“Odd” Linguistic Components in Spanish

For E.N.

Can you suggest a specific instance in where the languages that you speak handle a linguistic component differently and it has always seemed odd to you. (Maybe when you get tired or if you haven’t spoken the language in quite some time it becomes apparent to you. Maybe a visiting friend always has difficulty with this linguistic component in English as a result).

I am not a Spanish expert. But here are some things I thought were interesting when I was studying the language.

  1. In Spanish, there are two words for forpor and para. So, you need to know which one to use, when.

    Similarly, in Spanish the words pero and sino which are distinct, whereas in English we use only the one word but.

    I forgot a really big one. In Spanish, there are two distinct words ser and estar, whereas in English there is only one in translation: to be.
  2. In Spanish, there is a familiar form for singular you (), and a formal form (usted). We don’t have this in English. It’s my understanding that in Spain, there’s also a familiar form for plural you (vosotros), but I wasn’t taught this so I don’t know much about it. People in Latin America don’t use vosotros.

    I think I read somewhere that English USED TO have a distinction between formal and informal versions of you: the words were thee and thou. Some papers I’ve seen on JSTOR call these the Quaker Thee and Thou. But I don’t know which was formal and which was informal. You’ll have to do some research!

    For whatever reason, these two words dropped out of usage, and now we just have a generic you. But Spanish still maintains and usted, and in Spain they even have that vosotros word.

  3. In Spanish, there’s a distinction between masculine and feminine nouns. Usually, a noun ending in o is masculine while a noun ending in a is feminine. There are some exceptions, e.g. día (day) is masculine. I have heard that some nouns can be either masculine or feminine, e.g. mar (sea).
  4. In some parts of Spain, soft c is pronounced th like a lisp, e.g. cielo (which means sky or heaven) will sound like thielo. But in Latin America, it’s pronounced like an s, like you might expect. I heard somewhere that this may be because some king had a lisp, and so everybody copied it (either to appear to be royal, too, or, more likely, to make the king less self-conscious); this is apparently only myth, though. In Spanish, the word for pronouncing soft c like th is cecear.
  5. I’ve heard that in Spanish, there is much more use of the subjunctive tense compared to English, and that the use of this tense in English is dying out. This might be a disputed conjecture, though.
  6. In Spanish class, we learned to start questions with an upside-down question mark, e.g.

    ¿Cómo se llama usted?

    and exclamations with an upside-down exclamation point,

    ¡Ay, caramba!

    There’s some logic to this. It alerts the reader that a question (or exclamation) is coming up, so you know ahead of time how you are to inflect the tone. In English, you don’t know it’s a question until you get to the end of the sentence.

    This practice may be dying out though. I think in modern times, the upside down characters have been disappearing.

Published in: on 28 March 2009 at 7:39 am  Comments (2)  
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Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations (L.I.A.R.)

For S.F., T.S.F, and I.K.

Over dinner this past Saturday, I also mentioned a story about another difficult co-worker. I had emailed him a blurb with funny referrals that could be interpreted in two ways. Well, it turns out that that blurb is still out there on the Internet, even after all these years. Here is the blurb:

Some years ago I ran across an article about a professor whose students and colleagues would approach him asking him for employment references. Often he did not want to provide a reference because, frankly, it would not be glowing. If he told the truth about the colleague or student, he might lose a friend or get sued. If he wrote a nice reference letter, he would feel wrong because, after all, he had misled someone who was counting on his judgment.

What could he do? After thinking about it for a while, he decided that he could tell the truth and make the person who asked for the referral happy, too. So, he invented what he termed a Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Referrals, LIAR for short. Here are some examples:

  • You would be lucky to get this person to work for you.
  • I am glad to say that this is a former colleague of mine.
  • I can assure you that no one would be better for this position.
  • I cannot say enough good things about this person.
  • I most heartily recommend this person with no qualifications whatsoever.

Each of the above phrases can lead to two diametrically opposed interpretations.

This enraged my co-worker, because he was in the process of looking for another job and he thought I was making fun of him. But I didn’t know this; I never claimed to be telepathic.

A whole collection of these quotes were published in a small book, which I bought used on Amazon.com. Unfortunately, I can no longer find my copy of that book. I’m sure it’s buried somewhere in the piles of books that dot my apartment.

