Published in Journal of Hispanic Philology, 16 (1991), 3-9.

The Editor's Column:

What I Have Learned about Spanish

from 23 Years of Teaching It

by Daniel Eisenberg

   A peculiarity of Mexicans—and most Latin Americans, for that matter—and something many gringos have a hard time getting used to, is the florid speech of many of the people. Mexicans are a nation of poets, their everyday speech embellished with aphorisms, epigrams, and sheer verbal fantasy. This is as true of the uneducated campesinos as it is of the aristocracy, the language of poetry seeming to fall effortlessly from their lips.1

     I. Spanish has two conjugations, not three: -ar verbs, and -er/-ir verbs. -er/-ir verbs differ, besides the infinitive and positive vosotros commands, only in two forms of the present tense. There are pairs of -ar/-er verbs sharing a stem (podar/poder), and pairs of -ar/-ir verbs (morar/morir), but it is impossible for an -er and an -ir verb to share a stem.2 (Perusers of old textbooks will find that Spanish once had four conjugations, the fourth consisting of irregular verbs such as tener and valer.)
     II. Sentence structure is more easily understood if the infinitive is treated as a noun. It can fulfill any noun function, such as object of preposition, and its only verbal characteristic is that it can take an object. It confuses students to teach it as a verb. Also, the infinitive is not a master form from which other verb forms were created. It is dictionaries that have given the infinitive special importance.
     III. Dependent clauses (introduced by a conjunction, except sometimes after verbs of command, and containing a conjugated verb form) can function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. Phrases (introduced by a preposition, and containing a noun or noun substitute) can only function as adjectives and adverbs.
     IV. Spanish accentuation and hyphenation are wonderfully consistent, if arbitrary. Spelling is much easier (closer to sound) than that of French or English. However, Spanish would be a bit more legible if it used capitals on words derived from proper names, like español, freudiano, marxismo, and gótico. (These are obvious, but how can one tell whether an unfamiliar coining like aprista is derived from a proper noun or not?) While the inverted question mark and exclamation point are very functional, and their use in English has recently been proposed,3 the system of indicating direct address—one paragraph per statement—is awkward.
     V. Spanish excels in resources for interpersonal affairs: the rich second person, in several countries including vos, the reflexive, the emotional content of noun endings (hombrón, mujercita, mujercilla),4 the rich gender system, including the unique feminine nosotras and vosotras. As the use of a subject noun or pronoun is not required (Creo…; Dicen…), its presence is therefore more striking.
     VI. Spanish permits and even encourages much lexical play and invention, more than Portuguese and to my knowledge more than the other Romance languages as well. Creation of adjectives from nouns, of verbs from nouns and vice-versa, and modification of noun meaning are all permitted through a complex and understudied system of transformations, prefixes, infixes, and suffixes.5 If one knows the unwritten rules, new nouns can even be invented: Unamuno's nivola,6 Valle-Inclán's esperpento, the cuca silvana first used in writing by Lorca,7 the dictablanda which in 1930 replaced the dictadura.
     Here are some seldom-written rules of current word creation. Newly coined verbs are always of the first conjugation: boicotear, informatizar;8 none are stem-changing. Short adjectives and nouns can be made into -ar verbs by prefixing a- or en-: acabar, afilar, ahondar, ahorcar, alocar, encajar, engordar. Nouns taken from Greek or other Romance languages conserve their original gender (el nirvana, la gillette). Others adopt the gender of their ending (-ad, -ez, -ión) or that of their Spanish translation (la beautiful people, la RAM). Other nouns, and this includes most Anglicisms, are masculine unless they end in -a (el ínput; el wisiwig; la China). An -s plural is used with consonant endings (los inputs).
     VII. In Spanish, the masculine gender dominates the feminine. However, the cost is high: feminine identity is clearer than masculine identity, since male plurals are more ambiguous than female plurals. Muchachas can only be female, but muchachos is both male and female. Spanish has no word for "boys," "fathers," or any other male group other than the biological machos, sementales, varones, toros, gallos, carneros, cabrones, capones, and the interesting exception of hombres, whose singular is ambiguous. Other masculine singulars can also be ambiguous: el niño can mean "the child," el perro "the dog" (of either gender, the dog in general). The same ambiguity is true of pronouns. It was a student question that revealed this to me.9
     VIII. Contrary to the received wisdom that noun genders (other than those referring to sexed animals) are systemless, Spanish seems to have a weak tendency to place agents in the masculine, products in the feminine. This is recognized in the case of fruit trees: cerezo/cereza, manzano/manzana. It is also definitely true of nouns derived from past participles: el herido is a person (masculine or undifferentiated), but la herida, while possibly a person, is much more likely to be 'the wound'; likewise comida, dormida, herrada, llamada, mojada, mordida, movida, partida, salida, subida, and many other postverbals. (There are many exceptions, among them alcantarillado, apellido, cocido, hilado, pedido.) It also seems to be true of many older "strong" postverbals: baja, cava, caza, cerca, habla, huelga, limpia, manda, poda, risa, seca, siega, toma, are all feminine. (Exceptions: ahorro, destierro, escrito, juego, saco, salto. That all of the preceding are postverbals is speculative, and the tendency presumably existed in Vulgar Latin.)
