Language Monthly, June 2020, Spanish

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puerto de barcelona

Strictly speaking, most links I am about to share date from before June.

For the first months of 2020, I was reading intensively and extensively in Spanish, but in early June, I decided to focus on Italian for the rest of the year.

Many years ago, I made a costly mistake starting learning Spanish when my Italian was not strong enough, a mistake whose consequences I have been coping with ever since. Now, I avoid working on my Spanish and Italian at the same time.

So, back to my Spanish links. My favourite Spanish media is Zenda, ‘territorio de libros, amigos, y aventura’. Reading Zenda daily in March, April, and May helped me to cope with menacing, worsening, depressing daily news about the pandemics death toll and inadequate response from many in the positions of power.

Zenda hosts a column of one of my favourite Spanish writers Arturo Pérez-Reverte, called Patente de corso.

I had been reading the column for years before I realised I did not understand the meaning of the title, so I had to look it up. It turns out, patente de corso in Spanish, lettre de marque ou lettre de course in French, lettera di corsa o patente di corsa in Italian, Kaperbrief in German, каперский патент in Russian, letter of marque and reprisal in English, is an old maritime practice, a document allowing a private person to attack an enemy country’s vessel.

Another favourite media is XLSemanal, which publishes balanced articles on important societal topics, interesting interviews, and a series of columns, firmas, of which my favourites are Pequeñas infamias and Mi hermosa lavandería.

Talking about poetry, Desamor by Rosario Castellanos, a Mexican author and diplomat, brought by Zenda, struck me.

Me vio como se mira al través de un cristal
o del aire
o de nada.

Y entonces supe: yo no estaba allí
ni en ninguna otra parte
ni había estado nunca ni estaría.

Y fui como el que muere en la epidemia,
sin identificar, y es arrojado
a la fosa común.

I like the tense and mode variations of the second stanza. The ending, a la fosa común, mass grave, общая могила, and the death in time of epidemics, something which seemed so remote only six months ago and now has become our common reality!

Finally, this interview with a Scheherezade moderna en tiempos de pandemia, a rising star of Spanish literature, Irene Vallejo. Her book, El infinito en el junco, about book invention in the ancient world, has become a real phenomenon in the Spanish-speaking literature and one of the best sellers in the times of the pandemics. Check also her column in El Pais, and basically start reading anything she writes.

El infinito en el junco is the book I most want to buy right now. My last trip to Spain, a few days before the lockdown, was too short to fit a visit into a bookstore, but when the pandemics is over, I will go to Spain again and get myself a copy.

Multilingual Spinoza

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Castilian Spanish

A new post under the hashtag #multilingualisnormal, in which I will talk about multilinguals, polyglots, and language learners, mentioned in books I am reading or encountered otherwise.

This passage comes from a book Looking for Spinoza by Antonio Damasio. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632, into the Portuguese-Jewish family that settled in the city fleeing the Inquisition. He received traditional Jewish schooling in Hebrew, but his interest in science and philosophy propelled him to learn Latin, in which he later wrote his major works.

Never mind how welcoming Amsterdam was, one cannot imagine Spinoza’s young life without the shadow of exile. The language was a daily reminder. Spinoza learned Dutch and Hebrew, and later Latin, but he spoke Portuguese at home, and either Portuguese or Castilian Spanish at school. His father always spoke Portuguese at work and home. All transactions were recorded in Portuguese, Dutch was used only to deal with Dutch customers. Spinoza’s mother never learned Dutch. Spinoza would lament that his mastery of Dutch and Latin never equalled that of Portuguese and Castilian. “I really wish I could write to you in the language in which I was brought up,” he wrote to one of his correspondents.

Operating in multiple languages, using different languages for different purposes, and working in a language that one knows well enough to appreciate its beauty and power but not well enough to achieve them — I can certainly relate to this.

Blue prince

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blue princes

Twenty years ago, my first Spanish teacher, to teach us the subjunctive, used to play this silly song:

Si una lámpara mágica tuviera  / y me diera un príncipe azul
no podría desear jamás / a un hombre mejor que tú.”

(If I had a magic lamp / and it would give me the prince charming
I would never want / a better man than you.)

The method worked. I still remember the lines and know the words for  ‘magic lamp’ and ‘prince charming’, although these are not the words I use daily!

