Friday, October 1, 2010

Getting the word order right

Something important for a native English speaker to understand about Spanish is the word order, particularly in the use of adjectives (describing words). In English, adjectives almost always precede the noun that is being described:

A red car
A cold beer
A long journey

Generally speaking, in Spanish we would place the adjectives after the noun being described:

Un coche rojo
Una cerveza fría
Un viaje largo

An exception is found in the group of words that express objective qualities such as quantity or order, such as más (more), mucho(s)(much/many), poco(s) (little/few), numbers (uno, dos, tres ...), primero (first), último (last) etc. In Spanish these are placed before the noun:

Muchos hombres
Cinco casas

Where both types of adjective are used, they can be placed both before and after the noun, as appropriate:

Diez camisas azules
Más agua caliente

There are some adjectives that can be used either before or after the noun being described and whose placement changes the meaning of the adjective. Perhaps the most common ones in everyday Spanish usage are viejo, pobre, grande, nuevo and propio:

Mi viejo amigo (my long-time friend); mi amigo viejo (my elderly friend)
La pobre chica (the poor - unfortunate - girl); la chica pobre (the poor - financially - girl)
Un gran jugador (a great player); un jugador grande (a large player)
Tu nuevo coche (your new - to you - car); tu coche nuevo (your brand new car)
Mis propias herramientas (my own tools); las herramientas propias (the appropriate tools)

Note that grande, when used before the noun, was shortened to gran - this is known as apocopation, which we'll look at in another post.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The body's (or at least, the stomach's) clock

One of the things that is immediately apparent when you come to live in Spain is the difference between the British and the Spanish daily routine.

The summer heat in Spain makes working, during the mid-afternoon, anything from uncomfortable to downright dangerous. So the traditional UK 'nine to five' is replaced, typically, with a work from around nine thirty to one thirty followed by a break of several hours; then a further period of work from perhaps five o'clock to eight thirty. (The actual times vary with location and season, but you get the picture).

Popular breakfasts include toast (tostadas) with a of topping such as olive oil (aceite de oliva), butter (mantequilla), pate or fruit conserve (mermelada).  Churros (extruded lengths of deep-fried dough) are popular, often served with hot chocolate. And excellent coffee, of course!

The afternoon break is referred to (at least, here in Extremadura) simply as la hora de comer (time to eat), though as well as taking lunch (el almuerzo), many Spaniards use this time to relax with the family, and maybe take a siesta, or short nap.

Restaurants, cafes and bars can be busy during this mid-afternoon session; many offer a menú del dia, a reasonably-priced lunch menu, but usually with more limited choice of dishes.

The evening meal, la cena, is usually the most important meal of the day. Spaniards tend to eat rather later than is normal in Britain; many restaurants will not start serving meals until after nine, and many customers will still be eating at midnight.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) this traditional timetable is being eroded by modern life; the demands of international trade, and the increasing number of open-all-day businesses (e.g. hypermarkets) are among factors causing many Spanish workers to shorten the midday break or abandon it altogether.

El desayuno = breakfast
Desayunar = to have breakfast
Almorzar = to eat lunch
La merienda = an afternoon snack, perhaps equivalent to British 'teatime'
Cenar = to eat dinner

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Anatomical bloopers .... oops!

Everyone makes mistakes when learning a new language - it's part of the fun, and nothing aids the learning experience like making a fool of yourself.

Spanish has a handful of easy-to-make errors that form dangerous ground for the unwary, especially when those mistakes result in you inadvertently referring to body parts and processes.

Take age, for example. The English expression

"How old are you?"

translates into the Spanish

"¿Cuantos años tienes?" ("How many years do you have?").

Make doubly sure that you pronounce (or write) that ñ with it's tilde (años is pronounced 'ANyos')! Without it, you're asking how many anos (anuses) somebody has ...

Making such a mistake is likely to leave you embarrassed.  Whatever you do, don't try to explain this by saying that you are embarazada (pregnant) ... unless you are, of course ... the word you're looking for is avergonzada.

The marketplace has its own dangers. Remember that chicken breasts are pechugas de pollo - the word pecho refers to the human breast.  And remember that chicken itself is a masculine noun - asking for polla will raise a few eyebrows, as it is a colloquial term for 'manhood' - especially dangerous if you happen to be asking for a large one!

Oh and one last thing:
cajones = drawers (e.g. in a cabinet)
cojines = cushions
cojones = testicles.
You have been warned.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Commas and points in numbers

No doubt you all know this, but here's a quick reminder:

Numbers in Spanish and in English swap their use of the comma and the decimal point.

In English, commas are used to separate thousands, millions etcetera, whereas the decimal point is used to separate (guess what?) the decimal part of a number.


In Spanish, the roles are reversed, and the point (punto) - I guess we can no longer call it a decimal point - separates out the thousands/millions, the comma being used before the decimal places:


You may think it's not so important, but take great care when completing (for example) online payment forms, as you entry may be misinterpreted if you use the number format from the wrong currency!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Adjective, verb or noun?

One of the clear differences between English and Spanish is how adjectives and adjectival phrases (i.e. describing words and phrases) are used in the two languages. Everyday adjectives are fine:

A red car = un coche rojo

Well, fine except for the word order anyway. That's for another day.

Having spent a lifetime speaking English, however, I've become used to being able to use just about any word - including nouns and verbs - to describe things. For instance, as well as a red car, we might have:

A luxury car = un coche de lujo

or perhaps

A racing car = un coche de carreras

Note that luxury is a noun, not an adjective.  And racing is a verb (used here in the gerund form, el gerundio in Spanish).

This makes English a very flexible language - you almost make it up as you go along! In fact, some items in English are practically always described using this sort of structure:

A walking stick = un bastón
A swimming pool = una piscina
A football pitch = un campo de fútbol
A pocket knife = una navaja
A beach ball = un balón de playa

.... there are many more, I'm sure you can come up with a whole list.

So remember that, when speaking Spanish, unless you use an 'ordinary' adjective you'll probably need to use the ... de ... construction.  And for Spanish speakers learning English, why not try to find as many examples of this as you can, or invent some of your own and see if you are understood by your English-speaking colleagues, friends or teachers?