     IX. The first grammarians of Spanish emphasized its proximity to Latin, and thus stressed features the two languages share. Among the results is an overemphasis on the subjunctive in Spanish grammar and language instruction to the present day. Only exceptionally does the subjunctive convey information: el que lo tiene and donde está have different meanings from el que lo tenga and donde esté. However, quiero que seas feliz and no conozco a nadie que lo sepa are correct, and *quiero que serás feliz and *no conozco a nadie que lo tiene are incorrect, but the verbal mood does not change the meaning.
     X. Spanish-English dictionaries are written to help speakers of Spanish, not speakers of English. Irregular verb forms such as soy, pidió, etc., should be in the dictionary. Homonyms (canto noun and verb; mojada noun and feminine adjective) should be as well.
     XI. The fictions of the single-letter ch and ll are on their way out. Menéndez Pidal spoke out against them,10 María Moliner abandoned them in her influential Diccionario del uso del español (Madrid: Gredos, 1966-67), and computerized data processing is in the process of finishing them off. What to do with the ñ, wedged between n and o, is a more complex problem: the best solution seems to be the Catalan -ny- (Espanya). Unfortunately, the ñ has become an item of Castilian pride and even identity, and the predecessor of the ñ, the more historical and thus castizo -nn- (duenna), might be less offensive.11
     XII. Castilians are prouder of their language, and see it as more central to their national identity, than English speakers are of English. There is a tradition of praise of Castilian, perhaps a response to the great pride Arabic speakers took in their language, dating at least as far back as Nebrija and Isabel la Católica. People from the periphery of Spain, however, are unhappy and angry about the identification of Castilian with Spanish. Spanish Americans, also, are seldom as enthusiastic about the language as are Castilians.12 There seems to be less lexical play and invention in formal Spanish-American Spanish.
     XIII. Good Spanish counts a lot. It will open more doors in Spain and Spanish America than good English will open doors in the United States. We have frequent contact with foreigners who speak and write English fluently and even eloquently, but native Spanish speakers seldom encounter foreigners with a similar command of Spanish.
     In part this reflects the unequal trends in higher education: the number of foreigners who get degrees (B.A., Ph.D.) in Spanish-speaking countries is trivial compared to the quantities of foreigners who come to the United States and Great Britain for higher education.
     XIV. The above situation also reflects the inadequacy of self-instructional materials in Spanish. One could fill a small library with books on how to write better English and how to edit one's own writing.13 There are regular columnists on English vocabulary and usage in newspapers and magazines. English teachers volunteer to answer linguistic questions on grammar "hotlines," of which there is now a directory.14 The National Council of Teachers of English gives mock awards to the worst abusers of English, and there is at least one publication (The Underground Grammarian) which does nothing but embarrass those who misuse English. There are at least four computerized style and grammar checkers on the market.
     In Spanish, aside from high school textbooks there are very few materials on how to write advanced Spanish, no reverse dictionary (from meaning to word), no dictionary of word combinations, and no computerized style and grammar checker. If a reader knows of materials other than Manuel Seco's Diccionario de dudas y dificultades de la lengua española, please write. There is also no electronic dictionary.15
     The absence of instructional material in Spanish, other than textbooks, seems to reflect a now-forgotten context of religious and political control.
     XV. The use of archaic Spanish can give an impression of authority and wisdom (although in inappropriate contexts, it can be pompous and pretentious). Archaic Spanish includes object pronouns on the end of any conjugated verb form, as in prométolo, dícese, and érase (in a seldom-stated rule, this is limited to main clauses); obsolete irregular past participles, such as pinto, ducho, and electo; vosotros, in Spanish America;16 the -r- form of the imperfect subjunctive as pluperfect indicative; and the future subjunctive. (Although I have never seen this discussed, the future subjunctive seems not to be used in noun clauses.)
     XVI. Using older vocabulary, even if limited to words still in current use, gives power and authenticity to one's Spanish, the equivalent of using words with Germanic roots in English. Thus Francisco Márquez Villanueva's preference for what he labels the castizo term destierro, rather than the much more recent expulsión.17 Gallicisms and anglicisms are at best neutral in impact.
     XVII. A knowledge of some Latin and Greek helps considerably in reading and writing Spanish. The understanding and use of latinismos and helenismos are a sign of good education. While reviewing a translation of one of my articles18 I asked the Spaniard helping me, who knew Greek well, if we could replace "versos de dieciséis sílabas" with a single word. Yes, there was such a word: hexadecasílabos. "Y es muy bonito," he added.
     Adjectives derived from proper nouns frequently revert to Latinate roots: gaditano, matritense, onubense, gótico.
     XVIII. Cervantes is one of the richest authors in Spanish. He is also the most linguistically influential author, since Don Quijote has been taught in schools for over a century. Reading Cervantes will enlarge one's vocabulary. The proverbial expressions and refranes used in Don Quijote (a pies juntillas, por los cerros de Úbeda, quien canta sus males espanta, and many others) are today the most common.

