02 October 2013

Andrew in Chinese

My dear friend Khya moved to Shanghai a year or two back and recently, my other dear friend Andrew went to visit him.
Upon his return Andrew posted this on his fbook and I loved it:

Lots of people in Shanghai take on a western name for ease of communication with us linguistically unskilled outsiders. I met, among more pedestrian names, a Banana and a New Star. And I unexpectedly was given a Chinese way to write my name that is way better than the trisyllabic default used in translating the Bible. ALex Zhang blessed me with "Ānzhū," a friendly bisyllable meaning "peaceful pig."

And in a comment later:
Incidentally, Tyler's has switched around between meaning "Thai happy," "too happy," and "too spicy."

Michael and I are planning a trip to visit Khya in May and I absolutely cannot wait.  I´ve never travelled to Asia before and to see a tiny bit of it with a friend, and my dear husband will be a dream come true.  It will only be my second time visiting a country whose native language I do not speak.  I went to Prague in 2008, and was hoping it would be like the rest of the Europe I had seen--where everyone speaks English, if only a little bit.  Yeah, no.  It wasn´t.  No one spoke any English at all.  In fact, I was lucky most of them spoke some passable German and I was able to fumble around that way.  Anyway, I´m sure China with no Chinese would be completely different from the China I´ll get to see with Khya to guide us.  I mean, I have no reservations about visiting the rest of Asia with no knowledge of the languages and getting by with guidebook in hand like any other tourist, but I´m just so happy about going to visit Khya there.

28 August 2013


I came across this list* today and I really like it.  It reminds me of why I like languages so much.  Language is both unifying and indentifying.

It´s almost amazing that separately in the world, culture after culture has come up with their own way to express the emotions and understandings all humans experience.  In an act of solidarity, everyone in the world came up with their own way to express gratitude, for instance.  And this makes me feel like a part of such a big team.  Such a big team of people who all understand and express this feeling in its most sincere form.  This is us and this is what connects us as humans.  (I say almost amazing because humans do a lot of amazing things and we need to keep our perspective straight.)

However, language identifies us--puts a unique stamp on each of our foreheads.**  On a small scale, accents and colloquialisms identify our region within a language--but massively speaking, languages evolve to fit the needs of the people, culturally.  And I like this list because although we are all humans, and ultimately living in the same world, we express ourselves most perfectly through language.  It is the tool we continually forge to mirror our beliefs.

On a personal note, I love sobremesa and force Michael to observe it with each meal.

*The original post is here.

**An aside: I personally really wish I had the "New Orleans accent" naturally.  I don´t.  I do, however, try to use New Orleans-isms as much as possible, even though I know them to be gramatically incorrect.  I want people to know I´m from here.  I say "we´re going by her house later" and... any other funny things I hear--I try to repeat them often.

11 June 2013

My dad´s own linguistics curiosities

I have a friend, Brie (her blog is pretty great and you can read it here), who is a writer.  Not a bullshit write in my free time kind of writer; she´s a legit young professional writer whose articles are published and shit.  I think this is the coolest.

She recently asked me to be one of her 10 featured women in this article she was writing for MSN for Father´s Day.  The theme was "things I didn´t know about my dad until adulthood."  Now, since my dad passed away when I was 18, you can imagine I haven´t learned too much new information about him in my adulthood.  Pretty much everything I know about my dad I learned before I turned 18.

Well, so, I really wanted to be featured in Brie´s article, so I racked my brain... and of course a linguistic story came to mind.  Here is the link of where it was published http://glo.msn.com/relationships/what-i-never-knew-about-my-dad-9370.gallery (she had to shorten my peice), but here is the full text I wrote:

