Tag Archives: leísmo

Leísmo and verb subject properties

Earlier this month I wrote a blog post comparing the contexts of leísta and non-leísta pronoun usage in Jordi Sierra’s Cuatro días en enero. At least in the first few chapters of this book, masculine human direct objects of physical verbs tended to be expressed with lo and los, and objects of other verbs (mostly verbs of cognition) with le and les. Here is the verb table from that post.Since then, I’ve dusted off my virtual pile of leísmo readings to check for anything written about the relationship between verb choice and leísmo. This literature search came up almost dry: research on the semantics and leísmo uniformly refers to the semantic properties of nouns rather than verbs. One property that comes up frequently in the literature is whether an direct object expresses discrete, or countable, items (like cars) or non-countable materials (like sugar). Another, discussed in a 1974 paper by Erica García and Ricardo Otheguy, is relative strength, or activity. García and Otheguy suggest that le is chosen when a verb’s direct object is “stronger”, or more active. For example, they give the example of María le llora ‘Mary complains to him’, whose object “him” (a living person) is more active than the corpse in María lo llora ‘Mary mourns him’. This reminded me of Jon Aske’s comment on my original post, that “leísmo is used to add a nuance to the sentence, primarily having to do with human objects that are highly involved in the action or that something is being done for them, as opposed to to them.”

However, García and Otheguy also relate the le/lo choice to the properties of subjects, suggesting that le is chosen when a verb’s subject is “weaker”, or less active. For example, they contrast:

  1. No hagas ruido, niño, que le molesta a su padre ‘Don’t make noise, child, because it annoys your father’
  2. No hagas ruido, niño, que lo molesta a su padre ‘Don’t make noise, child, because you’ll annoy your father’.

As is typical in gustar-type sentences, the subject of sentence #1 (“noise”) is not an active participant. In contrast, the subject in sentence #2 (the child himself) is only too active!

This distinction might help to explain the division between le and lo verbs in the table above. Someone who eludes, finds, kills or unites (verbs from the second column of the table) is surely a stronger, or more active, subject than someone who merely sees, asks, or needs (first column). This might be a fruitful topic for a Spanish linguistics dissertation, if anyone is looking…


Jordi Sierra’s off-and-on leísmo

When I could distract my brain from the engrossing plot of Jordi Sierra I Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, and pay attention to Sierra’s language, I was struck by his off-and-on leísmo. For readers who are unfamiliar with this term, leísmo refers to the use of the masculine indirect object pronoun le ‘to him’ instead of the masculine direct object pronoun lo ‘him’, as in the first row of Table A, below. Leísmo, a centuries-old speech pattern, is most common in Spain. Most Spanish textbooks in the United States therefore teach the non-leísta pattern shown in the second column. Note that leísmo normally only applies to human direct objects.

Table A

Sierra’s object pronoun usage is fascinating because he isn’t strictly leísta or non-leísta, but alternates between the two styles of pronoun usage. An example is the following sentence, at the beginning of Chapter 2, which uses one les and two los.

Todos los soldados más o menos útiles estaban siendo sacados del lugar con urgencia, tal vez para llevarles a combatir, tal vez para trasladarlos a la última resistencia, Valencia, tal vez para conducirlos a Francia.

‘All the soldiers who were more or less fit were being taken away urgently, perhaps to carry them to combat, perhaps to move them to Valencia, the last city of the resistance, perhaps to take them to France.

The same approximate ratio of two instances of lo (or los) for each one of le (or les) holds more broadly in Cuatro días de enero, as can be seen in Table B, which contains all examples of masculine human direct objects in the book’s first two chapters.

Table B: Masculine human direct object pronouns in Cuatro días de enero, caps. 1-2

A serious look at leísmo in Sierra’s writing would of course have to analyze much more text, ideally pulling it from a variety of his books. It would have to take into account Sierra’s Catalonian origins: Sierra is from Barcelona, and writes in both Castilian Spanish and in Catalán. Perhaps his bilingualism plays a role in his pronoun usage? And to a linguist, an analysis of leísmo in spoken Spanish will always be fundamentally more interesting than one based on written Spanish.

Nevertheless, an interesting pattern immediately emerges from the data in Table B: Sierra’s use of leísta and non-leísta pronouns appears to be governed by semantics rather than syntax. Sierra uses the two types of pronouns in the same syntactic contexts: in both single and double pronoun structures (e.g. Se les necesitabaSe los llevaron), in reference to both singular and plural people, and both before and after verbs. However, as shown in Table C (based on the examples in Table B), most of the verbs used with lo and los express physical actions, while most of those used with le and les express cognition. These are tendencies rather than absolutes: llevar (used with le) and entender (used with lo) are obvious exceptions.

