El burlador de Sevilla (Don Juan)

I took advantage of a 24-hour stopover in Madrid on the way home from my recent trip to Andalucía to see El burlador de Sevilla, the original Spanish play about Don Juan. According to University of Wisconsin professor R. John McCaw, the play’s exact origins are unknown. However, it was most likely written — in Madrid, not Sevilla — in the early 1620s, by the playwright Tirso de Molina.

Since I majored in linguistics rather than Spanish, I had never read El burlador de Sevilla, and in fact didn’t know much about Golden Age theater. So before heading to Spain I bought a copy of Prof. McCaw’s edition of the play and studied it seriously. Just so you know what a good student I still am, after all these years out of school, here is a scan of one page showing how I marked up the book. What I learned was so interesting that I’d like to share it with you.

Golden Age playwrights like Tirso de Molina had to be incredibly skilled. They did what any playwright does — tell an exciting story, develop their characters, and so on — while at the same time fitting their Spanish into a set of specific rhyming patterns. As Prof. McCaw explains in his introduction, most of El burlador fits into one of six rhyming patterns, each defined by four parameters:

  1. the number of lines in the pattern;
  2. the number of syllables per line (playwrights “fudge” by merging or extending some syllables);
  3. the type of rhyme: whether consonants matter (consonance), as in the rhyme of España, engaña, and caña near the top of the page in the image above, or not (assonance), as in the sequence rosaolassolalocasondassombrasalfójaradora in Tisbea’s speech at the bottom of the page;
  4. the rhyming pattern within the lines, e.g. ABBA (lines 1 and 4 rhyme, also lines 2 and 3).

After marking up the entire text — this isn’t as crazy as it sounds, since the play is less then 100 pages long — I tallied how often each rhyming pattern was used. Here’s what I found:

  • The most common pattern — the default, really — was the redondilla, four lines of eight syllables each with a consonant ABBA rhyming scheme.
  • The second most common pattern was the romance, an indefinitely long sequence of eight-syllable lines with an assonant xAxAxA rhyming scheme, i.e. every other line rhymes. Tisbea’s speech above is an example. Spanish is a great language for loooooong romances because so many words rhyme! (The assonance helps.) In the play, I counted:
    • romances with a-a rhymes;
    • 2 each with e-a and o-o rhymes;
    • 1 each with o-a (above), i-a, and a-e rhymes.
  • Acts II and III each contain a sequence of octavas reales: eight lines of eleven syllables each, with an ABABABCC rhyming pattern.
  • Act II contains one sequence, and Act III two, of quintillas: five lines of eight syllables each. Amazingly, Tirso de Molina added an additional layer of structure by varying his quintillas‘ rhyming patterns. The quintillas in Act II alternate between ABBAA and AABBA, while those in the Act III sequences are all ABABA.
  • Act I has a sequence of décimas: ten eight-syllable lines with a complex consonant rhyming pattern. The end of this sequence can be seen in the image above.
  • Act III has a sequence of sextillas: six alternating lines of seven and eleven syllables (7-11-7-11-7-11) with consonant ABABABCC rhyme.

The rhyming complexity increases as the play progresses. Act I contains three patterns: redondillasromances, and décimas. Act II contains four: redondillasromancesoctavas reales, and quintillas. And Act III contains fiveredondillasromancesquintillassextillas, and octavas reales. What a tour de force!

I read the play a first time for its language and rhyming, and a second time to focus on its plot and characters. On the second read-through it became clear that although Don Juan was a lecher, his uncle was equally evil in his own way. He was a reprehensible enabler, helping Don Juan escape and lying to cover his tracks. The women in the play were uniformly admirable, and also strong, once they’d realized they’d been conned. (This cast of characters inevitably reminded me of today’s politics.)

As you can imagine, after so much preparation I was excited to finally see the play. The performance I saw was at Teatro de la Comedia, Madrid’s theater for classical theater. (See my “Bad Spanish” post about their tickets, and also the YouTube clip below.) It was an excellent production! I found Don Juan himself incredibly sexy — I could see why so many women fell for him — but in the scene where his father appears, he becomes sullen and quiet. The implication (for me) was that unresolved “Daddy issues” were at the heart of his neurosis. My favorite scene, Tisbea’s mad scene after Don Juan betrays her, was powerful. It was a real treat.

