Woman with umbrella

¿Que significa? Cultural cues in the Spanish language

When literal translation reveals how the Spanish think.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Cervantes says in Don Quixote, Spain’s most famous of novels, that, ‘translating from one language to another… is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side.’ Words, like the backward, contorted tapestry figures, may well be visible, but the details are obscured and the true meaning therefore hidden. For this reason, there can be a gap in understanding between cultures because the translation is open to misinterpretation.    

Sometimes however, if we observe the language from a literal perspective, from the correct side of the tapestry, rather than turning it round and translating it into something that’s more conveniently recognisable in our own language, then it can reveal something of interest about the culture that it derives from. This in turn helps us also reflect on our own culture. 

The rain falls mainly on the paraguas

Take the word paragua in Spanish for example. If we were to translate this word into its English counterpart it would refer to an umbrella, but a literal translation of paragua shows us that it’s a conjugation of two Spanish words, para meaning ‘for’ and agua meaning ‘water’. 

Now, we may think it’s silly to call an umbrella, ‘for water’, but it’s actually describing very accurately what that item is used for. In fact, speakers of the English language use the same technique to describe a sun umbrella, a ‘parasol’, which is taken directly from the Spanish language meaning ‘for sun’. What does this show us, that Spanish speakers are practically minded and English speakers are linguistic copycats? Possibly, though the Spanish and English languages are full of loanwords borrowed from each other’s dictionary. Both these languages also have a shared etymology through Latin. The word umbrella itself comes from the Latin umbra meaning shade; the modern-day English usage of umbrella is describing something that protects against rain, not sun. Who’s silly now then? 

Beyond paraguas, below we find a number of language idiosyncrasies that divulge the Spanish persona and how their linguistical outlook can help us reflect on and ultimately add value to our lives:

To be (seated) 

Some of the most commonly used words in Spanish are ser and estar, and the application of these irregular verbs is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for English speakers learning the language. The reason for this is that ser and estar both mean ‘to be’, the complication becomes apparent when trying to work out which word should be used and on which occasion. In short, estar relates to a condition, for example ‘I am bored’ (estoy aburrido), or a location; ‘the train is in the station’ (el tren esta en la estacion). It comes from the Latin stare ‘to stand’. In contrast, ser deals with fundamental characteristics, such as ‘I am tall’ (soy alto). Ser is an amalgam of two Latin verbs: esse ‘to be’, and sedere ‘to sit’. 

Observing the Latin origins of these verbs we could suppose that, metaphorically speaking, standing represents something of a lesser function than sitting, the former indicating a temporary state, the latter referring to a fundamental characteristic. Sitting, in this sense, indicates the true essence of being. There’s something quite zen about this. The seated Buddha, for instance, represents wisdom and understanding. The act of meditating usually takes place in a sitting position, and anyone who’s done any amount of guided meditation would recognise the adage, ‘just be in the moment.’ 

There’s nothing the Spanish enjoy more than sitting, being in the moment, particularly after lunch with a gin and tonic during the sobremesa. Could we then assume that the Spanish have a better idea of the concept of existence than other cultures whose language doesn’t clearly define what it is ‘to be’? That’s a big question, I think I’ll need to sit down to answer it.   

‘It wasn’t me, nobody saw me do it’ 

Although few and far between, some people – usually fictional characters – speak about themselves in the third person; Detective Poirot, Jimmy from Seinfeld and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, for example. This way of speaking, called ‘illeism’, has also been used by well-known celebrities and politicians to either offer themselves praise, or distance themselves from a mistake. 

Jimmy did it

Illeism is something that’s rarely encountered on a day-to-day basis, unless, that is, you’re speaking Spanish. Illeism is known as se accidental in the Spanish language and is more often than not used to allay blame. For example, if José broke a plate and had to own up to it, he wouldn’t say, ‘I broke the plate’ but rather, ‘the plate broke itself to José’; Se le rompió el plato a José. Instead of being the subject, José becomes an indirect object in the sentence; he appears therefore to be affected by the breaking of the plate rather than being seen as the cause of it. 

