Helen’s summer reading topic: Spanish linguistics

By Helen Eby

book-254048_1280I plan to teach a class on the formal aspects of Spanish for Hispanics who speak Spanish well and have a solid level of literacy in English and Spanish. I started thinking of this when I taught my first Medical Interpreter training program here in Oregon starting in January of this year.

There is a significant number of people who can be great interpreters but have not had access to formal teaching of Spanish. They are the linguistic equivalent of musicians who learn how to play by ear. So, I’m reading some books to help me think about these issues more deeply, so I can answer some of the questions that will come my way.

Why would I do this? I’m a practical person, not generally a theory-oriented person!

First of all: it’s fun. Really, languages are fun! I remember the grammar and phonetics classes in high school and college. I aced that stuff! The grammar was remarkably similar to what these books cover under “linguistics.” And I loved the phonetics class in college! Dealing with the IPA and all that was just cool.

Studying these aspects of the language helps us understand the messages we read a whole lot better, which makes us better translators and interpreters.

Languages naturally influence each other. As a culture develops a concept and other cultures come in contact with this particularly helpful concept, the word used is influenced many times by the original word. Think about “tomato” and “maíz” (maize) and “kindergarten”. Have some fun with the Online Etymology Dictionary!

Many English-to-Spanish translators have to translate new concepts, and inevitably new terms are coined. Those terms become used and accepted points of reference. The Microsoft Language Portal (aka the Microsoft Glossary) comes to mind… Coining terms too freely gets us in trouble (“She’s using Spanglish!”). Not using apparent “Anglicisms” that have become standard terms creates unnecessary complication in our writing.

As a Spanish medical and court interpreter, I need to be able to use some of these new terms appropriately in an interpreting session. I need to be able to use the same terms that the person for whom I interpret uses so I will avoid unnecessary distractions. In an interpreting session, I’m not there to teach the Spanish speaker how to speak Spanish. I’m there to help him or her communicate and solve a problem such as a health issue, a judicial issue, or an issue with a child’s education. (Now, here’s a topic for another polemic post!)

In biology, there is an equivalent for this: the intertidal zone. In this area, creatures are exposed to salt water and to the air and rain water. As interpreters and translators, we live in the “tidal zone” of languages, where we help people who are in contact with each other but who communicate in different languages to solve problems, learn from each other, serve each other, and even develop friendships. Living in what I would call the “language and culture intertidal zone” means we have to understand both languages at significant depth so the product of our work can stand on its own outside of the “intertidal zone”. We follow a long tradition, probably older than the Rosetta Stone (196 BC).

Here are two books that will help me refresh the basics and have a quick reference guide for a class on the written aspects of Spanish:

Nueva gramática básica de la lengua española: A 270-page or so compendium of the basics of Spanish grammar from a Spanish perspective – tremendously different from how it is taught in Spanish textbooks used in the United States. A great alternative to the two-volume (3885 page) set!

Ortografía escolar de la lengua española:  A 65-page book for students that covers Spanish spelling, capitalization and punctuation. It reminds me of the spelling rules I learned in elementary school in Argentina and I have since formally forgotten, but incorporated into my writing. The alternative: a 730 page tome. I use the tome for more in-depth research on specific topics.

Additionally, here are two books that will help me deal with the constant issues of language change:

Introducción a la lingüística hispánica: An overview of Spanish. This covers the sounds of the language, the structure of the words, the structure of the sentence, the history of the language, the study of meaning, and linguistic variation in Spanish. We studied a lot of this in school and just called it “grammar”. I’m particularly interested in chapter 7, since it deals with linguistic variation.

El español en contacto con otras lenguas: This digs right into the issue of languages in contact issue. It deals with the theory of languages influencing each other, and how some changes happen anyway and then digs into specific languages in contact with Spanish, starting in Spain and going through all the continents.

These books are helping me with Spanish language issues. What references do you use for your languages? It would be great to get a list of useful books in the comments!

About heleneby

Helen Eby grew up in Argentina, the land of the gauchos. She is certified as an English Spanish translator by ATA and as a Spanish interpreter by the Oregon Judicial Department and by the Oregon Health Authority. She co-founded The Savvy Newcomer and the ¡Al rescate del español! blogs, both of which are team efforts to provide resources for other language professionals. She is also a founding board member of the Spanish Editors Association.

4 thoughts on “Helen’s summer reading topic: Spanish linguistics

  1. Helen, I love your analogy of an intertidal zone of languages. I spent most of last year translating a book on molecular phylogeny and the life forms and ecology of intertidal zones were often discussed in detail. It’s a perfect mental image on so many levels.

    • Anne Louise, it comes from being a tide zone freak. Our family always goes to the tide pools in Newport, Oregon, on the lowest tide of the year. We get out before the tide reaches its low point, and let the tide bring us in. It’s gorgeous! It’s where you find starfish, anemones, etc, but also interesting grasses, barnacles, and other very hardy creatures.

  2. Helen, I still have my “Introducción a la lingüística española” from many (many) years ago. I always found the linguistic/grammar aspect of language rather tedious, but loved the literature and historical aspect of it. I was fortunate that my Spanish literature professor also taught the linguistics course, and used whatever we were reading at the time to provide examples (as they were both required, many of the same students were in both classes).

    Over the years I’ve collected other books, but one I find quite useful is “Saber escribir” (Instituto Cervantes). It’s 513 pages, but includes many examples and a glossary.

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