Tag Archives: Arabic

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.


Forgotten Spanish

As much as I love Spanish, there have been a few periods in my life when I didn’t speak it much, or at all. Because I’m a compulsively analytic linguist, it’s been interesting to see what I’ve forgotten, or remembered, after a break from the language.

My longest break was the dozen or so years that I worked as a computational linguist. For most of this time I lived in New Mexico, where, as I previously described, it was hard to find people to speak Spanish with because I was an outsider — an Anglo (or Angla).

What did I forget during that time? Mostly, vocabulary, on what a computer scientist would call a LIFO basis — Last In, First Out. That is, the words I forgot tended to be the ones I’d learned most recently.

Last in, first out

I discovered one such loss when my husband’s cousin came to dinner with his family. His wife Claudia is Mexican and it was pure joy to speak Spanish with her and their multilingual children (Spanish, French, some Hebrew, some English). At one point I groped for the word for “struggle” and came up with esdrújulo. Claudia looked puzzled. Clearly the word didn’t mean what I thought it did; in fact, she told me she had never heard it!

A trip to the dictionary solved the mystery: esdrújulo is a reasonably obscure linguistic term that I had learned while writing my dissertation on children’s acquisition of the Spanish word stress system. It refers to stress three syllables from the end of a word — the antepenultimate syllable. Some examples are teléfonohelicóptero, and, of course, esdrújulo itself, which means that the word is “autological“, i.e. an example of what it defines. (Sesquipedalian, meaning “having many syllables”, is another famous autology.) Esdrújulo and struggle are phonetically similar: sdru maps to stru, j maps to g, and l maps to l. This undoubtedly explains why my memory had reinterpreted the word during those years of disuse.

Needless to say, I have never since forgotten it!

I retained Spanish grammar more completely, which again makes sense for a linguist. Grammar is our bread and butter, the pond we choose to swim in. In fact, when I decided to make a career transition to teaching Spanish, and spent some time in Mexico refreshing my skills, I found that the only significant chunk of grammar I’d forgotten was the use of the subjunctive after expressions of emotion, as in Me alegro de que Pablo ESTÉ aquí (I’m happy Pablo’s here). It’s an odd usage, when you think about it, because there’s no doubt about Pablo’s location; compare, for example, Espero que Pablo ESTÉ aquí (I hope Pablo’s here). Losing and recovering this use of the subjunctive has made me more sensitive, as a teacher, to the challenge it poses for students.

How cute is this cartoon about the subjunctive, from drlemon.com?

If losing a bit of Spanish is frustrating, there’s pure joy in having one come back to you. As a college student I put Spanish on the back burner for a few semesters to work on my French, then spent a summer in Madrid. I’ll never forget the day our group was walking down a street and stopped to admire a beautiful tile. Like a long-lost friend, the word azulejo floated into my active memory after a few scary moments of mental groping. It felt like a divine signal from the Spanish gods, if you will, that they’d forgiven my temporary apostasy.

Unos azulejos de Madrid

Since then, azulejo has been one of my favorite Spanish words (along with esdrújulo, I guess). Many people assume it comes from the word azul, since so many tiles are blue, but the Real Academia assures us that it comes from Arabic azzuláyga. It’s a gorgeous word no matter where it comes from.

Spanish vs. Catalan vocabulary

It’s dangerously tempting to think of Catalan as a “melting pot” of Spanish, French, and Italian. Tempting, because Catalan has aspects of all three languages, and is spoken in their geographical midpoint (see map below). Dangerous, because the “melting pot” metaphor implies that the other three languages came together to form Catalan. In fact, all four are the product of slightly different versions of Vulgar Latin.

As long as we don’t fall for the “melting pot” fallacy, it’s fun to pick out the similarities between Catalan and its sister Romance languages. For example, Catalan has a letter ç, like French (e.g. Cat. abraçada “hug”), a /ts/ sound, like Italian (e.g. Cat. potser “maybe”), and two verbs for “to be”, like Spanish (Cat. esser and estar).

The most interesting differences between Catalan and Spanish have to do with vocabulary. Many Catalan and Spanish words come from two different Latin sources, such as Catalan voler “to want” (from Lat. volo, the source of French vouloir and Italian volere) versus Spanish querer (from Lat. quaerĕre), or Catalan nebot “nephew” (from Lat. nepote, the source of French neveu and Italian nipote) versus Spanish sobrino (from Lat. sobrīnus). As Ralph Penny explains in his awesome A History of the Spanish Language, the Spanish words usually reflect the older, more classical, variety of Latin that was spoken when Rome first conquered the Iberian Peninsula (between 200 and 17 BCE, relatively early in Roman history), while the Catalan words are more innovative. Because Catalonia is closer to Rome than the rest of the Peninsula, it kept up better with ongoing changes in Latin vocabulary.

Other vocabulary differences reflect the geographical realities of the post-Roman world. When Rome fell, the Visigoths invaded the Iberian peninsula from the north. Later (711 C.E.), the Moors invaded from the south. Germanic vocabulary therefore affected Catalan more than it did Spanish (e.g. guarir vs. sanar for “heal”, lleig vs. feo for “ugly”) while the Arabic impact was greater for Spanish than for Catalan (e.g. coixí vs. almohada for “pillow”, llogar vs. alquilar for “rent”). The two influences met in the middle for the word “blue”: Catalan’s Germanic blau and Spanish’s Arabic azul both displaced Latin caeruleus, the source of the the sophisticated English color term cerulean.

Follow the link below to download a table with a more substantial listing of vocabulary differences, including etymologies and French and/or Italian cognates.

Spanish vs. Catalan Vocabulary