     I would like to thank Máximo Torreblanca, John Burt, and David Pharies for their comments on drafts of this column.

     1 Jerry Kamstra, Weed: Adventures in Mexico (Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson and San Francisco: Peer-Amid Press, 1983), pp. 62-63. See also María Rosario Montaño-Harmon, "Discourse Features of Written Mexican Spanish: Current Research in Contrastive Rhetoric and Its Implications," Hispania, 74 (1991), 417-25.
     2 That only -ir verbs have stem changes of the pidió/durmió type does not make them a separate conjugation, any more than -ie- and -ue- stem-changing verbs constitute separate conjugations. See on this topic Jean-Louis Benezech, "Deux ou trois conjugaisons en espagnol?," in Mélanges offerts à Paul Guinard, ed. Annie Molinié et Carlos Serrano, I (Paris: Éditions Hispaniques, 1990), 37-49.
     3 Hispania, 75 (1992), 354-55.
     4 These are treated well by Anthony Gooch, Diminutive, Augmentative and Pejorative Suffixes in Modern Spanish (Oxford: Pergamon, 1967).
     5 An introduction to the process, with bibliography, is provided by M. F. Lang, Spanish Word Formation. Productive Derivational Morphology in the Modern Lexis (London: Routledge, 1990). On the historical origens of this tendency of Spanish, see Steven Dworkin, "Studies in Lexical Loss: The Fate of Old Spanish Post-adjectival Abstracts in -dad, -dumbre, -eza, and -ura," BHS, 66 (1989), 335-42, who writes (p. 340, n. 8): "It has been suggested that the Romance tendency to suffixation was strengthened in written Hispano-Romance by Jewish scribes who wished to remain faithful on the formal level to the Arabic source and who were influenced by the use of suffixal derivation in biblical Hebrew."
     6 In the "Historia de Niebla," prefixed to that work in 1935 and included in the Austral edition.
     7 In Act I of La zapatera prodigiosa.
     8 The suffix -ecer, used to create verbs from adjectives (humedecer), is not in use with new adjectives.
     9 I made some half-serious suggestions for reforming Spanish's gender system in "Grammatical Sexism in Spanish," JHP, 9 (1985 [1986]), 189-96.
     10 In "El diccionario que deseamos," in the Diccionario general ilustrado de la lengua española, 2nd edition (Barcelona: Biblograf, 1964), pp. xiii-xxix, at p. xiii; reprinted as "El diccionario ideal," Estudios de lingüística (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1961), 91-147, at pp. 95-97. The case is made at greater length by Carlo Martínez de Campos, "Sobre supresión de las consonantes Ch y Ll," BRAE, 53 (1973), 289-96, who points out that the combinations first appeared in 1807.
     11 The problem is not the relatively trivial one of the ñ on the keyboard, computer screen, or printed output. Much more serious is the digital representation (storage) of the character, and its impact on alphabetizing. The ASCII character set, which is by now official and beyond modification, assigns 110 to n and 111 to o, and the so-called "extended ASCII" (actually IBM PC) assigns ñ to position 164, up next to ª, º, ¿, and ¡. The programming costs of maintaining, in the Hispanic world, the ñ between n and o are high and getting higher.
     On the sensitivity about the ñ, there is an article in the New York Times, May 12, 1991, section 1, p. 3.
