Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Spanish": A Rant

O.k., here is a rant I've been repressing since the fall of 1958, when I first landed on these shores.

It has to do with what Americans mean when they say that someone is "Spanish."  It used to be that when people would tell me "Oh, I used to know a Spanish boy in high school," I would ask what part of Spain he was from.  And invariably it turned out that the person was Cuban, Mexican, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Honduran, Panamanian, Venezuelan, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Bolivian, Paraguayan, Uruguayan, Chilean or Argentinian.  But never, not once, was he Spanish.  He spoke Spanish, or some version of it, but he was no more Spanish than someone from Kansas is English.

Now, when I'm told that someone is Spanish, I just nod.  It's highly unlikely that the person is from Spain--after all, there are only forty million of us, as opposed to some five hundred million Spanish speakers south of the Rio Grande.  Spanish people come from across the Atlantic.  We are Europeans, and though we share certain cultural and linguistic features with Latin Americans, we are as different from them as a Californian is from a Yorkshireman.  Not better, not worse--just different.

Latin Americans in the U.S.  have introduced the word  "Latino," which is short for latinoamericano, to describe their origins.  Of course "Latino," absent the americano part, is also inaccurate, since it necessarily includes people from Spain and Portugal, who were conquered by the Romans before they, in turn, conquered the New World.  But I've quibbled enough.

And here is a sub-rant, about the Castilian and Catalan languages, which are often confused.  Until the fifteenth century, Spain consisted of a number of separate kingdoms, each of which had its own language.  Then Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile married, subjugated all the kingdoms, and imposed Castilian as the official language of the new country. So what is generally called "Spanish" is actually the tongue originally spoken in the central region of Spain.

But the other regional languages--Aranese, Basque, Galician, Aragonese, Asturian, Leonese, Cantabrian, Extremaduran, Eonavian, Fala, Riffian, Calo and my own native tongue, Catalan--are alive to this day, despite centuries-old efforts at suppression by the central government.  With the exception of Basque, whose origins nobody has figured out, they are all Romance languages and not dialects of Castilian, but languages in their own right, just as French, Italian and Portuguese are.

And finally, a sub-sub-rant, about the supposed "lisp" of Castilian speakers which, according to a legend popular with Americans, originated with a Spanish monarch's speech defect.  Castilian speakers are perfectly able to pronounce the "s" sound--but they associate it exclusively with the letter "s."  They pronounce "Susana" not as "Thuthana," but the way you would.

However, the letter "c" when it precedes "e" or "i," and the letter "z" are pronounced "th." Thus Castilian speakers pronounce zumba (which means "he, she, or it buzzes") "thumba."  In Latin America and in the south of Spain it's pronounced "sumba."

That said, there are Castilian speakers who are afflicted with a genuine lisp.  How can you tell?  They are the ones who say "Thuthana."

I would like to end on a humble note:  I know perfectly well that one's sensitivity to regional and linguistic distinctions is dictated by culture and identity.  My mother teased my father because he spoke Catalan with an accent from Barcelona, whereas she spoke with an accent from Lleida, 100 miles to the west.  As a result, I am exquisitely aware of the contrast between those two ways of speaking.  But I cannot distinguish between an Australian and a New Zealand accent, or even a Queens and a Brooklyn accent.  And as for the origin of the differences between Sunnis and Shiites...I'll tell you in a minute, after I check on Google.

But I'm glad I got the Spanish and the lisp bits off my chest.

4 comments :

  1. Rant away! I love it. And this: "How can you tell? They are the ones who say 'Thuthana.'"

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    1. Oh, lord, you may regret having encouraged me...

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  2. In the Netherlands there are many distinct differences in the local languages too and you can tell exactly where someone comes from by the way they speak. There are so many differences that you need an interpreter between the various ones. I understand the one of the region I live in, but I never learned to speak it.

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    1. This is one of the things I love about tiny Europe--the endless variety of languages, dialects, accents and so on. I do worry that some day they will all be replaced by English, though.

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