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’.

 

 

¿Pollo or gallina?

Georgina Margan, a reader and professional translator from Tucson, Arizona, emailed me to give Trader Joe’s “a pat on the back for their Chicken Asada“, the subject of a “Bad Spanish” post on my blog. Whereas I complained that the product should be called Chicken Asado because pollo ‘chicken’ is masculine, she made the point that ‘chicken’ can also be feminine — and, in fact, that the feminine gender rules when chickens are plural:

The agreement between chicken and asada is correct because chicken means gallina (hen), not only pollo. You see, when chicks are born it’s next to impossible to tell females and males apart…unless you cut them open. Only when they grow up the difference between gallinas (feminine) and pollos (masculine) becomes evident. Pollos turn into gallos (roosters), if they are given the time. When both sexes are together in a flock, they are collectively referred to as las gallinas. This is one of the very, very few instances where a group of both sexes is referred to using the feminine noun.

Wordreference.com and the Real Academia certainly back up Gina’s point about the feminine collective plural gallinas. The former lists three earthy refranes (‘proverbs’):

  • acostarse con las gallinas ‘to go to bed early’ (lit. ‘to go to bed with the chickens’)
  • ¡hasta que meen las gallinas! ‘when pigs fly’ (lit. ‘when chickens piss’)
  • Las gallinas de arriba ensucian a las de abajo ‘the underdog always suffers’ (lit. ‘the chickens on top poop on the chickens below’)

The Real Academia repeats the first two refranes and also references cólera de las gallinas (‘fowl cholera’), a nasty disease which fortunately hasn’t crossed over to humans. Yet.

However, I still think it would be better for TJ to call this product Chicken Asado because the company clearly sees chickens as pollo, not gallina, as shown in the related product names Pollo Asado and Pizza al Pollo Asado.

One of these days I should actually sample one of these products!

 

Reading buddies for Spanish literature

Why can’t Johnny read…Spanish?

Last semester I taught my department’s highest-level language class for the second time. This class serves as a bridge to subsequent classes that focus primarily on literature, cinema, and other aspects of Hispanic culture. For this reason its syllabus includes a handful of short stories and poems, as well as advanced grammar topics.

I’ve always felt at a loss when it comes to teaching literature. This is partly because, as you might expect from this blog, my forte as an instructor is grammar. In addition, while I distinctly remember, and even treasure, the effort it took to master different grammar topics, reading Spanish came naturally to me, and was fun from the start. This makes it hard for me to empathize with my struggling readers and to know how best to help them.

I had an “aha” moment toward the end of the previous semester, when a student came to me after class with questions about Mujer negra, a terrific poem we’d read some weeks earlier. We were looking at her copy of the poem as we spoke, and I was struck by the disparity between her obvious effort in reading the poem — she had looked up so many words! but not always correctly! — and her lingering doubts, even though we’d already discussed the poem in class.

I knew that if we were to sit down together and go through the poem more carefully, I could help her understand it better. But what instructor has the time to do this with every confused student — assuming they request it? And isn’t it our goal to teach our students to read literature without professorial hand-holding?

Accordingly, this semester I came up with the idea of assigning each student a “reading buddy” (compañero de lectura). The plan was that the students would work through each reading together, and optionally complete a joint homework. I hoped that this would help students to (i) understand the readings better, (ii) improve their reading skills, and (iii) see reading as a serious and time-worthy task.

I assigned the readings buddies semi-randomly. First, I asked students to fill out a short form (below) in class. I also asked them to indicate if there was anyone in the class they would especially like to work with. Almost all the students described their reading ability as “normal”, and all of them expressed willingness to work with a less advanced partner. I assigned buddies on the basis of this information.

At the end of the semester I administered a brief survey to gauge how useful students had found found this approach, and to decide whether I should repeat it the following semester. Overall, the results was positive. There are two ways to look at them.

First, as shown below, half of the sixteen students surveyed chose to work with their reading buddy on at least half of the semester’s four readings. Of students who didn’t work together, most cited scheduling conflicts; only four students said that they preferred to work by themselves. I was surprised that scheduling was such a big factor.

Second, almost all the students (all but two) said that assigning “reading buddies” was a good idea and that I should continue to do this in future semesters. In response to the question “Did reading with a ‘buddy’ help you understand the readings and develop your skills?”, positive answers included:

  • “definitely”
  • “could have not done [readings] as well alone”
  • “we discussed the readings in detail and shared ideas”
  • “we helped each other understand”
  • “It was quite helpful”
  • “It was nice to have someone to ask for help if needed”
  • “I was able to become very close friends with my buddy. Plus the way we worked was extremely productive.”

