spanish will drive you to tears -- 2/12/19

Today's selection -- from Babel by Gaston Dorren. English, Spanish and the complexity of the verb "to be":

"From an English-speaker's perspective, Spanish is probably the easiest of the ... languages to master. ... But [let's] look into the orange zones of [the verb] to be.

"Let's start with a brief story: There is a supermarket. A supermarket is a shop. John is at the supermarket. He is buying eggs. This supermarket is big. The supermarket is open. The supermarket was built last year.

"Not a gripping narrative, but what it rather neatly illustrates is the versatility of the English verb to be, represented in this story by six is's and one was. If we are finickety -- and that's exactly what we're going to be here -- these seven brief sentences represent no fewer than seven variations of to be. (And even these don't exhaust the verb's potential.) Let's take them in turns.

"There is a supermarket: here, is means 'exists', 'is present'.

"A supermarket is a shop: it 'can be defined as' a shop; it 'falls into the category of' shops.

"John is at the supermarket: he 'finds himself' or 'is situated' there.

"He is buying chocolate: here the verb to be helps to form the continuous or progressive aspect of the main verb, to buy. It's therefore called an auxiliary verb, after the Latin word for 'help', AUXILIUM.

"The supermarket is big: it 'has the permanent quality of being' big.

"The supermarket is open: it 'has the momentary quality of being' open.

"The supermarket was built last year: it 'got' built; unnamed people built it. Here again, to be is an auxiliary, but this time for the passive voice.

"None of these sentences will seem remarkable to you. (Or, they will not seem to be remarkable -- an alternative that illustrates how English can sometimes omit to be with no loss of sense.) After all, we're looking at an extremely frequent verb: if we include all of its many forms, from were to being and from 'm to 're, it's the second most frequent word in the English language, after the.

"This situation is far from universal among the world's languages, and Spanish is one of many that deal differently with this business of being. In Spanish, the seven different roles of to be that we just identified would be spread across four 'solutions' (to use a marketing term). Two of these solutions do not even involve anything like a verb to be.

"The first sentence, 'There is a supermarket', translates as HAY UN SUPERMERCADO; the closest literal translation would be 'it has a supermarket'. If you're familiar with French or German, you'll be reminded of how these languages express 'there is': IL Y A UN SUPERMARCHÉ (literally 'It there has a supermarket') or Es GIBT EINEN SUPERMARKT ('It gives a supermarket'). In all these cases, the supermarket is the object of the verb, unlike in English, where it is ... what? The answer depends on your grammar book, but an object it certainly isn't. Nowadays, however, many Spanish speakers do not perceive the noun after HAY as its object and instead treat it as if it were its subject. As a result, they often put the verb in the plural when talking about more than one thing, especially in the past tense: HABÍAN MUCHOS SUPERMERCADOS, rather than the prescribed singular HABÍA, for 'There were many supermarkets'. It's one of those things that are frowned upon by many but used by even more, much like, in English, saying less people instead of fewer people.

"For the last of the seven sample sentences, the one with the passive, Spanish has two options. One exactly mirrors the English construction (EL SUPERMERCAOO FUE CONSTRUIDO, where FUE means 'was'), but it's not very common. Much more frequently, another construction will use itself. Yes, strange as it sounds in English, that's exactly how it's said ('how it says itself') in Spanish: with a reflexive pronoun -- EL SUPERMERCADO SE CONSTRUYÓ.

"Spanish speakers are as alive as anyone else to the fact that it takes real people to erect the walls and close the roof and do the plumbing and so forth, but that doesn't stop them saying that the thing 'built itself'.

"Perhaps it bears mentioning that in Spanish, these reflexive pronouns are more modest than their English counterparts. English reflexive pronouns are bisyllabic mouthfuls -- myself, themselves -- that come across as somewhat, well, self-important. Not so in Spanish, where they're merely one syllable long (as they used to be in older English before the self bit was tacked on). Their use as a more common alternative to the passive sounds less conspicuous than a literal translation into English might make it seem.

"That leaves us with five other sentence types where Spanish does indeed use its word for the verb to be -- or rather its words, for it has two: SER and ESTAR. And the annoying thing is that although native speakers of course unerringly know which one to choose, the rules are so complex that second-language speakers are unlikely to ever master the art completely.

"The easiest bit of the puzzle is when you translate a continuous tense, as in 'he's buying eggs'. Spanish and some other Romance languages have the same kind of construction and routinely use it. The Spanish verb we want here is ESTAR: JUAN ESTÁ COMPRANDO HUEVOS (John is buying eggs). Its twin SER just doesn't make sense in this context, ever.

"That leaves us with four other meanings: 'has the momentary quality of being', 'is situated', 'can be defined as' and 'has the permanent quality of being'. And this is where Spanish can drive you to tears."



Gaston Dorren


Babel:Around the World in Twenty Languages


Atlantic Monthly Press


Copyright 2018 by Gaston Dorren


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment

<< prev - comments page 1 of 1 - next >>