Language Lens

A blog about life, discovery and culture through the lens of language and linguistics.

Archive for the category “Grammar”

Is Spanish Sexist?

Not long after you start learning Spanish do you learn that a huge difference with English is that Spanish has genders, as is the case with other Romance languages such as French.  All words are either masculine or feminine in other words.  For example “el hombre” (man) is obviously masculine and “la mujer” (woman) is feminine, but other words such as “map” (el mapa) are masculine and “rain” (la lluvia) are feminine, words that have no explicit gender reference.

Point 2: The masculine gender dominates the language.  For example, if you have “brothers” and “sisters” together, instead of being forced to use both words as you would in English (unless you say siblings), in Spanish you say but one word to mean both—“hermanos.”  ”Hermanos” could also mean more than one brother, however, so despite being confusing at times the masculine dominance is clear.

Point 3: A common stereotype in Latin countries, some more than others, is that ‘machismo’ is ever present among the men, and some say among women too.  Machismo is synonymous with excessive masculinity, both apparent in attitudes and actions.  For a more academic analysis of machismo, go here… Now. 🙂

A BBC article entitled  ¿Es sexista el idioma español?  (Is the Spanish language sexist?) threw out the question if language is a reflection of the culture or vice versa?   One journalist and magazine director, June Fernández from Píkara Magazine, was quoted at saying that the masculine factor in the language is both a bias and a view of reality for how women are treated.  It seems that Fernández supports the theory that language is a reflection of culture.

Gender is a language trait that politicians take full advantage of in Spanish.  Cristina Kirschner, the current Argentine president, directs both “Argentinos” and “Argentinas” in her speeches, instead of the standard Spanish way which would be “Argentinos.”  Another example is the Venezuelan constitution which includes a long list of positions, including “presidente” (male president) and “presidenta” (female president), ministros y ministras (male and female government ministers), y viceministros y viceministras (you have the idea by this point.)

I see aspects of machismo in the culture, and even in my own culture I saw it.  It is close to what some North Americans would call being a “chauvinist.”  It also struck me when several Latin men told me that they considered women to be the actual machistas in society, as women either demand (or allow) men to treat them a certain way and as mothers, “they taught us to be this way,” one said.

So, gender dominance exists on both a grammatical and a societal level.  The sexism debate isn’t a new one, but what never gets old are the examples of it in language and culture.  One that stood out to me is the translation for handcuffs—a symbol of dominance in itself—“las esposas”, which means “wives” in English.

Need I say more? (Hehehe)

The Door is Alarmed

The Door is Alarmed

Destiny and Destination: A Case of Yin and Yang

I enjoy philosophizing and pondering the mysteries of life, so it was no surprise many years ago when I brought a book of questions on a camping trip, to think about around the fire.

  • Is happiness made or found?

To me it’s the same as asking what matters more, the destination or the journey?  English calls ‘destiny’ and ‘destination’ by two separate words, like them being two different things entirely, where in Spanish they are but one word, the same word-destino.  Of course you know by context which you are talking about, but it led me to think just how different are these two things?

A student described destiny as “something you can’t control,” and destination as “something you can control.”  So perhaps this is an example of the ying and yang, two opposite forces coexisting in the same word?  Then there’s the concept of fate and destiny already being determined for you, so why try to control anything?

One could ponder for hours on this topic and don’t tempt me!  But one thing I want to say is that I see this language reflection in culture.  In my experience thus far living in Latin America, I see people living more in the moment, many times because they have to.  Their resources, the government or the economy (all three interconnected) don’t allow them to plan their future destinations, or when they try to a crisis hits which keeps them where they are.  Many in Argentina tell you they’re use to living in crisis so they’ve become accustomed to problem solving in the moment.

There are people of all kinds both here in Buenos Aires and in the United States, so it’s unfair to generalize, but I don’t think many people would disagree that American culture requires you to think of and plan for the future.  It requires you to think about where you’re going to end up, because much of the lifestyle is built around this idea.  One good factor is that usually the country was stable enough to allow you to plan.  Key word: “usually” and not always.

Language is a critical part of any culture and I think we’d all be fooling ourselves if we didn’t believe there was a deep connection between language and culture.  The better question, one for the next camping trip: which influences which-language influencing culture or culture influencing language?

  • “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” ~ Henry Miller

When Grammar Speaks

English speakers and English students will tell you that you use the Simple Present verb tense to express routine and habitual activities, or to express known facts or permanent states, where you use the Present Continuous to express temporary actions in the moment they are happening (I’m writing this blog post now, for example.)

It’s a fairly simple lesson and a boring one at that for an English student well-beyond the present tense, but there is something a bit tricky about this topic: stative verbs.  These are verbs that express just that, a state of being that stays the same rather than an action that changes.

To like and to love were included in the list of stative verbs that only can be used in the present tense.  I like McDonald’s, or I don’t like McDonald’s, depending on where you stand, for example.  Although it’s not as common, there are occasions when we use to like in the Present Continuous.


  • How’s your new car Bill?
  • “I’m loving it.”

You see Bill can say “I’m loving it,” because it’s still a new experience.  Eventually, as time goes by and the new-car-smell fades away, he will have to decide if he likes his car or not and will then use the present tense.

