Tag Archives: Spanish

A subtle case of the subjunctive

Today I’ll start by sharing a gorgeous example of the subjunctive/indicative contrast that I recently noticed in one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero. Then I’ll circle around and explain what makes it so gorgeous.

Lo ha matado al salir de aquí, después de estar contigo….El objetivo eras tú [Patro], por lo que sabes o puedas contar.
‘They killed him when he left after seeing you. The real target was you [Patro], for what you know or might say.

A bit of background: I like to tell my students that the subjunctive/indicative distinction is easier to master than the the preterite/imperfect distinction. The contexts, or triggers, that require the subjunctive are usually clear-cut, whereas there’s often a lot of subjectivity in deciding whether a given past tense context triggers the preterite or the imperfect. For example, Ojalá ‘God willing’ always triggers the subjunctive, whereas ayer ‘yesterday’ can be followed by either the preterite or the imperfect, depending on how the speaker perceives what happened yesterday.

For this reason, I’m intrigued by subjunctive/indicative contexts that allow more flexibility. Certain triggers are famously ambiguous. For example, tal vez and quizás, both meaning ‘maybe’, can be followed by either the subjunctive or the indicative, depending on whether you are pessimistic or optimistic:

  • Tal vez venga ‘He might come, but probably won’t’ (subjunctive)
  • Tal vez viene‘ He might come, and probably will’ (indicative)

Most Spanish grammar guides (e.g. here) cover in depth a second flexible context: so-called “adjective clauses”, or relative clauses that describe (give more information about) a noun, i.e. a person, place, or thing. A subjunctive In an adjective clause indicates that the clause describes a hypothetical person, place, or thing while an indicative indicates that the noun is real. Consider, for example, the sentence pair below, which I remember from tenth grade (!!), and which distinguishes between a hypothetical and an actual secretary:

  • Busco una secretaria que sepa escribir a máquina ‘I’m looking for a (hypothetical) secretary who can type’ (subjunctive)
  • Busco una secretaria que sabe escribir a máquina ‘I’m looking for an (actual, specific) secretary who can type’ (indicative)

Not all flexible relative clauses are adjective clauses. This brings us back to the example I started this post with, in which the relative clause functions as a noun.

Lo ha matado al salir de aquí, después de estar contigo….El objetivo eras tú, por lo que sabes o puedas contar.
‘They killed him when he left after seeing you. The real target was you, for what you know or might say.

I love this example because it contains both an indicative and a subjunctive within a single relative clause! This combination subtly mirrors the progression of the speaker’s thoughts: from the murderer’s certain motive for killing Patro — what she knew — to the murderer’s hypothetical motive — what Patro might say. As with the venga/viene and sepa/sabe examples, the subjunctive and indicative forms of the verb provide a compact and elegant way to achieve this distinction.

Frankly, having looked through my collection of grammar books and websites, I’m not sure what category the puedas subjunctive falls into. The noun clauses with the subjunctive presented in grammars typically follow classic WEIRDO triggers like Espero queEs triste que, Ojalá que, and Dudo que. Nevertheless, the puedas example strikes me as splendid Spanish. Any ideas?

Curiosas y curiosos

When rereading one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, which I’ve written about previously here and here, a sentence I’d missed the first time caught my eye:

El cadáver de Reme y el círculo de curiosas y curiosos, hablando en voz baja, observando aquel quebranto de la vida en forma de muerte inesperada.

‘Remy’s corpse and the circle of curious women and men, speaking in soft tones, observing that devastation in the form of unexpected death.’ (my translation)

The interesting Spanish here is curiosas y curiosos. It’s noteworthy because mixed-sex groups are usually described using the masculine gender only; the expected wording here, then, would simply be curiosos. (I occasionally tell a girl student that in Spanish, “boys have cooties”, so that a single masculine item in a group contaminates the whole group.) Sierra i Fabra is obviously circumventing this rule in order to emphasize that there were more woman than men ogling the dead body. This may sound like a minor detail, but the story is set in Barcelona in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, and this is one of many instances where Sierra i Fabra calls attention to the lack of men after years of fighting.

