Spanish is an Ibero-Romance language, and the second most natively spoken language in the entire world (after Mandarin Chinese) due to the enormous expanse of the Spanish Empire in its heyday. It's the national or official language of 21 countries, as well as one of the official languages of the UN and 13 other international organizations. In short, this is a big language. It's the most widely spoken language in the Western Hemisphere.
Naturally, with all these people speaking it, considerable differences can arise between the various dialects; more on that later.
Nouns ain't too complicated in Spanish. Unlike its predecessor Latin, which had a casserole of case endings depending on the noun was used in a sentence, Spanish has nothing in that regard. Pan
will stay pan
no matter where or how it's used.
One thing that does
present occasional problems (for English speakers primarily) is the gender. It's mostly an arbitrary attribute of the noun (el coche
, "car," masculine; la mesa
, "table," feminine), though when it comes to things that have actual gender they cling to that; you don't have that ridiculous business like in German where the word for "girl" is neuter. Spanish actually doesn't have a neuter gender at all; everything is either masculine or feminine. In addition, of the few nouns with mutable gender, the meaning stays the same. El mar
and la mar
both mean "the sea," so don't worry about talking about your pine tree hurting like in German. [[hottip:*:In German, der Kiefer
is "jaw"; die Kiefer
is "pine tree."]]
Gender is quite a bit more intuitive than in many languages as well; in most cases, a noun's gender is clear from its ending; -o/-an
is almost always masculine, whereas -a/-ción/-idad
is almost always feminine...not to say that there aren't exceptions. Masculine nouns are more common than feminine ones, so if you're really lost guess masculine.
A quick note on tú
: it really depends on where you are what pronoun you use in most situations. In Spain, for instance, usted
is basically old hat, and essentially anyone you want to continue to meet in the future is tú,
unless it's official business. In many Latin American countries, however, tú
is seen as somewhat disrespectful by people who aren't your peers. Note also that in several Latin American countries around the Rio de la Plata, vos
is used instead of tú.
is used ONLY in Spain. If you use it in Latin America, at best it will sound like saying "Tally-ho, Guvnah," in the US and at worst they won't know what you're talking about. You can get away with it as a nonnative speaker, but try to stick to ustedes
even if you're in full-blown ceceo
mode (more on that later as well).
Of course, like any other language, Spanish has its area that makes nonnatives (and sometimes even natives) want to give themselves a lobotomy. In Spanish, like many other Romance languages, that would be verb conjugations.
The three possible verb endings are -ar
, and -ir.
Each has its own conjugation patterns (now with 40% more irregulars!) for each tense, of which there are seventeen.
Let's have a look at the conjugation tablets for three regular verbs of each type--hablar, comer
--in present tense, indicative mood:
- yo: hablo, como, vivo
- tú: hablas, comes, vives
- él/ella/usted: habla, come, vive
- nosotros/as: hablamos, comemos, vivimos
- vosotros/as: habláis, coméis, vivís
- ellos/ellas/ustedes: hablan, comen, viven
Having fun yet? And that's just one tense out of seventeen.
Every single tense has a table like this. Oh, and to add to the fun, in the Rioplatense dialect (Argentina, Uruguay, etc.) the pronoun vos
has its own separate conjugation! So instead of hablas,
it's vos hablás.
If you're really curious, here are the full conjugation tablets for the three verbs above: hablar
The seventeen tenses, with usage notes, are as follows:
- Present (el presente): Exactly What It Says on the Tin. While the progressive form does exist in Spanish, it's much less commonly used; the basic present form is typically used instead. By far the most important tense.
- Preterite (el pretérito): The "once" or "X times" past. Distinct from the imperfect. Also, unlike English, used to describe pictures and the like; to ask "What's she saying?" for a comic panel or somesuch would be "¿Qué dijo ella?" Also often used in speech to replace the perfect tense, somewhat akin to English, especially around the Rio de la Plata.
- Imperfect (el imperfecto): The "continuous" past. A tense of considerable importance. Some verbs only retain their past meaning in the imperfect and take on new meanings in the preterite; for example, "Yo ya sabía", (I already knew), but "Supe ayer" (I found out yesterday). Both forms are from saber, "to know." Also used for English past progressive, as in, "El esclavo llevaba la jarra cuando la dejó caer." - "The slave was carrying the jug when he dropped it."
