“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.

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Published in: on 28 March 2009 at 7:39 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting stuff, and nice eclectic collection of thoughts on this blog.

    I recently came across the theory of the “Spanish lisp” while reading Richard Dawkins’ – The God Delusion. He just gives it passing reference, and suggests it might be a myth, as he discusses memetic evolution (evolution and prorogation of memes, or ideas) and how other languages evolved out of latin as he lays a background for the evolution of religion.

    Not finished the book yet, but upon stumbling across this blog and seeing the Spanish lisp reference thought I’d drop a line.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. Evolution of language, evolution of religion; both sound fascinating to me. I haven’t gotten around to reading The God Delusion yet, though I do intend to. I’d like to try reading it back-to-back with Francis Collin’s The Language of God, and see what happens to my brain. Might end up with a horrible mess. 🙂


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