Posted by: janecronin | April 23, 2017

English mutations

Languages are not static things: their natural state of one of constant flux, with new words and expressions appearing and old ones disappearing constantly.  For some reason, a lot of us strongly dislike changes in language, and it seems that the older we get, the more we hark back to the “correct” language of the past.  A typical example of these changes in English is that wonderful way in which we turn nouns into verbs.   A recent example was in the Olympics when all of a sudden people were trying “to medal” or “to podium”.  I for one cringe at this, but it no doubt sounds normal if you’re under a certain age, just as “to hand”, “to chair” or “to man” probably sounded excruciating to some previous generation.

In Spanish, it has become increasingly trendy to introduce English into everyday speech.  Sometimes English words are used because they express concepts that do not exist in Spanish; sometimes they are used to sound intellectual when perfectly good Spanish equivalents exist and often their meaning alters slightly in their new language – a fact that can create some confusion for native English speakers.

Spellings start to alter informally because of pronunciation difficulties.  This is true of the following examples I’ve seen recently.  Can you work out what they are?  “táper”, “fotochó”, “potcas”, “feisbuk”.  Well, of course!  They are “tupper”, which we call “Tupperware”;  photoshop, podcast and Facebook.   Another strange computer one is “pendrive”.  I learnt to use this item in Spanish first so was surprised when an English speaking person who knows about computers didn’t understand me.  It turns out that in real English a “pendrive” is a “memory stick”!

Here’s another cluster of terms which I find intriguing: “performance”, “show” and “boy”.  Our understanding of performance is “actuación” in Spanish, but when the Spanish say “performance” they are referring to some kind of avant garde, spontaneous public display (like nude protesting or those videos of opera singers in metro stations, also known as a “flashmob”).  We all know what a “show” is in English, but I was intrigued to read in Spanish the other day about an actor’s humble beginnings doing “shows”.  It turns out it meant working as a male stripper!   This takes me to the word “boy” which refers to the same activity.

Moving back onto safer ground, what about “friki”? This comes from “freak” but doesn`t actually refer to Victorian circus creatures, more just people who are a little bit strange!   And finally, there is a lot of talk these days about “fairplay” in Spanish sport.  We pride ourselves on this British attribute, something to do with cricket, but you’d better know that both Real Madrid and Barcelona have been awarded for their “fairplay” in the game of “fútbol”.  Wonders will never cease.


Posted by: janecronin | April 16, 2017

Text speak

Whether you approve of it or not, text speak is with us, and probably to stay.   In the last article I mentioned that the art of abbreviation was being practised way back in the Middle Ages, in those days to save space on expensive parchments.  Nowadays, we are either saving letters on Twitter and texts or time on the very effective communication tool, Whatsapp.

Maybe like a lot of us oldies, you insist on including all the right punctuation marks and spellings even when send a text, but that leaves you completely at a loss when someone of the younger generation writes to you with something like:  CU 2moro lol.    Well, just in case you’re wondering, this person is laughing for some reason (laugh out loud) and is going to “see you tomorrow”, so you’d better get some tea and biscuits at the ready.

Of course text speak also exists in Spanish, and there are very few people below the age of 50 (to pluck at age out nowhere) who are not “Whatsapping” (or Whatsappeando) at all hours of the day and night.  So just in case you receive one of these messages, here are some things you should know.

Let’s start with the use of the letter “x” which represents the word “por”, as in the mathematical symbol: 2 x 3 = 6 (dos por tres son seis).  There are other words that get cut down to just their first letter, so therefore, “xf” represents “por favor” and “xq” represents “porque” (because).  You may be rolling your eyes already, but you’ll be glad of this information some time.  Also from maths is the symbol + which represents “más” and  I have actually seen “+ x –“  on a shop sign (más por menos – more for less).

As already mentioned, there are some very common words that are expressed by their first letter, for example “d” for “de” and “q” for “que”.  Other words are abbreviated to their most significant letters like this:  “tb” for “también”, “mñn” for “mañana” and “bss” for “besos”.  The Spanish use this abbreviated (bss) and not our “xxx” to send kisses.  If you write xxx at the end of a message to a Spanish person, they will read “por por por” and it really won´t make any sense!

An abbreviation that is common in texting, but also rather trendy in business names and so on, is to you write the number “2” to replace the letters “dos” at the end of a word.  So, we have names like “comunica2” (comunicados) or “pinta2” (pintados).  The possibilities are endless!

Finally, you will often find the predominantly English letters “w” and “k” used to replace the two letters “gu” and “qu” in Spanish.  Therefore “guapa” becomes “wapa” and “quiero” becomes “kiero”.

