Can language usage be poor or vulgar?

I haven’t been able to write a post for quite a while. But there is plenty to write about, especially in relation to many of the news found in elcastellano.org website. One of the news items is about some Spanish language academies criticizing what they see as “a vulgarization of the Spanish language” by radio and television media in the Spanish speaking countries.

On the other hand I’m reading at the moment a really interesting and magnificent book about the nature of language. The book is “The Unfolding of Language” by Guy Deutscher. By reading this text I have been able to understand more closely some more aspects in relation with the scientific, social and cultural nature of language.

Deutscher presents in his work some very comprehensive analyses about the way in which all languages have historically evolved. How every living tongue used by any speaker is the result of complex and subtle never ending changing processes. I recommend this book to any person interested in getting a good grasp of the fascinating way in which all languages evolve and keep forever changing their intrinsic nature.

The news article I’m talking about here attracted my attention because it fits with the line of thought presented by “The Unfolding of Language”. Deutscher Lists a historical account of how since ancient  times until the present there has been a constant criticizing of the way language is used in the social setting; of how “language usage has always been superior” at a certain point in the past. He presents us with detailed analyses of why arguing about any perceived superior language usage in past epochs exists only in the mind of the person making such judgement.

What I’ve learned from this excellent book is that no matter from what point of view a language is analysed, the only judgement that any sensible person can pass about the nature of language – especially of the particular  ways in which it is used by a large human group – is one of open-mindedness and of critic outlook at the amazing wonder of what we call language.

Language usage cannot be legislated, controlled or imposed in any given manner. If the media presents a “vulgar” or poor language usage can only be the result of the social context where that particular usage is taking place.

What I’m saying here doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be an encouragement for everyone to have a “better” usage of  language as registered in the grammatical rules or prevalent social conventions. The real issue here, however, it’s to do with with the fact that the quality of the language used by any group of people has nothing to do with the assumption that their particular language usage is better, poorer or of vulgar character.

Some more facts about Spanish in the Philippines

Late last year I wrote a post here about the proposal of reintroducing the teaching of Spanish in the school system of the Philippines.

My post has generated many responses. It has been in fact the most popular of my post since I started this blog. Since the time I wrote it I’ve found out some other facts relating to the history and nature of the Spanish language presence in the Philippines.

  1. During the colonial period (over three centuries) Spanish was the language used for administrative purposes, however, there was never a massive immigration of Spanish colonists as the Philippines didn’t have the economic potential of Mexico or Peru.
  2. The preaching of the gospels and the overall propagation of Christianity was mostly carried out via the native languages.
  3. Spain as colonial master only made the teaching of Spanish compulsory quite late in the 18th century.

Based on Ostler (2005:377 – 379)

Point 1 translates into a situation where a language doesn’t need to be used or maintained and consequently naturally reproduced by new generations of native speakers. The lack of enough native Spanish colonists didn’t provide the necessary environment for Spanish to have an initial firm hold at a greater scale during the period of the Spanish domination of this country. Ostler (2005) also lists the case of Dutch, as a colonial language with similarities to the fate of Spanish in the Philippines’ context. (p 395-403)

Apart from the primary role of the family for the maintenance of a language and the role played by a same language group setting to achieve this same goal, a language is propagated by organised school systems. Spain’s late response to the need to teach the general population Spanish together with the effects caused by the other two factors listed above may be assigned as the main reasons for Spanish not to have taken firm roots in the Philippines.

Bibliography

Ostler, Nicholas. Empires of the Word (Harper Perennial, 2005)

Spanish Phonology – is neither hard nor dry

To achieve success in the learning process of a second language, students need to acquire a high level of understanding of the phonological features of the language they’re studying. This can be done in the medium to long term by direct and continuos exposure to the sounds patterns of that language; conversely they can endeavour to systematically study those patterns and their properties.

Phonetics and phonology are two aspects of the nature of language in relation to second language teaching and learning that I find extremely fascinating. There are so many aspects to consider when we focus on the true nature of the spoken language; I mean the type of speech used on daily basis by a given human group or what is also called a dialect of a language.

The study of the phonological patterns of the Spanish language can be seen from many angles. From the amount of sounds that exist in its language varieties or dialects, Spanish doesn’t have the sound complexities of English for example. Most of the sounds found in all Spanish dialectical forms, are quite easy to master for most second language learners.

Standard Spanish has very few sounds that may represent a major learning problem for most people studying it as a second language. These learners soon find out, for example, that in this language variety a prominent distinctive sound pattern is the one represented by letter z in combination with any vowel and c with e and i. This is perceived that way mainly because those phonological features of Spanish are not pronounced in the same manner in the Peninsular (European) and American Spanish dialectical forms.

