Sunday 3 May 2009

Accent the positive

By Richard Morley.
Learning Spanish can be a minefield.

It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it, as the song says.

Let’s take an example: everyone who reads this blog is reading in English. Those from the UK could say, in Spanish, “Yo soy inglés”, “I am English”, because “Inglés” means “English”, right? Notice the accent mark over the e, because sometimes I don’t!

So, I was intrigued to see that one of the local hairdressing salons advertises a particular style called an “Ingles”, and I wondered what sort of hairstyle constituted an “English” And like the supreme (and naïve) idiot that I am, asked the lovely lady who is attempting to turn me into a Spanish speaker, about this particular form of hairstyling.

I didn’t think she was ever going to stop laughing. Now I like to make people happy, but I do like to know why, and here I had obviously asked something incredibly silly. I could feel the embarrassment creep over my face. What had I said?

Eventually seriousness was restored and my blush of embarrassment faded. Only to immediately return when she stood up in the crowded café and, in that very direct manner that Spanish women have, using her hands with the thumbs extended and brought together to form a triangle, indicated exactly where the hairdresser would have been busy with the scissors – or more likely, with the wax. This style has less to do with being English and more to do with being Brazilian, if you understand what I mean. My female readers will know exactly.

The “Ingle”, pronounced “In-glay”, with the stress on the first syllable and no written accent, refers to the groin area. Ouch! On second thoughts, I am so glad I asked my friend and did not enter the salon and enquire. I probably would have had to move barrios due to the embarrassment! Although I do wonder why the word is pluralised. Piernas – Legs, ok, there are two; Axilas – armpits, fine, another plural pair. So why “Ingles”? Do women have more than one?

The reason is that I have accent blindness. That is my official excuse. The real one is that I am not reading the Spanish words carefully enough and because of this, I am not putting the stress in the right place and that can drastically, and mortifyingly, change the whole meaning of the word.

Look, I’m sorry. I started this article with probably the most innocuous of these vocal vergüencitas. (Little embarrassments.) This post can only go downhill from here. Readers of a nervous or sensitive disposition should immediately stop now.

For the rest of you who now follow me into this world of degradation and humiliation I direct your attention to any driver of a station wagon bearing the label, “Pajaro”. Mitsubishi should have put an accent over the first “a”, which puts the stress in the right place, “PA – haro”. With the accent the word just means “bird”, but without it the word would be spoken like another Spanish word, “Pajero”, which refers to a man who enjoys a great sex life - without the need of another person! In fact, an Australian website on car driving actually makes that particular spelling mistake. I hope that new owners don’t enjoy it too much!!

Many are the cautionary tales of confusing the word for chicken “Pollo” (remember that the double l in Spanish is pronounced like a y in yacht,) with “Polla”, which is a slang term of a part of male anatomy. Be careful what you order in your favourite Madrid restaurante.

And while on that subject, I recently heard a politician thanking another for his support, and the word for that is “Apoyar”. Go on, say it out loud, remembering what I just wrote in the previous paragraph. When I used it during a conversation in a very public café, I was quickly told that to avoid a terrible misunderstanding, I really should put lots of stress on the last syllable. Imagine how what that politician said could be misconstrued and splashed as a governmental sex scandal.

I am pleased that I am not the only one to make these humiliating blunders. A friend tells me when she asked a male friend if she could use his comb and instead of the word for comb coming out as “Pe-in-e”, her friend heard “Pe-ne”. She only realised her mistake when the guy, with a huge grin, began to unzip his jeans. She won’t make that error again!

Recently, in research for the Linear City post, I went out looking for the route of an old stream and told a friend I had been looking for an “Arroyo”. However, one of the many meanings of “rollo” (Remember the double l sound) is a romantic liaison or affair, and she had heard that I spent the afternoon looking for “a rollo”, or a little (temporary) love in my life. She took great delight in correcting my speech.