Table C: Verbs with le and les vs. lo and los in Cuatro días de enero, caps. 1-2
(based on Table B)

This pattern is doubly logical. The object of a physical action — the person who is killed, accompanied, trapped, and so on — is closer to the canonical idea of a direct object than one who is seen, believed, needed, and so on. In addition, the use of le and les is already associated with non-physical verbs of the gustar type: someone who is pleased (me gusta), surprised (te sorprende), bothered (le molesta), and the like. The next task on my to-do list is to hit the literature to review what has already been written on this topic.

Incidentally, in Siete días de julio, the sequel to Cuatro días de enero, I noted an example of le being used to refer to a non-human direct object: Su…llamémosle trabajo no era precisamente agradable ‘Her…let’s call it work…wasn’t exactly pleasant.’ According to Inés Fernández Ordóñez (a leading leísmo scholar), the use of le with llamar is quite common in much of Spain. There are no such examples in the first two chapters of Cuatro días.

[See follow-up post here.]

Leísmo ain’t new

Look for more red ‘ink’ below to understand the “ain’t” in this post’s title.

My Spanish students often have difficulty telling the difference between direct and indirect objects. They say things like Quiero conocerle ‘I want to meet him‘ (instead of Quiero conocerlo) or, conversely, Lo di el libro ‘I gave the book to him‘ instead of Le di el libro. I inevitably have to assign students helpful activities like this one to attune their ‘ear’ to this often subtle difference.

The first of these ‘errors’ (conocerle) is ironic because for many Spanish speakers it is perfectly normal Spanish. Leísmo — the substitution of le instead of lo for masculine direct objects that are human — is a widespread Spanish pattern, especially in Spain. In fact, leísmo is a long-established object pronoun pattern, rather than a recent development (as many native speakers assume). In this regard leísmo is akin to English ain’t, which was a widely accepted expression of negation (beginning in the 1700s) before it became stigmatized. (See David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words for details.)

I’ve recently researched the history of this transformation (for leísmo, not ain’t). Leísmo certainly goes way back: consider these leísta examples from the 13th century epic poem El poema de mío Cid:

leísmo en El Cid

What truly impressed me was the official embrace of leísmo. The first edition of the Real Academia Española’s (RAE) grammar guide, published in 1771, was exclusively leísta: it required le as both a direct and an indirect object masculine pronoun (note also the endorsement of laísmo in díganla lo que quieran):

1771 RAE grammar, p. 37

1771 RAE grammar, p. 37

The first mention of lo as a direct object masculine pronoun was in the 4th edition of the RAE grammar, published in 1796. In this edition the grammarians adopted a sarcastic tone, speculating that non-leísta writers must have had a bad copy editor, or been careless, or had “sacrificed the rules of grammar to satisfy the ear”.

1796 RAE grammar, p. 73

1796 RAE grammar, p. 73

Between 1796 and the fifth edition of the RAE grammar in 1854, the Valencian linguist Vicente Salvá and the Venezuelan linguist Andrés Bello published their own, influential grammars. Salvá proposed, and Bello adopted, the compromise position that is so widespread today: le for human masculine direct object, lo otherwise. Under the influence of these In the 1854 edition the RAE changed their posture. First, they presented both sides of the leísmo argument:

1854 RAE grammar, p. 35

1854 RAE grammar, p. 35

This sentence is a doozy! I practically had to diagram it to finally understand it as: “The most intractable controversy is between those who favor the use of le as a masculine direct object pronoun, to avoid confusing such objects with the abstract ones assigned to lo, and those who find this potential confusion less of a problem than the use of le for direct and indirect masculine objects as well as feminine indirect objects.” (By “abstract” they mean pronoun uses like Lo siento, where lo doesn’t refer to a specific object.) The grammarians went on to praise, though not explicitly endorse, the Salvá/Bello compromise, an attitude maintained today:

Diccionario Pan-Hispanico de dudas, “leísmo” entry

I have to conclude with a thank-you — from the bottom of this researcher’s heart — to the RAE, and to the various libraries that have cooperated with Google, for making these original sources available on the Internet.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure to vote for spanishlinguist.us in the ongoing Top 100 Language Lovers poll! (through June 14).