De Espaldas

De Espaldas

Thinking and living in two languages is an opportunity to reflect on their differences and similarities. This is rarely deliberate for me, rather awarenesses bubble up or something strikes me when I am reading. In the middle of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘All the Pretty Horses’ (which has dialogue in Spanish) I realized the difference connotation makes.

English is an isolating language, according to linguists, which means its words have discrete, exclusive meanings. This quality strongly shapes usage. Unique, precise denotations promote clarity, but also leave little to infer, little to read between. English speakers therefore rely on other mechanisms to shade their meanings.  One strategy is exemplified by the British, who use hyperbole to talk about trivial things, and understatement when speaking on topics of great import; another is Cockney rhyming slang. Other strategies of written and spoken English that augment meaning include metaphor, allusion, sarcasm, irony, satire, and inflection.

Spanish, on the other hand, is not an isolating language and as a consequence one word stands for several meanings.  For example the verb esperar means  to wait, to hope, and to expect.  You might think context sorts out which meaning is intended, but the conflation and collapse of connotations also requires that all meanings are present when any word is used. While you are waiting, you are also expecting; when you are hoping you are also waiting. I find these nuances and harmonics very powerful, and they make both spoken and written Spanish a poetic experience, as do the lyricism, musicality, and rhythms of the language.

I do not write in Spanish. But sometimes when I am writing in English I feel Spanish at my shoulders – ‘de espaldas’.  The expression alludes to a religious metaphor el Cristo de espaldas, Christ the shepherd who is always present, protecting, guiding, reminding.  And Spanish does guide me through the written English world. It shapes what I write, especially when I am writing from the heart.

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One Comment

  1. Your appreciation for the unique textures of Spanish and English could be applied to understanding how poetry is different from other idioms. “[Poetry] requires that all meanings are present when any word is used.” Perhaps your sense of the Spanish language explains how it is made for poetry.

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