But listen, this post isn’t intended to be a grammar lesson, and is instead to write about something interesting related to grammar and marketing.  McDonald’s current slogan (first launched in September of 2003) is “I’m lovin’ it,” which is technically the Present Continuous.

Based on the hopefully not too boring grammar description above of the Present Continuous, what the slogan is really telling you is that you’re loving it only as you’re eating it, because like all actions in the Present Continuous, it will pass.

Now of course this wasn’t McDonald’s intention.  Any marketer wants to instill a lasting message in its customers, perhaps more like the Spanish version, in the present tense, “Me encanta” (I love it.)


Without a doubt the temporary nature of this grammar is true for Morgan Spurlock, Director and Star of the documentary Super Size Me.  He loved what he was doing for a short time, and made his point in the end about the diet.

Oh did he ever…

So in short, McDonald’s grammar choice really doesn’t give the message it wants, although many would argue it gives a more honest message.

The Thrill of the Hunt

Here’s a little bit of linguistics for you, and don’t get lost in the details.  Just follow along…

phoneme is a unit in the sound system of a language (like a letter but the sound that the symbol gives, not the symbol itself), and these units are pronounced a number of ways depending on the allophone, which are the different ways a phoneme is pronounced.

/Phonemes are written like this between slashes./

[Allophones are written like this between brackets.]

In English a few examples are as follows: /p/ = [p,b] and /t/ [t,d].  A common example in Spanish is the /s/ (fricativa alveolar sorda, for those who care) which has two allophones [s,z].  Something curious about Spanish has just to do with this!

In most Spanish dialects, the the verb to marrycasar, is pronounced the exact same as the verb to hunt, cazar.  A yahoo forum said the following when asked what the difference was between these two verbs:

  • Que primero te caza la vieja y luego te tienes que casar.  (First the old lady hunts you and then you have to marry her.)

He sounds pretty cynical doesn’t he?  Another skeptic would say the following:

  • Cazar: Es cuando matan a los animales. (When they kill animals.)
  • Casar: Es cuando los animales se matan solos.  (When the animals kill each other alone.)
  • *See blog where this quote came from here.

However you see hunting or marriage, it’s pretty comical that they are pronounced the same.  Some say it’s the thrill of the hunt – the hunt leading to marriage, where others see it al revés.

We Waited 30 Minutes

was a cheerleader and am a cheerleader at heart. I mean, it’s in my DNA to encourage those around me, and especially to encourage them never to lose hope.  I can do this only because I lean on my own experience where hope was at times all I had.

The Bible states that hope is the anchor of our souls, but what does that mean when the anchor doesn’t seem to hold and our boat is being tossed by the wind and waves?  What does it mean when we wait without getting any service? (This will make more sense seeing the picture below.)  It’s hard to have hope sometimes, and that’s a fact; and sometimes, or most of the time, it’s easier to have hope for others than for ourselves—another fact.  But I believe hope is real, and I know that sometimes hoping is all we can do.

Call it a cliché and give up, but what could you be missing?

  • The best meal of your life?
  • Or maybe a free dessert?

In English, there is but only one word to represent this curious thing we call hope, but in Spanish the verb “esperar” means not only to hope, but also to wait for, and to expect.  All three of these actions are not only related, but they are encompassed in the same word!  That’s a discovery indeed and a little nugget that I will carry with me next time life demands that I wait longer than I want.

Tale of a Walking Contradiction

We are all living in contradiction, or was it that we are all contradictory?  This is the English translation of a Spanish phrase I heard this week (Todos vivimos en una contradicción o todos somos contradictorios.)  The words strangely intrigued me, and I was determined to find the English equivalent.  Was it any of the following by chance?

  • To be torn
  • The grass is always greener on the other side
  • To always want what you can’t have
  • To always be wanting more

It seems that this choice for words doesn’t mean any of them, but it’s related to all of them at the same time.  It has to do with our personal desires and how we learn what they are by perhaps living contradictory to ourselves at times in this journey we call life.  It’s about saying one thing and doing another, and it’s about the ironies of life, the ironies of who we are perhaps, like treasuring solitude and yet not wanting to be alone.  Turns out there is an English phrase similar: to be a “walking contradiction.”  Kris Kristofferson said it well:

  • He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.  Takin’ ev’ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home. 

And yet the words are still hard to grasp… turns out I’m not the only one who thinks so.  A Yahoo forum included text from a guy describing something his ex-girlfriend always said to him, that he was a walking contradiction.

  • The phrase seems simple enough, but when you’re looking at your life you can’t piece it together.  Did she mean that I mean one thing and say another, etc.?  

Being an environmentalist and yet wasting water; staying in a relationship with someone of qualities that you say you don’t like or want; being brave in your actions and yet not believing in yourself; or living a life different than the one you imagined and constantly thinking of the other.

These are all examples people gave me, and yet it’s still hard to grasp honestly as I’m caught up on the word contradiction.  Could this be an example of seeing the world a certain way, or not being able to, because of our interpretation of words?  I think it could be, but it’s also an example when another language speaks to us more than our own, or when it sparks something in our subconscious. For example, if contradiction is a way of saying that you are living the opposite of what you truly desire, then I don’t want to contradict myself…

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