Thursday, February 07, 2019

"here" of the dog that bit you

New languages are like dating.

There is the excitement of new discoveries balanced out by crashing disappointments.

I am no stranger to foreign languages. Over the years, I have sat through classes in Latin, German, Russian, Greek, Italian, and Spanish. And I was not very good at any of them. Eventually, I would start a new language in the hope that at least one other person would be less-talented than I. If not, I usually did not show up to the next class.

Language teachers have told me that people with a basic notion of logic, and especially those with a good ear for music, should do well in languages. I have both -- and I don't.

But I do have an almost-unquenchable curiosity about the structure of language that keeps my interest in learning foreign tongues alive.

My ongoing attempts to learn Spanish are a perfect example. For me, learning Spanish is not an academic exercise. I need it to communicate with most of the people I encounter daily in Mexico. What s the point of living here if you cannot participate in the culture sea surrounding us?

I have a leg up in learning Spanish. My high school Latin has been very helpful in grammar structure and vocabulary. There is the added bonus that when the Normans invaded England, they imported their rather odd version of French that became a building block in the development of the English language. Without the Normans, we would not have "accessible," " transformation," or "omelette."

Those words also exist in Spanish with almost the same spelling. That is not surprising since all three languages take the words from Latin. Grammarians call them cognates. Students call them "words I already know."

I have taken two classroom courses in Spanish since I arrived in Mexico. And my classmates and I have gone through the same seven stages of grief that students since Aristotle have experienced when trying on a new language. Death does not own a copyright on grief.

The "shock and denial" stage sets in early. Inevitably, a student will become almost indignant to discover that Spanish words can have more than one meaning. "How can 'tiempo' be both 'time' and 'weather?' That makes no sense," said a fellow student from Washington.

Well, it makes no sense in the language that is hard-wired in our heads -- for most of us,, English. My response is to pity the poor student of English who has to learn the subtle differences between "smell," "aroma," "scent," "bouquet," "perfume," "stench," and "stink." They mean quite different things -- although native English speakers often use them as if they were interchangeable.

The allure of interchangeability occurs in Spanish. "Here" is a perfect example.

Unlike "tiempo" with its two meanings, there are two Spanish words for "here." "Aquí" the word most of us associate with "here," and "acá."

The first time I encountered "acá" was in a discussion with my friend Gary. His gardener had used the word and Gary asked him to explain it. The explanation? "Aquí" is something right next to the speaker and acá" is close but further away.

I asked Omar. He relied on the same theory, but claimed reversed the distinction. For him, "acá" describes something close to the speaker.

In times like these, I reach for scripture -- my Spanish grammar books. They were unanimous. Both the gardener and Omar were wrong. The distinction between the words had nothing to do with spatial difference.

"Acá" requires a verb of motion, as in, "Come here." "Aquí" would be used for "I am here."

These are the type of distinctions that make me look around the classroom to see if at least one other person shares my look (somewhere between stunned and drowning). It is like the differences between the two "to be" verbs in Spanish, when English has only one for the same purpose. Teachers are usually wise enough to grant absolution on the rules: "You'll figure it out by listening to native speakers."

Except, you won't. Maybe if you hung out in the court of Felipe VI, you would hear grammatically-correct Spanish. But certainly not in my little village.

From what I have read the distinction between the two "here" words resides almost exclusively in grammar books. Very few speakers draw that distinction. But if you want to spend your time worrying about such matters, consider the three Spanish words for "there" that are based on an incredibly subjective distinction of distance from the speaker.

Getting too focused on grammar may not take you through the valley of death, but it will afford you a weekend visit to the vale of tears.

And it is not just Spanish that contains these linguistic landmines.

In a different Spanish class, our teacher, who had spoken Spanish from her youth and is a high school Spanish teacher, asked us to translate: "Ella es mayor que yo." She told us, this sentence was easy because we could translate it word-for-word, unlike most Spanish sentences.

One of my classmates shouted out:"She is older than I."

Before she could move on to the next sentence, a northern visitor raised her hand and said: "Excuse me, but that's not correct English."

The teacher asked her what she thought was incorrect. The student responded: "Proper English would be 'older than me.'"

Our teacher explained why "I" was required. The sentence calls for a nominative pronoun. The explanation, of course, resulted in blank stares. Most of us (who were in our 60s and 70s) had long ago forgotten about the distinction between nominative and objective pronouns.

While most of the class had blank stares, the "older than me" woman slipped into the next step of language grief -- anger. With a couple of exchanges that she had been speaking English all her life, that the teacher did not know what she was talking about, and she would not sit there and be insulted by a woman a third her age, she slammed her book on the table and made an exit that would have been the envy of Elizabeth Taylor under full sail.

I can empathize with the dearly departed. Few people graciously accept correction -- especially, when they are wrong. And English grammar is an area where we often are wrong. Consider the struggle some of us go through with "I was" or "I were" when we try to capture or avoid the subjunctive mood. Grammar can be tough.

In a way, the angry woman had a point, though she did not know it. The easy way to determine if the nominative is required of a pron
oun is to remember a little trick. In English, "She is older than I" actually leaves off a word at the end of the sentence. We are really saying: "She is older than I am."

But, because we have forgotten (or have never learned) that trick, the majority of English-speakers use the ungrammatical "than me." And that raises a question, if grammar is merely a set of rules to help us communicate subtle meanings to one another, doesn't usage matter? Especially, if the thought seems to roll smoothly.

At the start of this essay I purposely inserted the correct use of the nominative: "Eventually, I would start a new language in the hope that at least one other person would be less-talented than I." I am willing to bet, some of you tripped over that "I" as if it were a glottal stop. And I bet if I had used "me," none of you would have written a comment about my eroding grammar. (Or maybe not. These pages tend to be a target-rich environment for similar criticisms.)

Because English is my native tongue, I will probably keep applying the grammar rules I learned as a student. After all, we called it grammar school for a reason.

But my Spanish is not yet subtle enough to turn myself into Señor Gramático. I will follow the lead of my neighbors where "here" is a place with many meanings. Or one.

There are limits, though. I doubt I can bring myself to ignore the distinction between the preterit and the imperfect as a lot of my neighbors do. But that is a tale for another time.

I now need to figure out if I am aquí or allá. 

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