As a matter of fact there are several distinctive sound patterns among the Spanish dialectical forms; however, the case mentioned above is one of the first sounds that students become more aware of or may be presented with in the language classroom. As soon as they start to find out more about the nature of the other sounds that are found in the American Spanish dialectical varieties, like the aspiration of s in final positions or the several pronunciations for ll, they realize that the phonology of this language rather than complex is rich and varied.

In my long experience as Spanish teacher to adults, I have always taught Spanish phonology based on a structured yet simple way which uses the International Phonetic Alphabet as the main methodological tool. However, I’ve always presented the subject based on a general or standard model, except in relation to the sound of z and c in the manner referred to above. It has only been through my own study and classroom practice that I have managed to get into the finer aspects of the phonology of my mother tongue.

A few moths ago I was trying to find some information about a particular sound and I came across a link containing an almost complete description of all the sounds patterns of the main dialectical varieties of Spanish. The link is by the University of Iowa.

It was only in one of those moments of hunger for learning that I decided to study what there was in the link. And to my amazement I came to understand quite a few other aspects of the Spanish phonology that weren’t still quite clear to me. The link presents the Spanish phonological patterns in a detailed and illustrated manner that provides audio-visual aids to understand the finer linguistic terms associated with the scientific study of language.

I found the information provided by the University of Iowa on the classification of the properties of the sounds of the Spanish language to be one of the most thorough analyses of the phonological patterns of this language that I’ve ever encountered. It provided me with a much defined panorama of this subject especially in relation to getting acquainted with the linguistic jargon associated with the complex nature of the phonetics and phonology fields.

I have added here a link to the excellent chart of the phonological properties of Spanish language provided by the University of Iowa. It’s not only easy to understand; it’s also an intellectually refreshing challenge for the student of Spanish as a second language, since it’s presented in Spanish!

The study of Spanish phonology can be a very fascinating endeavour for any person interested in getting a fuller understanding of this subject. This type of study, however, must go beyond a quick glance at the convoluted and often superficial explanations of the sounds of Spanish as given by most dictionaries or to just trying to make some sense of the complex range of  the phonetic symbols listed in the general IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) chart.

The Spanish personal pronouns tú and vos

Many modern American Spanish language varieties use the personal pronoun vos instead of when referring to the grammatical second person. The pronoun vos is the predominant, if not the only form used by an enormous amount of Spanish speakers in many countries. This usage is especially evident in ordinary day to day oral language exchange.

The Spanish verb forms experience changes in their structures: Vos users say, for example, vos tenés or vos sabés instead of tú tienes or tú sabes.

The pronoun vos is used in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay and all the Central American countries with the exception of Panama. Speakers in some countries make a selective use of this pronoun. In Chile and Colombia for example, is also used. On the other hand, vos is used by everyone in Argentina or Uruguay in daily speech.

The historical reasons that gave origin to this language phenomenon are far too complex and convoluted to be examined in detail in a short post like this. However, I must add that it’s very important for all users of any Spanish language variety, to have a clear understanding of the basic nature of it.

Firstly, the pronoun vos is as legitimate as since it’s used by a vast amount of speakers in many countries of the new world.

In the second place, contrary to the official position of Spanish language academies, the pronoun vos should be taught alongside as synonym structure for the second person singular in all modern Spanish grammar texts. Doing this would not only contribute to enrich the Spanish grammar as taught in the school system, but it would – more importantly – recognize a language usage that some people pretend that it doesn’t exist.

For students of Spanish as a second language it’s extremely important to know about this language aspect, especially in circumstances that require them to be in Spanish speaking regions or countries where vos is used.

The aspiration or loss of /s/ syllable final in spoken Spanish

The aspiration or loss of the /s/ sound in a final position of a word is a natural phonological feature found in many varieties of Iberian and American Spanish.

This language phenomenon is marked by an aspiration or dropping of the /s/ when speakers articulate structures like los niños, las casas or las tiendas grandes. An approximate phonological transcription for these structures may be: loh niñoh, lah casah and lah tiendah grandeh.

I’ve heard quite often people commenting about this issue in a negative way. Some of them think that some native Spanish speakers aspirate the /s/ due to pure linguistic laziness and that such speakers must make an effort to correct their speech. Whenever I can I point out to anyone making this type of comments, that this phonological phenomenon – like all other aspects of language – is neither wrong nor right. That speakers resorting to this kind of linguistic structures are just making use of language in a way suitable for them.

At the end of the day what really matters for speakers of a language quite independently from the conventional features such as standard pronunciation patterns, is that the linguistic structures being used in any given situation must be socially accepted in the setting where they’re using such structures.

Thus it doesn’t really matter whether some Spanish speakers say lah casah instead of las casas as long as they are mutually intelligible.

In the language classroom, however, students must be taught to pronounce the standard /s/ whenever necessary in their spoken Spanish.