     12 "¿Cómo no sentir orgullo al escuchar hablada nuestra lengua, eco fiel de ella y al mismo tiempo expresión autónoma, por otros pueblos al otro lado del mundo? Ellos, a sabiendas o no, quiéranlo o no, con esos mismos signos de su alma, que son las palabras, mantienen vivo el destino de nuestro país, y habrían de mantenerlo aun después que él dejara de existir. Al lado de ese destino, cuán estrecho, cuán perecedero parecen los de las otras lenguas." (Luis Cernuda, Variaciones sobre tema mexicano [Mexico: Porrúa y Obregón, 1952], pp. 17-18.) "Por ninguna parte del mundo moderno existe el ejemplo magnífico que a los españoles nos llena de orgullo, porque por sí solo expresa cuál fue el espíritu de nuestra colonización, y que debe ser motivo de gloria para todo hispanohablante" (Dámaso Alonso, "Defensa de la lengua castellana," in Del siglo de oro a este siglo de siglas (Madrid: Gredos, 1962), pp. 236-63, at p. 242 (originally in Memoria del Segundo Congreso de Academias de la Lengua Española [Madrid, 1956], pp. 33-48). See also Dámaso Alonso, "Tres sonetos sobre la lengua castellana," in España en su literatura, ed. Nicholson B. Adams, John E. Keller, and Rafael A. Aguirre, 3rd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), pp. 2-7.
     13 In no particular order: Claire Kehrwald Cook, The MLA's Line by Line. How to Edit Your Own Writing (New York: Modern Language Association, 1985); William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 3rd edition (New York: Macmillan, 1979); Lucile Vaughan Payne, The Lively Art of Writing (New York: New American Library, 1965); William Zinsser, Writing to Learn (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); Susan R. Horton, Thinking through Writing (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1982); Peter Elbow, Writing with Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981); H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965); H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, The King's English, 3rd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931); Walker Gibson, Tough, Sweet & Stuffy: An Essay on Modern American Prose Styles (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966); William Zinsser, On Writing Well, 4th edition (New York: Harper & Row, 1990); Henriette Anne Klauser, Writing on Both Sides of the Brain (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986); John B. Williams, Style and Grammar. A Writer's Handbook of Transformations (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1973); The Chicago Manual of Style, 13th edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982). This list is far from complete.
     14 "Horton Hears a Whom," Linguafranca, February-March, 1992, pp. 6-7. For a copy of the directory, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Grammar Hotline Directory, Tidewater Community College Writing Center, 1700 College Crescent, Virginia Beach, VA 23456.
     15 WordPerfect does have a Spanish spelling checker, thesaurus, and hyphenator.
     16 That vosotros is not used in Spanish America is one of the great myths of Spanish language instruction, at least in the U.S. The following quote from Sandino was displayed on a billboard in Nicaragua: "…Más de un batallón de los vuestros, invasor rubio, habrá mordido el polvo de mis agrestes montañas." (Reproduced in John G. Copland, Ralph Kite, and Lynn Sandstedt, Literatura y arte, 4th ed. [n.p.: Hold, Rinehart and Winston, 1989], p. 123. Note the use of the word "vigésimo" in the caption, a word left undefined in the book's glossary. Another myth of Spanish language teaching is the unimportance of ordinal numbers above décimo. Other than those created by me, I know of no American course or textbook in which they are taught.)
     17 "El Nunca dimittis del patriarca Ribera," in his El problema morisco (desde otras laderas) (Madrid: Libertarias, 1991), pp. 196-318, at p. 290.
     18 "El romance visto por Cervantes," in Estudios cervantinos (Barcelona: Sirmio, 1991 [1992]), 57-82.