Is this the birthplace of written Spanish?

September 24th, 2019 by After a short drive uphill from the small village of San Millán de la Cogolla, I found myself standing before the Suso monastery. Founded by the 6th-Century hermit monk St Millán, the monastery feels as if it belongs to another time and place. From this secluded spot surrounded by woodland, I had views of the Cárdenas Valley below and Mount San Lorenzo’s peak in the distance. Around me, bluebells marked the entrances to mountainside caves where monks lived long before Suso’s construction. I was in Spain’s La Rioja region, a part of the country that draws visitors for its famous vineyards and the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. But I was here to learn about how the region shaped the way in which millions of people around the world communicate with one another. As I walked through the monastery’s cool, dark corridors, I could feel the walls reverberate with the rumblings of linguistic history. Standing in silence, it was easy to picture monks hunched over Latin manuscripts, furtively making notes in the margins about the meanings of the scriptures in the local language more than 1,000 years ago. That language is what we now call Spanish. The official language in 20 countries and the mother tongue of 480 million people around the world, Spanish is the second most widely spoken native language on the planet after Mandarin Chinese, according to the Spanish language institute, the Instituto Cervantes. In San Millán de la Cogolla, I listened to words roll off locals’ tongues in rapid succession as they discussed the weather and exchanged news about their families – as if this complex language had always existed. Read more: BBC Travel

The confusing way Mexicans tell time

April 30th, 2019 by When I first stepped foot on Mexican soil, I spoke relatively good Spanish. I was by no means fluent, but I could hold a conversation. So when I asked a local ice-cream seller in downtown Guadalajara when he expected a new delivery of chocolate ice cream, and he said ‘ahorita’, which directly translates to ‘right now’, I took him at his word, believing that its arrival was imminent. I sat near his shop and waited, my Englishness making me feel it would be rude to leave. Half an hour passed and still no ice cream arrived, so I timidly wandered back to the shop and asked again about the chocolate ice cream. “Ahorita,” he told me again, dragging out the ‘i’ ‒ “Ahoriiiiita”. His face was a mix of confusion and maybe even embarrassment. I was torn. Waiting longer wasn’t appealing, but I felt it was impolite to walk away, especially if the ice cream was now being delivered especially for me. But finally, after waiting so long that I’d built up an appetite for dinner, dark clouds appeared overhead and I made a rush for the nearest bus to take me home. As I left, I signalled up at the sky to the ice cream seller to let him know that I obviously couldn’t wait any longer and it really wasn’t my fault. His face was, once again, one of total confusion. As I sat on the bus, rain pattering on the windows, I replayed the conversation in my head and decided indignantly that the ice cream seller was a liar. This incident faded from my memory until years later when I came back to live in Mexico. I discovered that cracking what I came to call the ‘ahorita code’ took not a fluency in the language, but rather a fluency in the culture. When someone from Mexico says ‘ahorita’, they should almost never be taken literally; its definition changes dramatically with context. As Dr Concepción Company, linguist and emeritus researcher at the Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, told me, “When a Mexican says ‘ahorita’, it could mean tomorrow, in an hour, within five years or never.” Read more:

Linguistic variation in the Spanish-speaking world

December 18th, 2018 by In the modern and advanced world of the 21st century, a world that knows not only globalisation, but incredible advances in science, technology and media, in an era when everything is as easy as pressing a single button, we cannot help but ask ourselves: What would the effects of these developments be on interpersonal relations, and in language and linguistic variation within these languages? In order to begin to answer this question, the concept of linguistic variation needs to be clarified. Variation supposes the existence of differences between languages, or variants within the same language. Just as mathematical equations have variables that can have a number of different values, language too has variables. Linguistic variables (words, expressions, any linguistic element), too, can have a certain number of variants. Thus, speakers of a language choose one of these variants when expressing a concept. Human beings have the need to establish and maintain social relationships with others. Starting at infancy, a person’s personality, manner of being, thinking and behaving, develop as a result of social contact. In other words, language (both verbal and non-verbal) is the key element in our development as human beings. In other words, society would not survive without language. However, for a person who lives in the 21st century and can travel with ease, experience other cultures, and get along with different peoples, this involves using not only one language, but many, or even using different variants of the same language, and according to the context (using formal and informal registers, different dialects, etc.). Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, spread across the entire planet. And, as you can imagine, when speaking of such a geographically diverse language as Spanish, it is natural that there are differences between the variants of Spanish used in each country. The same thing is often expressed in different ways in the north of Spain, in Argentina, and in Puerto Rico. That is to say, as with many other languages, Spanish has various linguistic norms. We can speak of the norms of Peninsular Spanish and different Latin American norms that oppose those of Peninsular Spanish. Also, as with many other languages, Spanish has diatopical (or geographical), diastratic (or social), and diaphasic (or contextual) variations. In order to understand it better, imagine that you are a Spanish-speaker, and are travelling. You want to write to your friends to tell them what you’ve done over the last few days. What do you send them? An ‘e-mail’ or a ‘correo electrónico’? What do you use to write your message? A ‘computadora’ or an ‘ordenador’? A ‘mouse’ or a ‘ratón’? Let’s suppose that after sending the message you want to rent a car. What will you ask for? A ‘carro’ or a ‘coche’? The answer is very simple: it depends on the region you are in. Such differences could also exist within the same country. For example, take the Canary Islands (a territory that belongs to Spain), where they say ‘papa’ for potato (just as in Latin America) while in (continental) Spain, it is called ‘patata’. Read more:

