Tag Archives: Latin America

The Historical Twists and Turns of Spanish

Julie Barlow (Photo: Veronica Louis)

The Spanish that’s spoken here in the United States is a far cry from the language that came into being on the Iberian Peninsula after the Roman invasion.

Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau wanted to trace that Point-A-to-Point-Z history. So they moved from their native Canada to the United States, and began researching the book that became The Story of Spanish.

They found a language in flux—not just now, in the US, but in flux since its beginnings. No language, of course, ever stops changing, but Spanish has been a faster mover than many. History decided that. The Iberian Peninsula took in wave upon wave of invasion—from the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors. When large-scale migration into Spain ended, Spanish-speakers migrated away, mainly to what became Latin America. There, the language was pushed and pulled in many directions—in most places it was spoken only by a minority elite. Only after independence in countries like Mexico and Peru did Spanish become a lingua franca.

Alfonso X of Castile (Photo via Wikipedia)

As Julie Barlow told me, Arabic in particular had a huge influence on Spanish. Not just through loanwords, though Spanish has many of them. (Albaricoque: Apricot. From Arabic al-barqouq (البرقوق) meaning plum or early-ripe; ojalá: I hope, I wish that… From law šha’ allāh: God willing.) Moorish rule over Spain was waning by the time King Alfonso Tenth of Castile decided that he’d use language to forge power.

Afonso—who later became known as Alfonso The Wise—decided to incentivize people into speaking Spanish. He wanted make Spanish prestigious and interesting. But when he looked around for what was prestigious and interesting in Spain, it was all in Arabic. So, Alfonso launched a huge project of translating Arabic classics into Spanish—which meant the rules of the language had to be defined, so that the translators had coherency and consistency.

“It becomes a trend in Spanish to define the language, the vocabulary and the spelling rules,” said Barlow. That was “very avant-garde in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.”

Excerpt from "Epitafio épico del Cid," circa 1400 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Excerpt from “Epitafio épico del Cid,” circa 1400 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Barlow and Nadeau are language history veterans. They previously co-authored a book called The Story of French. So it’s no surprise they often compare Spanish to French, two romance languages that took very different paths.

“French is a language that is controlled by one country. Paris sets the rules,” said Barlow. “Spanish is completely different. Spain was overcome by its own empire and it very quickly in its history learned to share control of the language.” So the Royal Academy in Madrid has created standards for the Spanish language by taking into account consideration all the Spanish that’s spoken throughout the Spanish-speaking world. “It’s very much a language about sharing control and diversity.”

Barlow and Nadeau’s experience of United States comes very much from a Canadian perspective. They lived in Phoenix, Arizona where they enrolled their daughters in predominantly Hispanic schools. They observed the widespread phenomenon in the US of non-native English-speaking parents urging their kids to learn English and forget their Spanish.

“It’s like a zero-sum game,” said Barlow. These immigrants “are convinced that they can’t teach their kids Spanish of they won’t make it in the English United States. This was eye-opening for us, because it’s the opposite in Canada. Everybody wants to learn French—French is an officially recognized language and it will get you a job in the government. In the United States, there’s a similar idea among white people who want their kids to learn Spanish. But the perfectly bilingual Spanish-speaking kids are hearing from the parents. ‘English, English, English! Forget your Spanish.’”

Here’s a report on The Story of French from an previous podcast:

In the pod, I mentioned PRI’s Global Reporting Fund. Here’s where you can contribute.

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Obama’s Simple Rhetoric, and Rubio’s Spanish Reply

Was President Obama’s rhetoric “dumber” than that of George Washington, as The Guardian claimed after analyzing State of the Union speeches over the years? A conversation with much-traveled speechwriter and political consultant Tad Devine.

Also, was Senator Marco Rubio’s Spanish language response effective in turning Latino heads and attitudes? We ask Richard Pineda, who teaches politics and communication at the University of Texas at El Paso.

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The Voice of Iran in Spanish

In early 2011, the BBC announced massive cuts in its foreign language services. We devoted an entire pod episode to that decision and its implications.

At the time, London-based journalism professor George Brock warned of an imminent deluge of government-run foreign language broadcast channels. That’s certainly playing out. The Chinese and Russian government-run TV companies have fast-growing foreign language services. China’s CCTV now broadcasts in English, French, Russian and Arabic. And the Kremlin’s mutilingual network RT, recently made a splash when it announced that it would broadcast a 10-part series interview show hosted by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Now, Iran has got in on the act. In late January, it launched Hispan TV, a Spanish language service aimed at Latin America. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed up at the launch, making it clear that there would be no arm’s length policy between the politicians and the journalists on this project. He even uttered a few Spanish words: “Viva España , viva America Latina.”  He also said, according to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting that Hispan TV “is expected to convey a message of peace, friendship and freedom for all human beings, and at the same time to block or squeeze ways through which the global arrogance tried to dominate others.”

