Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Knobs and knockers

I didn't use to notice English much. Maybe it came as a bit of a surprise when the radio alarm burst into life and I hadn't the faintest idea what Brian Redhead or John Humphrys was saying to me for the fleeting seconds of semi consciousness before I woke up. Then that was a long time ago. The fact that there were still clock radio alarms proves it.
I'm very aware of language now. For one thing I live in a place where speaking easily isn't, like breathing, just second nature - it's something that has to be striven for. On top of that, my students, well the ones who don't shout all the time, ask me questions about English. They seem to want rules. They want rules of grammar. I'm not a big believer in grammar. A set of rules invented after the fact to make sense of something that is essentially random in my opinion. I don't know a grammar rule without exceptions and, in many cases, the exceptions are much more common, in everyday speech, than the regular stuff. If language weren't illogical then Arabic speakers, French speakers, Chinese speakers and English speakers would obviously have chosen the universally correct word rather than using بيض, œuf, 雞蛋 and egg to describe the same thing.

Students aren't happy when I tell them that, for quite a lot of things, the answer as to why we use this formula or that expression is because we do and there is no rule they can learn to remember it and no better explanation to be found.

Lots of the people I have worked for have told me that I should always speak English when teaching. Generally, I try to but, to be honest, when it is a direct swap and I know the Spanish I just give the translation. How long would it take to describe an egg? How many other words would you need to describe along the way? And I don't think that saying huevo is the Spanish for the English word egg is going to spoil anything. After all, when all the the roundish reproductive bodies produced by the female of many animals consisting of an ovum and its envelope of albumen, jelly, membranes, egg case, or shell, according to species translation is over the typical Spanish speaking student is going to remember, or forget, huevo.

I always think that things, in the sense of nouns, have a direct translation. Logically things like car, boat, bone must have direct translations. Some things, the less solid things, may have cultural differences built into the language so that we need to add a bit of interpretation to find an equivalent or useable word. Take an idea like nice, agreeable, pleasant and you will guess that the English variations lead to other variations with differenet nuances in Spanish.

I've run into a couple of odd cases recently though. Spaniards don't seem to have a single translation for door handle. That's a standard house sized door with a standard household handle sort of door handle. Hook came to my attention again recently too. You'd think that a hook, in the sense of a reduced size version of a Captain Hook like hook bought from an ironmongers, as an option to a screw or a nail, would be easy enough but, in a class with just six students, there was no one word that was acceptable to all of them.

Funny old world isn't it?


Anonymous said...



Am I missing something? in English you don't have a single word either.. if you say hook I'm not sure most people would think about the ones you screw into a wall.

Chris Thompson said...

Quite right; we have the one word for several things so we often add coat hook, meat hook, fishing hook - the sort of perchero, gncho or anzuelo hook. The thing was that I was buying some hooks and I asked for hembrillas, the word that was printed on a box of hooks I had from a previous purchase at Carrefour. The man in the shop looked confused. He had a conversation with his pal about what I wanted when I started to draw the shape and he suggested that I probably wanted alcayatas. When we finally located the packets of hooks one thought they were called cáncamo wilst the other stuck with alcayata. Again, on the packet, it said hembrilla. So I'm still not sure whethr a hook, like the photo, is an alcayata, cáncamo or hembrilla.

Chris Thompson said...

Oh and you think they are called manilla?

Chris Thompson said...

Or is manilla for door handle? For door handle I had pomo (though usually people agreed that was a door knob) then there was nanivela, manubrio, manija and one person stuck with palanca though nobody else thought that was right. There was a lot of confusión too with words like pestillo

Anonymous said...

I see what you mean... confusing