The Mexican art of double entendre

August 24th, 2018 by As a Brit living in Mexico, I’ve discovered that many people are intrigued by whether or not I eat spicy food. I once had an entire conversation with a waiter in which he asked me where I was from, what language I spoke, where exactly England was, and finally ended with the question he was really trying to ask: do you eat spicy food? Having experienced so much curiosity around the level of heat that I can handle, I was well prepared when a friend asked me if I like chilli while a group of us were out for drinks in Oaxaca city. I waxed lyrical about my love of chillies, the great variety found in Mexico, the level of spice of each chilli and just how much I could handle. What began as stifled giggles among the group became full-on belly laughs, with some of the group almost crying with laughter. I giggled along nervously, like a child who doesn’t understand a joke, while I rapidly ran through what I had said, looking for possible mistakes in my Spanish that could have caused such amusement. Suppressing giggles, one of my friends said, “so you really like Mexican chilli, then?” and the whole table fell about laughing again. At that moment, it clicked: ‘chilli’ must have a double meaning, and it didn’t take long to work out what that double meaning was. My cheeks went puce as I ran back over what I had been saying through their filter, my blushing face making everyone laugh even more. This was my introduction to albur, a Mexican play on words that would have me both intrigued and confused for years to come. Most albures have to do with sex. “[It’s a] way of talking about sex without talking about it,” said Dr Lucille Herrasti, professor of linguistics at the Autonomous University of Morelos. Like in many societies, many Mexicans view sex as a taboo subject. “Using albur is a way to generate the meaning behind the words without using the actual words,” Herrasti added, noting that albures have to be funny in order to make the ordinarily prohibited subject more approachable. She explained how objects that have phallic characteristics – such as the chilli – are used to craft double entendres. The result is that one can be innocently talking about making salsa from chilli, and someone else will hear something more salacious. Read more: BBC Travel

How Italians influenced a South American dialect

October 12th, 2017 by “Argentinian Spanish is sort of hard to understand,” said my sister as she plugged in a fan. It was hot and still in Buenos Aires and we were drinking lemonade on her balcony. I’d just flown into South America for the first time, and I hadn’t slept much on the plane. I was more concerned about my overpowering jet lag than mastering the local dialect. But fresh off a lengthy stay in Nicaragua, I spoke enough Spanish to get by… or so I thought. Later that evening, my sister took me to meet her new boyfriend. Fermin, a native porteño (Buenos Aires local). He and his friends were charismatic and kind, but I could barely understand a word they said. They were speaking Spanish, but their vocabulary was filled with words I’d never heard before. Throughout the evening, Fermin repeatedly referred to his friends as ‘los pibes’, meaning ‘the boys’ or ‘the kids’ in lunfardo, a form of popular slang in Buenos Aires. It’s one of approximately 6,000 words that make up the lunfardo lexicon. Over the course of that evening with Fermin and his pibes, I heard them use mango (rather than dinero) when discussing money and morfi (not comida) to talk about food. The name ‘lunfardo’ hints at the history behind the slang. In the late 19th Century, Argentinian police officers noticed that thieves and other small-time criminals were using a new range of words to communicate with each other. Assuming that the slang was a sort of criminal jargon, the law enforcement officials started making lists of the words and phrases they heard. They called the lexicon ‘lunfardo’, meaning ‘thief’ in Spanish. But according to Oscar Conde, an Argentinian professor who’s written two books on the subject, the cops were wrong. “The birth of lunfardo is not related with criminality,” Conde writes, “but with European immigration to Argentina between 1880 and the beginning of World War I.” During those years, four million people, mostly Italians and Spaniards, arrived in Buenos Aires. The city became, as Conde puts it, “a real-life Babel”. Read more: BBC