The ideal man, whether you mean it seriously or ironically, is called in English ‘prince charming’;

in French prince charmant

in German Traumprinz (‘dream prince’) and Märchenprinz (‘fairytale prince’)

in Latvian sapņu princis (‘dream prince’)

in Modern Greek πρίγκιπας του παραμυθιού (‘fairytale prince’)

in Czech pohádkový princ (‘fairytale prince’) and princ na bílém koni (‘prince on a white horse’)

in Russian прекрасный принц (‘beautiful prince’) and also принц на белом коне (‘prince on a white horse’). (The appearance of a white horse in two Slavic languages needs to be investigated further.)

A popular Russian songs goes:

Так чего же ты ждёшь? Ты ждёшь чтоб я извинился.
Прямо здесь чтобы я, чтобы я вдруг стал прекрасным принцем.

(So what are you waiting for? Are you waiting for me to change?
For me to become a prince charming right here right now.)

But in Spanish the ideal man is  príncipe azul, that is, ‘blue prince’ (as in the song I remember from 20 years ago), and also in Italian, principe azzurro.

Although the colour blue is associated with aristocratic origin, as the expression ‘blue blood’, which exists in many languages, attests, today only in Italian and Spanish (of the languages I know), the prince is blue. Where does this expression come from?

I have searched various sources, but did not find a clearcut answer.

The most comprehensive explanation comes from the Accademia della Crusca, the research academy for Italian language.  An article entitled Da dove arriva il Principe Azzurro? (‘Where does the Blue Prince come from?’) traces the first appearance of the expression, in both Italian and Spanish, to the late 19th – early 20th century, and the existence of an equivalent French expression, prince azure or prince bleu (which is not used today) even earlier, to the mid 19th century.

There is also a German tale, Himmelblau und Lupine (‘Prince Skyblue and Fairy Lupine’), by  Christoph Martin Wieland, a German man of letters of the 18th century, published in his collection Dschinnistan (1786 – 1789).  Can it be that this Prinz Himmelblau, portrayed as the ideal man, is the ancestor of our Spanish and Italian blue princes?

Don Quijote on a bus

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se vuelve a ver la figura de Don Quijote pasar

On a bus in Madrid, this poster caught my eye. It contained a poem about Don Quijote by an author unknown to me.

Por la manchega llanura
se vuelve a ver la figura
de Don Quijote pasar.

Y ahora ociosa y abollada va en el rucio la armadura,
y va ocioso el caballero, sin peto y sin espaldar,
va cargado de amargura,
que allá encontró sepultura
su amoroso batallar.
Va cargado de amargura,
que allá «quedó su ventura»
en la playa de Barcino, frente al mar.

Por la manchega llanura
se vuelve a ver la figura
de Don Quijote pasar.
Va cargado de amargura,
va, vencido, el caballero de retorno a su lugar.

¡Cuántas veces, Don Quijote, por esa misma llanura,
en horas de desaliento así te miro pasar!
¡Y cuántas veces te grito: Hazme un sitio en tu montura
y llévame a tu lugar;
hazme un sitio en tu montura,
caballero derrotado, hazme un sitio en tu montura
que yo también voy cargado
de amargura
y no puedo batallar!

Ponme a la grupa contigo,
caballero del honor,
ponme a la grupa contigo,
y llévame a ser contigo
pastor.

Por la manchega llanura
se vuelve a ver la figura
de Don Quijote pasar…

Vencidos (“Defeated”) was written by León Felipe (1884-1968) whom Encyclopedia Britannica describes as a poet of the Spanish Civil War. This poem, however, appeared in his first book, well before the war. You can read an interpretation of the poem, in Spanish here.

The vocabulary is pretty straightforward. Barcino refers to Barcelona, to its name  in the Roman period. Abollado means ‘dented’, armadura, peto y espaldar are ‘armor’ and its  parts, but you do not need to know the meaning of these words to enjoy the poem. Grupa (f) is ‘rump’ or ‘croup’ of an animal, such as horse (whereas grupo (m) is ‘group’).

The only curious and obscure word is rucio:

Va en el rucio la armadura

Rucio literally means ‘pale grey’, and that is how Sancho Panza affectionately calls his donkey, a sort of ‘my grey buddy’.

If you are into memorisation, this poem, with all its rhythm, rimes, and repetitions, is an excellent choice.

You can listen to a wonderful recording by the poet himself in this blog post. If you are into songs, listen to this version or this one by Joan Manuel Serrat. An extra benefit: you will remember the imperatives singular haz, pon, and also llévame forever.