Thursday, 20 August 2015

Linguistic oddities!

"Love is spending your life with someone who make you nuts and you just want to kill them but you don't .... because you can't imagine life without them." 

This is one of those things that people post on Facebook because they want to post something but nothing is really going on in their lives. And so they find these sayings. I really should "defriend" some of the people who post such stuff but, despite those who deride the social media, it remains a reasonable way of keeping in touch with former colleagues and the like, people you got on with but not the sort you want to telephone or send emails to on a regular basis. 

Anyway, back to the rubbish posts. There must be a website where you can find trite sayings. I've never come across it. But then, I have never looked for it either. Forget the sentiment expressed; it was the crazy grammar that attracted my attention. How can you say "someone who MAKE you nuts"? Surely it should be "someone who MAKES you nuts". And I don't think it was a typo because it was on one of those fancy backgrounds. No, I think it was influenced by the fact that it went on to say "you just want to kill THEM". It's that lack of a neutral third person singular pronoun in English. Nobody wants to write "him or her" and so we end up with "them", really a plural but here used to denote a singular. Odd! In languages which make everything masculine or feminine I am pretty sure it doesn't arise. You can use "una persona", grammatically a feminine noun, to describe a man and make the adjectives that follow feminine as well. "Pedro es una persona simpática", for example. It does not imply anything derogatory about Pedro's masculinity. It's just language. And language is odd, and oddly fascinating. 

Take the "tú/usted" question. In the books by Carlos Ruiz Zafón that I have been reading, there is a very clear demarcation. His stories are set in a time when everyone addressed people they did not know as usted. Children called their parents usted; they in turn called the children tú. This still applied when the children were grown up. Servants addressed their masters as usted; masters called them tú, even if the "masters" were children and the servants quite elderly. But those were the rules and people understood them. If you wanted to imply your superiority you could address the person you spoke to as tú. It implied condescension as well as intimacy or friendship! 

When I first visited Spain in 1968, much the same rules still applied. Less so, perhaps, between students although I had been advised that I should wait for the Spanish to initiate the use of tú. Not too many years later, in the mid seventies, my sister was encouraged to address her soon to be mother-in-law as tú, but her novio said she should continue to call her usted. Otherwise it implied a lack of respect. In the present day, I am pretty sure my sister's son-in-law calls her tú without any implied disrespect. 

It's not unlike getting on first name terms in English. When we were children, in our family we called friends of our parents Mr. ... And Mrs. ... . I knew people who called them Auntie ... and Uncle ... but my mother was adamant: if they were not actually related, we could not call them Auntie and Uncle. Our children, in contrast, called all our friends by their first name. Even our grandchildren call our friends by their first name! 

Nowadays in Spain it is generally more relaxed. Unlike France, where the formal "vous" hangs on in there very stubbornly, people who have just met call each other tú from the word go. Adverts invite you to do and buy things using the tú form of the imperative. Shop assistants address you as tú as you walk in. In the Vodaphone shop, where we have had to sort mobile internet problems on several occasions, they go one better. They start off with tú and then ask what your name is so they can be on first name terms as well! The last time I was in El Corte Inglés, however, I noticed that all the salespeople addressed customers formally as usted. Customer service training of top quality, of course. 

Sometimes it gets confused. My panadera, the breadshop weather witch, alternates between tú and usted. Maybe it depends on her mood, on the day of the week, on the weather? Who knows? And in a shop the other day, I paid €5 for something, handing over a €20 note. The assistant gave me my change and said, "Cinco euros y quince para ti." ("€5 and fifteen back to you", using the familiar form.) As I left the shop, however, thanking her with the usual "Gracias", she responded "A usted" ("Thank YOU" using the formal form.) 

Like English, Spanish lacks an impersonal "you". The French have "on", which they use a great deal. I suppose English has "one" but it often sounds pretentious and most of us don't use it much. Come to that, the Spanish will occasionally use "uno". When I was learning Spanish, I was taught to use the reflexive form for the impersonal you. You see it used slightly differently in signs like "se vende" (for sale) or "se alquila" (to let) but it can be used in sentences like "Cuando se está en España, se tiene que tratar de hablar español" (when one is in Spain, one must try to speak Spanish). I used to teach my students that sort of construction but nowadays I hear the tú form of the verb used instead (Cuando estás en España, tienes que tratar de hablar español), even by people who address you directly as usted like the taxi driver who told me all sorts of things "you" (impersonal) see in Spain and then told me I was an unusual English person: "Es USTED una inglesa rara". 

 I don't have a problem with any of this; I just find it all rather fascinating!

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