Savoring the Spanish of My Youth, as the Language Marches On

August 24th, 2017 by ALBUQUERQUE — Something about the languages we speak fascinates me. Roaming around Latin America as a correspondent for more than a decade, I wrote about Palenquero, a Creole language kept alive by descendants of runaway slaves in northern Colombia; Sranan Tongo, Suriname’s lingua franca; Papiamentu, the vibrant language of Curaçao; and even learned how to say “Mba’éichapa?” — How are you? — in Guaraní, the indigenous language that holds sway in Paraguay. When I returned to the United States in July, I wondered what it would be like to live in a country where the Spanish language is so politicized that some speakers are facing new hostility. I was puzzled as to why Spanish seemed so threatening in an English-speaking superpower. I asked myself, what does the future hold for Spanish in the United States and around the world? Absorbed by these questions, I found myself savoring my re-encounter with Spanish as I set out to write about the language of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriela Mistral and Juan Felipe Herrera. I spent the last six years in Portuguese-speaking Brazil and relish speaking Portuguese every day — my wife and kids are Brazilian — but having the opportunity to speak a lot of Spanish again has provided me with a new glimpse into how languages, and societies, evolve. I grew up speaking some New Mexican Spanish, but just enough to get by. I was envious of classmates who spoke it superbly. More than anything, though, we spoke Spanglish, the blend of Spanish and English that some south of the border derisively refer to as casteyanqui or argot sajón. Before I reported from Brazil, I spent five years in Caracas, so the rapid-fire Spanish that now comes out of my mouth somehow sounds more Venezuelan than anything else; it includes a lot of dropped consonants and an array of inventive profanities that caraqueños of many ages comfortably use at the breakfast table. Sometimes this makes me feel like a bit of a foreigner returning to New Mexico, the state where I grew up. But I quickly realized that I might feel the same way even if I’d never left New Mexico, thanks to the surge in Spanish-speaking immigrants, largely from northern Mexico, who have followed their star here. Read more: NY Times

A Rare Public Display of a 17th-Century Mayan Manuscript

May 21st, 2017 by When you take a close look at the flowery but meticulous lettering in the 17th-century book, you can see that many people wrote the script, at different times. The book includes everything from sermons to poems, and there’s a dedication to Pope Urban IV. The Libro de Sermones Varios en Lengua Quiche, from 1690, is the oldest manuscript in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives. It provides not only a fascinating look at the evolution of the Maya K’iche’ language, but it also tells a stark tale of religious history. “When I see a document like this it just blows me away to see the care with which the language was put on paper by so many different people,” says Gabriela Pérez-Báez, curator of linguistics in the anthropology department at the National Museum of Natural History. She says the book is written in four different languages, including K’iche’, Latin, Spanish and Kaqchikel. “The paper is thicker, the book smells differently, it is really amazing to see the care with which it was written,” Pérez-Báez marvels. The Libro de Sermones is part of the Objects of Wonder exhibition now on view at the National Museum of Natural History. The book has also been digitized so that scholars can peruse the book both to answer questions about history, but also to document the changes in the K’iche’ language as the Spanish were taking over the Maya empire in the 16th century. The text in the Libro de Sermones is very similar to the K’iche’ language that was spoken before contact with the Spanish. The book was given to one Felipe Silva by Pablo Agurdia of Guatemala in 1907, and Silva apparently donated it to the Smithsonian Institution sometime after that, but there are no documents explaining exactly how that happened. Today, Pérez-Báez says the book is quite relevant and important to scholars. Read more: Smithsonian

