Catalanisms in Mexican Spanish?

April 25, 2016

The San Francisco Bay Area has numerous streets and institutions nutamed Alemany, Portola and Serra, and a few named Alberni, Palou and Yorba. These are all Catalan surnames belonging to bigwigs (political and ecclesiastic) during the Spanish and Mexican domination of California. (Palou and Serra were Majorcans, the others Catalonians.) Elsewhere in Mexico, however, one is hard put to find Catalan surnames; they are nowhere near as common among Mexicans as they are among Cubans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. It appears to me, from what I have managed to find out from reading, that until the nineteenth century Catalans who went to the Indies to make their fortune tended to return home once they had made it and so did not leave many descendants in those countries that were no longer under Spanish rule. In Wikipedia’s listing of  Mexican people of Catalan descent, most of the names belong to people who are twentieth-century immigrants from Spain or their immediate descendants.

But, oddly enough, Mexican Spanish seems to have more elements that correlate with Catalan than any other variety of Spanish besides that spoken in Catalonia itself. Here are some examples.

Nomás, seemingly a calque of només, is the common word for ‘only’, not solamente or solo.

Estimado/a, like Catalan estimat/da, is usually used for ‘dear’ in the salutation of a letter, not querido/a.

Mande, almost the equivalent of Catalan mani’m, is the usual response to hearing one’s name called or to not catching what was said, not or cómo.

Almuerzo is, as in Catalonian Spanish, the equivalent of esmorzar, a mid-morning snack, and not lunch as elsewhere.

I would need to know more than I do about the presence of Catalan-speakers in Mexico during the formative era of Mexican Spanish before I could say that these are indeed Catalanisms. Hence the question mark in the title.


Spain and Syria

April 22, 2016

Yesterday I heard a radio interview with Adam Hochschild, the author of a recently published book about American fighters in the Spanish Civil War. Hochschild pointed out the great disunity among the various factions supposedly fighting on the Republican side — Stalinists, Trotskyites, anarchists, Catalonian and Basque nationalists, and others — as being among the factors (aside from the lack of international support, except by volunteers) that led to their defeat by the highly unified nationalists led by Franco.

The nationalists were, of course, rebelling against the Republic, the legitimate government of Spain.

In Syria it is Bashar al Assad who is, technically, the legitimate head of state. But he is a ruthless dictator very much in the Franco mold, and the various rebel groups fighting his forces can be readily likened to the anti-Franco groups in Spain. And, like the letter, they are spending as much energy fighting one another as they are Assad. Similarly, they receive only token support from governments that would be expected to favor them, be they Western democracies or Sunni autocracies, while Assad receives substantial support from Putin much as Franco did from Hitler and Mussolini.

Marx was wrong. Here we have tragic history repeating itself as tragedy, not farce.


April 11, 2016

A little over a year ago I published a post in which I proposed a simple rule for comparing the prices of things across the years.  I call it the “one-hundred rule” because it postulates that, at least since about 1900, prices — in US dollars — have been increasing a hundredfold in 100 years. It corresponds to an annual inflation rate of 4.73%, and also means that prices double every 15 years. I have found that it works quite well for such disparate products and services as postage, coffee, hamburgers, hotel rooms, cars (at least from the time that they were in general use) and even houses in rural England (with reference to Downton Abbey).

Some products or services, however, cannot be compared over a long time span.  As I noted in the post, the price of a Model T Ford automobile dropped considerably in the decade after its introduction, as car ownership gradually became the norm, and the formula works only from the later point in time (1925).   Similarly, a telephone call nowadays is a very different process from what it was half a century ago.

And while the formula works reasonably well with respect to bouroadly based housing costs, it fails spectacularly when it comes to housing in cities. A personal example: in 1966 (exactly half a century ago) my then-wife and I bought a small house in Berkeley (California) for $16,900 and sold it six years later for $22,300. This is a factor of 1.32, and 1.04736 = 1.32 — perfect! But according to the rule the price should now be ten times what we paid, that is, around $170,000. Instead, it is estimated at between $700,000 and $800,000. Yikes!