Surprisingly, after I’d worked so hard to get to know the rhyming schemes, they receded into the background once the play was “live”. The lines just sounded like beautiful Spanish.

I left the theater with a strong urge to learn more about…Shakespeare! Having never taken a Shakespeare course in college, I feel guilty that I now know more about Tirso de Molina than our greatest English playwright.

Bad Latin

Greetings from Cincinnati! I am here for a week grading Spanish AP tests, for the second time (read about the first time here). So far we’re off to a good start, though our team of hundreds of Spanish teachers from all over the country has to get through 190,000 exams. One test at a time…

I’m still thinking about my recent trip to Andalucía. Tonight I’ll share with you a linguistically interesting Latin mistake that I saw at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville, in this charming 1640 painting by Juan del Castillo, San Juan niño servido por dos ángeles (‘John the Baptist, as a child, served by two angels’).

The fun part of the painting is the Latin inscription on the ribbon entwined around baby John’s cross:

Hopefully you can see that this inscription reads Ecce annus dei, which translates as ‘Here is the year of God’. This should be Ecce agnus dei, ‘Here is the lamb of God’, a reference to John’s statement Ecce agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccatum mundi ‘Look, this is the Lamb of God; look, this is he who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).

This Latin error is intriguing because agnus disappeared in Spanish as well as in del Castillo’s painting. Cordero, the modern Spanish word for ‘lamb’, comes from a different root: Vulgar Latin cordarius, from cordus ‘late’, i.e. a late-born lamb. In contrast, Portuguese, Catalan, French, and Italian all retained the Latin root — as anho, anyell, agneau, and agnello, respectively — although the primary words for ‘lamb’ in Portuguese and Catalan are cordeiro and xai. (I don’t know where xai came from, nor miel, the Romanian word for ‘lamb’.)

Why eliminate agnus in Spanish? The most likely explanation is that Latin gn and nn both became ñ in Spanish; for example, Latin canna became caña ‘cane’ and Latin ligna became leña ‘firewood’ (see this earlier blog entry for more examples). This means that annus and agnus would both have emerged as año in Spanish once final -us turned into -o, so something had to give. Turning to another root for a new word for ‘lamb’ was a reasonable solution. In contrast, annus emerged with a plain n sound in the other Romance languages, so there was no danger of the two words for ‘year’ and ‘ lamb’ sounding alike.

I wonder, in fact, whether Juan del Castillo’s Latin mistake was somehow related to this history. Would a speaker of a different Romance language been as likely to confuse agnus and annus?

Bad English

I certainly confront a lot of bad Spanish in my professional role as a Spanish teacher. And on this blog, I’ve called out several examples of bad Spanish in street signs, Trader Joe’s packaging, and the like. So it was refreshing when, on my recent trip to Andalucía, I started to notice examples of bad ENGLISH — that is, bad translations from Spanish into English — in signage created with English-speaking tourists in mind. I’ve included some examples below, with explanatory captions.

This “eviction notice” was by far my favorite example of “bad English” on the trip. How about “Please exit 15 minutes before the closing time”? From the Palacio de Viana in Córdoba.

A better translation might be “Danger! Tree work!” Cádiz.

The problem here is the first element in the sign. A good translation might be “One entrance per ticket.”

This was the most intriguing “bad English” sign I saw in Spain. Perhaps the author was trying to translate “Hay pan”: ‘There is bread’, i.e. ‘We have bread.’

A “turno” can indeed be a work shift (e.g. 9-5), but the correct translation here would be a simple cognate, i.e. “Press to take a turn” or perhaps “Press for ticket,” with the turn-taking function of the ticket merely implied. Picture taken at La Canasta bakery in Sevilla, across the street from the cathedral.

What a lovely bit of scrambled syntax! The French translation, in contrast, looks fine to me.

The four “cameras” in this famous tomb at the Carmona necropolis are rooms, not pieces of photo equipment. Indeed, the English word “camera” can be traced to the ‘room’ meaning of the Latin root via the “camera obscura” device.

