Linguistics For Spanish Teachers

BY SUZANNE M. VARNER
ST. CHRISTOPHER’S SCHOOL
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA
varners@stcva.org

WITH SUPPORT AND LINGUISTIC GUIDANCE
FROM PROFESSOR JOEL RINI
UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA

As teachers, we encourage our students to ask questions and to think beyond the simple answers, but this can lead to an awkward situation if we are unable to provide a solid answer to what has been asked. Many teachers would love to give a concise, relatively simple, abbreviated response to satiate the students’ thirst for knowledge. The following guide to Spanish linguistics will try to assist Spanish teachers in explaining the origins of some very common yet puzzling structures of spoken and written Spanish. In addition, a section on pronunciation follows with some practices to lead the student to a more natural and authentic pronunciation.

The University of Virginia’s Center for the Liberal Arts and Professor Joel Rini offered an institute during the summer of 2002 titled “The Story of Spanish: Structure and History of the Language.” This institute was intended to help Virginia’s Spanish teachers understand some of these structural and orthographic “irregularities.”

How does knowing the history of Spanish help us understand some of the puzzling structures or “irregularities” found in the modern language? In order to answer this question, one must understand the nature of the different types of linguistic analysis, of which there are basically two: synchronic and diachronic. The nature of synchronic analysis, i.e., analysis of the language at one given point in time (usually the modern language), is such that it describes, i.e., it provides a description or statement of the facts that we possess in the modern language. Diachronic or historical analysis, on the other hand, often explains how these facts came to be as they are. Let us look at one example. Synchronically, we can state that the indirect object pronouns le/les become or are replaced by se when appearing before the direct object pronouns lo, la, los, las. Without looking historically, we might try to account for this phenomenon with unfounded, ad hoc explanations like “le lo sounds bad”, or “lelo means ‘stupid’”. Historically, however, we find that this phenomenon resulted from a series of normal or expected phonological (sound) changes: Latin ILLI ILLUM > (IL)LI ILLUM > li ellu > ljelo > yelo > gelo (the g pronounced like j as in John) > selo (the initial consonant pronounced like the sh of English) > selo (the last step by analogy to reflexive se and confusion of s (like sh) and the apical or Castilian s). Thus, upon becoming acquainted with the history of the language, one comes to realize that many of the anomalous structures or so-called “irregularities” of Spanish, from a historical perspective, are not really irregular at all, but rather, are the result of a progression of regular changes from Latin to Spanish.

We would like to make clear, however, that we are not advocating long, detailed explanations, nor that all grammar points be taught from a historical perspective. We do maintain, nonetheless, that the occasional application of historical linguistic information to the Spanish classroom will replace the typical inaccurate, uninteresting, and unhelpful responses such as “That’s just the way it is, learn it!”, “No me preguntes por quĂ©”, or “I don’t know, it’s just irregular”, with enlightening, helpful ones, which will enrich the study of Spanish for the teacher and students alike.