I hope this revelation hasn´t upset you too much – we have to move with the times, after all!

Posted by: janecronin | April 9, 2017

The Spanish letter

Many of us throw up our hands in horror at the way the youth of today (and some of us oldies as well) abbreviate language whilst texting or “whatsapping”.  This is just as common in Spanish as it is in English.  For example, “q” replaces “que” and “x” replaces “por”, so therefore the word “porque” (because) is conveniently reduced to two characters – “xq”.  Text speak is really a subject for another article, but the principle in itself is often condemned as something that will do away with literacy in the younger generation.

However, many centuries ago, when parchment was an expensive item and abbreviations were needed to save money rather than time, many Latin transcripts were similarly full of shortcuts and abbreviations.  Often, when a letter was missed from a word it was indicated by a wavy mark over the previous letter.  There are thousands of examples of this in medieval texts, where the mark would appear over a whole range of different letters.  One of the positions where this often occurred was when there was a double “n”, in for example the Latin word “annus” meaning “year”.  Along with the issue of spelling, there was also a tendency to pronounce the second “n” as a more nasal sound.  As you have probably already realized, this eventually led to the Spanish word “anno” becoming “año” with the wavy line indicating the missing “n” and the pronunciation approximating the modern “ñ” sound.

Over the years, as Castilian Spanish became established as a language in its own right, this particular use of the “ñ” was kept in the language, whilst other letters with similar waving signs (as distinct from accents which is another issue) were phased out.  However, in modern Portuguese we find exactly the same squiggly line over the letters “a” and “o”.  These have exactly the same origin and also indicate a nasal pronunciation, in this case of these two vowels in certain word positions.  However, in Portuguese they do not represent separate letters of the alphabet.

In the early 18th century when the Real Academia Española came into existence to organise the spelling and grammar of the Spanish language, it created an alphabetical dictionary, in which it was decided to order the “ñ” after the “n” in all the listings.  This set the standard for the subsequent adoption of the “ñ” into the Spanish language as a letter in its own right rather than as “n with an accent” as non-Spanish speakers sometimes assume.

Nowadays this unique letter has come to represent Spanish language and culture, and the squiggly line is even incorporated into logos and illustrations to represent “Spanishness”.  It also has its own representation on the Spanish keyboard.  In fact the RAE resisted strong pressure from the European Union in 1991 to eliminate the “ñ” from Spanish keyboards as a move to open up the computer sales market throughout the EU.  One last piece of useless information: the squiggle on the “ñ” actually has a name other than “squiggle” “wavy line” or “accent”.  It is actually called a “virgulilla”.  Now that’s a bit of trivia to bore your friends with.

Posted by: janecronin | April 2, 2017

False Beginners

You may be familiar with the term “false friends”, those words which appear to mean the same thing in two different languages, but in fact mean something different.  However, it is less likely that you have come across the term “false beginners” unless you have worked in language teaching.

The “false” beginner is the person who claims to be a complete beginner in a language, but in fact already has some knowledge.  This knowledge may be hidden in the recesses of memory and therefore not easy to recall, it might be passive knowledge that has been picked up some time in the past but never put to active use, or it might be the case that the person concerned lacks the confidence to admit to any knowledge of the language and so refers to himself or herself as a complete beginner, when this isn´t strictly the case.  I’m sure you have come across Spanish people who claim not to speak any English, or to speak very little, only to find they are practically fluent.  Often the person has made this claim not to deceive anybody, but just through lack of confidence in their own abilities.

This phenomenon is quite common, but if you claim to be a beginner when strictly speaking you are not, you can create a dilemma for a language teacher.  However rusty, badly remembered or impractical your knowledge of a language might be, there is a world of difference between you and a person who has truly never come across a language before.   People who are learning a language for the very first time will take far longer to understand, assimilate and remember new words and concepts, whereas a “false beginner” usually only needs to have their memory refreshed once or twice for the same expressions to stick.  This difference in speed of learning can create problems in the classroom, depending on the attitude of the student.  If a “false beginner” is happy to keep quiet when necessary and be patient, they can gain from the class without intimidating others, but someone who says they are a beginner but who then proceeds to demonstrate knowledge beyond the rest of the group, and who also learns far more rapidly, is inevitably going to intimidate others in the class.

One of the problems with the expression “false beginner” and the reason you may never have heard it, is that although it is an accurate description of a learner from the point of view of the teacher, it does rather sound as though the person is being in some way deceitful.  I have rarely made the mistake of “accusing” someone of being a “false beginner” as they are likely to take offence and go into long explanations of how little they actually know!  In the academy I first worked in, we politely named a group as “post-beginners” which is actually a little more advanced than “false beginners” but covers the situation without hurting anyone’s feelings.