I grew up speaking both English and Spanish at home.  Even though both of my parents were Mexican immigrants to the US, when I was born my dad had been in the States far longer than my mom. When I was little, he would speak to me exclusively in English and my mom would speak to me exclusively in Spanish.  Not until I was about 5 or so did they decide to switch to Spanish-only at home (knowing I´d hear and practice English everywhere else I went)—and it was about that time that it dawned on me that my parents could understand each other.  All that time, in my child-mind, I assumed mom spoke one way and dad spoke another, and I had to keep the two ways of speech separate for their sake.  I clearly remember the day I noticed they spoke to each other in Spanish, and suddenly I knew all along the two languages had been for my sake—not theirs.
My dad was born in Veracruz, Mexico in 1932 and raised as the son of wealthy pineapple plantation owners.  At the ripe age of 14, he was shipped off to the US to receive an American education.  He taught himself English while in high school in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, and went on to further study at Loyola University here in New Orleans.  Once my dad discovered New Orleans, he was in love—the city, with its palm trees and music everywhere wooed him and reminded him of home.  He went on to become a successful entrepreneur and traveled the world, but he claimed New Orleans as home and lived here til the day he died.
Now, I wasn´t born until 1986—obviously my dad had been in the US a long time at this point.  He had been speaking English almost exclusively for years and years.  Not until he met and married my [Mexican] mom did he really start to use his native Spanish again regularly.  This lead to some very curious linguistic oddities burgeoning.  That is to say, he made words up sometimes.  Now don´t get me wrong, I know we all do this from time to time—looking for the perfect word, and instead of finding one, inventing one to suit our needs.  Except in the case of my dad, he said them so often, he´d forget they were part of his vernacular only, and to everyone else, he just sounded funny.  My mom was always quick to point out which words were wrong, as if to correct him—but really, he´d just laugh it off.  It was part of his charm.  She was really correcting him for my sake, lest his quirky words be passed on to me.  
But somehow she missed one.
Apparently my mom thought it was obvious and didn’t need mentioning; my dad thought it was appropriate and continued using the word: piñaso.  He used it to mean a hit or a blow or a beating.  For instance, he´d watch boxing on TV “¡mira que piñaso le dio!” (“Look at how hard he hit him!”).  Now let me just say, the appropriate Spanish word to use here is golpe.  “mira que golpe le dio” would be acceptable.  Although I was aware of this word, I thought golpe and piñaso were synonyms, and, never having formally studied Spanish, I used piñaso all the time because it was familiar to me.
It´s almost embarrassing to say that not until very recently did I learn this was one of the words he had made up.  I had somehow never noticed the similarity between piñaso (what I thought was “blow”) and piña (“pineapple”).  My dad had literally made up a word to mean “beating so hard, as if with a pineapple” and I had used it all my life without the faintest clue that everyone who heard me thought it the oddest choice of words.  His pineapple-plantation roots had stayed with him throughout his life, and were linguistically passed on to me.
My father died of cancer in 2005, long before I made this linguistic discovery, but oh how I wish we could have shared a laugh about that one together.

25 May 2013

How Do You Pray In Spanish?

I don´t remember how this conversation got started.  Somehow my mom got stuck trying to explain the difference between rezar and orar to my husband.  They both mean to pray.  Growing up as a Spanish speaker (Mexican), I never ever heard the word orar used outside of Mass.  In conversation, if we were talking about praying, it was always rezar.  In Mass, when in English they say "let us pray" (which happens really often in Mass), in Spanish they say "oremos" in that kind of chanty-Mass-like way.  And that´s the only time I ever heard it used.

Except the noun prayer is oración.  No two ways about it.  I never thought about the verb orar and the noun oración as being linked.  That is, I never wondered why the verb was rezar and the noun wasn´t something similiar, like reza-cion or something.  That should have turned on the lightbulb in my mind.  Becuase reza-cion sounds a lot like recitation...

Now, it should stand to reason that, being Mexican, my family is really Catholic.  And to be honest, they´re a little snobby about their Catholicism.  They don´t look down on non-Catholics explicitly, but they make it very clear that they don´t understand Protestants, or any other non-Catholics.  And maybe this is just a linguistic mistake my family has made, but they would refer to the kind of free-style praying that Protestants do (as opposed to the set, recited praying that Catholics do) as orar.  That strange, unfamiliar thing they do.

So in my mind--not due to etymological analysis, but due to pure exposure--I thought rezar was recited (Catholic) prayer and orar was (Protestant) free-style prayer.  Turns out, I was right--basically.

According to the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy* (it´s so convenient that they have this), oración means prayer (no dispute there); orar means pray to God vocally or mentally; rezar means pray to God or holy people, or recite prayers.  Not too much difference after all.

Does this mean they can be used interchangably?? No!!  I mean, only if you want to sound like a n00b.  They might be used differently in different Spanish-speaking cultures, but they are not interchagable ever, to the best of my understanding.  I happened to read that in Spain and Argentina, rezar is used colloquially, and orar formally.  Having only ever heard orar in Mass, I too, thought it was more formal.  This would make sense if they are all Catholics--and I thought surely no country is as Catholic as Mexico--but I was wrong!  In Spain, about 94% of the population is Catholic; 92% in Argentina, and by comparsion, Mexico is only about 83% Catholic, according to a quick CIA World Factbook search.  So this could be, that the more Catholic the country, the more commonly is the word rezar used over orar.

