HARD TO SPEAK SPANISH.

Frequent commenter Julia D’Onofrio linked to a delightful video on Facebook, and I’m linking it here because it’s the best illustration I’ve seen of the wonderful and maddening diversity of the Spanish language as spoken across its geographical spread. Everyone from Puerto Ricans to Argentines is mocked, not to mention the thetheando inhabitants of the mother country and the hapless Americans the singers, Juan Andrés and Nicolás Ospina, pretend to be at the outset. So without further ado, I present Qué Difícil Es Hablar El Español. I’m pleased to say I understood most of it even though it’s been forty years since I used my (Argentine) Spanish regularly, and I laughed a great deal.
Update. Studiolum has posted the lyrics, with translation, at río Wang.
For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, here‘s Pico Iyer on “The Writing Life: The point of the long and winding sentence”:

I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment. …

Not every fashioner of many-comma’d sentences works for every one of us — I happen to find Henry James unreadable, his fussily unfolding clauses less a reflection of his noticing everything than of his inability to make up his mind or bring anything to closure: a kind of mental stutter. But the promise of the long sentence is that it will take you beyond the known, far from shore, into depths and mysteries you can’t get your mind, or most of your words, around.
When I read the great exemplar of this, Herman Melville — and when I feel the building tension as Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” swells with clause after biblical clause of all the things people of his skin color cannot do — I feel as if I’m stepping out of the crowded, overlighted fluorescent culture of my local convenience store and being taken up to a very high place from which I can see across time and space, in myself and in the world. It’s as if I’ve been rescued, for a moment, from the jostle and rush of the 405 Freeway and led back to something inside me that has room for certainty and doubt at once.

Comments

  1. the thetheando inhabitants of the mother country
    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a typo at Language Hat, but I don’t get many google hits for thetheando, Language. Is it a word? Are you ok?

  2. Now I see in the second comment here that it is a word, so never mind about that.

  3. It’s not a word so much as an attempt to render in English the sound and sense of the Spanish word ceceando, the participle of the verb cecear ‘to pronounce c and z with a /þ/ sound, like English th in think.’ (So, to spell it out, “thetheando” is how ceceando sounds, using English spelling.)

  4. I’m glad you like it, Hat!
    Yo también me reí mucho al escucharlo.
    In this link here you can find the lyrics.
    Now I will look with more compassion to all the foreign students that come to the Spanish classes of our University, …poor souls!
    AJP, for me “thetheando” was a difficult word to, even though I understood its meaning. The difficult part was remembering that you, English speakers, would use /th/ for the Spanish (Peninsular) /z/

  5. Thanks, I think I’ve got it.
    English speakers, would use /th/ for the Spanish (Peninsular) /z/
    In my experience (which is based on one word) quite a lot of people in Britain do that even when they don’t speak much Spanish. Whereas in the USA, where not much peninsular Spanish is floating around, it’s not so common. I compromise with ‘Velasqueth’.

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    Allegedly some upper-class Brits used to do nonstandard things with their s’s which allegedly (although this could be folk-etymology-like) had something to do (via service in the Peninsular War? I dunno) with the Castillian thetheando. The source from which I first learned this years ago referred to this oddity of pronunciation as the “cavalryman’s lisp” (because it was claimed to be particularly prominent among the officers of certain posh/socialite regiments with those ridiculous names like 19th Hussars (The Duchess of Blankshire’s Own)) but that doesn’t seem to be a standard description for it.

  7. AJP, da man is playin witcha: ceceando would be the normative spelling. But I will enter a pedantic protest: ceceo is the name of the very non-standard variety spoken in extreme Southern Spain in which /θ/ and /s/ are merged as [θ]. Likewise seseo is the name of the mildly non-standard variety in which they are merged as [s] (it is standard everywhere but in Spain, including the Canaries). I know of no cute name for the standard (in Spain) variety, in which /θ/ and /s/ are not merged: ceseo, seceo? The technical name is simply distinción.
    As for Henry James, he was apparently even worse viva voce than in writing:

    Once while motoring through England with Edith Wharton, James lost his way and hailed an old man at the side of the road. “My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer – so. My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station.”