My English translation gets the same message across by mentioning “women and men”, where the usual expression is “men and women”, but curiosas y curiosos is an even more striking — and attention-calling — deviation from the norm.

I love to find examples, such as this one, where a grammatical feature of Spanish adds to its expressive power.

Report on ANLE event with Francisco Moreno Fernández

On Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending the induction of Francisco Moreno Fernández, the Executive Director of the Instituto Cervantes at Harvard University, as the newest member of the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española (ANLE).  Moreno Fernández’s specialty is sociolinguistics, and he is currently focusing on Spanish in the United States.

The main point of Moreno Fernández’s inaugural lecture was that United States Spanish has two manifestations. The first is “Spanglish”, the casual form of speech characterized by frequent code-switching, or alternation, between Spanish and English. The second, used in more formal contexts, is an American* version of Spanish (español estadounidense) that has borrowed hundreds of English words, in many cases crowding out their normal Spanish counterparts.

My favorite part of the talk was the data that Moreno Fernández showed on the degree of penetration of specific English borrowings in different parts of the United States. He walked us through three examples: registración, which has mostly replaced inscripciónflu, which is threatening gripe, and dil (a Spanish spelling of deal), which hasn’t obtained much of a foothold.

As in the previous ANLE induction I attended, it was a pleasure to immerse myself in the beautiful Spanish of all the evening’s speakers: not just Moreno Fernández but the scholars who introduced him, formally responded to his talk, and officially inducted him. Coincidentally, two of these presenters were native speakers not of Spanish, but of other Romance languages (Italian and Romanian). As a non-native speaker myself, I was heartened to see them accepted as full colleagues and participating in the Spanish academy system.

[Later edit: Here is ANLE’s press release about the event.]

*Since I’m writing in English I’ve used the word American here to mean ‘of the United States’. This usage is problematic from a Hispanic perspective, since América, of course, includes all of North, South, and Central America, not just the United States. When speaking Spanish I would therefore never say americano to mean ‘American’ in the more limited sense, but always estadounidense. It would be helpful to have a more neutral English word like “United Statesian”. Wikipedia has an interesting discussion on this topic here.

Why ser and ir are so irregular

The purpose of this post is to share two of my favorite slides from the PowerPoint I prepared for my recent talk at the NECTFL conference. The slides summarize the history of the two most irregular Spanish verbs, ser ‘to be’ and ir ‘to go’. It turns out that each of these verbs is a historical merger of three distinct verbs. Ser merged the Latin verbs sedere ‘to sit’ and esse ‘to be’, which itself combined Proto-Indo-European verbs meaning ‘to be’ and ‘to become’. Ir merged the Latin verbs ire ‘to go’, vadere ‘to go, walk’ (a cognate of English ‘to wade’), and esse ‘to be’. As you can see from the slides, each root is responsible for a subset of each verb’s modern forms.


The history of “ser” (‘to be’). The asterisks indicate reconstructed (hypothesized) Proto-Indo-European roots.


The history of “ir” (‘to go’). My favorite detail here is that the singular command ‘ve’ and the plural command ‘id’ come from different Latin roots.

This type of historical process, in which one verb does a “hostile takeover” of part of another verb’s conjugation, is common enough to have its own name: suppletion. You can see suppletion in the English verb ‘to go’, whose past tense form went comes from the semantically related verb ‘to wend’. The various cases of suppletion in the histories of ser and ir are likewise plausible:

  • for sedereesse: ‘to sit’ is connected to ‘to be’ because it expresses location
  • for *hes*buh: ‘be’ and ‘become’ are obviously related
  • for irevadere: ‘walking’ is a kind of ‘going’
  • for ireesse: if you ‘are’ somewhere, it follows that you ‘went’ there. For example, you can say “I’ve never been to Barcelona” instead of “I’ve never gone to Barcelona”.

