11 Jan 2013

Learn Spanish The BigBarcelonaBlog Way : Ser and Estar

“To be or not to be!”

Thus did William Shakespeare, the greatest writer the world has ever produced, sum up the weightiest dilemma facing mankind. It is succinct. It is powerful. It is unforgettable. In English, that is. In Spanish it sounds more like this:

“Ser o no ser o estar o no estar o una mezcla de ser y estar y una mezcla de no ser y no estar. Más o Menos.”

Doesn’t grab you quite as effectively, I think we can all agree. I mean an English Hamlet’s indecisive enough (yes I know he’s technically Danish, clever clogs) but a Spanish Hamlet is all over the place.

So what is going on here? Is it another futile attempt by the Spanish to pretend that Cervantes (one book about a man fighting windmills) is as great an artist as Shakespeare (39 plays about everything that ever has or will really matter) by deliberately sabotaging the Swan of Avon’s finest hour? Well, I like a conspiracy theory as much as the next man (unless the next man is lurking behind a grassy knoll with a firearm) but even I have to conclude that’s not the case here.

No, it is something far crazier. The Spanish have two words for “To Be”

Let us conjugate them in all their glory (present tense only):

Ser                                Estar
(Yo)            Soy                               Estoy
(Tu)            Eres                              Estás
(El)             Es                                 Está
(Nosotros) Somos                          Estamos
(Vosotros) Sois                              Estáis
(Ellos)        Son                               Están

So far, so not that bad. But now we come to when you use them. And things get properly out of control.

How do you know which verb you should use if you wanted to say something as simple as:

I am happy. (Admittedly not a sentiment Hamlet was often reaching for.)

It depends.

Spanish teachers (and the BigBarcelonaBlog has had more than most) will insist to you that there is some kind of sense behind which one of the verbs you choose. I should caution you immediately that this is nonsense. Any Spanish teacher who tells you there is any rhyme or reason behind the selection of “ser” or “estar” should be treated as a charlatan and if possible immediately dispatched to a nunnery.

What they will say is this – it all depends on whether the verb “to be” is being used in a permanent sense (in which case you should use “ser”) or a temporary sense (in which case you should use “estar”).

So with the aforementioned concept : I am happy.

You should say : Soy Feliz, if…

 By and large you are a happy, optimistic person who sees every glass as half full even when there isn’t any water in it.

You should say : Estoy Contento if…

You are just in a good mood, say, for example, if a couple of university friends have arrived to visit you from Wittenburg. This is likely to be a temporary sensation especially when it turns out that they’re actually spying on you on behalf of your evil uncle who killed your dad and married your mum and is still coming on like he wants to be your mate . Sorry for the spoiler if you’ve never read Hamlet.

Now, come on, BigBarcelonaBlog, I hear you cry. That doesn’t sound so bad. I can distinguish between permanent and temporary states. We can do this.

You fools! You’ve let those devious Spanish teachers pour their linguistic poison into your ear. You see once they’ve got you nodding at the easy bit they then try and slip all the contradictions past you. Like:


Now, unless you’re Jesus, death is a fairly permanent state. I mean I’d go so far as to say it is pretty much the most permanent state. So if, for example, I was to pick up a skull and glumly observe :

Yorick is dead.

Admittedly it lacks the ring of the original but more importantly which verb should you use?

You say Ser? Think again. It’s Estar. Why? Now you’ll see your Spanish teacher start shrugging and saying it’s time for la pausa (the break). There’s no explanation.

How about the time?

What could be more temporary than time. It is one o’clock. Previously it was twelve o’clock. Soon it will be two o’clock. So estar, right?

Wrong. It’s ser. Es la una to be precise.

I promise you I once had an evil Spanish teacher who argued that it should be “ser” because it was permanently one o’clock for the actual moment it was one o’clock. Pick the logic out of that one.

And now places. What could be more permanent than a place? Elsinore is in Denmark. It has always been in Denmark and it always will be in Denmark.

So if you were to say “Elsinore is in Denmark” which verb?

Wrong. It’s estar. Because arbitrarily all locations use estar and this trumps all concepts of permanence and transience. Why? Nobody knows.

On a side note, I should point out that I’m most relieved I picked Hamlet to illustrate this post.  If I’d gone for Macbeth, Burnham Wood would be giving me no end of trouble right about now.

Anyway as I was saying all locations use estar. Except of course when they don’t. Try this one for size.

You enter your new Spanish language school. You approach the receptionist and confidently ask for the whereabouts of Doctor Cervantes A1 class.

“¿Donde está la clase de Doctor Cervantes?” you say.

The receptionist’s face registers disapproval. What can possibly have gone wrong?
You should have used the verb “ser”.

Why? Because Doctor Cervantes class is a group of people gathered together to learn and not an actual location. It is in a location but it isn’t one, if you see what I mean. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t.

And then when your Spanish teacher has completed her explanation and is acting as though everything should be clear she will top it all off by giving you a cruel smile and saying,

“¿Está bien?”

   Now you’re on your own.           

1 comment:

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