    The old man looked blank. “In short, my good man,” said James, “what I want to put to you in a word is this: Supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to – ”

    “Oh, please,” said Wharton, “do ask him where the King’s Road is.”

    “Ah –? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?”

    “Ye’re in it,” said the man.

  8. I barely got half of it, and that was great fun, so thank you very much hat, for the link, and THANKS, Julia for the link to the lyrics!

  9. I liked the bit at 2:30 when the one with the beard grabs his throat and goes “meey”. The one on the left seems to me to have a British accent.
    The cavalryman’s lisp is mentioned here, in a footnote. I know from reading Auberon Waugh’s autobiography that the Household Cavalry* have some odd expressions. A Cornet, for instance, is a second lieutenant whereas in the rest of Britain it’s an ice-cream cone.
    *The name Household Cavalry always makes me think of a matching set of kitchen china, though I’m probably thinking of household crockery.

  10. A few germane examples from William Gass, the first from his essay “The Music of Prose,” the second from his book On Being Blue:

    For prose has a pace; it is dotted with stops and pauses, frequent rests; inflections rise and fall like a low range of hills; certain tones are prolonged; there are patterns of stress and harmonious measures; there is a proper method of pronunciation, even if it is rarely observed; alliteration will trouble the tongue, consonance ease its sounds out, so that any mouth making that music will feel its performance even to the back of the teeth and to the glottal’s stop; mellifluousness is not impossible, and harshness is easy; drum roll and clangor can be confidently called for—lisp, slur, and growl; so there will be a syllabic beat in imitation of the heart, while rhyme will recall a word we passed perhaps too indifferently; vowels will open and consonants close like blooming plants; repetitive schemes will act as refrains, and there will be phrases—little motifs—to return to, like the tonic; clauses will be balanced by other clauses the way a waiter carries trays; parallel lines will nevertheless meet in their common subject; clots of concepts will dissolve and then recombine, so we shall find endless variations on the same theme; a central idea, along with its many modifications, like soloist and chorus, will take their turns until, suddenly, all sing at once the same sound.

    So sentences are copied, constructed, or created; they are uttered, mentioned, or used; each says, means, implies, reveals, connects; each titillates, invites, conceals, suggests; and each is eventually either consumed or conserved; nevertheless, the lines in Stevens or the sentences of Joyce or James, pressed by one another into being as though the words before and the words after were those reverent hands both Rilke and Rodin have celebrated, clay calling to clay like mating birds, concept responding to concept the way passionate flesh congests, every note a nipple on the breast, at once a triumphant pinnacle and perfect conclusion, like pelted water, I think I said, yet at the same time only another anonymous cell, and selfless in its service to the shaping skin as lost forgotten matter is in all walls; these lines, these sentences, are not quite uttered, not quite mentioned, peculiarly employed, strangely listed, oddly used, as though a shadow were the leaves, limbs, trunk of a new tree, and the shade itself were thrust like a dark torch into the grassy air in the same slow and forceful way as its own roots, entering the earth, roughen the darkness there till all its freshly shattered facets shine against themselves as teeth do in the clenched jaw; for Rabelais was wrong, blue is the color of the mind in borrow of the body; it is the color consciousness becomes when caressed; it is the dark inside of sentences, sentences which follow their own turnings inward out of sight like the whorls of a shell, and which we follow warily, as Alice after that rabbit, nervous and white, till suddenly—there! climbing down clauses and passing through ‘and’ as it opens—there—there—we’re here!…in time for tea and tantrums; such are the sentences we should like to love—the ones which love us and themselves as well—incestuous sentences—sentences which make an imaginary speaker speak the imagination loudly to the reading eye; that have a kind of orality transmogrified: not the tongue touching the genital tip, but the idea of the tongue, the thought of the tongue, word-wet to part-wet, public mouth to private, seed to speech, and speech…ah! after exclamations, groans, with order gone, disorder on the way, we subside through sentences like these, the risk of senselessness like this, to float like leaves on the restful surface of that world of words to come, and there, in peace, patiently to dream of the sensuous, and mindful Sublime.

