Sunday, May 9, 2010

notes on language

I've been here about 7 weeks. When educated Chileans are speaking at normal speed, I can catch about 25-30% of the conversation. That goes down significantly for lower socioeconomic classes.

We say "Chil-AY-an," but that's apparently limited to North America. Chileans and British or British-esque speakers say "CHILian". No one knows why. The British put accents in all sorts of wrong places, but I don't know why Chileans picked it up.

I'm not americano in Latin America, because (depending on location) either people resent the United States claiming the name of the continent for its nationality (Mexico), or they're in South America and of course you have to disambiguate what americano means. So in Mexico I was norteamericano, and here I'm either gringo (an inoffensive word in South America) or the delightfully stones-skipping-on-water estadounidense (after Estados Unidos, the United States).

The hottie dojo girl in Santiago said that when Chileans talk about their language, they sometimes call themselves los rotos, "the broken ones". This matches with what Allyson and Rad were on about, occasionally saying that these words Chileans use "aren't even Spanish". It's weird for me because that presupposes that there's some ideal that you can call "Spanish" and use as a metric for comparison, and that's not true of any language. There are just dialects, and usually some dialect becomes culturally privileged and declared to be "Standard". So we have Standard English (with American and British Commonwealth variations), Standard Spanish (spoken in Spain), Standard German. But the English spoken by urban blacks and rural Southerners is still English, in a somewhat circular definition that English is whatever is spoken by native speakers. Chile is very obviously a Spanish-speaking country: if everyone slows down and reverts to simple enough vocabulary, there's no more trouble establishing communication than there is between Americans and British or Australians. So whatever Chileans speak is recognizably Spanish, no matter how many unusual words or usages they have.

Most Chileans also say they speak castellano, which is the Spanish of Castile, around Madrid, in Spain--they don't name the language espa~nol like everyone else. Castilian is the Standard Spanish, what we learn in school. They absolutely do not speak it here. I do not know what they're talking about.

Many words have different meanings. I haven't found a non-gringo place for Mexican food, so I don't know how they work with the following:
  • tortilla - an enchilada.
  • fajita - a tortilla.
  • taco - a traffic jam. (I'm not making this up.)
Though there's not universal agreement on this.

Other common words:
  • ocupar - usually "to occupy/keep busy with", means "to use".
  • tratar de - what we all learned for "to try", but unused here. It's intentar, which is also "to intend," or pretender, which is also "to pretend".
  • weyón - also huevón or hueyón. comes from using huevo ("egg") for "testicle", and has a usage roughly the same as cabrón in northern Latin America.


Spanish can make verbs "reflexive," which often means that either the speaker is doing the action to themselves, or is having it done to them. In the uninflected verb form (the infinitive, which doesn't exist in English because we barely inflect our verbs), you add se to the end: lavar "to wash" becomes lavarse "to wash oneself." Quitó la televisión "he took the TV" becomes se quitó la televisión "the TV was taken." Easy!

Okay, so I want to say "I stop myself": naturally I reach for pararse, the reflexive form of parar "to stop." Oops! Pararse means "to stand up." And there's a lot of those.

It's also an opportunity to recognize that speakers of other languages hear something different than we do when we hear the translation. In English, (even if we slept through writing class and we're not sure why, the passive construction "the TV was taken" sounds weak to us, and we wouldn't use it in conversation anyway: we'd say "someone took the TV". But the analogous Spanish construction isn't weak. And "someone took the TV" probably isn't what a native Spanish speaker would say.

For example, Obama's campaign slogan was "Yes We Can!". This is a rousing English sentence, full of vigor and confidence and open-ended possibility.

His campaign posters in Spanish, though, said "Sí Se Puede!", which uses the reflexive and literally translates as "Yes, It Can Be Done!", or "Yes, It's Possible!". To us, that doesn't sound like much, but in Spanish, not only does it recall the same slogan used by César Chavez way back when, but it just hits the Spanish-speaking ear in a different way. The weakness that we feel in a passive construction just isn't there.

No comments:

Post a Comment