I also dug into the Bible a little bit.  On www.bible.com I searched all the Spanish translations they had for the verb rezar and came up with 17 hits.  When I searched for orar, 910 hits.

Draw your own conclusions.
I think it´s not so much a Catholic versus Protestant thing as much as it´s a recited prayer versus free-style prayer thing.

I will make one final note.  When I was googling around here, the book/movie Eat Pray Love kept coming up.  In Spanish, the work was translated as Come Reza Ama; in Portuguese it was translated to Comer Orar Amar.  Spanish and Portuguese are so similar, of course rezar and orar exist in the same way in Portuguese.  I wonder why they chose the latter for the title in Portuguese but the former in Spanish.  Portugal is about 85% Catholic.

*Really.  http://www.rae.es/rae.html

(Del lat. recitāre, recitar).
1. tr. Dirigir a Dios o a personas santas oraciones de contenido religioso.
2. tr. Dicho del clérigo obligado a ello: Recitar el oficio divino vocal u oralmente.
3. tr. Rel. Recitar la misa, una oración, etc., en contraposición a cantarla.
4. tr. coloq. En un escrito, decir o decirse algo. El calendario reza agua. El libro lo reza.
5. intr. coloq. Dicho de una cosa: Tocar o pertenecer a alguien, ser de su obligación o conocimiento. Eso no reza CON tus alumnos.
6. intr. coloq. Gruñir, refunfuñar.

(Del lat. orāre).
1. intr. Hacer oración a Dios, vocal o mentalmente.
2. intr. Hablar en público para persuadir y convencer a los oyentes o mover su ánimo.
3. tr. Rogar, pedir, suplicar.

(Del lat. oratĭo, -ōnis).
1. f. Obra de elocuencia, razonamiento pronunciado en público a fin de persuadir a los oyentes o mover su ánimo. Oración deprecatoria, fúnebre, inaugural.
2. f. Súplica, deprecación, ruego que se hace a Dios o a los santos.
3. f. Elevación de la mente a Dios para alabarlo o pedirle mercedes.
4. f. Hora de las oraciones.
5. f. Gram. Palabra o conjunto de palabras con que se expresa un sentido gramatical completo.
6. f. Rel. En la misa, en el rezo eclesiástico y rogaciones públicas, deprecación particular que incluye la conmemoración del santo o de la festividad del día.
7. f. pl. Primera parte de la doctrina cristiana que se enseña a los niños, donde se incluye el padrenuestro, el avemaría, etc.
8. (Porque en ese momento se tocaba en las iglesias la campana para que los fieles rezaran el avemaría). f. pl. Punto del día en que está anocheciendo.
9. f. pl. El mismo toque de la campana, que en algunas partes se repetía al amanecer y al mediodía.

24 May 2013

Heavy Nightmares

We were recently watching House of Cards on Netflix again, this time in Spanish, in order for Michael to continue practicing Spanish (other than with me).  We had a little problem with the setup, because when we watched it dubbed and subtitled, the Spanish dubbing and Spanish subtitling didn´t match up.  So we ended up watching it dubbed in Spanish, with English subtitles.

Suddenly, he pauses the show and asks me about the word "pesadilla" (nightmare).  It sounds weird in Spanish, doesn´t it?  Well, it´s a common word, so it doesn´t sound weird to me.  What are the origins of the word, do you know? he asks.

We look it up.  I found a book that explains this perfectly.  Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection By Shelley Adle:

The identifying features of the night-mare are evident in the terms used to refer to it.  The etymology of the English word nightmare, for example, reveals a great deal about the experience itself.  "Mare" comes from the same root as the German mahr and Old Norse mara, a supernatural being - usually female - who lay on people´s chests at night, suffocating them.  The specific terms for night-mare that are used in many contemporary cultures are etymologically related to words for "weight" and "pressing".  Mare appears to be of Indo European origins, although its initial meaning is not clear.  Linguists purpose three possible roots of the word: noros (death), mer (drive out), and, perhaps the most likely source, mar (to pound, bruise, crush).  Because the sense of pressure or weight is prominent in the night-mare experience, it is not surprising that it is also a key element in the historical development of its linguistic forms.  The idea of pressure is also present in other terms for the night-mare experience that do not share the mare linguistic root.  The medieval French appesart and the Spanish pesadilla, for example, are both derived from the verb peser, meaning "to press down upon".

It turns out people have always thought nightmares were heavy, and their languages have indicated as much.