What has happened is that city living in early-21st-century America is not what it was in mid-20th century, and though the house is physically the same (there is no record of any expansion), it no longer represents the same thing. In the 1950s and 1960s middle-class Americas, on the whole, didn’t like living in cities. The very rich, of course, had their mansions and town houses as well as their country homes, but the middle class opted for something in between, which was the suburbs. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, which was designed in the 1950s and built in the 1960s, reflects the attitude of the time: what it does is connect the urban core that includes downtown San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley (where the University of California is) with the suburbs (including those that are within the legal city limits); what it does not do is facilitate movement among various parts of the metropolitan area that don’t happen to lie along the lines going through downtown Oakland and San Francisco.It is, in other words, not a metro like those in other big cities around the world, but a commuter railroad comparable to the RER in France, the S-Bahn in Germany or the Cercanías in  Spain, with the big difference that the European systems are integrated with their countries’ mainline railroad networks, including high-speed trains, while BART is not integrated with anything; it doesn’t even use standard railroad gauge.

The absence of a true metro makes Bay Area living more cumbersome and more dependent on driving.  (While Washington has something called Metro, it’s also a radial system like BART.)

The change from a time when “inner city” was a pejorative to the present situation, when it is desirable enough to have caused a hyperinflation in urban housing costs (except in places like Detroit), may have occurred some time around the 1980s, when air travel got cheaper and more Americans traveled to Europe, discovering the tree-lined boulevards with bicycle lanes, the sidewalk cafés (hitherto banned in the US for supposed health reasons) and other pleasures of city living. But, as a result of planning decisions made in an earlier age, convenient public transportation is not one of them.

Bernie’s Jewishness

March 9, 2016

At the Democratic presidential debate in Flint last Sunday, a woman in the audience was inexplicably called on by CNN to ask what I can only characterize as a stupid question: about the candidates’ relationship to God. Bernie Sanders’ answer was all about moral principles, with no mention of Judaism. Perhaps as a followup, Anderson Cooper then asked Bernie about published reports that he had been reticent about his Jewishness. Bernie’s response was that he was proud of being Jewish, and it was framed entirely in terms of family and history, with no reference to God or religion.

I was very happy to conclude that Bernie is just like me in yet another respect (besides what I wrote about here): he is a Jew but not a Judaist (as I have discussed here). That I am an atheist, while Bernie seems to be some sort of deist who identifies God with morality, is not really relevant to this point.

The conflation of Jewishness (ethnicity) with Judaism (religion) is something I am sensitive about. It is very common in the West (where ethnic nationality is not generally recognized), not least among many Jews themselves. And so, while several media reports about the debate had misleading references to “Bernie’s Judaism,” there were at least two stories in right-wing Jewish media (here and here) with the headline “Bernie Sanders is not a Jew.” These media represent what my hero Uri Avnery calls the “national-religious” tendency, which is becoming ever more dominant in Israel, and which reminds me of the “national-Catholicism” (nacionalcatolicismo) of Franco’s Spain.

I have no problem with Israel being a Jewish state (though not, as Bibi Netanyahu would have it, a “Jewish nation-state”). Israel’s neighbors are, after all, officially Arab states: they are all members of the Arab League, and two of them (Egypt and Syria) have “Arab Republic” as part of their official names, even though both countries have substantial non-Arab minorities. Just like Israel, they are not nation-states in the Western mold (in which nationality is essentially identical with citizenship), but national states (as are typical of east central and eastern Europe) with a dominant, ethnically defined, nation (for which the state is the homeland) and recognized national minorities. (I have written a number of essays on this subject,)

And so, back to Bernie: he is a Jew just like me, not as some national-religious fanatics would define it.


February 29, 2016

It seemed strange. Leonardo DiCaprio, last night’s winner of the best-leading-actor Oscar for his role in The Revenant, appeared in the clip shown from the movie (which I haven’t seen) to have the linguistic skill to have mastered an indigenous American language. But when, in his thank-you speech, he named the director with whom he must have spent many months in close contact, he could not pronounce the word Iñárritu; ignoring the tilde and the acute accent, he came out with something like “innerEEtoo”, which sounds more Star-Wars-ish than Basque.

When the director won his award, he was presented as Alejandro G. Iñárritu, which is how he has been credited for the past couple of years; before that he used his full name in the Spanish fashion, Alejandro González Iñárritu. But nowadays he is often referred to (for example, in the latest issue of the The New Yorker) even more simply as Alejandro Iñárritu. I wouldn’t be too surprised if this eventually becomes his credit name; middle initials aren’t all that frequent in Hollywood, and then mainly if the first and last names are rather common (Edward G. Robinson, Michael J. Keaton…).

If that happens, then he wouldn’t be the first Hispanic artist (I mean one from a Hispanic country, not a “Hispanic American”) to drop his very common paternal surname (of the type ending in -z)  in favor of his more uncommon maternal one. Antonio Banderas was originally José Antonio Domínguez Banderas (though he used the shortened from the beginning of his career). Pablo Ruiz Picasso became Pablo R. Picasso and then Pablo Picasso. (Picasso, incidentally, is an italianized form of the Spanish Picazo, taken on by a maternal ancestor who served in the navy of the Kingdom of Naples, under Spanish rule at the time.)

