5 Dec 2012

Learn Spanish the BigBarcelonaBlog Way : Simple Verbs and Complex Yous

So you've read the BigBarcelonaBlog's guide to speaking fluent Spanish in Fifty Words or less, said Hola and Que Tal, and now you want more. You yearn to converse in Spanish at a greater conceptual depth, to offer pithy insights and debate vigorously and insightfully on the varied topics of the day with your Castillian amigos. And you come to the BigBarcelonaBlog and you say “Ayudame BigBareclonaBlog”. I will overlook the fact you didn't call me Godfather BigBarcelonaBlog because unlike Marlon Brando I'm not hung up on status and get on with it.
First the blunt truth. If you are going to be stretching your verbal contributions you are going to need verbs. And verbs is where Spanish starts to get just a little bit tricky.
Let me demonstrate by comparing the Spanish verb with the English verb.
The English verb is a simple, uncomplicated thing. It wants to make life easy for you. It is your friend. Allow me to conjugate one.

        Verb : To eat
        I eat
        You eat
        ….And now the complicated bit...

        He eats
        She eats

        ...Gah that was a bit crazy says the English language. Adding one whole extra letter! We really let ourselves go there didn't we? Let's get back to normality...

        We eat
        They eat

You see simple, to the point. The kind of verb that gets you chomping on your fish ‘n’chips with the least possible inconvenience

        For comparison purposes. The Spanish verb to eat

        Verb : Comer

        I eat : (Yo) Como
        You (informal) eat : (Tu) Comes
        He/She/You (formal) eats : (El/Ella/Usted) Come
        We eat : (Nosotros) Comemos
        You (informal) eat : (Vosotros) Coméis
        He/She/You (formal) eats : (Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes) Comen

Do you see how complicated that is? There's so many endings that you won't be chewing on a mouthful of succulent  paella any time soon. At least not if you want to bite into it grammatically correctly. Indeed it has been argued that the obesity crisis currently sweeping through the English speaking nations is not in fact due to our greedy consumption of fatty fast foods but instead because the simplicity of our verb conjugation allow us tuck in much quicker. While the Spanish are still checking their endings we've already got a bellyful and are reaching for seconds. And the simple availability and fast formation of our verb endings is reflected in our waistlines. It should be acknowledged that this argument is so far confined to a niche group and that niche group is the BigBarcelonaBlog. But people used to laugh at the idea of Plate Tectonics. And they're not laughing now. Oh no. Actually I don't know if anyone did laugh at Plate Tectonics as they lacked a satisfactory punchline but they certainly pooh-poohed. And they're not pooh-poohing now.

Back to Spanish verb endings which are so varied that the subject pronouns  have become redundant (that's why they are in brackets in the example above because nobody actually says them) as the form of the verb tells you who is doing the action. So to say “I eat” you simply say “Como” and similarly “he eats” translates to “Come” and should you wish to say “you eat” then...

You stop. You consider the number of people you are talking to. You consider the country you are in. You consider the region of the country you are in. You consider the age and status of the person you are talking to in relation to yourself and then, and only then, do you dare to utter a word. It's a complicated business which takes time to sort out. No wonder the Spanish eat so late.

Glance back up to the verbs above. You will notice that English allows for only possible configuration. “You eat.” This is the same whether the you is your friend or your boss or two of your friends or two of your bosses. To each of them you would say “You eat...” Simple, straightforward, spiffing.

But in Spanish all these people would need to be addressed differently depending on the number of them and the level of formality. And when I say informal or formal I don't mean whether they keep their mouth closed while chewing. Instead I mean primarily whether you are in Northern Spain or Southern Spain/ South America and whether the person is younger or older or more senior or less senior than you.

Take a deep breath. Here goes:

If you are talking to your friend anywhere you use the tu form (but without saying tu remember).

So you say : Comes.


But if you are talking to your boss it depends. If you are in Barcelona you would use the tu form but if you were in Andalucia or Buenos Aires you would use the “usted” form. So it would be either “Comes” or “Come”. Not so simple.

If you were talking to two of your friends you would say : Coméis
But the problem arises again if you are talking to two of your bosses. It depends where you are what form you use. So in Barcelona your friends and your bosses would both be “Coméis” but in Sevilla or La Paz it would be “Comen” for the bosses. Indeed the confusion around how exactly you should address your boss has been postulated as an explanation for the much higher incidence of self-employment in Spain compared to other countries. At least when talking to yourself you are allowed to say pretty much what you like.

Strangers can be another problem. Children are always “tu” and old age pensioners are always “usted” but in between it's complete chaos and no Spanish person has ever adequately explained to the BigBarcelonaBlog how and when you know the difference, instead just shrugging and saying irritating stuff like “you just know” which is absolutely no use at all to those of us who just don't.

The BigBarcelonaBlog therefore recommends that if unsure you fall back on the confused linguist staple expedient known far and wide as...the mumble.

I know it's a cop-out and as a plain-speaking, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is sort of blog I should be ashamed but what can I tell you? (The easy thing about English is that when I write what can I tell you? I can do it without fear of offending anyone whereas if I was doing it in Spanish I wouldn't know if the person reading my blog was younger or older, junior or senior, in an internet cafe on the Ramblas or in a hacienda in Montevideo and I would be almost guaranteed to upset someone.)

The other solution is just to ignore the rest of the Spanish speaking world and just come to Barcelona where everybody is a friend and nobody needs to be called anything but tu. Think how much easier your linguistic journey would be and, more importantly, how much more relevant the rest of my blog would be and how much you'd want to go and read the rest of it clicking on an advert or two on your way. It would be rude of me not to leave you (or you, or you, or you) to it. Adios


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