Perfect detective, imperfect subjunctive

Long-time readers of this blog know that I’m obsessed with (i) the two forms of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive and (ii) Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” series of detective novels, set in Barcelona before and during the Franco era. This post combines these two passions.

While in Cádiz during my recent visit to Andalucía, I bought a copy of the tenth novel in the “Inspector Mascarell” series, Diez días de junio. (This was at the Librería Manuel de Falla, named after one of Cádiz’s best-known native sons.) I devoured it over the next few days — and, struck as always by Sierra i Fabra’s frequent combination of the -ra and -se subjunctives within sentences, decided to keep track of all such sentences. The following table lists the fifteen examples I found.

These fifteen sentences suggest three ways that an author (or speaker) can combine the two imperfect subjunctives:

  1. The formulaic hiciera lo que hiciese construction (example 3; also see this earlier blog post, and ex. 6 for a counterexample).
  2. A single subjunctive-triggering context followed by both an -ra and an -se subjunctive, such as para que (examples 1, 4, 5), puede que (ex. 8), or pedir que (ex. 9).
  3. Multiple subjunctive-triggering contexts followed by a mixture of -ra and -se subjunctives, such as:
    • quizá and esperar que (example 2)
    • querer que and para que (ex. 7)
    • pedir and para que (ex. 10, 15)
    • puede que, adjective clause, aunque (ex. 11) — 3 subjunctive contexts in a single sentence!
    • ordenar queen cuanto (ex. 12)
    • past tense si clause (ex. 13)
    • como siantes de que (ex. 14)

In sentences with one usage each of the -ra and -se forms, half the time the -ra subjunctive came first, and half the time the -se was first. In sentence #11 an -se subjunctive is sandwiched between two -ra forms, while in sentence #6 a single -se form is preceded by four -ra subjunctives and followed by a fifth.

The book also contains the intriguing sentence Le detuve en 1936 después de que un niño se SUICIDARA por su culpa. The use of suicidara here apparently violates the rule that después de que only triggers the subjunctive when talking about future events. After some investigating, I’ve come across three possible explanations for this usage.

  1. The use of the imperfect subjunctive to mention background information. This usage, often found in journalism, is discussed in Patricia Lunn’s “The Evaluative Function of the Spanish Subjunctive” (in Modality in Grammar and Discourse, eds. J. L. Bybee and S. Fleischman, John Benjamins, 1992, pp. 429-49). However, in this particular example the suicide is new news, not shared background.
  2. The use of the -ra imperfect subjunctive as a pluperfect indicative. The -ra subjunctive started as a Latin pluperfect indicative and was repurposed fairly recently, in the Golden Age. One still sees uses of the -ra subjunctive that hark back to its roots, as discussed in this Wordreference Forum thread.
  3. Analogy to antes de queThis explanation, also discussed in Patricia Lunn’s paper, makes a lot of sense! Since antes de que always triggers the subjunctive, it’s logical that después de que should, too.

Finally, I am intrigued by the apparent triggering function of lo más seguro es que (example #3). I suppose this is akin to a quizá(s).

Bad Spanish?? — high culture edition

Most of my “Bad Spanish” posts pick on the creators of road signs, shopping cart signs, and commercial packaging — folks whom you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be that adept at Spanish. In this post the “Bad Spanish” culprits should definitely know better. They are the folks in Madrid who sell tickets online for the Teatro de la Comedia, the city’s highbrow venue for classical Spanish theater.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently took advantage of a stopover in Madrid on my way home from Andalucía to attend a performance of El burlador de Sevilla, Tirso de Molina’s original (17th century) version of the Don Juan legend. I bought the tickets ahead of time and received them as an email attachment, shown below. As you can see, the ticket states Esta es tu entrada, using the familiar (tu) possessive pronoun, but then presente esta hoja ‘show this page’ using the formal (usted) command form of the verb presentar. Bad Spanish IMHO!

HOWEVER…this tú/usted switch is reminiscent of one I saw in a NYC subway car and blogged about a few months ago, a post that provoked many comments, including two from readers OK with the switch. So to be fair, perhaps it isn’t actually a problem here, and my “Bad Spanish” moniker is perhaps too harsh.

I did contact the ticket-selling agency to ask if the combination of modalities was accidental or deliberate, and received a most courteous and thoughtful reply, which I translate below.

