Commentary

Love and the Influence of English on Spanish

Love in Cuzco (Alonzo Riley)

Spanish is its own complex reality, an organization of diversity as linguist Dell Hymes might call it.  It has many dialects, some of which have a hard time understanding each other, and it has a standard set by the Royal Spanish Academy with which all the different national forms are engaged.

One of its many intriguing forms is its current linkage to English.  Both Spanish and English are global languages. They are important nodes of international and interlingual communication as a recent MIT study pointed out, and they are spoken by hundreds of millions of speakers as native languages and many more as second languages.

The two languages, as a result, are deeply interconnected, although Spanish has its own history and its own communicative necessities.  But the places where they come together lead to all kinds of hybridization.

Ilan Stavans, the Mexican writer who is a professor in the US wrote a strong defense of Spanglish as a new and valuable language form.  However, his co-nationals have made fun for a long time of pocho, the Spanish of the United States which sometimes feels like English expressed in Spanish grammar. But this is an old issue. Naturally, Spanish shifts and bends as a communicative form to express the institutional realities of its life in a place where it has yet to take charge.

There are obvious and easy ways of showing this, such as the inevitable—it seems— aplicar for a job, to express with a cognate the English apply.

You see a similar pocho developing all over the Spanish speaking world as industry after industry moves into institutional spaces originated or dominated by English.

I am not speaking of loanwords, such as sanguche or sanguich to express the English sandwich and now to even talk about Peruvian developments of the form that originated in the UK.  Nor am I talking about gasfitero to speak of plumbers or guachiman to speak of a watchman.  Each of these loan words speak of a moment of English interaction economically and socially with Peru.

These and others are now firmly part of Peruvian. Along with many other borrowings from the many immigrants who came here and, of course, from the indigenous languages of the land, such as Quechua and Aymara, they have formed the vocabulary that expresses Peru.  It marks this land as a place with its own dialect, although there are also noticeable gramatical variations and phonetic forms that exclaim Peruvian.

Instead I am speaking about subtle, and often unnoticed language changes that happen when one language moves into an institutional frame dominated by another language, such as is very common in today’s global world where the economy and regulatory system have a strong connection to English speaking institutions.

While in this does lead to borrowing of words from English and their reformulation to fit Spanish, such as textear, to text, or mensajear, to send text messages, I am not thinking about these loan words that are easy to hear and collect, but rather about the more subtle ways in which English is transforming Spanish within these institutional spaces.

For example, as a University professor I have to submit any research proposal involving human subjects to a committee at my university mandated by US federal law called the Institutional Review Board, or IRB.  The committee’s is charged with looking out for the protection of research subjects from unnecessary risk and to enable them to make informed consent.

This idea of informed consent is a difficult one which implies that people should have enough information about the research and any risks or benefits before agreeing to participate and that they should not have to participate without making the active and informed choice to do so.

This whole set of notions comes strongly from US law and its traditions, but it is having an impact all over the world.  In Spanish, now, there is a word for informed consent that in my Spanish makes no sense other than as a replacement word for the English concept and one that sounds somewhat like it. The word is consentimiento informado.

In the Spanish I have spoken, heard, and read ever since I can remember consentir, the root verb, does not mean agree to but to please or spoil.  Nevertheless, in the last few years consentimiento informado has taken the Spanish world by storm and is the bureaucratic word to use now, even if it fails in the informed part of informed consent since it is not readily intelligible in ordinary Spanish.

Another example, and one that makes me laugh every time I travel by plane, is the word asistir.  It is what sobrecargos, or flight attendants now do, they assist people in English.  In Spanish, traditionally, the word for assist is ayudar, referring to the help function. Asistir is about attending an event or such.

The US regulation of the global airline industry through control over landing rights in the US, among other means, has led to a proliferation of US legal and institutional concepts, such as that of the flight attendants.  The English says it. They are their to attend to the passengers, which means not to help them or serve them but to enforce regulations and security.  The English captures this issue of power and force at the same time there is a notion of service.

To bring this set of legal ideas into Spanish meant reworking a Spanish word, asistir, to fit the context of flights, especially because it is a cognate of the English word and sounds like it.  In fact, up until recently, I did not hear this word on flights in the speech of what used to be called stewards or stewardesses, azafatas.  I do not remember what they said, it just was not this.

It seems to me the change took place after the attacks on the Twin Towers of New York and the new security regime of the US which has impacted every country that flies to the US .

Now, I am hearing a different and increasingly wide spread word that has changed in advertising usage and journalism within Spanish, although I do not much hear the usage on the street.  This is the word amar, which can be glossed as to love.

The English verb to love covers a wide expanse of things and people you can love; it seems to express a general motivation, a kind of desire that is important as a glue for society and an expression of one’s passion and individuality.

In Spanish, still in most usages, the verb amar is reserved for a strong feeling and attachment between spouses and lovers.  For other relationships and things you use the verb querer, to want or desire, and for things general you say some very of like, me gusta, me encanta, etc.

As one Peruvian resident in the US told me, you would never say you love your shoes.  However, now I hear the verb amar expanding outward in marketing and in the life of people involved in the world of market or increasingly influenced by its commercialism, such as journalists, to encompass all social relationships and even things.

This is a major change in a semantic field that has defined Spanish ever since I can remember.  One can no longer simply say that in Spanish you have at least two words to express the English love. You still have that, but now you also have a single word that has broadened to encompassed all of that and, that as a consequence, loses the precision of the other usage.

English, especially the English-language driven institutions of the global economy, government, and society, is changing Spanish even as we speak.  Indeed, some people now love (amar) their friends and their shoes.

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2 Comments

  1. I understand that you’re talking about usage of these words – but some of the use may be authorized. In Portuguese means to give permission, to allow …; has two meanings: to watch (more common) and to help (less common).

    In Portuguese a weird one, like the ones you’re mentioning is : it means to cope, to tollerate – but now people are using it as , which would be .

    Also is being used as , when one should use ; it sounds VERY weird to me, especially since means !

    Hahaha!

    We’re not (yet) seeing problems with (except for my students’ use…)

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