Posted by: janecronin | March 26, 2017

A means to an end

Language is one of the basic tools that we humans use to survive.  As we are social animals we need language to communicate with each other and deal with the many complex tasks that come our way from day to day.  This is why the study of language in the classroom is basically an unnatural activity.  We learn our own language as small children: in some cases we may need to acquire two or more languages to deal with events in our everyday lives and this learning takes place through the process of real communication.  It is through this practical daily use of language that our proficiency in it develops.

Herein lies one of the problems of studying a foreign language as adults.  We really need to find a practical use for it in order to develop our linguistic skills.  Speaking from the point of view of a Spanish teacher, I believe this is why many people drop out of class after the initial stages.  In my courses, we always start with very practical things like “get-by” phrases, how to order things in a restaurant or buy things in a shop.  The great thing about this is that my students can then go out and use the language they are learning straight away, and often come back to subsequent classes full of anecdotes about their successes or failures in communication.  Once the level of the language gets slightly more complex, it is important that students continue to find ways of making use of what they are learning, for it to remain meaningful.  This might take the form of a language exchange partner or joining in some social activity where new language can be learnt and practiced.

The same principle is applied in modern language teaching methods with children.  Rather than forcing a child to memorise words and phrases that have no application, it is far more effective for the child to learn something else, a practical skill or even the rules of a game, using the new language as a vehicle of communication.  This is also the principle behind bilingual education.  As far as the child is concerned, the knowledge of a second language is incidental as they use it to develop their learning in other areas.

With all that said, as adult language learners it is of course very important for us to focus on the new language itself:  to understand how it all fits together, doing language exercises and memorising new words and phrases, but we should never lose sight of the fact that our whole purpose is to apply the language to real situations, and it is in doing so that we will make genuine progress as we use language for what it actual is – a tool for communication.

Posted by: janecronin | March 19, 2017


Globish is actually the trademarked name for kind of simplified version of the English language which has been developed for the use of non-native English speakers when communicating with each other in English.  It is a combination of the two words Global and English.

The issue of what kind of English many people actually need to communicate with each other is very relevant for those of us who are teachers of English.  Many English textbooks require students to learn all manner of expressions and idioms which are appropriate if they wish to integrate into British or American society, but are way beyond the needs of someone who is engaging in international trade, politics or even diplomacy.

The person who developed and patented Globish, an IBM executive called Jean-Paul Nerriere, noticed in the course of his work that non-native English speakers used a simplified kind of grammar and vocabulary when communicating with each other which was not only highly effective, but also far easier to learn and use in many international contexts.  Globish, he claimed, is not an artificial language, and neither is it in any way incorrect English, it is simply the description of a simplified version of English, which he aimed to describe.

Several people have taken up the Globish gauntlet (which is probably not an acceptable Globish expression!) including a very informative book written by Robert McCrum in 2010 entitled Globish.  If you are a bit of a language freak like me, you will probably find it quite entertaining reading.

Despite Nerriere’s assiduous work in codifying Globish, the word is often used generically to describe a diluted form of English recognised the world over in popular culture.  There are a number of criticisms of the system as well as several alternative initiatives in creating a lingua franca.

There are two aspects of the Globish concept which particularly interest me.  One is, as I have already mentioned, what kind of English we teach to students in the classroom.  This is also related to what the students themselves are aiming for, but all too often examination systems expect an idiomatic knowledge of the language which may not be strictly necessary.

The other aspect is that fact that the people who have most difficulty in learning Globish are in fact we native English speakers.  Most people are completely unaware of the difficulties their native language presents to foreigners in international contexts, and therefore need to learn exactly how our language needs to be adapted to make it understandable to the majority.   I think some people are likely to resist this concept, perhaps fearing that it would dilute or contaminate our wonderful language in some way.  However, this really is not the case.  We can still enjoy novels, poetry and plays; irony, comedy and films using all the sophistication our language has to offer, but without needing to inflict it on those for whom none of this complexity is strictly relevant.

Posted by: janecronin | March 12, 2017

The History of the Spanish Language (part four)

Before we leave this fascinating subject, we should look in more detail at an official organisation which has been of central importance to the Spanish language for the last 300 years.  This is the Real Academia Española (Spanish Royal Academy) usually referred to as the RAE.  This body was founded in 1713 by the 8th Marquis of Villena, during the reign of the first Borbon King of Spain, Felipe V.  It was created with the express purpose of establishing the norms of the Spanish language in order to preserve the purity, elegance and splendour that it had attained over the previous two centuries.   However, unlike its counterparts in France, Italy and Portugal which were started more as literary and academic institutions, the Spanish academy had an official mission to establish national linguistic unity.   At the time of its creation there were already French, Italian and Portuguese dictionaries whereas the first Spanish dictionary was published by the RAE in 1726.  By way of contrast, it is interesting to note that the first English dictionary was published by a single writer, Samuel Johnson, in 1775.

