “people of Latin American ancestry in the United States often prefer to describe themselves by referencing their specific countries of heritage, according to a 2019 Pew survey.”
I enjoyed this article, in the magazine Perfil, about words that have recently been admitted to the Real Academia Española’s official dictionary. The RAE had previously prohibited them because they were “incorrect” in some sense: vulgar, archaic, or borrowings that encroached on existing Spanish vocabulary.
What most interests me about these words is their linguistic variety.
- My favorite word on the list, vagamundo ‘vagabond,’ is a modification of standard Spanish vagabundo, which descends from Latin vagabundus ‘strolling about.’ It is a perfect example of ‘folk etymology,’ a process by which speakers reshape a word to reflect a plausible (though incorrect) theory of its origin. A classic example in English is female, a reshaping of Middle English femelle that implies a (fictional) relationship to the word male. The reformulated vagamundo implies that the word combined vagar ‘to roam’ and mundo ‘world’; i.e., someone who roams the world. This reformulation is so tempting that it appeared in written Spanish as early as the fifteenth century, not long after vagabundo itself (1387). In addition, the ‘vulgar’ verb vagamundear ‘to roam (as a vagabond)’ preceded its proper sibling, vagabundear, by more than a century.
- Another personal favorite, murciégalo ‘bat’, appears to be a metathesis (transposition) of standard Spanish murciélago — but in fact, the metathesis went the other way around! Murciégalo is the original form of the word, a compounding of the (now archaic) mur ‘rat’ and ciego ‘blind.’ It has mostly been supplanted by the modern murciélago, but the RAE considers it common enough to have earned a spot in the dictionary. In either form, this is my go-to example of a palabra panvocálica, i.e. a word that contains all five Spanish vowels.
- Speaking of metathesis, crocodilo is a transposed version of the standard Spanish cocodrilo, perhaps under the influence of English crocodile. What makes this example interesting is that the original Latin word, based on Greek, was crocodilus. So the word underwent a first metathesis in the transition to Spanish, which is now reversed in the word’s alternative version.
- Güisqui ‘whisky’ and cederrón ‘CD-ROM’ are borrowings from English. I love their Spanish spellings.
- Bacón ‘bacon’ is a more problematic (though now accepted) borrowing because Spanish already has a perfectly good word for ‘bacon’: the venerable tocino, first attested in 1061.
- Asín ‘so,’ from así, and toballa ‘towel’, from toalla, both exemplify epenthesis, or the insertion of a sound. The RAE speculates that the -n added to así is related to the -n “in other particles”: meaning, I assume, en ‘in/on’ and con ‘with.’ Perhaps the added b in toballa was inspired by the word tobillo ‘ankle.’
- Almóndiga is a common variation of albóndiga ‘meatball,’ a popular Spanish tapa. Like many other Spanish words that begin with -al, albóndiga is a word of Arabic origin. Perhaps the b changed to an m under the influence of other common almo– words such as almohada ‘pillow’, almoneda ‘auction’, and almorzar ‘to eat lunch’ (not an Arabic word).
As part of a book section on gender I had a close look at the question of the gender of words for fruit and trees. Many readers are undoubtedly aware of the frequent gender pattern of “feminine fruit, masculine tree” exemplified by manzana ‘apple’ and manzano ‘apple tree’. I did a somewhat exhaustive survey of fruit and tree vocabulary to see how regular this pattern is. Linguee was my best friend in this quest.
It turns out that for feminine fruit names, the pattern holds strong. As you can see in the table below, most feminine fruits do have a corresponding masculine tree name, though a few have less frequent alternatives as well (shown in italics). The one major exception is morera ‘mulberry’, whose tree is the same word, morera. Spanish obviously needs a morero tree.
|Feminine fruit||Masculine tree||-ero||árbol de ____||same word|
|manzana ‘apple’||manzano||árbol de manzanas|
Not all fruits are feminine, however, and the treatment of masculine fruits is much more varied. The tree of the higo is actually the feminine higuera, thus a major counterexample to the regular pattern shown above. Other fruits rely on the -ero suffix for their tree name, a sometimes ungainly solution (albaricoquero, anyone?). Some fruits have no dedicated tree name, and rely on the periphrastic árbol de construction (also listed as a backup for higuera, melocotonero, and albaricoquero). The treatment of aguacate ‘avocado’ varies depending on where you look. According to WordReference and the Real Academia aguacate, like morera, does double duty as a tree and a fruit, with the “tree” meaning primary. WordReference also lists aguacatero as an alternative for ‘avocado tree’, but the Real Academia defines it merely as ‘pertaining to the avocado’ — nothing arboreal there. In the meantime, Linguee defines aguacate as a fruit, not a tree, and gives aguacatero as its only translation for ‘avocado tree.’