Published in: on 26 March 2009 at 9:59 pm  Comments (1)  

Coraline (2009)

For B.O.

Yesterday, I got around to seeing the movie Coraline. I thought I had gotten tickets to a “regular” version of the show, but was pleasantly surprised to see a 3D version. (I now suspect that only a 3D version was released to the theaters.) Here are some thoughts (warning: SPOILERS below).

  1. Entering a dream world, or at least an alternative world, is a common theme in Mr. Gaiman’s work. The most obvious example (to me) is his Sandman series, which focuses on a god-like being, Morpheus, who rules the Dream World. Other examples are Stardust, American Gods, and Neverwhere.

    As some of you might know, I’m interested in the topic of dreams, especially lucid dreams. From his writing, I suspect that Mr. Gaiman knows what lucid dreams are, and that he may have even experienced them personally.

  2. Names are important to Mr. Gaiman, and he often chooses them carefully. Sometimes they symbolize something, and sometimes they’re puns. One memorable one for me (SPOILER ALERT) was in American Gods: there was a character there named “Low Key” who seemed to be just a regular guy, but turns out to be the god Loki. Or how about the character Ms. Lupescu in The Graveyard Book, who turns out to be a werewolf?

    In this case, I started wondering about the name Coraline. It looks like it means having to do with or being made of coral. But I’m not sure how that fits in with the movie. Maybe the transposition of the letters “a” and “o” from the more common name Caroline signifies something? Maybe it somehow symbolizes the character’s transposition between the real world and the Other World?

  3. There seemed to be only one way to get into Other Mother’s world: through the strangely organic-looking tunnel behind the secret door. Curiously, there seemed to be two ways to get out. The obvious way was to go back out the way you came in, through the tunnel. But Coraline seemed to be able to return to the “real” world simply by going to sleep and then waking up — at least for her first two visits to Other Mother’s world.

    As an aside, the organic-looking tunnel was reminiscent of a similar tunnel in Poltergeist (1982): in Carol Anne’s closet, an organic-looking tunnel appeared, that led into the maws of Hell! (A serpentine tongue came out and grabbed the little girl and dragged her in!)

  4. There’s an old admonishment about being careful what you wish for, because you might get it. It seems pertinent to this movie, because Coraline was offered the choice of having what appeared to her to be a better world than her “real” one. Of course, it was actually a bad deal, because she would have become Other Mother’s prisoner!

    Another movie I saw recently, Fanny (1961; saw it on DVD) had a similar situation, where a brash young man desirous of a life of adventure leaves behind his childhood sweetheart, the love of his life, to become a sailor. Unfortunately he finds that traveling the world as a sailor isn’t as romantic as he had thought it would be, and returns home. Only to find that, in his absence, his girlfriend had gotten married an older man.

  5. There was one part in the movie that I didn’t quite understand. At one point, Coraline wanted to open the door to get to the Other world, but her mother had locked the door and hidden the key. All of the sudden, she seems to know where the key is hidden, and goes directly to it — she grabs a chair, stands on it, and lifts the key off a hook high above a door. How did she know where to find the key?
  6. I wonder whether Other Mother could’ve won over Coraline with a subtler strategy. If she had simply been patient and kind, and kept serving delicious food, maybe Coraline would have chosen to stay in the Other World, without any coercion. Cf. Aesop’s fable about The North Wind and the Sun.
Published in: on 24 March 2009 at 10:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Anomalous Synchronous Behaviour of Large Aggregates of H. sapiens

For S.F. and I.K.

I.K: last night on the metro we were just talking about the fixation on spectator sports in general and football in particular many have. This morning I stumbled upon this article. (It’s a bit longer than it needed to be, but the author makes his points.)

A quote from the article:

Add to the primal passion for identification another natural tendency — the yearning to be part of a group — and the result is a potent brew. Spectator sports offer quick and easy entree into an instant community.

S.F.: I once brought you to a Ravens game up in Baltimore, and I think you detected, perhaps with some unease, the strange electricity that’s generated when thousands of people get together and start thinking alike. It’s as if their thoughts become quantum entangled.

Here’s a YouTube example of a group that normally wouldn’t be doing something organized. But their brain waves are now obviously in synch — same frequency, same phase. Can it be denied that for this group of people, this is a positive experience?

