Spanish Words of Spanish Letters
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Spanish Words of Spanish Letters

I might be gone a long, long time, but probably not long enough to inspire a Bob Dylan song.

Spanish Words of Spanish Letters
Lydia Bailey

Dearest readers,

As I am sure the thousands several of you who have read my previous article are aware, I am currently studying abroad in Spain! [Note: my writing to the contrary, I was not really hit by a smart car. I was joking about how small they are. Sorry for the confusion.] This trip comes at a particularly opportune time in my life, as college has given me strong Spanish, linguistic, and historical backgrounds to truly appreciate my visit. (I'm also a lot less picky than I was as a kid. Sure, it would have been cool to experience immersion at an even younger age, but it's nice to actually enjoy grilled octopus, ya know?) This voyage being a STUDY abroad, our professors have encouraged us to set aside some time between siestas and jaunts at the discoteka to be critical analysts. Ever the kiss-up scholar, I happily obliged. As such, today I share with you some linguistic observations.

Phonetics, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Embrace the Sound of Silenthe

It's not enough just to know the lingo of a foreign language. You also gotta learn how to say what you're trying to say-- IF you want to sound like a native speaker, of course. Far be it from me tell you how to pronounce your words! (Linguists haaaaaaate prescriptivists.) Native Spanish speakers, for example, employ flipped 'r's and dental 't's while staying away from the velar 'l' so ubiquitous in English. But did you know that Spanish Spanish varies from other Spanishes? ("Spanishes": Linguists looooooove it when the Common Folk make up new words.)

The prime example of a Spanish/Latin-American phonetic difference is what's referred to colloquially as the Spanish lisp. Many of the "s" sounds here are pronounced with a "th". One style, called distinción, employs the "th" sound specifically when the "s" sound in question is produced by a 'c' or 'z' orthographically, i.e. in writing. Thus, while sí, señor maintains the prototypical "s" pronunciation, zapato or celebrar sounds like "thapato" and "thelebrar." My schooling has largely focused on the Latin American pronunciations, so I have consciously attempted to pick up distinción while in Spain. While this phonetic trait actually does very little for me in the way of sounding like a native speaker, it does an excellent job of increasing the amount of spittle I expel at my interlocutors. Th-orry about that.

Semantics, Or: You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

For some English-speakers, Spanish can be a relatively easy language to learn. This is in part because, let's face it, almost everything is easy to learn compared to English. Additionally, Spanish has a highly transparent orthography. This means that Spanish pronunciation is consistent, and easily inferred from its writing system. (Ever noticed how spelling bees are virtually non-existent in other languages?) As far as transparency goes, English is a stupidly complicated choice for a global lingua-franca. But far be it from me to criticize my native tongue! I guess we gotta keep graduates from elite universities who want to teach English abroad for their gap year occupied somehow.

All this orthography discussion leads me to the actual semantics piece, which is that another factor contributing to the ease of learning Spanish comes from that it shares many cognates with English. (Cognates = words that are similar to each other and also share meanings.) Adventura, familia, and música are just a few of the thousands of examples. It is the omnipresence of cognates that, ironically, can make academic writing in Spanish easier to understand than some simpler texts. For anglophones, a paper on Feminismo radical: la revolución y la destrucción violenta del patriarcado y su concomitante estado policíaco (Radical Feminism: The Revolution and the Violent Destruction of the Patriarchy and its Concomitant Police State) can be easier to understand than La cuenta de la cuchara feliz (The Story of the Happy Spoon).

There are, however, a few "false friends," i.e. words that look like cognates but in fact are not.

Por ejemplo:

"La rapista molestaba la mujer embarazada."

What it is not: "The rapist molested the embarrassed woman."

What it is: "The barber annoyed the pregnant woman."

Overall, Spanish has far more cognates than false friends, which contributes to comprehensibility. Just remember that if a child tells you a story about being annoyed by a teacher, you don't have to call the police.

Pragmatics, Or: Seinfeld Got It Right; Coffee's Not Coffee!

One characteristic I quite like about Spanish is the delineation between the formal "usted" and casual "tú" forms of address. While some find it confusing (they should see Korean!), I appreciate the opportunity to explicitly signal respect to my Spanish-speaking professors and elders through use of the "usted" form. ¡Lamebota! Callate.

One of my fears upon traveling to a Spanish speaking country was forgetting to use this slightly more complicated usted form. Far be it from me to fail to give folks their due deference! My worries were ill-founded, however, as evidenced by the below translated transcription of a conversation with an elderly man.

Me: ¿Cómo está usted? [How are you, sir?]

Elderly Man: [Please, don't use "usted" with me! You make it seem like I'm old. Use the casual "tú."]

Me: [Oh sorry! I mean no offense.]

Elderly Man: [Sí, chica."Usted" was for my father. With me "tú" is fine.]

Me: [I do apologize. Perhaps you can understand my confusion, as we are in a geriatric hospice ward.]

Evidently, in Spain the "usted" form is less seen as a sign of respect and more seen as an ageist call-out. This is NOT the case in many Latin American countries, where the use of "usted" is expected much more often. After noting this pragmatic difference, here in Spain I have switched to using "tú" by default with anyone who is not a professor.

A similar rift exists in the US, in which "ma'am" and "sir" are sometimes mandatory titles for addressing elders and sometimes abhorrent insults. This is again evidenced by the below transcriptions.

Six-year-old me: Thank you, ma'am!

Middle-aged Southerner: [to my mother] Oh, ain't she precious!

Six-year-old me: [interjecting] Yes.

Ten-year-old me: No problem, ma'am!

Middle-aged Midwesterner: Ugh, don't call me "ma'am." That's so old fashioned.

Ten-year-old me: Um, sorry…dude.

High school me: Here's my homework, ma'am.

Twentysomething teacher: Please don't call me that.

High school me: Oh sorry, I didn't mean to be insulting.

Twentysomething teacher: I prefer "mademoiselle."

To each their own, I guess.


Although there are many more interesting facts to note, you must keep in mind that I am writing this piece in a beautiful city in Spain. I thus wrap up now, as staying on the computer any longer would be practically criminal. Just remember that although linguistic differences can pose communication challenges, they can also contribute to the richness of your journey. This has certainly been the case for me, and it has been my pleasure to subject you to share these observations with you today. Until next time, dear readers, adieu!

No wait, it's adios! Until next time, ¡adios!

A Conversation Upon Reading This Article:

Little sister: Gosh, Mom, Lydia sure writes that a lot, doesn't she?

Mom: Writes what, dear?

Little sister: "Far be it from me to…"

Mom: Ah yes. I've talked about it with the ladies in my prayer circle, and we think it's just a phase.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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