  11. Police Complaint: allegedly in English, but I understood far less than I did of the Spanish!

  12. J.W. Brewer says:

    AJP: just from the paucity of other google hits, I expect that _Albion’s Seed_ (which I read and reread rather obsessively when it first came out, what, nearly a quarter-century ago?) must have been where that phrase got into the back of my mind. I am still grumpy at Prof. Fischer for never (thus far?0 managing to write the other four volumes of the planned series of which that was supposed to be the beginning . . .

  13. Melville? Nah, nah, you gotta go back to Sir Thomas Browne for the really lovely sentences, sentences with slowly unfolding meanings that are more and more precise, more and more wonderful.

  14. Sir Thomas Brown
    I happen to think Philip Roth can balance a clause or two; here, from the opening pages of The Human Stain:

    Ninetyeight in New England was a summer of exquisite warmth and sunshine, in baseball a summer of mythical battle between a home-run god who was white and a home-run god who was brown, and in America the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism—which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country’s security—was succeeded by cocksucking, and a virile, youthful middle-aged president and a brash, smitten twenty-one-year-old employee carrying on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived America’s oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony. In the Congress, in the press, and on the networks, the righteous grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore, and punish, were everywhere out moralizing to beat the band: all of them in a calculated frenzy with what Hawthorne (who, in the 1860s, lived not many miles from my door) identified in the incipient country of long ago as “the persecuting spirit”; all of them eager to enact the astringent rituals of purification that would excise the erection from the executive branch, thereby making things cozy and safe enough for Senator Lieberman’s ten-year-old daughter to watch TV with her embarrassed daddy again. No, if you haven’t lived through 1998, you don’t know what sanctimony is.

    Hat, I know you’re not as big on Gass as I am (not that I’m a super-duper fan), but if that amusing “complaint” link was a response to my post, then come on — I was sure those passages would, well… not exactly convert you, but at least help you better understand what all the fuss is/was about.

  15. I’d love to be able to read Javier Marias in Spanish — not that his usual translator, Margaret Jull Costa, doesn’t do a great job (else, of course, I’d never know to wish).

  16. all the fuss
    I mean, someone on Amazon is trying to sell one of his short story collections for almost a hundred grand. Customer satisfaction is guaranteed.

  17. As for Henry James, he was apparently even worse viva voce than in writing
    Hugh Kenner had a different take. Link is meant to be to pages 11 and 12 of The Pound Era.

  18. The Phillip Roth makes much more sense to me than the Gasses, where I improved the whole thing by replacing his semicolons with full stops.
    I like your utilizing Kindle this way, it makes me want to get one.
    I like short sentences best.

  19. It’s said Scandinavian fiction doesn’t do well in Spain (this was said before Stieg Larsson). Scandinavians write too short sentences. The reason is that they have the stylistic influences of the Old Norse sagas in mind, such as this famous passage from Njal’s Saga:
    When they arrived, they did not know whether Gunnar would be at home. Gissur said that someone should go up to the house and find out for certain, while the others set themselves down on the ground. Thorgrim, a Norwegian, went up to the hall. Gunnar saw that he bore a red kirtle up to the window, and Gunnar shot out a spear at his midsection. Thorgrim’s feet slipped and his shield came loose, and he tumbled down off the thatch. Then he went back to the rest, Gizur among them, where they sat on the ground. Gizur looked at him and said, “Is Gunnar home?”
    Thorgrim answered, “You find out; but I discovered this: his spear was home.” Then he fell dead.

  20. Thank you.

  21. if that amusing “complaint” link was a response to my post
    Heaven forfend! No, no, it was just something amusing I ran across elsewhere. I admired the Gass but didn’t have anything particular to say about it. Sentence by sentence, he’s a wonderful writer, but… well, to quote my e-mail to you from a few years ago:
    It’s like Art Tatum: I can tell he’s a great pianist, I understand why every pianist I know is nuts about him, but when I listen to him dissect a tune and turn it into cascades of impossible chords and runs, I think “he doesn’t really care about the tune, it’s just an excuse to show off,” and that’s the way I feel about Gass. His sentences are magnificent, but I don’t get the feeling there’s anything he needs to say — he just picks a topic and goes to town on it. As I read the essay, I start out savoring the gorgeous prose, but after a while I find myself skimming despite my stern admonitions to myself, and I have to force myself to go back and catch up with his coruscations. There was one place where I heard a real voice saying something real, and that was (on page 328 of my edition) “…the text must give us the clues for its own interpretation…” Yes, I thought, that’s true. And then it’s back to the livery of a butler and the compatibility of adjectives and lord knows what all. He was a professor of philosophy for years, and boy does it show. Which is fine if you like philosophy, but like ballet and fish that’s one of my blind spots.