The -z names, mostly ending in -ez but occasionally in -az (Díaz) or -iz (Ruiz) are originally patronymics; they are often glossed as “son of” but there is nothing in the form to indicate that, and they have from the beginning been used for daughters as well; for example, the daughter of Rodrigo Díaz El Cid were named Cristina and María Rodríguez. (Note: I am writing these names in the modern Spanish way, with an acute accent on the penultimate syllable; these would not have been there before 1900 or so, and I think it’s anachronistic, for example, to write — in English — the name of the New Mexico senator Dennis Chavez, whose family had been American for many generations, as Chávez.)

The -z ending seems to come from the Goths, who spoke a Germanic language, and in all likelihood represents the -s possessive common to all Germanic languages. These names are therefore equivalent to English surnames like Williams, Davis and Jones, typically native to southern England and Wales, as distinct from the Scandinavian-influenced -son names in northern England and Scotland.

While the -z names are, along with García, among the most common in Hispanic countries, one rarely finds them on the jerseys of soccer players from those countries; one is much more likely to find a given name or a nickname, such as Raúl (González), Alexis (Sánchez), James (Rodríguez), Pedro  (Rodríguez), Chicharito (Javier Hernández). Míchel (Miguel González) and many others.  In Spain, many footballers (like their Brazilian counterparts) like to be known by their nicknames (Isco, Koke, Juanfran) even if their surnames are not of the common type, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in Hispanic America.

Hispanics have a strange relationship with their surnames. I will have more to say about it.


February 9, 2016

It occurred to me, as I was riding a stationary bike at my gym this morning, that there have been three times when I have been deeply disappointments by decisions made by political leaders whom I had admired.

One was a long time ago, in the summer of 1950, when President Harry Truman gave General Douglas MacArthur the go-ahead for crossing the 38th parallel into North Korea, plunging the US into another three years of needless war. Truman realized his mistake, and tried to make up for it by firing MacArthur, but it was too late.

The second was in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter allowed Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, the deposed Shah of Iran, to come to the United States for medical treatment — a decision that led to the Iran hostage crisis and ultimately the election of Ronald Reagan.

The third was in 2008, when Barack Obama decided to forgo public financing of his campaign and opened himself up to Wall Street. The consequences are still with us.

These disappointments seem to be happening at 29-year intervals. What will happen in 2037? I will then be 102 years old (my mother’s age now). Best not think about it.


February 2, 2016

I don’t know if there is a special name for those writers, mainly English, who transcribe sounds as though RP (Received Pronunciation), especially its non-rhoticity, were the only way that English is spoken.
They include the lexicographers who give the RP value to pronunciations but write it not between brackets — […] — as befits a phonetic transcription but between slashes — /…/ — as though it were phonemic.
They include cryptic-crossword setters for whom geyser, geezer and Giza are necessarily homophones.
They include all those who write hesitation sounds as er or erm and nut uh or um, and who transcribe sardonic laughter as har-har not hah-hah.
They include the bureaucrats, British and Burmese, who put r into Burma and Myanmar. In Burmese these are two variants of the same name, and neither has anything like an r sound in it.
And they include A.A. Milne, who, despite his partly Scottish ancestry, chose the transcribe the bray of his eponymous donkey as Eeyore instead of Eeyaw (the American version of which would be Heehaw).
So I will make up a name for them: I will call them arrhoticists.

More on Saudis

February 2, 2016

The English historian Suzannah Lipscomb, in her BBC Documentary Hidden Killers of the Tudor Home, frequently  uses “the Tudors” to mean the people of Tudor England, not just the Welsh family that ruled over them. But the reference is meant to specify the historical period in which they lived, as distinct from English people at other times. I doubt that she would refer to her present-day compatriots as “the Windsors.”

In a like manner, “the Soviets” is often used to mean the people of the Soviet Union and not to the councils (ranging up to the Supreme Soviet) which governed them.

But it is quite common to see and hear the people of “Saudi” Arabia, and not only members of the royal family, called Saudis. Much of the time, when discussion focuses on the effects of the regime on the people, this designation may be justified, although I think “Saudi Arabians” would be better (as would Soviet Russians if the discussion is restricted to Russians). But in general, just as I wrote recently about the name of the country, I think they should be called just Arabians. The other inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula — the Yemenis, Kuwaitis etc. — have demonyms of their own.