As the Spanish colonies gained their independence from Spain they established their own language academies, with the encouragement of the RAE, and in 1951 an association of Spanish language academies was founded with 21 member organisations.   The first woman was admitted to the academy in 1784, however further female candidates were rejected over the intervening 300 years until the acceptance of Carmen Conde en 1978.  Since then a grand total of ten other woman have been accepted into the RAE.   Posts are referred to as “sillas” (chairs) and are given for life.  Each chair corresponds to a letter of the alphabet with separate posts for capital and small letters.   Members meet on a weekly basis to propose, debate and vote for changes to the language.  These may be the introduction of new words, the elimination of obsolete words or changes to spelling, punctuation and accents.  These alterations are then published on a regular basis and incorporated into the next edition of the RAE dictionary.

In 1993 the definition of the RAE’s mission was changed: “to safeguard the changes which the Spanish language may undergo with its constant adaptation to the needs of its speakers so that they do not break the essential unity which exists in the Spanish speaking world”.   As well as seeking the unity of Spanish worldwide, one of their greatest modern challenges is the incorporation of new words, usually derived from English, related to technology and the internet.

The RAE published its most recent grammar book in 2011 and the 23rd edition of its dictionary in 2014.  Unlike English where differences of opinion occur and there is no single official standard, these publications set down the rules of right and wrong of the Spanish language.



Posted by: janecronin | March 5, 2017

The History of the Spanish Language (part three)


During the Middle Ages there were a number of pronunciation changes to the Spanish language including variations in the “s”, “z” and “th” range of sounds.  The characteristic lisping “th” sound which is now represented in written Spanish by the letter “z” and the letter “c” when it appears before an “e” or an “i” became standard in most parts of Spain, apart from Andalucía, the Canary Islands and by extension throughout South America.  There is a legend that the lisped “th” was widely adopted in imitation of a Spanish king who had a speech impediment.  Although this story is very popular and oft-repeated, it has absolutely no historical basis.

Other changes which differentiated Spanish from its Latin roots were the softening of certain consonant sounds, e.g. Latin “vita” to Spanish “vida” (life),  Latin “lupus” to Spanish “lobo” (wolf); the introduction of diphthongs (double vowel sounds) e.g. Latin “terra” to Spanish “tierra” (earth), Latin “novum” to Spanish “nuevo” (new) and the creation of the “ñ” sound from the Latin “nn” e.g. Latin “annum” to Spanish “año”.

The process of re-conquering Spain from the Moorish kingdoms drew to a close in the late 15th century with the fall of Granada.  This occurred shortly after the kingdoms of Castilla and Aragón had reached a form of political union by the marriage of their monarchs Isabel of Castilla and Fernando of Aragón.  This same period saw the expulsion of the Jews and the discovery of America and so marked the beginning of what is regarded in historical terms as the foundation of modern Spain.  At this time the very first Castilian Grammar book was published by Antonio de Nebrija in Salamanca in which Spanish was studied as a modern language as distinct from Latin.

With the expansion of the Spanish Empire, Castilian became the official language of the colonies of modern Central America, Peru, Colombia, Uruguay, the Philippines, Guam and other Pacific islands.  In the late 18th century Spain renounced its rights to large areas of North America although Spanish place names still remain (Las Vegas, Los Angeles).  On gaining independence, the former Spanish colonies of Central and South America established Spanish as their official languages whilst many southern states of North America (Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah) remained predominantly Spanish speaking, despite their official language being English.

Nowadays, it is calculated that there are around 468 million native Spanish speakers worldwide, with an additional 90 million second language speakers and students of the Spanish language.  In fact, Spanish is the second most widely spoken native language in the world, after Chinese and before English, although English has many more second language and foreign language speakers.


Posted by: janecronin | February 26, 2017

The History of the Spanish Language (part two)

In the early eighth century the Iberian Peninsula was invaded by the Moors who crossed over from North Africa.  They rapidly conquered most of the territory, and this initial expansion was followed by eight centuries of gradually diminishing occupation.  The invasion brought a very strong Arabic influence to the language of ordinary people, including 4000 separate words of Arabic origin that still exist today.  During the height of the Al-Andalus period, Arabic was the dominant language of the country, as it was the language of administration and culture.  The influence of the Arabic language on Spanish has been very significant, giving it a distinctive sound and flavour which has lasted to this day.  Here are a few examples of Arabic words in modern Spanish: almohada (pillow). aceite (oil), ajedrez (chess), aduana (customs), barrio (neighbourhood), zanahoria (carrot).  There are also thousands of place names of Arabic origin, including Madrid which was originally called “Magerit” as well as Mojácar, Benidorm and Albacete.

