San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Unfamiliar Distinctions, Part I

YEARS ago,when computer translationprograms werestill in the earlystages, program developersfed into acomputer the phrase,“The spirit is willing,but the flesh is weak.”What emerged inRussian was “Theliquor is strong, butthe meat is rotten.”The problem, ofcourse, was that thecomputer had encountered words withmore than one meaning and, having ameager spiritual existence, the poor thinghad opted for a purely concrete translation.We language learners are sometimesnot very different. When, in another language,we find words with more than onemeaning or find the contrary, several wordsthat we thought had only one meaning, weoften misinterpret or remain perplexed.Languages such as ancient Aramaicand many of the indigenous languages ofthis continent contain a large percentage ofwords with multiple meanings. These languagesare called “synthetic,” and areoften very poetic. English, on the otherhand, contains a large vocabulary thatallows it to make more distinctions. It is an“analytic” language and is more precise.In general, English is a more analyticlanguage than Spanish. In some cases,however, Spanish differentiates more thanEnglish, and then the English speakerstudying Spanish finds himself in trouble.Let’s take a look at a few nouns whereSpanish outdoes English in distinctions.You may remember that a concha is aflat shell and a caracol is a curled shell,but did you know that Spanish has twowords for “corner?” Rincón refers to theinside of a corner, and esquina refers tothe outside of a corner. Thus, we mightput the broom in the rincón of the kitchen,but we are going to wait for our friend atthe esquina of 1st and Central.Spanish speakers recognize severalkinds of sinks. The kitchen sink is a fregadero.The bathroom sink is a lavamanosor a lavatorio. The big sink in the laundryroom (or outside) is a pila.English may distinguish between onekind of truck and another, but not nearlyas much as Spanish does. A pickup truckis a pickup (pronounced “pee-cúp”). If itholds five tons or more, it is a camión. Adump truck is a vagoneta. A semi truck isa furgón or trailer (pronounced “try-lair”).Spanish speakers are also more discerningabout the nature of time. Tiempomeans “time” in general, that is, in anabstract sense (careful – tiempo alsomeans “weather”). Thus: El tiempo vuela(“time flies”); and no tengo tiempo (“Idon’t have time”). Vez, on the other hand,refers to time in the sense of “occasion.”Thus: Lo vi solamente una vez (“I sawhim only one time”); and ¿Cuantas vecestengo que decirte? (“How many times doI have to tell you?”).A further distinction then comes intoplay when we ask for the time of day.Spanish speakers ask for the hour, not thetime: ¿Qué hora es? (literally, “What houris it?”). If it is one o’clock or any part ofone, the verb and the article are singular:Es la una; es la una y media. Once it istwo o’clock or later, the verb and article areplural: Son las dos; son las tres y media.Perhaps the nouns are not all that difficult.It is distinctions among the dreadedverbs that really trip us up. Another time,I’ll explain how complicated it is just to“miss” and to “stop.”

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