Overall I was encouraged, and I will definitely repeat this program. However, now that I know that scheduling is such a concern, I will encourage students to get an earlier start on each reading as it begins to loom in the syllabus.

 

 

 

¡Felicidades Shelly Simonds!

[A mournful update. Shelly’s opponent disputed the elimination of an ambiguous ballot during the recount, and a three-judge panel ruled that it was, in fact, intended as a vote for Shelly’s opponent. A random drawing was held, as per state law, to break the resulting tie. Shelly’s opponent’s name was picked in the drawing and Shelly conceded the race.]

I have to crow!

Shelly Simonds, the Democratic candidate for the 94th District in the Virginia House of Delegates (the state legislature), who today won her seat by ONE VOTE in a nail-biting recount, thus unseating Republican incumbent David Yancey and undoing the longstanding Republican majority in the House, is…

…a former Spanish teacher!

From her biography:

In college, I studied in Spain and Chile, where I became fluent in Spanish and discovered my love of writing and journalism. My passion led me to pursue a Masters in Communications from Stanford University, then to a job in journalism. I moved to Newport News in 2000 with my husband Paul, a NASA engineer. We decided Newport News was the perfect place to raise our two daughters, Georgia and Tessa. I became a Spanish teacher at their school, Hilton Elementary, and found my second passion: teaching.

How cool is that? ¡Felicidades to Shelly!

Papa, papa, papá

This adorable cartoon, which seems to be all over the Internet– my apologies, then, if you’ve seen it before — plays with the three meanings of /papa/:

  • la papa (fem.) ‘potato’
  • el Papa (masc.) ‘Pope’
  • el papá (masc.) ‘daddy’

So the last part of the cartoon depicts a daddy potato Pope with his potato Pope kids. Note the pacifiers.

If anyone can track down where this comes from I will be happy to give appropriate credit.

Sevilla toilet stall sparks linguistic debate

Reader Alice B. shared with me a decorous linguistic debate conducted on the wall of a toilet stall in Sevilla. The sign that sparked the debate, complete with its series of scribbled-on comments, is shown below. This article (in Spanish) discusses the debate at length, and includes various tweets that it inspired.

[post continues after graphic]

To summarize the debate:

  • The original sign, which translates roughly as ‘Please leave the toilet clean’, used the infinitive dejar ‘to leave’. This is equivalent to the frequent use of the English -ing form as a command (e.g. No smoking).
  • Someone changed the final -r to a -d to create the informal plural command form dejad.
  • Someone else then changed this to the formal plural command dejen.
  • Someone else suggested leaving off the final consonant of either command form to create the singular command deja (informal) or deje (formal).
  • Along the way, someone pointed out that infinitives are an acceptable alternative to command forms in contexts such as this one.

I love Spanish! Can you think of any aspect of English grammar that would inspire a similar series of emendations and comments?

To gloss or not to gloss: a follow-up

Last week I wrote about my policy of handing out vocabulary lists with the English glosses (translations) written in. (Our textbook does not provide glosses for the end-of-chapter vocabulary lists, only a master list at the end of the book.)

When my students filled out their course evaluations I asked them to let me know what they thought of this practice. My question presented both sides of the issue:

“I like to give you the English translations of the chapter vocabulary to save you time and point out possible pitfalls. But other teachers think that looking up the words yourself is an important step in learning. Which approach do you think is best for you?”

I was pleased to see that my students unanimously appreciated the glosses. Also, even though I forgot ask them to explain their choice, most did so on their own. Saving time was most often mentioned as a benefit. Since this is a most studious group, I wasn’t surprised that many of these students said this was time they could spend memorizing the words or doing other homework.

One student gave a more nuanced perspective on the time factor:

” I looked up all my vocab words myself last year in Spanish class and although it did help me to know them better in the beginning, having the extra time saved from not looking them up meant more time to study them and memorize them later.”

A second benefit often mentioned was accuracy: students said that the glosses kept them from “studying the wrong meanings,” as one student put it.

Given this response, I will definitely continue to provide glosses when I teach this class again.

Some specifics: Sixteen students were present that day, and all responded. Of the thirteen who explained their answer, nine mentioned time and five accuracy. (These add up to fourteen because one student gave both reasons.)