Apart from trying to get away with breaking the plate, what can be the benefit of thinking in this detached way? Scientific studies point to the fact that speaking about oneself in the third person can help regulate emotions; putting oneself outside of the incident means one can be more objective and therefore not be so emotionally-attached to the situation. It could be argued however, that if we make mistakes, we should own up to what we’ve done. As true as that might be, lessening the emotional trauma associated with the incident can lead to a better thought-out and calmer resolution. 

Also, in the absence of responsibility, the resolution becomes a collective one. There’s no point blaming anyone, it’s happened, what’s important now is to fix the problem. In the case of the plate, which broke itself to José, Dom might decide to help him clean up the mess. And then José can jolly well go and buy Dom a new crockery set! 

To meet and to know

How can you truly know someone if you don’t spend time in their company? In the Spanish language the answer’s clear; you can’t. We can come to this conclusion by understanding the verb conocer, which can be used to mean to meet or to know; it’s interchangeable. So, if I was to say I’m going to meet Pedro: voy a conocer a Pedro, it will also mean I’m going to know Pedro. 

This is an important realisation: how often on social media for instance, do people express opinions about those whom they’ve never met? There’s no way for that person to know truly what the other person is like until they’ve spent time in their company. On those odd occasions, when internet trolls meet their object-of-hate in real life, it makes for an enlightening experience; this is because they discover that their victim is in fact a human, with feelings and fallibilities, just like them. 

Trolls meet IRL

Did you enjoy your holiday(s)? 

Whenever a vacation is mentioned in Spain it’s never talked about in a singular sense, only a plural one: vacaciones. This could be down to simple linguistics, something which in Latin is called pluralia tantum: nouns that are always plural. We have them in English; scissors, trousers, glasses, but what we have to notice with these examples is that although they might be referring to a single item, that item involves more than one part; scissors have two blades, trousers two legs and glasses two lenses. We also have the intangible plural, we say ‘congratulations’ for example, which would imply we’re expressing an uncountable amount of salutation towards the recipient. 

When it comes to vacations in the English language, we have to distinguish between ‘vacation’ and ‘holiday’, words which have different connotations in the English-speaking world. In British English a holiday means a vacation, In American English a holiday refers more to a public celebration, such as Christmas or Thanksgiving. In respect of the latter, it’s not unusual to say to someone ‘Happy Holidays’ because it’s referring to something taking place over a span of time, over multiple days. We would rarely say however, ‘Happy vacations’ plumping instead for ‘Enjoy your vacation’ in American English or ‘Enjoy your holiday’ in British. In both instances we see the vacation as an indivisible whole. 

On this thought trajectory, we can only assume then that in Spanish the plural use of vacation relates to the fact that the vacation is seen as something that happens over a span of time, or it’s because the Spanish love vacationing so much there will often have more than one in a row. It’s probably both. Spain has on average 14 public holidays, or festivos, a year, plus regional additions, and on top of that 25 days of paid holiday entitlement. It’s not unusual therefore, to bridge a public holiday with a vacation; perhaps visiting family members in the country for the festivo and then heading off for another vacation directly after. There’s also the tradition for many Spaniards to take a bulk block of time off, often the whole of August, during which period more than one vacation could be enjoyed.

A Parasol
Parasol/Sun Umbrella
“Sun umbrella” by nudelbach is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s common knowledge that a vacation does wonders for the mind and body, and can result in greater workplace productivity. Having more than one vacation in quick succession would surely double the benefits. José should mention this to the boss when José next asks for two months leave for vacciones on the Costa Del Sol and the Costa Blanca, in which José intends to occupy the days getting to meet, and know, the locals while sitting, or being, under a parasol. Fingers crossed José doesn’t break anything.

Cover Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

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