Almost a billion people doing the same thing at the same time

Posted by on October 30, 2010

We continue our Spanish & English theme with a gues post, by EFL teacher Joseph D. Persico, which explores the many similarities between these two languages.

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If you’re a native English speaker, be glad if you have to study Spanish; if you’re a Spanish-speaking EFL student, be glad you have to study English. As I like to tell my students, relative to, say, Guaraní or Nahuatl, learning English is a piece of cake. (There is a reason, after all, why Spanish priests in the 16th century quit trying to learn Amerindian languages and instead imposed their language on the indigenous peoples of America.)

Though it may not look like it, English grammar is incredibly similar to its Spanish counterpart. For example, all thirteen verb tenses one studies in school can neatly and easily be translated into English. Also, an essential aspect of verbal communication—the intonation of interrogatives and interjections—is often identical between the two languages.

In spite of this, many Argentines believe that Spanish is a complex language to learn, and many English-speaking comedians and authors amuse themselves contemplating the difficulties inherent in learning the irregularities of English spelling and all the different prepositions that can be attached to a verb like run.

My opinion is that having to learn Spanish verb conjugations is as difficult as having to memorize English phrasal verbs (run down, run up, run through, run out, run on, run into, etc.), and, as we all know, memorization is more annoying than it is difficult.

Similarities in verb tenses are really just the tip of the iceberg, though. As mentioned in ‘Had Enough Anglicisms?’, Spanish and English take thousands of words from other languages, and the list of things that occur in both languages —that one might suppose are unique to one’s own tongue—is endless. For example:

  • nouns turn in to verbs (hospital/hospital > to hospitalize/hospitalizar, text message/mensaje > to text message/mensajear)
  • brand names turn into the names of things (Coke > coke/coca; Thermos > thermos/termo; Aspirin > aspirin/aspirina)
  • brand names turn into verbs (Google > to google/googlear)
  • words come back into fashion (douche bag for ‘idiot’ (in U.S. English) / bondi for ‘bus’ in Argentine Spanish)
  • people play with words by turning them around (vesre in Argentina / back slang in England)
  • kids sometimes have a private code or ‘language’ (Pig Latin in English/jeringoso in Argentina)
  • people make up their own words to use with their friends
  • slang words often come from teenage speak, sports, and sectors on the fringes of society
  • slang is used to reinforce or establish identity
  • newspapers feature articles every year explaining new words to the older generations
  • there is a tendency among English speakers to omit the “h” in unaccented words (‘tell ’em I said ‘ello’); in Spanish, many dialects have an aspirated “s” at the end of words and in certain other positions (‘eh que ya noh vamoh‘)
  • speakers of standard British English don’t pronounce the “r” after a vowel, while in a large number of Spanish dilalects the “d” dissapears in when positioned between two vowels
  • American Spanish and American English speakers use the present perfect considerably less (and, in consequence, the simple past, considerably more) relative to their European counterparts
  • American speakers conserve vocabulary from the 16th century that is no longer in use in Europe (gotten, trash, fall (season), deck (of cards)/platicar, fierro, anogosto, pararse (to stand up))
  • In the beginning of the 17th century, Spanish royalty determined that the pronoun vos had become bastardized and decided that they should be referred to by their subjects as vuestra merced (‘Your Worship’); within 20 years, however, vuestra merced —quite a mouthful to have to say 25 times a day— quickly evolved into usted, the respectful “you” that is used in Spanish to this very day. George Washington had similar delusions of grandeur. During the Revolutionary War, he encouraged fellow officers to address him as “Your Excellency”!
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