From the perspective of our office (technical support for ticket sales) we don’t know exactly why this document uses the two different treatments. We’ll consult with the National Institute of Dramatic and Musical Arts to see if there exists a memorandum we can make use of that explains not only the types of texts and their distribution in the document, but also an explanation of the intentions of each text.

Personally, the second text (presente) seems more correct to me. It is a request made to the person who has bought the ticket, and it seems to be a basic norm of courtesy to address this person using the usted form. Perhaps in the first text they were aiming for a more impactful message and for this reason chose a different treatment.

From an anecdotal perspective, the use of  and usted is a frequent topic of debate in [Spanish] marketing departments. The use of usted is positively associated with good manners and respect but also with a distance to the client, for which reason it’s common to make use of  in order to attain greater closeness or empathy at the sacrifice of courtesy. In our own www.entradasinaem.es website you can see that we’ve used [informal] suscríbete and únete al inaem, thus linking the informal grammatical treatment with the idea of connecting with our institution.

As a penultimate note, please note the ticket price: 25 euros for sixth-row orchestra seats. ¡Qué ganga! And as a final note, El burlador ROCKED!!! So I got a great night out of it as well as a blog post. 🙂

¡Andalucía!

Granada Airport (women’s bathroom)

Yesterday I came home from a two-week trip to Andalucía, Spain’s southernmost region, with my consuegra Sue. My previous blog post, written just before our trip, describes our itinerary and includes a map of our route. We went everywhere by train, bus, and foot.

Although this was my fifth trip to Spain, I hadn’t been to Andalucía since my first trip, back in 1980 (!!), when a friend and I visited Córdoba, Sevilla, and Granada after attending a summer-abroad college program in Madrid. I remember loving Córdoba and Granada and getting sick in Sevilla. It was definitely time for a return visit, and Sue was up for a second excursion after our successful tour of northern Spain two years ago.

Andalucía is an ideal destination because it combines natural beauty with layers of human history. There is a lot to see and do, and Sue and I had a wonderful time. In fact, the only downside of our trip was the hordes of other tourists who had had the same bright idea. Sue and I share a low-key approach to tourism, and quickly became allergic to the large groups of camera-wielding tourists who thronged the top attractions. We found the omnipresent selfie sticks to be particularly intrusive, and hope that the Spanish Ministry of Tourism will soon follow the lead of the many public and private sites that have banned the devices.

Here is a city-by-city summary of our trip, with some of my own pictures and lots of links. I hope to follow up this post with others inspired by linguistic observations during the trip.

First stop: Córdoba

Without knowing it, we had scheduled our visit to Córdoba to coincide with the city’s annual Fiesta de los Patios, in which residents enter their beautifully decorated interior patios in a city-wide competition. This timing proved more of a nuisance than a blessing, since it brought more crowds into the city, and we didn’t have the patience (or interest) to queue up in the long lines to view the patios entered in the contest. On the other hand, we were happy to take advantage of the free flamenco performances scheduled around the city during the Fiesta. I’ll never forget a midday performance where we were close enough to see the male dancer sweat, and the female dancer lose the flowers out of her hair as she tossed her head passionately. We learned that flamenco refers more to music than to dance; in fact, a nighttime performance we saw at the Plaza de la Corredera had only singing (with guitar accompaniment) and no dancing.

In Córdoba the main attraction is the grand Mezquita, or mosque, whose forest of red-and-white striped columns is now interrupted by a cathedral. The Mezquita was one of the highlights of my 1980 trip and it was exciting to see it again. It is a popular attraction, so crowd avoidance was a priority. We stayed at a modest hotel right across the street from the Mezquita and made sure to queue up for the 8:30 am opening.

Another major attraction, substantially less crowded, is the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos. This fortress/palace features beautiful gardens, but we were most interested in some objects displayed inside: a stunning (and huge) Roman sarcophagus — note that its carved doors are ajar — and a group of mosaics from a Roman McMansion that were only discovered in 1959, when the ground under the nearby Plaza de la Corredera was excavated in order to refurbish the market. What a gorgeous surprise!

I recommend also a stroll along the Guadalquivir river, where you will see outdoor bars, wheels from ancient mills, and feral Siamese cats.