Sicilian terrorism? Islamic mafia?

January 22, 2016

In preparing for an upcoming trip to Sicily, I have been struck by number of places in the island — streets, squares, schools, stadiums even the Palermo airport — that are named for Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the magistrates who so bravely prosecuted the leaders of the Sicilian Mafia and who were killed in what can be justly called acts of terroristm: Falcone by a motorway explosion, Borsellino by a car bomb.

Once upon a time it was not necessary to modify “Mafia” with “Sicilian.” Mafia-like organizations in other parts of Italy had their own traditional names — Camorra, Ndrangheta — and those in other countries had designations of their own (e.g. “the Mob” in the US, with its specifically Italian-originated segment also known as “la Cosa Nostra”). But these days one hears so much of Russian, Albanian and other “mafias” that it does become necessary to say “Sicilian Mafia.”

But I’ve never heard any objection to this designation as being somehow insulting to the Sicilian people, or to Sicily as a place. It is well known that most of the Mafia’s victims have been Sicilians, including the aforementioned Falcone and Borsellino.

It seems strange, then, that many well-meaning people object to the term “Islamic Terrorism” as insulting to Muslims or to Islam.

In fact, criminal gangs like al-Qaida, Daesh (aka IS, ISIL or ISIS), al-Shobab, the Taliban and Boko Haram — who may at times be in conflict with one another but pursue the same cause — are reminiscent of the various “families” (cosche) that make up the Mafia. They are motivated by (Sunni) Islamic fundamentalism in the face of the West and other forms of Islam, similarly to the way the cosche were originally motivated by Sicilian patriotism in the face of the centralized Italian state and those Sicilians who favored it. And in both cases the ideology has served as a cover for the recruitment of criminal-minded young men with predictable results.

So let’s not shrink from calling Islamic terrorism what it is.

(Saudi?) Arabia

January 7, 2016

Saudi Arabia has been in the news a lot lately. And what I hear in oral news reports is, first, a variety of pronunciations of “Saudi” (/sɔːdiː)/, /’sdi:/, /sa’u:di:/) and, second, a certain laziness in giving the kingdom its full name, so that one hears “the Saudis” or just “Saudi”, which is actually an adjective. It reminds me of the time when Madagascar was officially called République Malgache (as a calque of République Française), which was translated into English as “Malagasy Republic” and led American journalists to call the country “Malagasy”.

Why is the name of the ruling dynasty an integral part of the country’s name? Shouldn’t the UK, then, be called the United Windsor Kingdom? Well, dynasties change, don’t they?

Jordan is officially the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, but we don’t call it “Hashemite Jordan”. In fact, the Arabic names of the two Arab kingdoms are exactly parallel: Jordan is Al-Mamlakah al-Urduniyah al-Hashimiyah and Saudi Arabia is Al-Mamlakah al-‘Arabiyah as-Sa’ūdiyah, which is officially translated as “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” but could just as well be “Saudi Kingdom of Arabia”. So why don’t we just call it “Arabia”?

A possible answer may that the kingdom does not occupy the whole land known as the Arabian Peninsula, or simply Arabia. But, as I have written before, the name of a state — especially when preceded by “Republic (or Kingdom or United States or Grand Duchy) of…” — is often the same as that of a larger territory that it’s a part of (a usage known as synecdoche). The Republic of Ireland (which officially often calls itself simply “Ireland”) does not occupy all of the island of Ireland, only a large part thereof (five-sixths), just as Saudi Arabia occupies a large part (two-thirds) of the peninsula. The Republic of Macedonia (pace the Greeks) occupies only a small part of historic Macedonia, and of course the United States of America is a small part of what is geographically known as America, which has been pluralized to “the Americas” in order to differentiate it from “America” as a synonym for the US. (In Dutch, going the other way, de Nederlanden (the Netherlands) was singularized to Nederland when Belgium split off.) There are a good many other examples.

Besides, the Arabian Peninsula is rarely, nowadays, referred to as Arabia, anyway. If necessary, it could also be called “the Arabias”, since in Roman days the peninsula was divided into three regions: Arabia Deserta, Arabia Felix, and Arabia Petraea, and there are many historical references to “the three Arabias”.

So, for myself, I will henceforth refer to what is now the Saudi kingdom (but may in the future be transformed into another, hopefully better, regime) as Arabia. My decision will probably influence people no more than does my calling the Czech Republic simply Czechia, though I’m far from alone in this last regard.



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