Spanish People Is Weird

August 24, 2009 By: erik Category: Musings, Spain, Spanish, Weird 1,410 views

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Spanish QuestionOne tough grammatical hurdle for English speakers learning Spanish, or vice versa, is the word “people”. In English it’s plural, and in Spanish it’s singular (la gente). I still find myself incorrectly conjugating verbs when “people” is the subject. e.g. La gente están contentos esta noche.

As fellow blogger Eleena pointed out in a recent comment here, this difference affects the way people think about themselves as a group.

The individual isn\’t as important as the collective. In English, “people are…” (plural, group of individuals) but in Spanish, “la gente es…” (singular, one entity). In Spain, there\’s less a sense of individualism and striking out on one\’s own and more a sense of conformity and staying with the pack.

Another interesting aspect of learning a new language is noticing when two different words in the foreign language translate into the same word in your own language. It forces introspection of your own language, which inevitably leads to noticing that yes, actually, the two ways that you use that word are different and hold different meanings. Lets look at an example…

  1. There were four people in the car.
  2. People don’t like that bar.
  3. The Basque people are proud.

Those three sentences use the word “people” in very different ways. When translated to Spanish, there are three different words for “people”.

  1. Habí­a cuatro personas en el coche.
  2. A la gente no le gusta ese bar.
  3. El pueblo vasco es orgulloso.

That third usage got me thinking about a particular weirdness in English. That definition of “people” is: “a body of persons sharing a common religion, culture, language, or inherited condition of life,” and its the only time when you can pluralize it to “peoples”. e.g. “The Basque and Cantabrian peoples…” Bizarre. And the really counterintuitive part is that if you remove the ‘s’, seemingly making it singular, you still have to treat it as a plural. e.g. “The Basque people are…”, not “The Basque people is…”. It’s times like these when Spanish makes more sense to me than English.

But then you just have to back up a bit and realize that languages, like people, cultures, religions, sports and everything each have their strengths and their weaknesses, and none is necessarily superior.

  • Sometimes, when I meet a new person, whether THEY are English or Spanish…

    English has developed some pretty good tricks for masking the number and gender aspects of language, for when you don’t want to be specific. I know there are other examples, but I can’t think of them. I’m sure it’ll come to me the next time I’m explaining to my wife who I was hanging out with, and where.

    Seriously, though, it’s one of those things that I like about English; the ease at which I can inject the desired amount of ambiguity into the conversation, and I wonder if I will ever be able to learn how to do it in Spanish.

  • Josh

    Ray: You live in Andalusia, don’t you? If you ever find yourself wondering whether “usted” is appropriate or not, just slur the end of the verb a bit and don’t use a pronoun — “tu” and “usted” sound almost identical. Spanish is such a context-driven language that ambiguity is fairly easy to achieve, have patience, it’ll come to you.

  • As a supposed language teacher who has taught various ‘peoples’, I completely understand what you are saying here. I remember learning something about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis when I studying to become a teacher. The idea more or less states that inherent cultural traits are expressed through language, or something like that…it’s been a long time. I also remember some study done on a tribe in the Amazon that didn’t have the words for 4, 5, 6 etc and therefore couldn’t grasp the concept (meaning they have the words 1,2, 3 and more)…interesting stuff really, but can’t for the life of me remember what it’s called.

    To take the idea a step further, just because we use modals when asking for things (could, can etc) does that make English speakers more polite, or is it just formulaic use of language?

    • Jose

      It is true that English uses these modal verbs for politeness, but other languages like Spanish and Japanese also have their distinct mechanisms for coding for politeness.
      A polite way to “ask for the salt” in Spanish would be: “¿Disculpe, podrí­a usted pasarme la sal porfavor?” (Excuse me, could you pass me the salt please?). Another option would be: “¿Tendrí­a usted la bondad de pasarme la sal?” (Would you be so kind as to pass me the salt?) “¿Me puedes pasar la sal?” (Can you pass me the salt) would be more informal, versus “pásame la sal” (pass me the salt), which would be an order.

      In the first example ‘disculpe’ means excuse me and ‘podrí­a’ is effectively a modal; it is the same as ‘could (you)’. ‘Podrí­a’ is also conjugated (podria instead of podrias) according to ‘usted’ which is the most formal form of tíº (2nd person). ‘Usted’ actually comes from medieval times when superiors would be addressed with ‘vuestra merced’ used like ‘your honor’; the phrase eventually coalesced into ‘usted’ which is reminiscent of the old term. Additionally phrases like ‘si me hace el favor’, ‘si te place ‘(like si vous plait, but rarely used), si no te molesta are all polite conditionals inserted at the end of petitions; the first one translates to: “if you would do me the favor”. ‘Por favor'(please) can also be sprinkled liberally for politeness. The placement of the modal at the beginning of the sentence as in “puedes pasarme la sal?” is also characteristic of polite requests. (The modals also go at the beginning of the sentence in English. e.g: ‘could you’)

      If any language takes the prize for politeness, however, it most certainly goes to Japanese. It has a whole case of verbs ending in -masu (arimasu vs. aru). The same goes for the pronouns. For example the pronoun ‘I’ (male) in Japanese has 4 levels of politeness which I’ve listed here in descending order: watakushi (most formal), watashi, boku and atashi, and ore (most informal). Also to ask if there is water in Japanese, the negative form of the sentence is perceived as more polite. “Mizu ga arimasen ka?” (is there not water?), rather than a more direct “Mizu ga arimasu ka?” Also Japanese use polite phrases such as shitsurei shimasu which would literally translate to something like ” I am infringing on your space” but in practice is used like “excuse me”.

      In summary, other languages, as is the case with Spanish and Japanese, may in addition to modals, use polite pronoun and verb inflections and softening phrases in order to code for politeness. At least I know that English also has tons of softening phrases, but in current usage it doesn’t have polite cases for pronouns and verbs. Hope this helps

      And for the record, Spanish isn’t weird, it is beautiful!! I admit it can be confusing though, especially verbs which may have up to 50 conjugations each. heck! even pronouns, articles and articles conjugate according to the nouns. The adjective-article-noun agreement of gender, must seem meaningless to foreign learners, but I think that other than those specific words where a distinction is made for real gender as for movie actor (actor-male), (actriz- female) this may be used for phonetic-aesthetic reasons. Indeed, after studying Spanish for a while, one gets an intuitive sense of the gender agreement, no kidding. Even for new words.