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Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Linguistic Fiesta

By Silvia Uribe

September has been designated as the Hispanic Heritage Month. To answer a question that I'm usually asked, the difference between the terms Hispanic and Latino is quite simple. Hispanic is relative to those from the Hispano American countries, whereas the word Latino is relative to those countries whose languages have a common Latin origin, which includes some languages that are not Spanish. Being the social oriented linguist at heart that I am, I prefer the term Latino rather than Hispano because in acknowledging that we share language roots with other cultures it is easier to recognize other cultural traits that we also share, thus promoting both communication and understanding.

English and Spanish are Indo-European languages. English, of course, is a Germanic language, while Spanish is a Romance language. The Romance languages are Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, and Romanian. All these languages started as a combination of vernacular (vulgar) Latin with the local tongues. Spanish started making its way into English during The Renaissance, either directly or through French.

Some of the words that came to English via Spanish are from South or Central American Indian languages, like the word potato that derives from Haitian through Spanish. Many times, unless you're really into languages, it is very difficult to identify the Spanish origin of some English words. The French language was a linguistic middleman that channeled fresh vocabulary from other languages. The word canoe is a perfect example, since it is of Latin, French, Spanish, and ultimately Haitian etymology. In other cases, Spanish played the part of the "relay" language. The word cork, ultimately of Latin origin (through the Arabic word alqúrq), came to English via Old Spanish (alcorque).

Spanish cognates (fancy word to designate the same ancestral language), may not be as numerous as those of Latin or French origin, but they are just as varied, widespread, and influential. English would be less rich without words such as the ones that I used, (either direct from Spanish or through a relay language), in the following story written solely for our enjoyment of the English language, and the American culture that constantly adapt and evolve.

"My cousin Luis, the matador, turned off the tango and danced to salsa after the corrida de toros to celebrate that he was alive. He would've had a party with a piñata, but he thought he was too old for that. He has been acting like a desperado, but in this case, he was running away from dangerous situations.

First, it was the tornado that chased him when as he was at the plaza, with the mariachi, having a margarita, at a community barbecue. Then, there was the quite unexpected situation with the machete at the hacienda where he was going to be killed by the guerrilla comrades, while he was smoking a cigar in the patio. After that, a mosquito bit him, making him very ill. At the pueblo's fiesta he attended, he asked the señorita to serve him a menudo with tortillas, guacamole, and pinto beans. He also ordered chili, and chicken fajitas with habanero, and pimento, all grilled on mesquite; he declined the enchilada, the burrito, the tamale, and the tacos with salsa and cilantro, but it was too late. All that food plus the tequila with alfalfa juice became an exploding cannon in his bulged belly. He was put out of commission, hiding in his adobe cabana for a while.

When his amigos went to visit him, they played the guitar and, since it was cold and raining, they brought a poncho for him to wear. They also made hot cocoa to get warm, and they dipped their famous churros in it. All of them were covered with their own zarapes looking very macho like "El Dorado" caudillos. To promote a speedy recovery, they took him to the Caribbean, where they used burros with cinches for transportation. At the ocean, he slept on a hammock, enjoyed the vistas, fished for tuna, and slept siestas with his sombrero on his face to avoid sunburn. In one of the islands, he saw coyotes, alligators, a puma, and a jaguar, as well as canaries and condors. Luckily for Luis, he ended up paying nada of this expensive trip; it was gratis for him.

When they were back, inside his cabana alcove, on the mesa, next to the arroyo, he figured his luck was grande. His friends were not aficionados, but savvy on how to entertain, even though they spent too much time at the hotel cafeteria eating flan and smoking tobacco cigarettes. It didn't matter either that they were conquistadors of senoras and senoritas alike, although Luis didn't agree with such behavior.

Before his amigos left, he hugged them and told them "Gracias, mi casa es su casa, hata la vista and vayan con Dios"

(The previous text has 100 Spanish words or cognates…can you identify them?)

Silvia Uribe is a freelance writer with a Latino perspective.

Cross-posted at

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