These misunderstandings can cross-linguistic boundaries. I remember listening to a sad tale from a very prim and proper Spanish woman who was speaking in English. I shook my head in sympathy and sighed as I remarked, “Oh dear”. I saw her visibly stiffen and pause in her speech. “What did you say”, she asked. “Oh dear”, I repeated, without the sigh. What she thought I had said was the Spanish word, “Joder”, which translates into English as the F word. No wonder she was shocked.

But back to my “accent blindness”. It didn’t take me long to realise that the use of accents in Spanish is very, very important. Luckily, I have a Spanish keyboard and have no problems with typing them. Those without that luxury, but who wish to write in Spanish, must be very careful.

Each year on January the First, I receive many mails wishing me a “Feliz ano nuevo”. Or on my birthday “Muchos anos mas”. The writers are, of course, thinking they are wishing me a happy new year and many more years. BUT, the Spanish for year is “Año”. Please notice what is called the tilde above the n – it IS important. You see, the word “ano” does exist in Spanish, and to put it nicely it refers to the part of the body applied to the chair when you sit down. So, while it might be nice to be wished a “happy” one, I don’t need piles of them. (And yes, the pun is intended!)

So I must resolve to be careful, and not make a silly ano of myself. Now that really would be embarrassing!
If you enjoyed this post, or even if you thought it the worst thing you have ever read, please add a comment in the space below. Er, due to something not working right in blogger, you may have to enter it a second time.


  1. If I could only stop laughing, I might figure out how to put accents and tildes with my American MacBook. Instead I will sit on my ano and act like a stubborn ano.

  2. Ha sido muy gracioso, me he reído mucho. Siempre contigo, no de ti.

  3. I have read this story... and I have laughted a lot!!! ;-)

  4. Great stuff, I love these "common" landmainds in language.

  5. What fun....I'm sure I've made similar errors trying to speak Vietnamese....and my Latina ESL students continue to ask about the junited states.

  6. Hahaha! Richard, I'd pay for watching your face while you were asking for the "ingles" style, hahaha!

  7. The other day I was trying to talk about my little bunny rabbit, or my "conejito" as my Spanish friends told me, but I accidentally expounded on the virtues of my favorite "cojonito", complete with miming stroking motions. I didn't think my friends would ever stop laughing.

  8. Ingle is groin. Ingles are both groin areas. The area in the middle is pubis, but it would not be very polite to put it on a shop window, so they use the name of the area adjacent to it, but of course it would not do to do only half of it!
    Great post, made me laugh.

  9. Thank you, Isabel. That explains everything - I think.

  10. We followed a Pajero half way home from Edinburgh last year - dangerous when you're driving - which may explain why Mitsubishi have changed the name of that particular make of four wheel drive vehicle to Shogun.
    Similarly Vauxhall Opel changed the name of the Nova to Corsa when they realised why they werent selling many in Spain and South America!!

  11. Thank heavens that labio is in the singular!!!!

  12. Ha ha love it! Glad other people have these issues as well. Gracias por toda la información!

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  14. ¡Estos hombres! Gary, labio refers to the upper lip (in the mouth), i.e the moustache. It would not be very nice to put moustache either! Of course, the plural of labio is labios, not labia

  15. "In fact, an Australian website on car driving actually makes that particular spelling mistake."

    Just to clarify, that's not a spelling mistake: the "Pajero" was a very successful car by Mitsubishi... (renamed in Spain obviously!)

  16. I am sure the vehicle in question is excellent in every way. But that does not alter the fact that its name is a pejorative in Spanish. Rolls Royce almost made a similar mistake with calling a car "Silver Mist", until they found out what "mist" meant in German. International manufacturers should, and do, make efforts to find names that are neither derogatory or obscene in oither languages. Mitsubishi slipped up with this model. Spanish speakers do travel you know - and when I see several tens of thousand Saudis driving the Pajero, I cannot help but think, "How apt"! Mitsubishi made an error, but I should think they research their new names much more thoroughly.