Our favorite place to hang out, though, was the Kurtuba Gastro Bar, where one can relax and enjoy excellent salmorejo (a thick cold tomato soup, quite distinct from gazpacho) and perfect croquetas while admiring the resurrected columns of a Roman temple across the plaza.

Next stop: Sevilla

I was especially looking forward to Sevilla because I’d basically missed it the first time around due to illness. The city did not disappoint. Its two main attractions are the cathedral and the Real Alcázar. We bought tickets ahead of time for the Alcázar and spent hours exploring the gorgeous rooms and gardens. It was a perfect marriage of natural and man-made beauty, and likewise a felicitous combination of Arabic and later styles. The cathedral was impressive, especially Columbus’s tomb, and we enjoyed the hike up the Giralda tower, except for the crowds and selfie sticks.

From an academic perspective, my favorite destination in Sevilla was the Archivo de las Indias, located between the two other sites. This houses Spain’s official records of the colonial period. The ground floor has a permanent exhibition of some of the institution’s treasures, including the original Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the New World between Spain and Portugal, and the “Capitulación of Santa Fe”, the contract between Christopher Columbus and the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. It was amazing to see these precious documents up close.

We stayed at the lovely Hotel Simón, down the street from the Cathedral, and had our breakfasts and one lunch at La Canasta bakery/café just across the street from the Cathedral. This is a Spanish chain similar to Panera and thus somewhat immune to being touristy. I obviously disagree with the negative reviews you see in that link.

Backtracking to Carmona

Sue and I both wanted to spend a night at a parador — a government-run luxury hotel — and so backtracked slightly on the road to Córdoba to stay at the one in the small town of Carmona, which my Top 10 guide book described as “one of the most impressive of all paradors”. For centuries Carmona’s hilltop setting gave the town a strategic importance, and the parador is located on the top of that hill, cheek-by-jowl with the ruins of the town’s Alcázar. Besides swimming in the inn’s outdoor pool, and sipping sherry at sunset on the terrace while admiring the view, we had a hard-working touristic morning exploring the Roman necropolis, located a ten minutes’ walk from “downtown” Carmona. This was one of the most interesting Roman ruins either of us had ever seen, and was amply signed and interpreted, with a museum housing the relics found in the tombs, including a carved elephant (!).

Here is a picture of Sue emerging from a Roman tomb:

We happened to be at the necropolis when a group of schoolchildren were visiting. They were treated to an educational re-enactment of a gladiator fight, and so were we.

The parador wasn’t expensive (it was cheaper than our digs in Cádiz), and we both thought that if you had a rental car it would be a great jumping-off point for a longer stay, with day trips to Sevilla and Córdoba as well as hikes in the countryside. Not to mention swimming and sherry.

Next stop: Cádiz

From Carmona we took the bus back to Sevilla and then a train to Cádiz, an ancient city with a strategic peninsular location on the Atlantic. Here we rented an apartment and settled in for two nights. During the day we dipped our toes in the ocean at nearby Caleta Beach, saw a really cool camera obscura built into an old tower, and walked all over the city. It’s a small town so you can get to know it fairly well in just a day, although a longer stay would be fun in beach season.

Pit stop: Ronda

The hilltop town of Ronda lies between Cádiz and our final destination of Granada, so we spent a night there at the fabulous little Hotel Ronda (our favorite lodging during the trip). Ronda is famous for its gorge and bridges. We basically spent half a day exploring the east side of the gorge, including the Arab baths and the rose garden, and half a day exploring the west side, hiking down into the gorge. We also had the best food of our trip at Casa Mateos.

Last stop: Granada

Granada’s main attraction is the Alhambra complex, containing the Palacios Nazaríes, the Alcazaba fortress, the Generalife summer palace, and many gardens. Based on my previous  trip to Andalucía we decided to visit the Alhambra twice, and this turned out to be a wise decision as the complex is so large and the crowds are daunting (despite timed tickets for the Palacios Nazaríes). The first day we visited the Palacios, a bit of the gardens, and the Alcazaba, which has fabulous views. We also enjoyed tea on the terrace at the parador, which has great views of the Generalife. The second day we explored the Generalife, where we had an illegal picnic on a bench in the gardens, and spent about an hour at the excellent museum within the Alhambra complex. Here’s a picture of some happy artichokes growing in the Alhambra gardens.

