Tag Archives: Pepe Carvalho

The ‘se accidental’ and linguistic relativity

The concluding pages of Manual Vázquez Montalbán’s Los mares del Sur, which I finally finished this morning, include a remarkable example of the so-called se accidental construction, a hallmark of modern Spanish. Vázquez’s detective, Pepe Carvalho, has caught the murderer he’s been pursuing for more than two hundred pages. The murderer’s confession includes the following passage:

El chiquito al que usted rompió el brazo le dio una cuchillada. A mí de pronto se me escapó el brazo y le di otra.

This translates as

The kid whose arm you broke cut him with his knife. Then my arm got away from me and I knifed him, too.

or, more literally though less naturally, as

The kid whose arm you broke cut him with his knife. Then my arm escaped itself on me and I knifed him, too.

The se accidental construction combines a reflexive verb (se escapó) with an indirect object pronoun (me). Se me escapó is an excellent example of how Spanish speakers use this construction to deflect blame. The murderer didn’t raise his arm to attack the victim: it was the arm itself that sprang into action.

In most cases, though, the se accidental is used to describe genuine accidents. This usage is common enough to have become an Internet meme; some cute examples are shown below, along with their expressive and literal translations.


The se accidental is linguistically significant because it is has been shown to affect the way that Spanish speakers perceive events. As you can see in the meme examples, the construction shifts attention away from the person who is responsible for an accidental event. A clever study by Caitlin Fausey and Lera Boroditsky showed that Spanish speakers were therefore less likely than speakers of English to remember who caused an accident. Similar results have been found for speakers of Japanese, which has a similar structure.

The se accidental is thus a lovely example of “linguistic relativity”, the linguistic term for language differences that affect the way people think. Another common term for linguistic relativity is the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”, after the two linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The latter is notorious in linguistic circles for having spawned the now thoroughly-debunked linguistic legend that Eskimo languages have an outsize number of words for snow.

Linguistic relativity recently went to Hollywood, playing a major role in the movie Arrival. In this film a linguist (Amy Adams) pairs with a physicist (Jeremy Renner) to decipher an alien language, and finds that this process drastically changes the way she understands the world. The se accidental isn’t quite as dramatic as Adams’ new-found ability to predict the future, but it’s certainly more realistic.

By the way, my husband and I got a special kick out of Arrival because I am a linguist (like Adams’s character) and he is a former Los Alamos physicist (like Renner’s). We actually know several other linguist/physicist couples. Perhaps linguists and physicists attract each other because both fields apply scientific thinking to everyday domains. This could be the subject of yet another research project!

Paella poetry

Pablo Neruda’s Oda al tomate is probably the most famous food poem in Spanish literature, but I’ve now found my personal favorite: José María Pemán y Pemartín’s Oda a la paella. This poem celebrates the way that paella respects its individual ingredients while achieving a harmonious whole. I’ve added a rough translation.

¡Oh insigne sinfonía de todos los colores!
¡Oh ilustre paella
por fuera con su blusa de colores,
quemadita por dentro con ansias de doncella!
¡Oh policromo plato colorista
que antes que con el gusto se come con la vista!
Concentración de glorias donde nada se deja.
Compromiso de Caspe entre el pollo y la almeja.
¡Oh plato decisivo :
gremial y colectivo!
¡Oh plato delicioso
donde todo es hermoso
y todo se distingue, pero nada está roto!
¡Oh plato liberal donde un grano es un grano
como un hombre es un voto!

Oh famous multi-colored symphony!
Oh illustrious paella
on the outside a colorful blouse,
burning from within like a yearning maiden!
Oh polychromatic, colorful dish
that your eyes enjoy before your stomach!
Concentration of glories where everything counts.
Spain’s compromise between chicken and clams.
Oh decisive and collaborative dish!
Oh delicious dish
where everything is beautiful
and everything stands out, but nothing is broken!
Oh generous dish where one grain of rice is one grain
just as one man is one vote!

I came across Pemán’s Oda in the Spanish novel I’m currently reading: Los mares del Sur, one of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s many mysteries featuring the detective Pepe Carvalho. Vázquez is passionate about food — he has written a number of cookbooks — and food figures heavily in Los mares del Sur. Vázquez reproduces the Oda in a chapter about a feast Carvalho enjoys with friends from his native Galicia. Paella is on the menu and the feasters have a vigorous discussion about whether or not onion is an allowed ingredient, regional paella differences, how much pepper to add, and so on. They enjoy the paella a lo rural (‘country style’), meaning that they eat straight out of the dish, each choosing some territorio (‘territory’) within the dish — a good way to avoid one eater’s hogging all the best ingredients!

I don’t remember where I saw Los mares del Sur recommended, but Wikipedia tells us that it won the Premio Planeta in 1979, and also made one Spanish newspaper’s list of the 100 best Spanish novels of the 20th century — not bad for light fiction. It has also been made into a movie.

I’m now past the halfway point in Los mares del Sur, and so far it reminds me of a slow train ride with beautiful scenery. In other words, Vázquez takes his time with the plot, but the book has wonderful descriptions of people and places along the way. My favorite aspect (besides the paella poem) is Vázquez’s sly sense of humor, as when he describes a group of mismatched chairs as sillas de diferentes padres. I’m finding something laugh-out-loud funny every few pages. Another plus, for me at least, is that the novel is set in post-Franco Barcelona and thus provides a historical counterpart to the various Jordi Sierra i Fabra mysteries I’ve been reading, which take place in Barcelona just before and during that time period.