Closely linked to the desire to belong to a group is the simulated enactment of a war: us versus them. Of course, politicians sometimes use this tribal mentality as a tool to manipulate the masses: to rally the people, identify a common enemy. It could be that spectator sports allow H. sapiens to work off their aggressions in a relatively innocuous way (spectator sports) rather than in an overtly destructive way (actual war). This was one of the underlying ideas of Rollerball:

In the very near future, they will produce a war every week during prime time and televise it to the rest of the world. They will call it Rollerball.

Here’s an old quote from Carl Sagan (according to Amazon.com and Google Books, it’s to be found on p. 367 or p. 369 of The Demon-Haunted World, but I can’t find my copy of that book; the quote apparently also appeared in a New York Times article that Sagan wrote in 1993, but I couldn’t find it in the New York Times’ online archive):

Football is a thinly disguised re-enactment of hunting; we played it before we were human.

I like this. From the names Offense and Defense, you’d think that it would be the offense that is “the hunter”. But no: it’s the defense. When the ball is in the hands of a running back with a battering-ram style, the defense is hunting a massive buffalo. If instead the running back’s style emphasizes speed and evasion, the defense is now hunting a jack rabbit. If the quarterback does a trick play, then the quarry becomes a wily fox. And if the quarterback instead resorts to a passing game, the quarry morphs into a bird.

Published in: on 22 March 2009 at 9:36 am  Comments (1)  
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Luggage Repair

You’ll recall that I went to Switzerland and then Italy this past winter break. When I arrived in Switzerland, I noticed that one of the latches of my Samsonite suitcase had been broken in transit (this was only the third time that this suitcase had been used!). The other latch was fine, but I didn’t want to rely on that one latch to keep the suitcase closed. So, after packing for the return trip I wrapped some heavy tape around the suitcase.

On 8 March 2009, while in Florida, I got the suitcase repaired. I went with my parents to the Miromar Outlets in Estero; there, we went to a Samsonite dealer and asked his advice. Should we buy a strap to go around the suitcase?

Since the suitcase was still under warranty, the dealer’s advice was to pay a visit to Frank, a master luggage repairman who works in the area. So we went to the Kwik Shoe & Luggage Repair shop. Frank took the suitcase and was all business; without saying too much, he immediately set to work. After a quick examination, he muttered “I see what the problem is…,” and then replaced the broken latch. (It is possible that he also replaced the other latch too, although from my naive perspective I wouldn’t know why this would be necessary.) After the suitcase was repaired, he took our name, address, and phone number, and entered this information into a computer database. And that was it — since the suitcase was still under warranty, there was no charge. I had been worrying that we’d have to produce the original receipt for purchasing the suitcase, because that receipt has long been lost.

We went back to the car and stowed the newly repaired suitcase into the trunk. As we’re buckling our seatbelts, ready to go, we turn to one another and wonder, “Shouldn’t we tip him?” A debate ensued regarding the magnitude of the tip. Someone said only one dollar, which I thought was way too low. I pulled a five dollar bill out of my wallet (“Make sure he sees you giving the tip!”, someone said, with a chuckle) and went back into Frank’s shop, where he was already busy with the next customer. I dropped the bill into his tip jar. Without looking up from his work, he said “Thank you”, as I stepped out the door.


A plaque on Frank’s wall indicated that he’s a member of the International Luggage Repair Association. This suggests a whole world, a subculture, a mode of thought, that I’m not familiar with. One wonders what are the workings of the ILRA. How many members does it have? Do they have a newsletter? Do they hold annual meetings?

Published in: on 18 March 2009 at 6:43 am  Comments (4)  
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Papaya Seeds and Cherry Tomatoes, Drying

Papaya Seeds and Cherry Tomatoes, Drying

Image acquired with my cell phone in Fort Myers, Florida, on 13 March 2009.

Published in: on 16 March 2009 at 7:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Blue Men

Dr. Manhattan in The Watchmen.

Blue Man Group.

A. Bettik, the android in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series.

Argyrics (people with chronic silver poisoning, e.g. Stan Jones).

Published in: on 7 March 2009 at 7:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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Epitaph

Years ago, in grade school, the teacher tasked us students to write our own epitaph. Here’s what I came up with.

My friend, it’s sad
That we may never meet.
But wonder about me a while,
And then pass on.

Published in: on 7 March 2009 at 7:24 am  Leave a Comment