How Latino Players Are Helping Major League Baseball Learn Spanish

April 13th, 2017 by With the start of baseball season in sight, millions of Latino fans in the U.S., the Caribbean, and Latin America will be rooting for their favorite players, many of whom are transplants from places like Venezuela, Dominican Republic, and Cuba. But Spanish-speaking fans, millions of whom watch Spanish-language broadcasts of baseball games, will have little idea of the lingering challenge some Latino players in the States have long faced: inadequate language support from the minor and major leagues. Much of the issues surround the inability of the Latino players to meaningfully communicate with the press. This can be the result of simply not speaking each other's language, a barrier in how cultural norms affect the use of language, or from poor reporting on Latino players. the Houston Chronicle wrote an article on the struggling performance of Carlos Gómez during his season with the Houston Astros. Gómez, born in the Dominican Republic, speaks English, but not with native proficiency. When Smith quoted Gómez as saying, "For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed," the mangled language sparked a backlash about how the media can sometimes cover players in a way that demeans their intelligence or leaves them embarrassed. Read more: NPR

Stanford research explores novel perspectives on the evolution of Spanish

November 15th, 2016 by How has the Spanish language evolved in the hundreds of years it has been spoken on multiple continents? To answer the question, Cuauhtémoc García-García, a graduate student in Iberian and Latin American cultures, analyzed 900 years’ worth of texts in over a quarter of a million volumes. “I wanted to study language evolution through data found in written work to add historical depth to how, where and when languages changed,” he said. “My new data show that Spanish on the Iberian Peninsula was much more resistant to change over time when compared to Spanish in the Americas, where – since colonization – Spanish from Spain has come into contact with local, indigenous and hybrid influences.” That process, he noted, has led to a Spanish that has progressively changed ever since the language first arrived in the Americas. The changes, however, are not uniform across the Spanish-speaking Americas, and instead he found that the “hybridization” and evolution of language varied from place to place. Read more: Stanford University

How NYC’s First Puerto Rican Librarian Brought Spanish To The Shelves

September 9th, 2016 by 11:00 a.m. is bilingual story hour at the Aguilar branch of the New York Public Library. Dozens of kids — mostly children of immigrants from China, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico — have settled down to hear Perez y Martina, a story based on a Puerto Rican folktale. But Perez y Martina — which tells the tale of a romance between a cockroach and a mouse — isn't just any children's story. When it was published in 1932, it was the first Spanish language book for children published by a mainstream U.S. press. And its author, Pura Belpré, was the first Puerto Rican librarian in New York's public library system at a time when the city's Puerto Rican population was swelling. Belpré could not find any books for kids in Spanish — so she wrote them herself. Back in 1921, Belpré was a college student at the University of Puerto Rico. She had plans to become a teacher, but she came to New York to attend her sister's wedding and decided to stay. In Harlem, Belpré was recruited as part of a public library effort to hire young women from ethnic enclaves. This first job was a springboard, says scholar Lisa Sánchez, for Belpré's extraordinary career — as a story teller, an activist, a librarian, a folklorist — and even as a puppeteer. Belpré traveled all over the city, from the Bronx to the Lower East Side, telling stories with puppets in Spanish and English. Nobody was doing that back then. Read more: NPR

MLB teams must hire full-time Spanish translators for 2016

January 13th, 2016 by All 30 Major League Baseball clubs have received a joint directive requiring them to hire full-time Spanish translators for the 2016 season in conjunction with a new program negotiated between the commissioner's office and the players' union, multiple baseball officials told ESPN on Tuesday. While some big-league clubs already have full-time translators on staff, others routinely rely on coaches or other uniformed personnel to serve as interpreters for Spanish-speaking players who are not well-versed in English during media obligations. The new initiative, known as the "Spanish-language translator program,'' was intended to make the same opportunities available to players on all 30 clubs. The full-time translators are expected to be in place by Opening Day and will be employees of the individual clubs -- not Major League Baseball. According to MLB figures, nearly 25 percent of players on 2015 Opening Day rosters came from primarily Spanish-speaking countries. The Dominican Republic led the way with 83 players, followed by Venezuela (65), Cuba (18), Puerto Rico (13), Mexico (9) and Colombia (4). Source: ESPN‎

Translating Spanish Masterpieces into Quechua, the Language of the Incas

September 14th, 2015 by reports that works by such noted Nobel laureates as Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez will be translated into Quechua as part of the proposed “Latin American Literature Classics in Quechua” from the Decentralized Directorate of Culture of Cusco (DDCC). Quechua, the language of the Inca civilization, is currently spoken by seven million people throughout Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, with close to four million speakers in Peru alone. Book titles have yet to be officially announced, but the list of works to be translated is also said to include books from Adolfo Bioy Casares (Argentina), Juan Carlos Onetti Borges (Uruguay) and Clarice Lispector (Brazil). Read more: Publishing Perspectives