|Masculine fruit||Feminine tree||-ero||árbol de||same word|
|higo||higuera||árbol de higo|
|melocotón, durazno||melocotonero||árbol de durazno|
|albaricoque||albaricoquero||árbol de albaricoque|
|membrillo||árbol de membrillo|
|mango||árbol de mango|
If I were the goddess of Spanish I would clean up this situation by changing the gender of some of the masculine fruits so they could have nice masculine tree names. Perhaps the next generation of Spanish speakers will get this job done.
¡Feliz Año Nuevo!
This past semester, while teaching, and spending time with my new granddaughter (see below), I’ve been making incremental progress on my second book. As you might be able to tell from the description on that page, this project involves less research than ¿Por qué?, though more creativity. Nevertheless, right now I’m in the middle of a substantial research arc for the new book. It involves etymology (word origins), and is particularly satisfying because it redoes, in a more principled fashion, an analysis I did for Question #38 of ¿Por qué?: “Where does Spanish vocabulary come from?”
For that analysis, I looked up the etymologies of 500 Spanish words randomly chosen from a standard Spanish etymological dictionary. I found that roughly one-third of them were “native”, i.e. they descended from Vulgar Latin, one-third were later borrowings from Latin, and one-third were borrowed from other languages. But I wondered whether the dictionary’s selection of words might have biased my results toward borrowings.
Since then, I’ve learned about the World Loanword Database (WOLD) project, in which linguists researched the origins of roughly 1500 words, corresponding to an agreed-upon set of core meanings, in 41 different languages from around the world. Martin Haspelmath, one of the co-editors of the WOLD project (with Uri Tadmor), also co-edited the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS), which I found invaluable while writing ¿Por qué? That makes him one of my favorite linguists.
The data for each of these languages are available on the WOLD website, and the results were published in a very expensive book. (Maybe if such books were cheaper, more people would buy them. Ahem.) The #1 borrower was Selice Romani (a variety of Romani), with 73% loanwords, and the #41 borrower was Mandarin Chinese, at 1.2%.
Because WOLD aimed for broad coverage of the world’s languages, it included only one Romance language: Romanian. I decided to apply the WOLD methodology to Spanish myself so that I could compare Spanish to other languages in terms of its borrowing patterns. The 1500 WOLD meanings are divided into different semantic categories, such as clothing and cognition, so I’ll be able to make this comparison within each of these categories as well as overall.
Honestly, you have to be a total nerd to perform this kind of analysis voluntarily, and a little crazy to do it twice. The 500-word analysis took roughly forever, and tripling this volume is, of course, taking even longer, especially since this time around I’ve had to choose the best Spanish word (or words) to fit each WOLD meaning, whereas in my first analysis, the 500 Spanish words were already in Spanish! I’m hoping that my results will be interesting enough to write up as a journal article, perhaps for Hispania.
I don’t have final results yet: right now, I’m double-checking the etymologies. However, the borrowing rate appears to be much lower than in my first analysis: roughly, 1/3 borrowings versus 2/3. This puts Spanish safely in WOLD’s category of “high borrowers,” roughly on a par with Japanese (35%) though lower than English (41%) and Romanian (42%).
In advance of definitive results, the point of this blog post is to share with you some of the interesting aspects of Spanish vocabulary — or, precisely, non-vocabulary, or meanings NOT expressed in Spanish — that I’ve come across while selecting the Spanish words for the WOLD meanings.
