Wednesday 28 May 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Andante)

Me: 'Bueno, ya tú sabes...' (Well, you know...)
Son: ...???
Me: 'Tú sabes como es eso...' (You know how it goes...)
Son: ...???
Me: 'Nene, que la cosa es...' (Baby, the thing is...)
Son: ...???

Well, I can't blame him, can I? Son had just been the victim of Cuban prolepsis.

He is ten, has been speaking in Spanish practically since he was in his Mum's womb (I used to play and sing to him Bola de Nieve's version of 'Drume Negrita' changing 'ita' for 'ito'. Yes, I know it doesn't rhyme, but what can you do? It's such a lovely lullaby and the Guanabacoense's voice is so soothing and mellow. I took good care not to drown the sound of his voice, but you can never be too careful, can you? Oops, I just realised that I am still in brackets), anyway, as I mentioned before, he has been speaking in Spanish for many years, but that doesn't mean that he can speak Cubanish. That's a different monster. And what a monster.

The natives of the largest island of the Antilles, that's us, Cubans, have the habit of stopping short of a word that the sentence seems to be leading to - as in "Well, you know ..." without specifying "it's difficult" or "it couldn't be any easier, mate". This phenomenon is called prolepsis and occurs in all languages. However, I have noticed that we, Cubans, do seem to enjoy this quasi-elliptical, linguistic, fortuitous occurrence more.

In German, in my experience, most people tend to finish their sentences, they don't expect others to do the donkey work for them. That's not what we do in Spanish. But whilst it's not a problem for us, dwellers of the Key to the Gulf, it's a nightmare for others. I am thinking of Wife now. I have lost count of the number of times when she has stood there in the middle of the kitchen, mouth wide open waiting for me to finish the phrase I had just started. Sometimes she even prompts me with: '... know... what exactly?' Now, she is well aware of this phenomenon, so I suspect she's playing me at my own linguistic game, but I have noticed that both Son and Daughter's faces remain blank and expressionless and I am afraid I might be laying the foundations for a future linguistic trauma that will unfold in years to come.

In French, and in English, too, especially in Britain, people tend to stutter (I've noticed these bouts of sudden stammer more amongst the chattering classes in both nations than in working class folk who usually tell it like it is, then again in Britain's case it could be a case of Hugh Grantinitis; he created a template against which most foreigners judge white, middle-class British men by. Oopsie daisy, I went over the top again whilst writing in brackets, sorry!); this stuttering might be conducive to prolepsis, but as in German, the idea being expressed is completed, the other person is satisfied with the reply and everybody goes home happy and with a spring in their step. In Cuba, on the other hand, the omission of parts of a standard syntactical construction is pretty customary and nobody bats an eyelid over it.

Son, then, has a steep, linguistic hill to climb, but one where culture, once again, plays an important role. I know he will appreciate it. In the meantime, I will do my best to finish my sentences off, close them, lock them up and keep the key in my pocket.

Because you know...

Copyright 2008
Illustration courtesy of Garrincha


  1. Welcome back! venia por aqui y era raro no encontrar nada!
    muy bueno y gracioso como siempre. la verdad es que ni me habia fijado conscientemente en esto.
    cual sera el origen? si se hablaba asi antes del triunfo, no se. pero si esto surgio despues del triunfo, el origen puede ser logico.
    you know...

  2. Jajaja! Ahora al que le toca reirse es a mi. Mira, cuida'o y no le echen la culpa al bloqueo tambien! Me parece que tiene que ver con esa mania que tenemos los cubanos de interrumpir a la persona que esta hablando y terminar las frases por ellos, por ejemplo:

    - Chucha, tu sabes que Miguelito...
    -... cayo preso. Yo lo sabia, muchacha, que tanto jinetear no le iba a hacer nada bien.
    - Si, y lo peor es que...
    - ... que la madre esta sola porque la hija, la pobre, se le tosto cuando le mataron al esposo en Angola.

    Y asi se construye una conversacion a lo cubano.

    Gracias por pasar. Horita te caigo por el tuyo.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  3. jeje, si, era una broma a medias. nosotros siempre en las mismas.
    pero no creas que somos los unicos que nos interrumpimos, mira que mi novio (americano) me interrumpe muchas veces y yo le pongo cara de asesina en serie...jajaja.
    eso si, enseguida se disculpa, cosa que no pasa con el cubano. claro al cubano le digo: "oye, tu, troncoejuca, me vas a dejar terminar la frase?"

  4. Tienes razón. A mi también me pasa con mi hijo. A veces se queda esperando con cara de bobo a que yo termine la frase que no tiene fin.
    A veces se queda anonadado cuando yo interrumpo una de sus frases con un giro inesperado. El cubanish necesita practica en la mata. Un postgrado quizás...
    Al Godar

  5. Y lo peor es que nos pensamos que la otra persona ya sabe el sujeto, verbo y predicado de la oracion nuestra.

    gracias, liset y al.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  6. A veces yo les hablo en ingles a los hispanos y en espanol a los norteamericanos. O ambos idiomas a un mismo tiempo. Para colmo ensenne espanol durante varios annos y, sin darme cuenta, se me pegaba el acento gringo de mis estudiantes. En parte porque me daba gracia escucharlos y a veces me sorprendia diciendo "yo llamar Ernesto". Me gusta mucho tu blog. Saludos.

  7. Gracias por el comentario, Ernesto. Que te puedo decir? Me ha pasado tantas veces que ya ni me pongo bravo. Mis hijos dicen que mi frase preferida es "No hablen ingles en espan-ol, por favor". Y tienen razon. Caso tipico es la pequen-a que tiene siete an-os, al yo decirle que hiciera una de las tareas que le habiamos encomendado, me respondio: "Si, papi, yo voy a!" (I'm going to!). Tuve que virar la cara para no reirme.

    Saludos desde Londres.



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