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Linguistic Gymnastics

9 April 2008

Today we had an unusually high level of interaction with the natives, specifically those outside the protective (and ridiculously slow speaking) bubble of our school. Reflecting on the linguistic onslaught which we narrowly survived, we came to some interesting (at least to us) conclusions regarding the Spanish language and those who speak it as their lengua materna. They are presented below.

Keep in mind that we are:
a) not yet fluent in Spanish, as such, all statements about the intricacies and nuances of the language are based purely on our limited exposure and subject to change;
2) liberal arts/ business majors and therefore not fully trained in the scientific method. As such, most the “theories” postulated herein are based on circumstantial evidence (although every one of them holds more water than the one about the earth only being 6000 years old. Now, that’s just ridiculous…);

d) not advocating one language as superior to another, but merely observing differences for the sake of discussion;
iv) paranoid about the things reader Spirit of ’73 is going to come back at us with, hence these disclaimers.

Theory 1: Spaniards speak ridiculously fast because their language prohibits shortcuts, they use double negatives, and they lack the ability to speak with brevity in general.

Data Point 1: The Structure Prohibits Shortcuts
The Spanish language, as with most Romance languages, is very formulaic and regimented (in odd contrast to the people), such that there really aren’t any shortcuts to say most things. Additionally, there aren’t any contractions. Sure, that only means a few letters every now and again, but over the course of a paragraph, that makes quite a difference. Thus, the Spanish are forced to say three to four words to communicate something that, in English, one or two would cover. When you’ve got to double your output in the same amount of time, it forces quickness.
Examples: El Restaurante de Los Padres de Carlos, vs. Carlos’ Parents’ Restaurant (that’s a 50% savings right there) or los padres de mi padre vs. my dad’s parents (an additional 40% fewer words (I think…math was never my strong point, especially in another language). And it’s not just limited to parental descriptions.

Data Point 2: Double Negatives
They don’t not use double negatives. That’s just a-whole-nother kettle of fish adding complexity to the language, as it requires an additional three sentences to explain exactly what you mean by not not meaning something…. Again, the whole more words / same time issue.

Data Point 3: But Yet They Repeat Themselves
It seems that the average Spaniard in the course of conversation will actually say the same thing no fewer than three times, and not necessarily in different ways. And this behavior has been observed between Spaniards speaking to Spaniards, not just Spaniards speaking to retarded Americans. So if you work that one back, that means 66% of what is said is redundant. That means they’re cramming 3 words into a timeslot built for 1. That means that 2 of every 3 words is the same as the first one.

Have we made our point?

Data Point 4: A General Lack of Brevity
Within the 33% of the conversation that’s actually new information, we figure that only 30% are necessary to communicate the point. And that’s accounting for the English equivalents of “like” and like, stuff like that, and like you know, and such. That means that 70% of what is said is essentially conversational gravy and could be eliminated to reduce speed. That all works out to some kind of fraction that Stephen Hawking couldn’t figure out. Point is, all you need is the basic meat and potatoes of language, people: subject, verb. Done.

(The authors realize the irony of this last point, especially in context of some of the overly-loquacious entries in this here blog, but we’re not talking about us, dammit.)

Theory 2: Spaniards Speak Louder with People They Know Than with Strangers

This odd phenomenon has been observed in numerous cafés, restaurants and other such public places, and defies conventional expectations: two Spaniards who know each other will converse in a comparatively loud voice about topics you wouldn’t think they’d want the whole room to know about, while they speak with a waiter (or other stranger) in a relatively low voice about topics that no one would care if they heard. The effect of this phenomenon is that a room full of Spaniards talking to people they know gets really, really loud, making it almost impossible to hear the waiter give you the total for your bill causing you to stare blankly at him until he assumes you’re retarded and writes it on the napkin for you. Not that that’s happened to us…

Theory 3: Spaniards Appropriate Words from Other Languages and Do So Phonetically

The cool thing about Spanish is that you pronounce every letter, and each letter only has one sound. This makes it easy to learn, as you just assume you say everything you see. It also yields some interesting discoveries when you find a term that wasn’t around when Spanish was invented.
esqui : ski (phonetically, that’s “eski”, which is basically how the Spaniards would pronounce the English word.)
béisbol : baseball (same as above)
and my favorite
champú : shampoo (there are no double vowels in Spanish, and the ch is as close to “sh” as they come)

Theory 4: Learning Spanish Will Cause You to Lose Your English Vocabulary, Making You Sound Like an Idiot in Two Languages

Ever find yourself in the situation where you’re the only native English speaker in a room full of ESLs and no one else in the room understands what the hell the teacher is trying to say in Spanish, but she knows you know the word in English, so she looks at you with that “How do you say this in English” look, but for the life of you, you can’t come up with “brochure”? No? Yeah, us neither…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Countess of Cava permalink
    9 April 2008 8:46 pm

    This is the most entertaining piece of prose I have read in a long time! I am laughing out loud! Really, MC, this is TOO funny. You have articulated precisely the feelings of most Americans trying to learn Spanish.

    Oh, by the way, I almost hate to mention this, but there are double AND triple vowels in Spanish. Hang in there, kid, they will come up in the next few chapters.

  2. Peter permalink
    10 April 2008 7:47 am

    If talking loud to people you know is the norm, O and I are going to fit right in.

    Ayyyyy, la biblioteca!

  3. 11 April 2008 1:35 pm

    Heheh, very amusing. But trust me, as you get further on, you’ll be eternally grateful for the aspects of language that are so ‘very formulaic and regimented’. 😉 And despite all said, it sounds like you’re getting on just splendidly. I just love the fact that there is someone on the planet besides me who starts to forget words in English as soon as they are totally immersed in Spanish. My particular example was “that thing, you know the one I mean, the thing that heats up the water, its in the basement, you must know, its the metal thing, the thing that gives you hot water!!!’ A boiler perhaps? Suerte and bon courage – I look forward to your next update!

  4. Spirit of 73 permalink
    19 April 2008 9:50 am

    I have to say, this is much in line with my own experiences.

    I think Spaniards speak so fast because they have a lot of syllables to say, and the language is pretty much consonant/vowel, consonant/vowel, which allows for a machine gun like effect.

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