We rented a comfortable and light-filled apartment across the street from the Cathedral — two thumbs up for Casa de la Lonja! We bought food at the nearby Corte Inglés department store’s supermarket (tortilla española, gazpacho in a milk carton, flan, passable paella, excellent wine selection) and at the traditional market near the Cathedral.

Two specific sites I recommend besides the Alhambra are the Monasterio Cartuja, about a half hour walk from the Cathedral, and the Capilla Real adjacent to the Cathedral. The Monasterio features an over-the-top baroque chapel. Given how austere the monks’ lives were in general, entering the chapel must have been a daily shock to the senses. The monastery also features vivid (and sometimes gory) paintings by Juan Sánchez Cotán, a former painter of still lifes (I saw one in the Prado) who joined the order in his 40s, changing his life and his subject matter. The Capilla Real houses the bodies of the Catholic Monarchs (Isabella and Ferdinand) and Isabella’s personal art collection, which included paintings by Botticelli, Van der Weyden, Memling, and other masters. Not too shabby.

As a lover of all things Spanish who happens to be a modestly observant Jew, I usually don’t have any difficulty reconciling these two passions. But when I entered the Capilla Real and saw the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella, I felt a wave of intense anger over what these leaders had done to my people back in 1492. Religion leads people to do the most awful things.

24 hours in Madrid

Sue and I flew from Granada to Madrid (the photo at the top of this blog is from the bathroom at the Granada airport), and I had a brief stopover in Madrid before flying home the next day. This gave me enough time to visit my favorite paintings at the Prado and the Thyssen-Bornemisza (no time for the Reina Sofía), walk through the Plaza Mayor and the Puerta del Sol, and attend a performance of El burlador de Sevilla, the original Don Juan play, first performed five hundred years ago and still going strong.

On my next trip I want to visit Asturias, and perhaps other northern destinations I’ve never seen, such as Santiago de Compostela, San Sebastián, and Bilbao. And something of the Pyrenees. Yikes!

A non-linguistic tour of Andalucía

[Here is a post I wrote about the trip afterwards.]

Two years ago, my consuegra Sue and I spent two weeks touring northern Spain, following an itinerary inspired by my research on the history of the Spanish language. On Friday we’ll meet up again in Córdoba to launch a two-week follow-up trip of Andalucía (southern Spain). This trip is purely touristic, though of course I’m looking forward to hearing Andalucían Spanish. Also, while in Seville we plan to visit the Archivo de Indias, which houses the records of the Spanish colonial period. It was Peter Boyd-Bowman’s research on these records that proved the Andalusian origin of Latin American Spanish (see Ralph Penny’s A History of the Spanish Language, p. 26).

This map shows our itinerary, looping counter-clockwise from Córdoba through Sevilla (the regions’s capital), the important port city of Cádiz, and the famous hill town of Ronda, ending up in Granada (poorly indicated on this map for some reason), where I’ve pre-purchased tickets to visit the Alhambra. Twice. You can’t see it on the map, but after Sevilla we’ll double back to spend one night in Carmona, a small town on the road to Córdoba (you can just see it to the right of the “A-4” marking east of Sevilla), so we can stay at its beautiful parador.

When I get back from Spain I’ll be hitting the road inside the United States: attending a wedding in Maryland, visiting grandkids in Philadelphia, touring Yosemite, visiting family in Salt Lake City, and grading Spanish AP tests in Cincinnati. I don’t expect to be blogging during these travels, so most likely you’ll hear from me again in late June. Wish us a ¡Buen viaje!

Graphing the takeover of the -ra subjunctive

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m obsessed with the two different versions of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive. This is the verb form that you see in sentences like Quería que Miguel estudiara más ‘I wanted Michael to study more’. This -ra form is more common in general, but it’s equally acceptable to use forms with -se, in this case estudiase. The -ra and –se imperfect subjunctives are both understood around the Spanish-speaking world; their relative frequency varies according to dialect.