- Future (el futuro): Describes future events. Actually considered somewhat "high" speech, something like English "shall"; usually, the ir a + [infinitive] construction replaces it, like English "going to"/"gonna." Also used for certain statements regarding uncertainty or wondering, such as, "¿Qué hora será?", "What time could it be?"
- Conditional (el condicional): Used to express things that would happen if a certain condition were met. For example: "Yo iría con ustedes, pero tengo que estudiar." (I would go with you guys, but I have to study.) If you didn't have to study, you'd be going with them, but you do, so you're not.
- Present perfect (el pretérito perfecto): Essentially identical to the same tense in English; the best way to explain it is a "past action with present consequences." A compound tense, formed with a present tense form of haber. Often replaced by the preterite in casual speech. "Ya te he dicho lo que pienso." = "Ya te dije lo que pienso." "I [have] already told you what I think."
- Pluperfect (el pretérito pluscuamperfecto): Again, essentially identical to the same tense in English. Used to describe something that had already happened before something else did. Another compound tense.
- Past anterior (el pretérito anterior): Archaic, essentially replaced by the pluperfect, or in some cases the preterite.
- Future perfect (el futuro compuesto): Used to express things that will have happened before something else does, essentially the same as in English, as you can see in this very sentence.
- Conditional perfect (el condicional compuesto): Used to express a "hypothetical past action"; something that would have happened had a condition been met. Think of the last line every Scooby-Doo villain says: "And I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for You Meddling Kids!" In Spanish, they would use the conditional perfect. ("¡Y yo habría tenido éxito sin ustedes muchachos entrometidos!")
- Subjunctive present (el presente de subjuntivo): Hoo boy. The subjunctive is used when dealing with something that is either a wish, uncertain, or just not necessarily real (which extends to a lot more things than you might think). It's virtually always in a clause with que. The exact peculiarities of the subjunctive mood are very, very complicated, but suffice to say, if it has a que clause and you're not 100% certain it's real, go with the subjunctive. The subjunctive present specifically is used when the preceding clause is in the present or future tense.
- Subjunctive imperfect (el imperfecto de subjuntivo): The subtleties of the subjunctive mood were explained above. This one is used when the preceding clause is in the imperfect, preterite, conditional, or the present, past, and conditional perfects. Also used to express the condition used to fulfill the conditional tense: "Yo comería si tuviera hambre." (I'd eat if I were hungry.)
- Subjunctive future (el futuro de subjuntivo): Virtually obsolete, except in legalese. It used to be used when the preceding clause was in the future tense, which has been overtaken by the subjunctive present.
- Subjunctive present perfect (el pretérito perfecto de subjuntivo): Used primarily to express subjunctive past actions when the the preceding clause was in the present tense.
- Subjunctive pluperfect (el pretérito pluscuamperfecto de subjuntivo): Used to express the condition of something for the conditional tense primarily.
- Subjunctive future prefect (el futuro compuesto de subjuntivo): Obsolete entirely.
- Imperative (el imperativo): Used to give commands. This is actually an incomplete tense; commands can obviously only be given to a "you," or as a "let's [do something]." For the tú and vosotros forms, there are actually two forms, affirmative and negative.
Spelling, Sounds, and the Like
Spanish's sound system and especially its orthography aren't that hard to get used to. It's largely spelled phonetically, there are no double consonants or vowels except ll
, and each letter has one pronunciation (with the exception of c
); you don't have the long vs. short vowel distinction that can cause a minor fiasco in some other languages like English.
- A: like father
- E: between bed and bay; more towards bay at the end of a word.
- I: like seem
- O: like hole
- U: like rude
The following letters and digraphs are noticeably different from English pronunciation:
- C: In Spain, before i or e, pronounced like the "th" in "think." In Latin America, it's s like in English. Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, thinco, thinco, seis!
- D: Between vowels, often pronounced as a soft, voiced "th," as in "this."
- G: Also before e or i, this changes from the normal goat sound into, depending on the region, either the h in house, the ch in loch or Bach, or hardly pronounced at all.
- GU: A hard g in front of e or i; "gw" in all other cases.
- H: Never, ever said.
- J: Same as g above, except in all cases.
- LL: Usually pronounced like the y as in "year," though technically it's "supposed" to be different.
