The Ball Didn’t Lose Itself

17 Nov 2010|Miguel Winebrenner

If you’re bilingual (Spanish and English), or even know a little Spanish, and have attended the back room of focus groups in the United States you probably have heard weird words like “troca” and “pompa.”  The former originates from “truck” and the latter from “pump.”  Neither of those words are actually Spanish words, but they have become part of Hispanics’ everyday lexicon.  Use of these made-up words in marketing and advertising is arguable, but for those purists out there- like me- remember that our beloved Spanish, even in its purest form, is deeply flawed.

Napoleon once said that French was the language of diplomacy, German the language of war, Italian the language of music, and English the language of business.  In principle I agree that certain languages are better suited than others for certain things.  And Spanish, being a romance language, lends itself nicely to the arts.  But I would argue that Spanish is also the language of evasion.

I was playing golf last weekend in Colombia and it hit me that- when using Spanish- we tend to assign blame to objects for what we do, rather than blame ourselves for what objects do.  For example a friend of mine hit his drive into the woods on the 4th hole, we were having a hard time finding the ball, and everyone kept saying “se perdió la bola” (trans: the ball lost itself).  At first it seemed normal- I grew up in a Spanish speaking country- but my inner Iowan must have raised a flag.  Starting then I began to listen more and more for this:

–          On another hole on the golf course: “el palo se enterró” (trans: the club grounded itself)

–          At home: “el agua se calentó demasiado” (trans: the water made itself too hot)

–          In the context of work: “el document se perdió” (trans: the document lost itself)

Notice how it’s never our fault?  As I understand it, this has serious causality issues in legal writing and thus the legal system, and apparently Spanish isn’t the only language that has this issue (I’m told Japanese can also be this way).   

Overall, I find these sorts of linguistic nuances interesting, but the bigger question is: can language impact ethos?  That is, can a linguistic construct- and its flaws- make Spanish speakers into evaders of responsibility?  Or is it the other way around- did we come up with a language that reflects our views?

This is a complicated debate, which may be best argued with a few glasses of wine, but for now let’s at least agree that as much as “troca,” “pompa,” “yarda” (the list goes on) may sound like nails scratching a chalkboard to many of us, they all make more sense than a tiny golf ball misreading a map, taking the wrong turn, and losing itself in the woods.

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