Letter ñ presence in Spanish language domain names

Last year I wrote a post about letter ñ presence in Spanish language domain names on the internet. I was at elcastellano.org/noticias website today and I read an article about this same topic, which I think adds to what I’ve already written.

The article in Spanish at elcastellano.org/noticias – by Luis Viviant - reports that Argentina is trying to follow the example set by Chile, Spain and Mexico as major Spanish speaking countries that have already incorporated the letter ñ into their domain names.

I found out in the article, that Chile was the first Spanish speaking country that introduced this letter in 2005 in their domain names. I clarify this here as when I wrote the post that I’m referring to above, I thought it was Spain the first country that did so.

In his article Luis Viviant writes that the initiative for the incorporation of letter ñ into the Argentinean domain names was taken by a private news company (Grupo Clarin). This is a great initiative as it motivates the public to participate on issues that affect their daily language usage.

I said in my first post on this topic, that letter ñ is an integral part of the Spanish language. I consider extremely important that all domain names written in Spanish must use the proper script and graphic symbols of this language. It’s very encouraging to see media organizations of the Spanish speaking countries trying to correct inappropriate language usage.

There is no valid reason for not incorporating the letter ñ and all the other Spanish graphic symbols into all the domain names written in the Castilian language in all the other Spanish speaking countries that still use inappropriate spelling system.

Ladino: A Judeo Spanish-Iberian language preserved for more than five centuries

I’ve always been aware of the existence of Ladino or also known as Judeo Spanish, but it was only today that I managed to have a first contact not only with its written but also its spoken forms in a simultaneous way. And it couldn’t have been in a more magnificent fashion than through music…and a beautiful voice.

Today I bought two compact disks by Yasmin Levy. One is called Romance and Yasmin and the other Mano Suave. The music and the lyrics are a heavenly affair, as its instrumentation and Yasmin’s voice are soothing and bewitching.

On the other hand, every song is for me an exploration of how late fifteen century Castilian Spanish may have sounded in the streets of Toledo, Granada or Seville. It’s like going back in time!

A quick glance at the song’s written lyrics has allowed me to notice that from the etymological point of view the language (I’m talking about some simple language structures found here) seems pretty much the same as any modern Spanish variety. I could be walking in San Salvador, Madrid or Lima and if I met a person speaking to me in Ladino there would only be some little trouble in communicating in a casual ordinary manner if I had to talk to them, or them talking to me.

This is of course my first impressions. I’d have to do a proper study of all the structural aspects of this language in order to have a clearer idea of its intrinsic nature.

In the meantime I searched on the internet and I found at the website orbitlat.com some essential reading about basic features on the history and nature of Judeo Spanish. A very interesting point here is that Ladino – as far as I know – is the only language derived from Spanish, which has also been written in a script different to the Latin alphabet.

The language is also known by many other names and has several dialects spoken in many countries. These dialects also have a great influence from Portuguese regarding words and grammatical structures according to orbilat.com, above.

Ladino is a Spanish-Iberian language that deserves to be preserved, taught and learned by any person interested in language studies, but more so, by all native Spanish and Portuguese speaking people as it can teach us quite a few interesting aspects in relation to the nature of Spanish and Portuguese as the two major languages originated from the Iberian Peninsula.

Judeo Spanish has a very complex and varied history. That fact seems to be reflected in the grammatical, lexical and phonological features of the language that I have perused today in a very brief manner.

I intend to study and learn more about this charming Spanish-Iberian language variety.

PS: I may also be walking in Sao Paulo or Lisbon and speak Portuguese with a Ladino speaker without much problem in our mutual understanding.

Read excellent posts & comments on the blog Hablas español from the BBC

The BBC website has an excellent page named Los blogs de BBC Mundo. Obviously all the blogs are written in Spanish, although some commentaries are sometimes written in English.

There are several blogs dealing with the topic of languages. The more interesting blog for me is Hablas español, because of its focus on issues about the Spanish language, which is of course the subject of my blog here. However, Hablas español is mainly focussed on issues related to Spanish speakers living in the United States.

The blog Hablas español is a first class resource to get to know about the views of Spanish speaking people living in the US on issues connected to their language and culture. It’s also an excellent site for students learning Spanish to practice their reading skills with the aid of real language usage by native Spanish speakers.

As commentaries are not corrected from the grammatical point of view by the moderators of the blog, students need to be aware that there may be spelling and grammatical errors in the comments.

The blog´s posts are written in standard Spanish by BBC staff.

I’m adding the BBC with its Hablas español blog to my Blogroll here.

Some thoughts about the origins and meanings of the term bizarro

Finding out about the origin and meanings of words is one of the areas of language study that I enjoy most, mainly because every time I analyze a particular term, I achieve a better knowledge about its hidden aspects. This also provides me with a better understanding of the nature of language in general. A friend of mine asked me last week if I could provide him with some information about the etymology and meanings of the Spanish term bizarro compared with its English counterpart bizarre.

