As of ten days ago, I’ve lived in Mexico for fourteen years. I conduct my daily life in Spanish and write, publish and perform in the language. And yet, to this day, there are elements of my beloved adopted tongue that continue to elude me. Following are my top five.
1.) Words that have different meanings in their masculine and feminine form. Like modern German, English once divided its nouns into three genders – masculine, feminine and neutral – but along the way, it ditched them. Romance languages such as Spanish retain the first two. And, of course, unlike the biological gender distinction of English’s he/she, his/her couplings, this type of gender is what is known in the lingo as “grammatical” gender: which means, for the most part, it’s completely arbitrary. Now, all of this is fine until they go and come up with words that have one meaning when they’re masculine and another entirely when they’re feminine. For example, the first sentence of my short story Fosa (“Grave” or “Pit”) reads as follows: Germán me llama después de que la primera de las palas toca hueso. Translated, it reads: “Germán calls me after the first of the shovels touches bone”. In my initial version of the story, I wrote el primero de los palos, making it masculine instead of feminine. Now, “un palo” is a stick; “una pala” is a shovel. Hence, unbeknownst to me, my first sentence originally had Germán calling the narrator after the first of the sticks touched bone. As this is also a plausible sentence, no one caught it. But it’s not what I wanted to say.
2.) The prepositions “para” and “por”: the bane of the existance of every learner of Spanish-as-a-foreign-language of all times. In the most felicitous of cases, “para” translates as for and “por” translates as by. Except when they don’t. When you vote for somebody (for whatever good that does), you vote “por” them. When you thank someone for something, you’re thanking them “por” whatever they did. Spanish teachers come armed to their “por/para” class with a whole laundry list of cases in which you use the one or the other, but unless you were born into it, it all seems like a giant conspiracy to wring two practically identical prepositions out of one. In a rather ironic parody of Stephen Pinker’s Words and Rules, unable to grasp the rule, I’ve resorted to memorizing individual cases. I’ve even gotten to the point where I can sort of “feel” the difference. But I still have to check every now and again.
3.) Register. Register is “a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting”. Basically, it refers to formal vs. informal language and all the shades and nuances in between. Mastering register – not what to say but how to say it – is one of the most challenging parts of learning a foreign language (a great deal of Monty Python’s humor, for example, comes from their deliberate manipulation of register; think “The Parrot Sketch”), and in speaking, I think I’ve got it pretty much down. In writing, however, things still come up. In another section of Fosa, I wrote:
Pero por más que Gil crea que su cargo de libros sin valor lo ampare del interés de cualquier malhechor, yo soy más abusado. Suscitar el disgusto de algún funcionario con ganas de lucrar con su mercancía presupone que llegue a buen puerto.
Tentative translation: “However much Gil may believe that his shipment of worthless books shields him from any criminal attentions, I am not so naive. Arousing the displeasure of some official desirous of profiting with his merchandise presupposes his getting there in the first place.”
Besides its more obvious meaning of “abused,” abusado also means “clever” or “sharp”. ¡Ponte abusado!, for example, would translate to something like: “Wise up!” Besides being a particularly Mexican slang term (see point #4 below), it is also a spoken-register word. Now, there is nothing wrong with using spoken-register words in writing (literature has been heading ever more in that direction over the last hundred years), but in the context of the high-register content surrounding it, and the arousing of displeasure that occurs immediately after it, it jars. When a trusted reader pointed this out, I went back and, after long deliberation, changed abusado to curtido en batallas. Now the sentence reads, “However much Gil may believe that his shipment of worthless books shields him from any criminal attentions, I am more battle-hardened.” Besides being more register-consistent, it is also, in my opinion, a straight-up improvement over the original.
It is worth noting, as well, that the average written register of contemporary Spanish tends to be higher than in contemporary English. This is not a value judgment, but simply a register measurement.
4.) Mexicanisms. Regionalisms abound in every language, of course. And not only is it a phenomenon of different words, but the same words meaning different things in different places: “pants” means one thing to Americans and something rather intimate for the British, I once learned to my chagrin while living in London. This is all the more true with Spanish, it being the official language of some 20 countries. One meaning of “pendejo” in Mexico is someone who is taken advantage of; a Peruvian pendejo is the one taking the advantage. A Mexican “huevón” is a lazy-ass; in Peru, that same huevón can be anyone, lazy or not.
I write – proudly – in Mexican Spanish. This poses some interesting dilemmas regarding when to use regional speech and when to hew to some kind of straight-and-narrow, though artificial, pan-Hispanic Spanish. Indeed, it is often difficult to know what may be a Mexicanism and what may not be! Case in point: in the original version of Fosa, Álvaro considers his son Gil to be precisely a “pendejo” for being willing to blithely deliver school textbooks to the most violent, ravaged parts of Mexico; in the published version, “pendejo” became replaced with the more pan-Hispanic “imbécil”. Consider, too, that Álvaro was born in Spain but came to Mexico as a child; to what extent would he retain his native vocabulary and to what extent would he have taken on that of his adopted country? In the story, he is back in his hometown in Spain; would that homecoming have triggered a renewed use of his childhood speech? And what would come out at a highly emotional moment? At the story’s climax, he shouts into the phone that the grave being dug up is located under a pinche olivo – a “fucking olive tree”. But pinche is very, very Mexican. Upon further consideration, I changed pinche to the more standard maldito, making the olive tree more goddamned than anything else.
(Mind you, I don’t always scrub out the Mexicanisms; this just happens to be two cases when I did. In the last movement of my Symphony in prose, currently in the works, the main character is a first-person, Mexican narrator, and there, I let the Mexicanisms fly.)
5. False Cognates: false cognates or, more dramatically, “false friends,” are words that look the same in both languages but have different meanings: classic example is the Spanish “actual”, which, actually, means “current” in English in the sense of something happening presently. Or, even more trickily, the word may be a true friend, meaning the same thing in both languages, but may not apply to all of the same cases. In Fosa, one of the characters above states that the fucking olive tree of Point #4 is not indigenous to Mexico. Following the same logic, I wrote: No es un árbol indígena al lugar. But in Spanish, indigenous is not used with reference to flora: the correct word is oriundo or perhaps endémico.
Needless to say, all of this is what makes me love writing in Spanish all the more.