Sunday, 7 February 2010

Now, what’s the word for .....?

Recently in the supermarket I ran into one of my companions from the yoga class. She had not attended for a while and asked me, “¿Tienes ido a yoga últimamente?” which translates more or less as “Have you been to yoga lately?” Nothing surprising in being asked such a question, you might say. No, indeed. What surprised me was the way she asked the question.

Over years and years of teaching Spanish to youngsters in the UK I worked hard to make them understand that when you say that someone has done something you can’t do it with the usual verb “to have” (tener) which is used for possession. Instead you have to use a special verb “to have” (haber) which is used almost exclusively to say what people have or had done. (OK, there are a few other ways to use it but not many.) And there was this Spanish lady, making the mistake my students used to try to make all the time. I would have expected her to say ¿Has ido a yoga últimamente?” My goodness, she could have failed GCSE Spanish!

Now, I stopped and had a little think about this. The lady in the yoga class is a gallego speaker and I have been told that in gallego they don’t have a way of saying “have/has done”; they just use the simple past tense “did”. (It’s the reverse of what happens in French where they don’t say “did” but always “have done”. It does cause havoc when they try to speak English and it can be very entertaining.)

On other occasions I’ve heard castellano speakers say things like “tengo entendido”, not really saying “I have understood” but just “I understand”, with a bit of emphasis, almost like saying, “I have got it in my head”. Similarly, I’ve heard “tengo pensado ir a ...”, not really saying “I have thought about going to ...” but more, “I’ve got an idea about going”, rather like that unusual English expression, maybe only northern English, “I’m minded to ....”. What’s more, the teacher who ran the gallego conversation workshop I went to last year explained that it is possible to use that kind of construction in gallego as well. In fact it’s probably the only time that you would put the verb “to have” (ter in gallego) together with a past participle (done, been, etc)

As I said, the lady from the yoga class is a gallego speaker. She is old enough to have spoken gallego before she spoke castellano although she probably did all her lessons in castellano at school. I suspect that she has unconsciously transferred the construction from one language to the other. It’s one of those little linguistic oddities that makes living here even more interesting.

Of course, as a rule it’s the use of English that brings in these oddities. Last summer El Corte Inglés had a huge poster their store on Gran Vía. It stated in large letters “Where the Fashion is Art”, with the Spanish version in smaller letter below, “Donde la Moda es Arte”. Word for word the translation is perfect; we just don’t use “the” in that situation in English. That’s another trip down memory lane; how many times did I try to get that rule into my students’ heads?

More recently it was a T-shirt in Zara that caught my eye. “Between Brackets”, it said, a perfect literal translation of “entre paréntesis”, not completely wrong in this case, quite comprehensible in fact. It’s just that most people would say “in brackets”. No prizes for finding me some more examples!

Still on the subject of words, I have been interested and amused by the names of streets as I walk around Vigo. What particularly strikes me is the use of travesía. In the dictionary you will find this translated as cross-street and you will find numerous examples around this city. Looking up a restaurant on the Internet the other day, I found its address as Primera Travesía de Santiago de Vigo: the first cross-street by Santiago de Vigo church. And it is a cross-street too: it takes you up from García Barbón to Rúa Uruguay. The next street along is Segunda Travesía de Santiago de Vigo. They are all over the place. Off Calle Colombia there are two little side streets called simply Primera Travesía and Segunda Travesía. Today I came across a little side-street not far from here called Travesía da Horta – Vegetable Garden Cross Street.

What I want to know now is why one of the biggest streets here is called Travesía de Vigo. Presumably because it crosses Vigo itself.

Of course this kind of thing happens in other languages as well. We stayed with an Italian lady once whose address began 4, Vicolo 2 and then the name of the street. She lived at number 4, Alley 2. What’s more, the postman regularly delivered letters to that address. He had no difficulty finding it. In the same town we knew someone who stayed in a place on Vicolo Stretto, literally Narrow Alley. It was extremely narrow too; our friend was thin enough to get up it but she had great difficulty carrying her suitcase up it.

We don’t need to resort to such linguistic devices to name roads in England, of course, with our totally confusing array of roads, streets, avenues, groves, drives, lanes, walks and goodness only knows what else. I challenge anyone to try to explain the difference between all of those to a Spaniard!


  1. loved this article! it is times like this when you would think these companies would hire a native english and spanish speaking young graduate.....LOL

  2. Not looking for a job, by any chance? I though YOU had one.