Also in the pod this week:

  • The origins of an oft-used Hebrew expression to describe the segregation of women favored by some ultra-Orthodox Jews.
  • Scientists at UC Berkeley unveil technology that seeks to put words to our thoughts.
  • Why songs get stuck in our heads.

Listen via iTunes or here.

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Bolt, Crook and Payne: What’s in A Name?

Usain Bolt bolts, Anna Smashnova was a tennis pro, Bob Flowerdew is a gardening expert. Coincidence?

In this episode of the pod, criminal defense lawyer Frances Crook and vicar Michael Vickers discuss their own names and vocations with John Hoyland of New Scientist. Hoyland first became interested in nominative determinism—a term he coined—after being told about a study of incontinence authored by JW Splatt and D Weedon. On the same day he came across a book on the Polar regions by Daniel Snowman.

Among the questions discussed: why do some people feel drawn to professions predicted by their names? Why do others enter professions that their names suggest might be inappropriate (Dr De’ath or airline planner Rod Muddle)?

Of course in the old days, people were often named after the family profession—Smith, Baker, Potter, Cooper. But that doesn’t happen any more.

Hoyland hasn’t come upon conclusive research on any of this. All he has is a hunch. A slight one. As he puts it, “there’s something going on here, or maybe there isn’t.”

Also in the pod:

    • Clemson Smith Muñiz has been the play-by-play voice of Los Knicks en español. He talks about how basketball terminology in Spanish has many regional variations. The word dunk for example, translates as donquear in Puerto Rico, mate in Spain, volcada in Argentina, and clavado in Mexico and central America. You’d have thought Smith Muñiz was spoiled for choice. But no, he’s come up with his own expression: martillazo, which means a hammer blow.
    • In the wake of the death of Kim Jong Il, it’s a good time to check in on freedom of expression south of the DMZ. While it’s in as short supply in the North as food and electricity, that’s not the case in South Korea. But there are limits. We have a report on a podcast that’s hugely popular there. It’s a part satirical, part serious indictment of  South Korea’s president Lee Myung Bak. It’s called (in translation) I’m a Petty-minded Creep. On December 22, 2011, one of the podcast’s hosts was sentenced to a year in prison for spreading false rumors. The host, who was once an opposition politician, is also barred from running for office for ten years.  So now we know a little more about the limits of free speech in South Korea. More Korean language coverage here and here.
    • And, the late Christopher Hitchens discusses the power of debate with his brother Peter Hitchens. The two disagreed on just about everything—except for the value of argument as a means to arrive at principled positions.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Colombian Spanish, U.S. Spanish, and Dora the Explorer Spanish

In Colombia, you can hear Latin America’s clearest, crispest Spanish. As a result, Bogota is home to everything from call centers to telenovela production houses. The original Yo soy Betty, la Fea was shot and produced in Colombia. It was broadcast in most Latin American countries, before new versions were produced all over the world: in the U.S. Ugly Betty; in Vietnam Cô gái xấu xí; in Turkey Sensiz Olmuyor.

Also in this pod, a conversation with philosopher Oscar Guardiola-Rivera about what the spread of Spanish in the United States is doing to the language, and to America. There are now particular identifiable dialects of Spanish specific to certain U.S. regions, and sometimes specific to certain groups: Cuban-American, Puerto Rican, Mexican-American, etc. The language is leaving its mark on the country too. It could be argued, for example, that in Miami, if you don’t speak at least some Spanish you’re at a disadvantage.  Guardiola-Rivera is the author of What if Latin America Ruled The World?

Finally, Dora the Explorer and Kai-Lan: two fictional TV stars who introduce American kids to their first words of Spanish and Chinese. In Dora’s case, she also introduces Spanish speakers to their first English words, which may be why  this doctored online image of Dora garnered so much attention earlier this year.  The intention of the illustrator wasn’t clear. Was she sympathizing with opponents of the spread of Hispanic culture and language via illegal immigration, or was she mocking them? Both sides embraced the image, and poor Dora got it in the neck.  For the record, Dora does plenty of travelling in her cartoon world; she appears to cross many borders, quite unhindered. As for her nationality, she appears to be American — at least that’s how she sounds — of undefined Hispanic heritage.  (This is totally beside the point, but it doesn’t stop many of us from speculating…). One other thing about Dora: We English-speakers know her as a character who introduces kids to Spanish words. Well, the Spanish language version of the show Dora la Exploradora introduces kids to English words.



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