Language Files Part 1: Spanish and Bullfighting

booksLanguages take loan words and phrases for many reasons. Some languages, like English, sneak in the middle of the night and steal words, and bring them into a creepy woodshed in the backyard, and in a shakedown proceed to change their pronunciation to fit the toolbox of a long vowel-rich, dipthong-ridden tongue. And then, as in a sort of redeeming gesture, often leave the spelling untouched.

Most modern languages do this (English is a particularly adept trafficker of words from other tongues), but often loan words will adopt new meanings with a language, and in Spanish there is a vein of colloquialisms, the practical use of which is mostly just beyond my proficiency, derived from a cultural past-time at odds

Cambiar el tercio  the bullfight is divided into 3 “tercios”, or thirds.  With each third of the bullfight comes a new bull, a supposedly vigorous,  manifestation of virility. In Spanish, the phrase is used as a connector between themes of conversation or speech.

with changing public sensibilities, and one that is now in danger of falling a victim to both cliché and politicization.  All moral questions aside, bullfighting has had a notable influence on the language of Spaniards, and the influence lends itself to the centrality of the bullfight in Spanish life up to today.  In villages throughout the Iberian peninsula, the bullfight ring has served as a sort of physical and figurative center, a focal point for festivals and cultural celebrations, even as they are crumbling and decaying from disuse. Last week, in the village of La Granja de San Ildefonso, a group of smallish bulls were run through the cobblestone streets at 1 o´clock in the morning, and corralled in a pen near a tiny bullring on the hill. Politically speaking, it could be said that many modern Spaniards are “asleep” with regard to the actual operations of contemporary

cortarse la coleta literally “to cut the tail.” When a bullfighter retires, directly after the slaying of his last bull someone close to the him will walk out in the arena and cut the short ponytail that is bunched up behind his head. When a Spaniard decides to quit an activity or job, after considerable experience in that activity, he or she will use this saying to lightly describe the action of quitting, as in turning a new page.

bullfighting, with responses landing on a wide range of attitudes, whether it be outright repulsion, ambivalence, slight embarrassment, or fanaticism.  But I find it interesting that the language continues in its utility, even as the tradition seems to be either losing its relevance or arousing vehement condemnation as a progressive talking point.

Whenever there is an overlap in contrasting human activities – between an invading force and a conquered people, between pop culture and static norms,  or between sports and the working class, between royalty and serfs, the religious and the secular, between lower class rites and festivities and the elite – words are exchanged, stolen, deconstructed and reassembled, shortened,

dar largas one of my favorites. At the beginning of the bullfight, the torero maywait on his knees in front of the passageway from the bull enters the arena, running and already suspiciously angry.  The torero will direct the momentum of the attacking bull to the side, using his brightly colored capote (or cape). This is called a larga cambiada in bullfighting terminology. In everyday speech, if a Spaniard is being purposefully evasive in order to avoid confronting an unwanted conversation topic or proposal, this phrase is used.

misused, borrowed and permanently implanted.  Idioms from baseball, for example, were almost meaningless in and of themselves, without a rulebook to define them (i.e., step up to the plate, a home run, off the bat…etc.), until these expressions found their way into everyday life, the origins of which are often

echar un capote the capote is the brightly colored cape used by the toreros to misdirect and confuse the charging bull.  A matador may find himself suddenly being chased by a smart bull, a moment of serious disadvantage at which other members of the bullfighting troupe may step in with capes to distract the bull while the torero regains his composure. When someone is in the midst of a difficult situation, a sympathetic person may step in, “echar un capote”, and help out.

irrelevant or even misleading, especially to those who don´t follow baseball at all.  In English, we owe a vast amount of our vocabulary to the French, for example the language that distinguishes animals and the food that is derived from them, as well as terms for the standard operations of the upper classes of the Normans like military, law and art.  The Scandinavians have been instrumental in our adoption of functional words like so, though, from (fro) and several pronouns, and suffixes like -by, -thorp, -beck, -dale, and -ness. These linguistic examples have occurred mostly because of the inevitable utilitarian communication that results from invasions and war.  The Spanish contains many vocabulary words arisen from the occupation of Moorish people in the Iberian peninsula, words that have survived the violence of the eventual outcast of the Arabic speakers themselves.

a mi no me torea nadie the bullfighter must always at least appear to be in a position of control in the presence of the bull, the operative verb here being “torear,” to bullfight.  This expression is use to express “no one fools me” or “no one is going to mess with me.”

But as mentioned before, phrases that are shared between unrelated parts within a language group are more easily traced (for an amateur linguist), and offer more direct link between the cultural detail or activity and the practical applications in daily life.  Bullfighting is a clear example.

I spend a great deal of time thinking about how to explain things to adult students of English, things like reduction of noun clauses, truncation, and the difference of stative and active verbs, grammar points that I try to express with humor, at-the-moment application, and without even a mention of the word grammar. And often I am presented with questions on the reasoning behind word use and spelling, and by extension their origins, and knowledge of my own language and the mother tongue of a foreign language speaker is very helpful.

So I hope to use this series of language-oriented blog posts for the multiple purposes of serving my own linguistic curiosity, for anecdotal reading of monolingual readers, and for the education of my students.  I also think these posts represent my personal change from a newly arrived, starry-eyed tourist to someone who is interested in the deeper aspects of the culture in which he lives. And maybe you will find them interesting too.

estar de capa caída  the capa, another word for capote, is the sole instrument that the torero uses to distract the bull (rather than to kill or injure it), and the manner in which he holds the cape is symbolic of his attitude at the moment of confrontation. When he holds the cape with arms down (fallen, “caida”), he is seen as not facing the bull with decisiveness, rather with insecurity, or at least indecision. In daily life, someone may be described with this expression in a moment of vulnerability or insecurity.

Today I´ve attempted a difficult thing: to introduce, in English, some of the Spanish everyday language that owes its existence to the lexicon of the bullfight. Nowadays, as public sensibilities are changing, some expressing an empathy toward animals, others a complex and selective politicization, the bullfight looks to be in its waning days.  It has always prided itself on being a stylized and scrutinized expression of virility, and even if the

la hora de la verdad this phrase has spilled over into English, thanks to Hemingway and his exhaustive account of the bullfight, Death in the Afternoon. The “moment of truth” is the moment at which the torero must kill the bull by impaling it between the shoulder blades with a special sword; it is a moment that tests any bullfighter´s abilities and fear of his own death. In both English and Spanish, the phrase is also used to describe the moment just before one must prove his or her worth, competence or ability; a “make or break” moment.

spectacle itself is disappearing, its vigor remains in the everyday language of Spaniards.  In Spanish, there are so many sayings that have come from the bullfight (I´ve found over 90) that a full list would surely try most readers´patience and attention span .  For the foreign language learner, these phrases and idioms are notoriously difficult to utilize in everyday conversation in even the intermediate stages of learning a new language.  They represent the most proficient levels of second language acquisition. So, I´ll only introduce a few here, and relay them as I learn them better myself, thereby explaining them more accurately.






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