I will have to save these charts for the second edition of my book!

The joy of diminutives

I just checked, and was surprised to see that this is my first blog post about Spanish diminutives (unless you count a passing reference in my all-time second-most-viewed post on Spanish nicknames). Diminutives are word endings, such as -ito and -illo, that make a ‘little’ version of the word they are attached to. For example, a cucharita is a little spoon (cuchara) and a cigarrillo ‘cigarette’ is literally a small cigar (cigarro). Diminutives often convey affection rather than size. Pobrecito is equivalent to ‘poor thing’, and mamacita, while it has no true English equivalent, is similar to ‘dear mother’.

Spanish speakers use diminutives deliberately and even with relish, often piling them on as in chiquitillo ‘little boy’, which adds both -ito and -illo to chico ‘boy’. In this way, diminutives are different from inflectional endings, such as plural -s and -n, which speakers use without thinking. The same is true for other affective endings, such as -azo and -ón, which both mean ‘large’ and often bear an insulting tinge.

One of my favorite examples of Spanish diminutives in action comes from (where else?) Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” book series, my current Spanish literary obsession. In Seis días de diciembre, the fifth book in the series, Mascarell has lunch with a customs official, Martín Centells, at Centells’s favorite restaurant near the port of Barcelona. As a regular patron, Centells receives the best treatment from Quique, the chef/owner. Quique uses diminutives to describe the specialties of the day with loving pride:

¿Qué tienes hoy, Quique?
Una sopita de pescado de las buenas. Y de segundo sardinitas pero de las que anoche estaban en el mar tan tranquilas que las ha pescado mi suegro.

— What do you have today, Quique?
— A terrific fish soup, and as a second course, sardines that were relaxing in the ocean until my father-in-law caught them last night.

Interestingly, Sierra i Fabra maintains the diminutive when describing how Quique serves the food (Ya traía las sardinitas), but drops it when Mascarell and Centells eat: Probó la sopa ‘He tasted the soup’, atacando la primera sardina ‘attacking the first sardine’.

Darn it, now I’m hungry.

Muletillas revisited

I remember, with excruciating clarity, my most embarrassing moment as a young mother. I was in the supermarket with my two-year-old daughter, Joanna. She always attracted a lot of attention because of her adorable face and her cherubic halo of blond curls. This made it even more humiliating when she decided that she was bored and piped up, in her clear voice that carried for aisles (if not miles), “Mom, let’s get out of this f**ing store!” That’s when I realized it was time for me to clean up my language.

What does this have to do with Spanish?

Last week my second-semester students all gave oral presentations. I had slipped, almost without realizing it, into the habit of dropping the English word so into my Spanish. And just like toddler Joanna, my students did as I did. More than half of them used so in their presentations instead of a proper Spanish hesitation word, like pues or bien. (In Spanish these are called muletillas ‘little crutches’, a term I adore.) As with the supermarket incident, the message was clear: it was time for me to clean up my Spanish.

This incident was particularly galling to me because I am well aware of the linguistic importance of sticking to the target language when using hesitation words. In fact, this was the subject of the best language lesson I ever had as a student, in a class with Harvard’s master French teacher Judy Frommer, Prof. Frommer had every student in the class read out loud a short, innocuous paragraph while attempting to stretch it out as long as possible with French muletillas, or tics de langage, such as bondoncalors, and bien. It was a lot of fun, and really drove home an important point: every time you lapse into your own language, even if just for a meaningless syllable, your brain has to do extra work to switch back into the target language.

So — I have turned over a new linguistic leaf, and am doing my best to keep my Spanish pure. I’m sure that my students will register this change, albeit not consciously, and I hope it will help them keep to Spanish themselves.

