Love in the Time of Starbucks

So solid and fixed, like the mountains of Cusco, is the image one might have of the great Spanish language. It has maybe a thousand years of history and it is one of the great world languages, with hundreds of millions of speakers and a vast library of texts. Yet sometimes, it feels like sand passing through your fingers.

Of late, one particular verb has caught my attention as its meanings and usage changes. I think it a bell-weather, and I have particularly seen its shift in La Paz, Bolivia, and Cusco, Peru though I see evidence of its change all over the place.

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The word is a simple one, indeed a four-letter one in both Spanish and English, to love. In Spanish you had to make a decision when you went to speak if you were coming from English because that simple set of sounds or letters, one syllable, required different words in Spanish, depending on if you were speaking of your spouse or if you were referencing your children, friends, country or inanimate things. The first verb was amor, and high walls ringed it making its pronouncement an event. Querer, the other major verb, meaning both to want and to love spread from concentrated feeling into a thin a diaphanous mist before disappearing in “I like”.

The change in amar hit me strongly, recently, when I entered a Starbucks in Mexico City to order a Frappuccino. On the counter was a sign, that in bold letters and language read in Spanish, “Nuestra promesa, Queremos que ames tu bebida. Siempre la haremos como a ti the gusta.” (Our promise, we want you to love—amar— your drink and we will prepare your drink to your specification. ).

Amor en Cusco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
Amor en Cusco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

Along with the perhaps overly breezy use of the familiar pronoun, the verb amar describing your relationship with a drink should sound foreign and strange in Spanish, instead, it looks just somewhat effusive.

I hear people using amar now–generally, millennials and younger–to describe feelings about computer programs, sports cars, shoes, their country, their friends, and, yes, even drinks and food.

The world has changed. That Starbucks uses it suggests to me, perhaps incorrectly though I think not, that the change has come in the millennial linkage with the great Imperial language of marketing, English. Older people, such as my generation still use it the old way and insist the millennial usage is unacceptable in Spanish. But that new generation has come of age and is tied to marketing, malls, movies, advertising, and social media.

It is as if the English word love were sticky like a bad relationship. It attached itself to amar and drew it into its world while not letting it go home. There, desire and the affect love are motives of the marketplace and social relationships, as well as nationalism and fandom. Amar now bridges between the old world of Spanish as it was and the new world of it as dependent on commercial English.

In any case, I have now been told. My mocha Frappuccino is something I must love. I guess I will.

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