Double Consonants and Secret Agents

September 05, 2008 By: erik Category: Funny, Spain, Weird 1,111 views

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Most days, I get to watch a few minutes of my favorite Basque celebrity television chef, Karlos Arguiñano. Karlos has a daily television program where he cooks a recipe and tells jokes. He’s the kind of person that is so funny that you’re laughing before he even gets to the punchline. Recently, Arguiñano told a joke that perfectly illustrates a phenomenon that every native anglophone living in Spain has noticed. Here’s the joke:

Q: What’s the name of James Bond’s black brother?

A: Carl.


This joke is really quite a clever bit of wordplay, and, when told from one Spaniard to another, will almost certainly get a chuckle. If you’re not Spanish and haven’t spent much time around native Spanish speakers, you probably don’t get it.

Boos and Astro

When I first came to Spain, I was visiting my, then girlfriend’s, parents and family. My future father-in-law, Juan, kept asking me about “boos”, and how things were going with “boos”. I just shook my head and said I didn’t know what he was talking about. He was incredulous. “How could you not know who the president of your country is?” OHH!!! Bush!

Some time later, I was in a bar with some family and friends, and the Tour de France was on television. Those around me were talking about how great “astro” is. “Astro is really amazing.” “How about that astro!” I was aware that “astro” means “star” in Greek, and figured it was either someone’s name or the brand of bicycle that some riders were using. This clueless speculation was fine until someone asked me directly, “What do you think of astro?” At that point, I had to come clean and admit that I had no idea what people were talking about. Again, incredulity. “How could you not know the greatest cyclist ever? He’s from your country!” OHH!!! Armstrong!

Double Consonants

In Spanish, the only adjacent consonant pairs that can exist within the same syllable are ch, br, cl, cr, dr, fr, ll, pr, rr and tr. For instance, the words mucho and cristo both have two syllables each, mu-cho and cris-to. All other adjacent consonants represent the border between two syllables. For example, cantar and entender break into syllables along these borders: can-tar and en-ten-der.

The result is that native Spanish speakers, when pronouncing English words, have a very difficult time with the instances in English when two consonants must be pronounced together. This is why Spaniards pronounce words that start with “st” or “sp” as though they had a preceding “e”. Espanish estreets with estop signs.

Obviously, these pronunciation hurdles can be overcome, and often are by students studying English. But they are not overcome by all the Spaniards who have not studied English when they attempt to pronounce the myriad of English words that have been absorbed into the Spanish language in recent years. In adopted gerunds like “parking” or “casting”, the “g” is never ever pronounced. For these absorbed words, it has become proper Spanish to pronounce them incorrectly. Even the Spaniards that have studied English and native English speakers like myself, who know how they should be pronounced in English, understand that these words must be pronounced in the Spanish way when used in Spanish sentences. Otherwise you might not be understood.

Secret Agents

Now let’s look back at the joke above. It revolves around how a Spaniard would say the name of 007’s brother. Neither the “l” nor the “d” would be pronounced…

…making his name “Car Bon”. In Spanish, carbón is the word for charcoal, and the obvious chemical element. Get it?

 
  • That’s really weird. And interesting. But mostly weird.

  • That’s why it’s in the Weird category. 🙂

  • That reminded me of one of the first conversations in Spanish that I ever had in Spain. About 12 years ago, a guy just a little younger than me was trying to figure out what type of music was popular in the States, as I had just come over from there, and he wanted to know if I had ever heard of a particular band he liked.

    So he tells me the name, and then repeats it. It sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard of before, so I say “no.”
    He says, “come on, everybody’s heard of them.” Then he asks me if I like “Heavy” – and luckily there was another person there to explain that he was talking about Heavy Metal. I told him that I was more of a ‘Hard Rock’ or ‘Classic Rock’ type of fan, but I said ‘Hard Rock’ and ‘Classic Rock’ in English, pronouncing them just as I normally would.

    Puzzled, he repeats, “Fanático de Rock Duro o Rock Clásico…” tilts his head just slightly to one side, while hold his hands relaxed but open, palms up…”that’s what I’m talking about.” (De eso te estoy hablando.)
    He repeats the name of the band again, only this time I think he says L. Ron Hubbard. So I say, “Dianetics?” and I repeat, “¿DEE-ah-net-eeks?”
    “Is that their new disk?” he asks. (¿Es su nuevo disco?)
    -“No, I still don’t know what band you’re naming.”
    “Come on! they’re from your country.”
    “EEEEE-rone MMMYYYYY-deeen”
    -“Ohhhhhhh! Iron Maiden!!” I suddenly get it. “Yeah, they’re English.”
    “No!”
    I suddenly remember Bill and Ted’s Adventure, and I wonder how to say Socrates, Phone Booth and Doctor Who in Spanish, but all I ask is; “Have you seen the Aventure of Bill and Ted?” (Has visto la aventura de Bill y Ted?)
    Luckily he understood what I was asking, as it is one of the few movie titles that translates half-way decent.

    Anyway, there have been numerous occasions that type of thing has happened. I kind of like it when it happens to me in Spanish, I like the ‘eureka’ moment. My wife, on the contrary, has made very clear that it really bothers her when it gets to that point, and my reflex is to burst out with an, “Ohhhh! you mean _____!!”

    I wonder if the double consonant applies to calling Pepsi “Peksi” and (Spanair has been in the news a lot) Flaps “Flaks”
    I also still wonder about Jeremy becoming Yeremy, and Yellow becoming Jello. Why do the Y and the J trade places?

    Bueno “nothing de nothing”
    Which language do I like best?
    “Los Both.”

  • When I first read it I thought it might be something to do with this entry fron urban dictionary:

    A non derogative slang for African Americans. Derived from many TV shoes in which a black man is named Carl.
    Carl Winslow (Family Matters)
    Carl (The Simpsons)

  • I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as “a non-derogative slang for African Americans” in the US. I love how the “many TV shoes (sic)” only provide two examples.

    I wonder if IMDB has enough metadata to calculate the most common character names for protagonists vs. supporting roles. That might be interesting. Useless and meaningless, but interesting.

  • I love how even though Carl is called Carl on the Simpson’s after hundreds of episodes Homer still thinks he is Lenny 🙂

  • That’s a good point, Lenny.

    • Nice. And that’s even a syllable break!

  • VictorG

    I can’t stop laughing, hahaha!! astro, boos, haha, I speak that way, well, mostly because I’m spanish (and by the way, an spanish paying taxes in US you know…yes, the same taxes and without public health) and the best thing is that after 2 years living in USA I still speak that way (I can’t see a solution for that).

    Anyway, that is, among other reasons, why spanish is a much “clearer” language than english (phonetically, not grammatically).

    have fun