  22. The reason is that they have the stylistic influences of the Old Norse sagas in mind
    I remember falling in love with the sagas when I was studying Old Norse, and I’ve always meant to get back to them. Thanks for that lovely excerpt.

  23. I’m reading Ágota Kristóf, and she’s kind of my new standard for dry, direct sentences:

    At the end of two hours we exchange our sheets of paper. Each of us corrects the other’s spelling mistakes with the help of the dictionary and writes at the bottom of the page: “Good” or “Not good.” If it’s “Not good,” we throw the composition in the fire and try to deal with the same subject in the next lesson. If it’s “Good,” we can copy the composition into the notebook.
    To decide whether it’s “Good” or “Not good,” we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.
    For example, it is forbidden to write, “Grandmother is like a witch”; but we are allowed to write, “People call Grandmother the Witch.”

    This is Alan Sheridan’s translation; original:

    Au bout de deux heures, nous échangeons nos feuilles, chacun de nous corrige les fautes de l’autre à l’aide du dictionnaire et, en bas de la page, écrit: “Bien”, ou “Pas Bien”. Si c’est “Pas Bien”, nous jetons la composition dans le feu et nous essayons de traiter le même sujet à la leçon suivante. Si c’est “Bien”, nous pouvons recopier la composition dans le Grand Cahier.
    Pour décider si c’est “Bien” ou “Pas Bien”, nous avons une règle très simple: la composition doit être vraie. Nous devons écrire ce qui est, ce que nous voyons, ce que nous entendons, ce que nous faisons.
    Par exemple, il est interdit d’écrire: “Grand-Mère ressemble à une sorcière”; mais il est permis d’écrire: “Les gens appellent Grand-Mère la Sorcière”.

    (The tone is fitting because it’s being written in-story by two children, twins and self-learners; I don’t know if elsewhere her writing style is also similar to this.)

  24. A brilliant performance! I was laughing from the beginning till the end. As to the musical illustrations of the linguistic difference, I especially loved the concha andaluza.
    @ Boiko: Yes, Ágota Kristóf is famous for these extra short phrases. In an exhaustive interview published in El País a year ago or so, she explained the reason. She was a freshly immigrated housewife in Switzerland, sitting all day at home, with three children and with a very basic French, and the only escape for her was to write, and not in her native Hungarian, but in French, in the hope of some communication. And the result, these strange and primitive phrases, immediately conquered the heart of the French editors. At least this is the story she told.

  25. Tom Shippey says (and I agree) that what makes Scandinavian myths different from Classical ones is that they’re funny, which he qualifies as “not comic, exactly, but amusing”. This one is a fine example. Another one Shippey gives is the story about Ragnar Hairy-britches dying in the English snake pit and saying “How the little pigs will grunt when they hear the old boar is dead.” Considering that the “little pigs” were such very scary fellows as Half-dane Whiteshirt, Björn Ironsides, Sigurd Snake-eye, and Ivar the Boneless, that had to be intended as humor, and very grim humor considering the gruesome revenge that Ivar and some of the others are said to have taken.

  26. If you die with a witty line on your lips, people will remember you for centuries. And you might get included in a saga.

  27. jamessal says:

    I was sure those passages would, well… not exactly convert you, but at least help you better understand what all the fuss is/was about.
    Now that you recall the email it’s clear you understood perfectly well what the fuss was about — you just weren’t digging it. I guess like all converts who swear they’re not proselytizing I was lying, to both of us; really, I got excited rereading those passages and gave it another shot. It’ll never happen again, I swear ;-)

  28. Juan Tenorio says:

    Este video es super!! Jajaja… Ni yo, que soy hablante nativo del Español, logré entender muy bien eso que decían, por cuestiones de la multiculturalidad… En fin, es una buena oportunidad para pensar que tenemos uno de los mejores idiomas del mundo!!! Amo mi idioma!

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