From the 11th century onwards the Iberian peninsula was split up into many small kingdoms: those ruled by Christians in the north, such as León, Castilla, Aragón and Navarra, which had been gradually expanding southwards; and Taifas, which were the splintered  and ever-changing Moorish kingdoms in the south including Denia, Valencia, Badajoz and Málaga.  This must have been a very confusing period linguistically, with some areas changing ruler many times.  We tend to look at maps which draw clear lines between different kingdoms, but the reality for ordinary people must have been much more muddled.  Of the northern kingdoms, Castilla slowly became the most dominant and it was this kingdom that finally managed to push south and take the cities of modern Andalucía.  This is why Castilian Spanish is now the most spoken language today, but also why there are many other official languages and dialects across the country, and why Arabic influence is so strong in modern Castilian Spanish both in vocabulary and pronunciation.

In the 13th century a Castilian king called Alfonso X el Sabio (the Wise) had the brilliant idea of rescuing the vast libraries of Arabic, Hebrew and Greek works left by the defeated Moors, and setting up an institution in Toledo called the School of Translators, whose task it was to translate these works into Latin and Spanish.  In so doing, Alfonso contributed enormously to the standardisation and prestige of the Castilian language.

Also during this period there were changes in the pronunciation of some of the original Latinate consonant sounds.  One of the most significant changes was the initial “f” sound of Latin words, for example “farina” meaning “flour”.  This initial consonant gradually moved back in the mouth to create an aspirated “h” which ultimately became a silent letter, even though the letter is conserved in spelling.  Consequently, from “farina” in Latin we have “harina” with a silent “h” in modern Spanish.  If you think that is strange, the English language contains a vast number of similarly weird and wonderful sound and spelling changes which are far less regular.



Posted by: janecronin | November 20, 2016

History of the Spanish language (part one)

Languages are like living organisms, they belong to groups or families, they have evolved through many generations and they are in a constant state of development.  Just as we can understand our present world better by studying its history, so also we can understand languages better by learning about where they came from and how they have developed.

The origins of human speech and writing go back into the mists of time, but it is possible to trace influences in language development over at least the last three thousand years.  The history of the English language (which I describe in simple terms in my book “Crazy English”) consists of a succession of mergers and impositions connected with the history of the English speaking world.  Likewise Spanish, whilst it is clearly part of the Latin family of languages, has its own, unique history.

As you may know, the language we usually call Spanish is also named “castellano” or “Castilian Spanish” as it originates from the medieval kingdom of Castilla (Castile).  The language is derived from what is known as “vulgar Latin” which simply means the form of Latin that was spoken by ordinary Roman citizens, and which dominated in Spain during the period of Roman control which lasted about seven hundred years (from 200 a.d. to 500 b.c.)

Prior to the Roman invasion, the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula spoke a variety of Celtic, Iberian, Phoenician and Carthaginian languages, amongst which are the ancestors of the modern Basque language.  Naturally, as the process of “Romanisation” occurred, many words from these indigenous languages remained and have survived into the present.  Here are some words which are of probable Celtic origin:  páramo (moorland), balsa (pool), lanza (spear),  losa (flagstone),  abedul (birch), álamo (poplar),  berro (watercress), garza (heron),  colmena (hive), gancho (hook).   These words are Iberian in origin:  barranco (ravine), lama (slime); arroyo (stream), gordo (fat).  Words that come from the Basque language include:  izquierda (left), pizarra (slate), cencerro (cowbell), órdago (challenge) and here are some other pre-Roman words of uncertain origin:  cama (bed), vega (meadow), sapo (toad), caspa (dandruff), gazpacho (cold vegetable soup), barro (mud), perro (dog).

It is possible to imagine how the process of Romanisation occurred linguistically speaking.  Latin would have certainly been resisted at first as it represented the language of the conquerors over the ordinary people.  As it became established as the language of bureaucracy and administration, it would have become a necessary evil for the indigenous conquered populations.  As generations passed, Vulgar Latin would be the new language of influence and advancement in the new political and cultural reality of the country whilst in more remote areas pockets of the old languages would survive, gradually being demoted to the status of dialects.   However, when it came to describing specific Iberian flora, fauna and geological features, the original words would survive, and in fact remain to this day.

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