Some of these missing meanings, as you might expect in a project that deliberately spans the globe, are culturally specific. For example, kinship terms in some languages are more sex-specific than in Spanish (or English). Your tío ‘uncle’ is a tío whether he’s your father’s brother or your mother’s, but some languages have separate terms for these relationships. Similarly, your yerno ‘son-in-law’ is a yerno whether you are a man or a woman, but some languages encode this difference. Looking beyond kinship terms, WOLD meanings include such culturally-specific words as ‘manioc bread’, ‘grass skirt’, ‘men’s house’, ‘digging stick’, ‘net bag’, ‘fish poison’, and ‘fish trap.’ Of course one can figure out ways to convey such meanings in Spanish, but it would be stretching things to call them standard Spanish phrasal expressions on a par with, say, oso hormiguero ‘anteater’ or dejar caer ‘to drop.’
Three other categories of ‘missing meanings’ are of particular interest to me.
- A few WOLD meanings express grammatical categories that Spanish lacks: a neuter pronoun meaning he, she, or it, separate versions of we that distinguish ‘you and I’ from ‘they and I,’ and distinct negatives that appear before nouns versus elsewhere, like English no versus not.
- Some WOLD meanings seem to be randomly missing in Spanish. Maybe it’s because I’m not a native speaker, or my dictionary skills aren’t as good as I thought they were, but I don’t think there’s a standard way to express “the forked branch” (WOLD meaning 8.74), or “for a long time” (WOLD 14.332) in Spanish. You can certainly say ir a casa, but do those three words add up to a “standard phrasal expression”, as discussed above, for ‘to go or return home’ (WOLD 10.58)? (Note that volver a casa and regresar a casa are equally plausible.) Likewise, Spanish has a standard idiomatic phrase to express carrying something on your back (WOLD 10.613), (llevar a cuestas), but not carrying ‘in hand’ (WOLD 10.612), ‘on head’ (WOLD 10.614), or ‘under the arm’ (10.615). And why does Spanish, like English, lack a general term for a ‘child-in-law’ (WOLD 2.6411), forcing the awkward expression yerno o nuera (‘son- or daughter-in-law’)?
- Finally, Spanish collapses many lexical distinctions found in other languages, as implied by their inclusion in the list of WOLD meanings. I was already aware of many of these, such as ‘in’ and ‘on’ (both en), ‘do’ and ‘make’ (hacer), ‘say’ and ‘tell’ (decir), and ‘afternoon’ and ‘evening’ (tarde). As I worked through the WOLD list I became aware of many others, including ‘cut’ and ‘chop’ (cortar), ‘fault’ and ‘blame’ (culpa), ‘bend’ and ‘fold’ (doblar), ‘paddle’ and ‘oar’ (remo), ‘spade’ and ‘shovel’ (pala). ‘livestock’ and ‘cattle’ (ganado), and ‘mud’ and ‘clay’ (barro). Other such collapsed distinctions are shared by English, such as needle/aguja for both sewing and pine needles, day/día for ‘not night’ and ’24 hours’, believe/creer for ‘trust’ and ‘opine’, and weave/tejer for both fabric and baskets (or hair).
I look forward to sharing the results of my analysis when I’m done. In the meantime, I hope you find the above of interest.
The text is below:
¿Por qué? – 101 Questions about Spanish is a great read. Working around 101 questions and the answers to them, this punchy format really adds to the book’s appeal.
The range of questions is varied and each section is a nice length for a read on a daily commute or to dip into for a few minutes during a break or before bed.
After every little foray into Judy Hochberg’s book, I came away having learnt something new about the language that I have loved and taught for most of my career. (Slightly embarrassingly too, but in the spirit of honesty, I have to admit that each read also gave me a slightly smug feeling of potential academic one-upmanship, should such questions ever crop up in conversation!)
Judy Hochberg’s explanations are clear and you sense her enthusiasm for her subject. And, yes, these are just the sort of questions students of Spanish ask, every day. Here is an appetiser:
Question: ‘Why do Spaniards use the ‘th’ sound?’
Answer: In a nutshell, in the fifteenth century two consonants ‘ts’ and ‘dz’ kind of got married and the off-spring was ‘th’.
There you are, you see, wasn’t that interesting? Well, I thought so.
My personal favourite is how ‘hay’ can mean both ‘there is’ and ‘there are’? (Surely all Spanish verbs need to be singular or plural?) It turns out this all had its roots in a kind of early, medieval, linguistic existentialism, as the poor old Romans lost all ability to speak Latin properly, “innit tho”. Whilst this must have been a tough time for the purists, I’m glad it happened, because Spanish was thus born and books like this could be written.