This aspect of Spanish is interesting for two different reasons. First of all, it’s extraordinarily unusual for a language to have such “twin” forms in the heart of their grammar. I haven’t been able to find a single other example after searching the linguistics literature for over five years. Second, neither of these forms is a direct descendant of Latin’s own imperfect subjunctive. Rather, two other existing conjugations were “repurposed” as imperfect subjunctives: the -se version in Old Spanish, and the -ra form more recently, in the time of Cervantes.

Google Books’ “Ngram Viewer” provides an easy way to see the newer -ra subjunctives overtaking the older -se forms. Google has digitized over 25 million books in English, Spanish, and other languages. Their free “Ngram Viewer” tool analyzes word frequencies in this corpus, making it easy to compare frequencies of two or more words over time.

In this post I’ve reproduced six graphs comparing -ra and -se subjunctive frequencies over the last two centuries. The first three graphs (one above, two below) show historical frequencies for the two forms of the imperfect subjunctive for the common irregulars tenerhaber, and poder. The remaining three graphs show frequencies for the three regular verbs often used to illustrate Spanish’s -ar-er, and -ir noun classes: hablarcomer, and vivir. In every case you can see the innovative -ar forms come from behind — or, less often, from parity — to overtake their -se twins. This happened earlier for the irregular verbs than the regulars; I don’t have a theory about why.

Keep in mind that written language is relatively conservative, so it’s safe to assume that -ar actually made its move somewhat earlier than shown in these graphs.

 

 

Double consonants in Spanish

[An observant reader pointed out that this post includes double vowels as well as double consonants. I really should have entitled the post “Double letters in Spanish” — but now it is, methinks, too late! I had consonants on the mind because the trigger for this post was coming across the word sabbat.]

If I had a dime for every time I crossed out an extra l from a student’s spelling of inteligente…well, I’d have a lot of dimes. Same for an extra l in mochila (undoubtedly influenced by English words like Godzilla and gorilla), or an extra s in profesora. Add in a few nickel penalties for students who pronounce leer like (King) Lear, and I could treat myself to lots of Starbucks.

These spelling and pronunciation errors are both triggered by a significant difference between Spanish and English spelling: in Spanish, almost every letter is pronounced. (Notable exceptions include the silent h (as in hola) and the u seen in quiquegui, and gue sequences, as in quisoquesoguiso, and guerra.) This means that inteligente and mochila only need one l to represent the spoken /l/ sound, profesora only needs one s, and the two e‘s of leer must be pronounced individually. Double oo‘s exist also, as in cooperación, and again both vowels are pronounced.

This rule also explains why Spanish spelling preserves the double nn in words like perenneconnotar, and innato. According to the Real Academia Española (RAE) these words are pronounced with a long n. While some native speakers I’ve checked with say that they pronounce nn words as if they had a single n, you can certainly hear long pronunciations: for example, here.

My (2010) edition of the RAE’s Ortografía de la lengua española also refers to double bb‘s. I had never heard of this combination until I opened the book to check up on the nn words. Moreover, the RAE’s three examples — subbéticosubbloque, and subboreal (see below) — are so obscure that they aren’t even listed in the RAE dictionary! (This tickles my funny bone.) So I’m not going to lose any sleep over them.

Also in keeping with this rule, Spanish simplifies most double letters in loanwords; the Ortografía gives the examples of driblar (from dribble), chófer (from chauffeur), and zigurat, inter alia.

Most remarkable, therefore, are the double letters that Spanish tolerates in certain loan words. Except as indicated, the following words with double letters (most from this Span¡ishDict comment) are in the RAE dictionary:

  • sabbat ‘Sabbath’
  • affaire
  • sheriff
  • reggae
  • gamma
  • zoo
  • hippie (note adjectival form jipi)
  • dossier
  • gauss
  • motocross
  • topless (spelled with ss in WordReference.com but with single s in the RAE dictionary)
  • vendetta
  • watt
  • jacuzzi
  • jazz
  • mozzarella
  • paparazzi
  • pizza
  • puzzle (spelled with zz in WordReference.com but with single z in the RAE dictionary)

We all know that Spanish spelling is phonetic, but these exceptions make it a little less so.

 

Just saw this kind review from last year

Tim Guilford, an educational consultant in the UK, published this kind review of ¿Por qué? in a UK teaching blog. It came out last year but I just saw it.

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.

Highly recommended!