Spanish beats English: subjunctive in adjective clauses edition

My teaching this semester has been heavy on the subjunctive, but one topic we haven’t covered is the use of the subjunctive to distinguish between actual and hypothetical characteristics in descriptions, or “adjective clauses.” The last time I taught this topic was during a chapter on housing, so there were lots of sentences like Vivo en un apartamento que tiene mucha luz ‘I live in an apartment that has a lot of light’ versus Quiero un apartamento que tenga mucha luz ‘I want an apartment that has a lot of light’. The indicative tiene is appropriate when talking about an actual light-filled apartment; the subjunctive tenga works for the hypothetical light-filled apartment.

The next time I teach this topic I plan to start with a memorably funny bit from the 1970s TV show Phyllis, starring Cloris Leachman. It was a spin-off from Rhoda, which was itself a spin-off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In this scene, Phyllis’s daughter Bess tries to break the news of her engagement to her mother, who fails to understand. I’ve paraphrased their dialogue, as well as I can remember it, in cartoon form below. [Please see note at end for a correction.]

If Bess and Phyllis had been speaking Spanish, there wouldn’t have been any confusion. Bess would have used the indicative, as shown in the speech bubble on the left, to indicate that Harold was her actual fiancé. Her mother’s misinterpretation corresponds to the version with the subjunctive shown on the right.

 

So this is definitely a case where Spanish is superior to English!

[Note: After posting this blog entry I did a Google search and discovered that (i) this is universally acknowledged as the funniest episode of Phyllis and (ii) I had misremembered the scene! The conversation was actually between Phyllis and a colleague, played by Richard Schaal, and it’s Phyllis who utters the ambiguous line (something like “Bess wants to marry a man whose parents are midgets”). In the intervening years my memory had transposed the characters and invented the name Harold! With apologies to the writers and crew, I’ll keep my cartoons the way they are to reflect my (defective but happy) memory.]

Irregular irregulars

Note: this post is intended for Spanish verb fiends only! Others read at your peril!

The Spanish verb system is riddled with irregular verbs, but at least they fall into discernible patterns. For example, verbs that end in -ir and have a stem change in the present tense are also irregular in the preterite, imperfect subjunctive, and gerund. These fall into three groups:

  • o/ue/u
    * Example: dormir ‘to sleep’, duermo ‘I sleep’, durmió ‘he slept’, durmiendo ‘sleeping’
  • e/ie/i
    * Example: sentir ‘to feel’, siento ‘I feel’, sintió ‘he felt’, sintiendo ‘feeling’
  • e/i/i
    * Example: servir ‘to serve’, sirvo ‘I serve’, sirvió ‘he served’, sirviendo ‘serving’

The silver lining to this cloud of complexity is that it is, at least, predictable. As implied above, there are no exceptions to this pattern, i.e. -ir verbs with a stem change in the present tense that are regular in the preterite and the gerund.

Or are there?

To my horror, and great interest, I learned just today of two exceptions: cernir ‘to sift’ and hendir ‘to slit open’. Despite their present-tense stem changes (ciernohiendo, and so on) they are regular in the preterite (cernió, cernieronhendió, hendieron), imperfect subjunctive (cerniera, hendiera, etc.), and gerund (cerniendo, hendiendo). You can see the full conjugations here and here.

Discernir and concernir share the same irregularity as cernir, as you might expect. (This is why I made sure to use the English cognate discernible at the beginning of this post. 😉 )

Not surprisingly, the Real Academia’s Diccionario panhispánico de dudas contains warnings against forms such as hindióhindieron, and cirniendo.

Fortunately, there is a logical explanation for these irregular irregulars: cernir and hendir are variants of the -er verbs cerner and hender, from Latin cernĕre and findĕre. In other words, they are innovative -ir verbs that still think they are -er‘s with respect to this irregular pattern. If I can attempt a wacky analogy, they’re akin to someone who dyed their hair but red still lacks the freckles that a natural redhead would have.

Just for fun, I used the Google ngram viewer to trace the history of cerner, cernir, hender, and hendir. None of these verbs is very common, but the -ir variants have definitely caught up to the older -er forms over the last two hundred years or so, and, in fact, have managed to surpass them.

(Post continues after graphic.)


If you look at a shorter time period, you can clearly see hender nose-diving to fall just behind hendir. It’s pretty cool.