- QU: Always a k. "Quiero que el queso se quede" is pronounced "Kyero ke el keso se kede." (Incidentally, that means "I want the cheese to stay.")
- R: Flipped, as in the d's in "pudding."
- RR: The famous "rolled r," as in the ridiculously exaggerated ¡Arrrrrrrrrrrriba! Think making a machine gun noise with your mouth.
- V: Pronounced like a "b"; Spanish doesn't distinguish, although they are pronounced more like the English "v" between vowels.
- Z: Pronounced, again only in Spain, as a th.
Accentos y Tildas: ¡Un Montón de Ñaña! También: ¿Qué pasó con la punctuación?
One famous feature of Spanish orthography is its diacritics, specifically acute accents and tildes. The acute accents, unlike some other languages, such as Hungarian or Polish, where they distinguish sounds, accents in Spanish are used only to mark stress or to distinguish homonyms. You'll notice, however, that it's not marked on every word, and that's because they only mark stress if the word breaks Da Rules, which are:
- If the word ends in a vowel, "-n," or "-s," the stress goes on the penultimate syllable. Examples: queso, chico, umbra, oscuro.
- If it ends in any other consonant, it's on the last one. Examples: pared, hablar, escolar, policial, carnet.
Besides the acute accent, Spanish is also famous for the eñe
letter, "ñ." This is pronounced like "ny," so "ñaña" above would be pronounced "nyanya." (This happens to be a sort of cutesy word for "crap" in a few dialects.)
But perhaps the most famous feature of Spanish orthography is the inverted question mark (or "interrogation point," for any Brits reading this) and exclamation point. Like just about any feature of language, this has its uses--it helps isolate the question or exclamation in a compound sentence, for example--but these two marks are so rare among languages that they're often simply called "that Spanish upside-down thing."
The title of this section, incidentally, means "Accents and Tildes: A Load of Crap! Also, what happened with the punctuation?"
No Molestar - False Friends, Swear Words, and Other Things
The nature of semantic drift naturally ensures that "false friends"
will arise. Probably the most famous, as shown above, is molestar
, which is a perfectly innocent and mundane word in Spanish meaning "bother," but obviously means something more...extreme in English. This really isn't that difficult, but an English speaker who's sort of half-listening may still be caught off guard by a phrase such as, Aunque él me molestaba, yo le amaba todavía.
("Even though he bothered
me, I still loved him." We're not talking Stockholm Syndrome
Another potentially hilarious false friend is embarazar
, the opposite situation of molestar
; it means "impregnate," not "embarrass," which in Spanish is humiliar.
This led to a rather famous case of Bite The Wax Tadpole
where a pen company advertised their product with the slogan, "It won't leak in your pocket and get you pregnant." One has to wonder exactly what sort of ink such a pen would be using...
Now for the good stuff, though: profanity! We've saved the best for last. Here are all the expressions you need to know to know when to hit someone (when they're said at you) or duck (when you say them). Also convenient for use in non-Spanish-speaking circles.
- Mierda = Shit (chances are you already knew this one)
- Joder = Fuck (used rather like it is in English; estamos jodidos means "we're fucked.")
- ¿Qué diablos? or ¿Qué demonios? = What the hell? (Lit. "What devils?" or "What demons?")
- Maldito/a = (God)damn (again, rather used like in English; can be either an interjection or adjective)
- Tomar = Slang for having sex; literally, "take."
- Puto/a = Bitch/whore; ''hijo de puta" means "son of a bitch."
- Coger = Literally "get," but has evolved into "fuck" in most Latin American countries. Recoger is the non-profane version.
- Coño = Country Matters. Though notably quite less serious than in (at least American) English.
- Culo = Ass. De mi culo is "my ass." A father of a teenage daughter, when she says where she goes with her date, may say "'Vamos al cine' de mi culo." ("'We're going to the movies' my ass.")
An interesting note about Spanish is the frequency of Cluster F-Bomb
in common speech, particularly in Spain. Spanish speakers tend to use stronger swear words and use them more often. The prevalence of this in Spain is said to be due to the Franco regime's oppressive enforcement of clean-mouthed-ness; when that regime fell, people began cussing left, right, and center.
Troper Talk: So I think I've gotten most of the important stuff down; anyone else have anything to add?