Thursday, 1 July 2010

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About the Preposition 'En')

- Were you at the theatre last night?
- No, I was in the theatre.
- But I asked you to meet me at the theatre, not inside it.
- I'm sorry, darling, I didn't realise that you meant outside the theatre.
- Of course, you didn't sweetheart, you never notice anything...
- What do you mean...?
- That you're always oblivious to the world around you. I could have said I would meet you on the theatre and you wouldn't have dared to look up to see if I was lying on the roof.
- That's quite unfair, dear. Especially when...

Oh, and people still wonder why the divorce rate is going up worldwide. As long as we have this confusion over the use of a preposition that indicates inclusion, people will be often floored as to when to meet someone at the cinema or in the cinema. When to put food on the table or on the boot of the car. Unless you want to leave a trail of rice and peas all over the M5 on your way to Devon.

There are two eternal problems I've had with the English language for as long as I can remember. One is pronunciation. The fact that a word can change the manner in which you utter it just by modifying or adding one or more letters is still mystifying to me (for instance, famous and infamous). The other one is prepositions and specifically 'in'. I've lost count of the number of times I've had to change posts on (or is that 'in'?) this blog because I think I've used 'in' wrongly.

It all comes from the fact that in Spanish we only have one preposition to deal with the 'at the theatre', 'on the table' and ' in the car' scenarios. We just say 'en'. It follows then that when a Spanish speaker learns another language, like for instance German, he or she is never sure whether to use 'auf', 'bei' or 'in' and will wind up using the incorrect preposition. For example, if you are 'an dem Tisch/am Tisch' people will interact with you at a dinner party. Nevertheless, if you insist on being 'auf dem Tisch', people will leave you alone and your only company will be the house children. You'll be behaving like them, because you will be sitting on the table, instead of at the table, which is what 'am Tisch' translates as. I'm sure Franz Ferdinand's (the archduke, not the band) life would have been spared had the perpetrators been taught the correct use of the phrase 'beim Erzherzog zu sein'. That didn't mean to put a bullet between his eyes, Michael (sorry, that was a reference to the band). The fact that in the Teutonic lexicon one has the dativ and akkusativ cases makes things worse. So it's time to turn our backs away from the Germanic languages and head for the safety of romance langua...

Why are you laughing? Just because I was about to say that romance languages such as French, Portuguese and Italian were safer in terms of prepos... Why are you still scoffing at me? What's that you're saying? That... it's the same? No, it isn't. For instance, in French...

Actually, you're right. Spanish-speakers are not better off when they switch to one of our sister languages. Oh, dear, where's that coalition spirit? We need a bit of Cleggza-Camza factor now. If you were to use the Spanish 'en' in French all the time to signify inclusion you would be making gargantuan errors. Because, say, that you were in Switzerland, you would be speaking en français, sitting dans le théâtre and finding out what's au programme.

So, my dear readers and fellow bloggers, it's time to retire to the safety of my own language. How would that opening passage read in Spanish, then?

- ¿Tú estabas en el teatro ayer por la noche? Were you at the theatre last night?
- Sí, yo estaba en el teatro. Yes, I was in the theatre.
- ¿Pero dónde estabas? Yo estaba afuera del teatro. But where were you ? I was outside the theatre.
- Lo siento querida, no me di cuenta que querias decir afuera. I'm sorry, darling, I didn't realise that you meant outside the theatre.
- Por supuesto, corazón. Nunca te das cuenta de nada. Of course, you didn't sweetheart, you never notice anything...
- ¿Que tú quieres decir? What do you mean...?
- Que te pasan carretas y carretones y no te das cuenta. Yo podria haberte dicho que me iba a encontrar contigo encima del teatro y no hubieras ni siquiera mirado para arriba para ver si estaba en el techo. That you're always oblivious to the world around you. I could have said I would meet you on the theatre and you wouldn't have dared to look up to see if I was lying on the roof.
- Eso no es justo, sobre todo cuando... That's quite unfair, dear. Especially when...

You probably noticed it yourselves. Hispanic asssistance notwithstanding, that passage is still confusing and as far from being resolved as the England football team are from winning even a five-a-side Sunday league impromptu tournament. No, Spanish can do nothing for that couple. They don't need a linguist but a Relate counsellor.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 4th July at 10am (GMT)


  1. Your language is the language of romance. I think I wouldn't care what you are saying, if you are saying it in Spanish, you are forgiven!

    I wondered why I didn't pay enough attention to your Bilingual World series when this topic is what I could so relate to.

    I always said Malay is the simplest language in the world and they (the non-Malay speaking people I addressed this to) would say, of course, it is your language.

    But Malay is the simplest language because it has no male, female, no past tense, present tense. Even its noun becomes a verb by an add-on. And that can leave plenty for interpretation and can be complex and winding in a conversation. (like if you read the subtitles, you can see the subtitles are longer than the script).

    I'll follow your Bilingual World more closely from now on, because it is not just about the preposition and pronunciation, but culture and mindset play in too. And I'm sure you have covered this in the past or will in the future.

    Thank you and I wish you a happy day.

  2. Beautiful meander through the vagaries of the preposition that delightfully ends with no answer, in no answer, or at no answer.

    I'm also loving Ocean Girl's description of Malay! It sounds exactly like the way I speak French.

  3. English speakers struggle with German prepositions too...well, I certainly remember doing so. All the world should speak Spanish really!

  4. I'm still laughing.

    It's true that Spanish is an easier language. I've often thought that and since I live in Texas most days I come into contact with a lot of Spanish.

    English is a hard language to learn. Harder than most because there are so many inconsistencies and exceptions to the rules. It's really just a mishmash of other languages, cobbled together to form some semblance of order.

    You speak it wonderfully though. Don't worry too much about prepositions. I don't.

    Do you watch South Park? Have you ever seen the episode where they go to the alien world where everything and everyone is referred to as Mahplah? Mahplah is a noun, verb, adjective, ojbect, subject, preposition and anything else you can think up. It's genius.


  5. I thought I'd let you know that I am providing a link to your May Rayuela book review in this Saturday's post about why writers should read too. Thank you again for bringing this novel to my attention.

  6. This made me laugh out loud. Quite possibly the best language post I've read all year! :)

  7. Many thanks for your kind comments. Yes, Ocean Girl, I noticed that peculiarity of the Malay language when I was there this time.

    Jai, I watched South Park at the very beginning and then stopped. Have no idea why. I think it's genius.

    Greetings from London.

  8. I had a big smile on my face all the way through this, Cuban. What a fabulous post!! I love your humour, wish I had your way of looking at things, and envy you your breadth of knowledge. Absolutely wonderful!

    My French ex (and my favourite Belgian, who is Francophone also) both have trouble with 'in' versus 'into', while I use 'dans' incorrectly at least 50% of the time.

    Spanish seems so much more sensible - I'll go with 'en' anytime. Oh, and about the pronounciation, I recently learned that Italian is the least ambiguous of languages. One letter combo, one pronounciation. You would have known that, I'm sure, but it makes me want to learn Italian too...



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