[Note: I entitled this post “Muletillas revisited” because I thought I had mentioned the topic before…but I haven’t. More’s the pity…]

A new online Spanish etymological dictionary

Today’s post is about a new online resource for the Spanish language lover: the Online Etymological Dictionary of Spanish, or OEDoS. A screen clip of the welcome screen is below. The website was inspired by Douglas Harper’s very useful online etymological dictionary of English. It went live in July, and has its own Facebook page. The primary resource consulted to create the entries has been Corominas’s Diccionario crítico etimológico de la lengua castellana. (This is the six-volume standard, whose shorter version is one of the “top 10 books” on my bookshelf.)


I contacted the OEDoS Team to find out more about their methodology. Via a friendly return email I learned that the dictionary began with the 2000 most frequently used words of Spanish, with others added because of etymological importance, user requests, and other reasons. My OEDoS contact’s (Patrick Welsh) explanation of how the OEDoS handles etymological disagreements was quite interesting:

As regards conflicting etymologies, we the OEDoS team recognize a dual responsibility of both accuracy and readability. We aim to capture disagreement between linguists whenever possible. In the interest of our time constraints and resources, this is not always possible. Sometimes this breeds disagreement on our side as well. For example, the etymology of hacer (http://spanishetym.com/term/hacer) sparked significant disagreement on historical accentuation and lexical borrowing; this caused the publication of the entry to be delayed for some time. We note the incisive criticism of Penny and others in the 1980s toward Meyer-Leubke, as well as very recent scholarship on Latin’s reflexes in Romance. Ultimately, we decided Meyer-Leubke’s comments were strong enough to overcome our initial wariness. Brief mention of two modern publications were included in the entry as well. Sometimes the entry you see in the dictionary is a snapshot of disagreement: not only between historical linguists at their university desks but between us as well


I hope that you will all visit this website and spread the word about the project.

Trabajar por vs. trabajar para

My airplane reading for my flight home from Spain was the third book in Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” series, Cinco días de octubre. I love these books! The plots are gripping, the Spanish is lively, the links to modern Spanish history are illuminating, the Barcelona setting is vivid (Sierra’s events unfold on actual streets, parks, and whatnot), and Inspector Mascarell himself is a compelling character, from his brilliant investigative skills to his mental conversations with his dead wife.

Of course, I always have my eyes out for interesting linguistic tidbits, and I found one on p. 223 of the paperback edition. There, Mascarell reassures a nervous witness that although he is temporarily in the employ of the unscrupulous Benigno Sáez de Heredia, he isn’t Sáez’s ally. He does this by juxtaposing por and para with the verb trabajar:

Trabajo para él, accidentalmente, pero no por él, descuide.
‘I work for him, accidentally, but not for him, so relax.’

Por and para both translate as ‘for’ in English, and mastering the subtle differences between them is one of the less pleasant tasks in learning Spanish (see, for instance, the por/para handout on my Teaching page, and also this earlier post). The contrast between trabajar por and trabajar para is a standard part of this topic. However, Sierra does not exploit the contrast in the usual way.

Normally, trabajar para means ‘to work for (as an employee)’ and trabajar por means ‘to work for (as a substitute)’, as when a usual worker is sick. My por/para handout includes examples of both uses. However, in this case Sierra is using trabajar por to mean instead ‘to work for the sake of’, or ‘for the benefit of’. This is a perfectly reasonable use of por, but startling after focusing, for years (!!!), on the employee/substitute contrast.

Like other contrasts that exist in Spanish but not English, such as ser vs. estar ‘to be’ and the preterite vs. imperfect past tenses, the por/para contrast can be seen as either a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, the contrast is a genuine challenge for novice Spanish students, and even old hands: after decades of striving, I still occasionally find myself stumped as to which preposition to use. On the other hand, Sierra’s example here shows the expressive power of the por/para contrast. It accomplishes elegantly, with a single lexical choice, a difference that in English requires either dramatic emphasis on the second for (as I’ve tried to show via boldface), or a more drastic, and stiffer, rewording: perhaps ‘…but not on his behalf’. It’s always comforting to see such a useful payoff for a challenging aspect of the language.

[Other posts based on Sierra i Fabra’s books have concerned leísmo (here and here), the personal a, and the imperfect subjunctive.]