According to the Macquarie Dictionary, the word bizarre is an adjective used in English with the meanings of
singular in appearance, style or general character; whimsically strange; odd.
It says that the term comes from the Spanish bizarro (meaning brave) and that this Castilian word in turn comes from the Basque bizar (meaning beard).

On the other hand, the Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado dictionary, says that the Spanish adjective bizarro comes from the Italian bizzarro (meaning singular). It’s mainly used in Spanish with the meanings of brave, chivalrous, generous, and splendid. This source warns that is inappropriate to use this term in Spanish with the meanings of extravagant, fantastic or capricious.

An online search for the word bizarro at The Royal Spanish Language Academy website gave a similar definition to the one found above. It still says that the word originated from the Italian bizzarro, but with the meaning of irascible.

How the word bizarre came to adopt its meanings in English is a mystery to me. From the examination here so far it seems that English adopted the Spanish word structure and the Italian meaning (i.e. singular). However, it seems very curious to me that the word bizarro is defined in the Spanish dictionary as coming from Italian whereas the English one attributes it to Basque.

If the terms bizarro and bizarre come from Basque, the most logical meaning for both Spanish and English words, would simply be barba (Spanish for beard) and beard, respectively, and they would only be used as nouns. How Italian came to use bizzarro, is also open to investigation.

Regarding the words’ meanings in Spanish, it’s quite difficult to ascertain wether they are based on the Basque or Italian terms.

It may be that the Italian usage of this word with the meaning of singular may have influenced the way the Spanish and English terms are used.

PS. I searched for the word bizarro on the internet and found that there is also a fictional character named Bizarro!


The pronoun vosotros and its verbal structures deserved to be used by all native Spanish speakers

Two days ago I wrote a post in Spanish about the personal pronoun vosotros and the verb structures involved with its usage in the Spanish language.

The pronoun vosotros and the verb structures connected with it are used in the Castilian varieties of Spain only. However, all native Spanish speakers learn to use all these language aspects during their formal education process provided by the education systems in all the Spanish speaking countries.

I won’t deal in a short post like this with the causes that gave origin to the lack of usage of vosotros and its verbal structures by most native Spanish speakers.

The subject pronouns that are normally listed for the conjugation of the Spanish verbs are: yo, tú, él/ella/usted, nosotros/nosotras, vosotros/vosotras and ellos/ellas/ustedes.

There are six conjugation forms which attach to each of these subject pronouns. To illustrate, the conjugations for the verb amar (to love) in present indicative are: amo, amas, ama, amamos, amáis, aman. The structure amáis corresponds to vosotros/vosotras – the second person plural subject pronoun (used in informal settings). And this is the form that is not used by native Spanish speakers except those from Spain. To make up for this, the vast majority of speakers use ustedes – the third person plural subject pronoun (used in formal settings by all native Spanish speakers). Thus for the verb in reference here, the greatest bulk of native users employ the form aman for both second and third person plural.

The pronoun vosotros and its verb structures are well worth to consider for bringing back into usage by native Spanish speakers that don’t use them in all the modern Spanish language varieties outside Spain. Here are three sensible reasons:

1. The wealth of a language is mainly judged by the amount of language resources available to it. The pronoun vosotros and its verb structures are integral part of the Spanish language. They contribute to enrich the written as well as the spoken structures of this language.

2. Using these structures gives more precision and clarity to language usage. Why using the form for the third person plural to mean the second person? The pronoun vosotros and its verb structures already exist in the language and from a purely linguistic point of view there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be used by all native speakers.

3. From my personal perspective, I think that verbal forms involved with the pronoun vosotros, give Spanish a refined and charming phonological effect. Let’s consider, for example, the following verses by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz…Hombres necios que acusáis a la mujer sin razón, sin saber que sois la ocasión de lo mismo que culpáis.

It’s important to mention here, that from the cultural point of view, it may be very hard – although not impossible – to reintroduce the usage of the structures examined in this post in the daily spoken and written language of native Spanish speakers who haven’t used them for centuries, namely the users of Spanish in the New World.

Any effort to make a successful reintroduction of a generalized usage of these structures by native Spanish speakers that don’t currently use them, can only be achieved in the long term by conscious effort by speakers acting as individuals and through educational and cultural intervention.

The pronoun vosotros and verb structures used with it, are languishing and in peril of being relegated forever as language anachronism in the majority of Spanish language varieties. I’m of the firm opinion that these structures are a great linguistic resource and therefore they deserved to be saved, by being used both orally and in their written form by all native Spanish speakers…I have already started to do so: ¿Y vosotros qué pensáis?

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