Thursday, May 21, 2009

I *might* just be the crazy word lady.

How do new words move in to your brain? Do they creep in through a crack in the window, do to they move in proudly, with suitcases and boxes, and a could-you-move-that-couch-a-squidge?

I have puzzled over this many times, both in English and in Spanish. Well, I have not actually puzzled over it in any language, as my thoughts seem to swirl around in a languageless place, but I think about how it happens in English, and how it happens in Spanish. Certainly my vocabulary is better in English than in Spanish. I am much less likely to come across an English word I don't know than I am a Spanish one that seems unusual. Part of this is just time. I spent many, many years in an English-only environment. I went to university and more grad school than I probably should have in English, and I am a prolific reader, mostly in English. I've had contact, I have, with this mother tongue of mine.

Spanish I've had a lot less contact with, but I've still developed a decent vocabulary. And this I question more. How did it get there?

As a tip last night for remembering the name of a relative stranger who, along with his friend saved my and my friend's evening, by being our non-dates, and thereby repelling advances from well-meaning men saying things like "you look sad! don't be angry! what are you drinking? you have a sweet face! are you Chilean? Where's the bar? Where's the bathroom? Is this your scarf? Where are you from? Are you X's friend?"... Wow, even I got lost in that sentence.

Anyway, in giving me hints for remembering his name, he said a door, it's supported by:
Hinges? (visagras) No.
Screws? (tornillos) No.
Bolts? (pernos) No.
Anchors? (tarugos) No.

The thing around the door, it's called?

The doorway? (umbral)No.
For a second I thought I'd gotten it, that his name was Umberto, which is more likely than him being called Tarugo, which is not a name, though it does have a manly sound to it).

Or a picture?

FRAME! (MARCO!). Man, am I ever a genius. And yes, his name was Marco, not Perno, which is really good for him, because a perno is kind of a nerd, someone you don't want to be around. Though not as bad as a Gil. But I digress.

Anyway, so I have all these words floating around in my head, and if you'd asked me if I'd ever studied construction in Spanish, surely I would say no. But I love words like some people love cats or dogs, except I don't buy them anything to eat, which surely is some level of abuse. But how do they get there? Do I pick them up because they seem lonely on the street, and I have room in my head for more words, and what's a few more lexical items, and hey, I could give them a home!

I studied theoretical linguistics for years. But this seems to be more of an information storage and retrieval issue than a language one. And I don't have answer for you, though I'd love to hear what you have to say.

I thought of this while writing an email just now, about the night when I met the Marco in question, which I spent at Santiago's answer to (what?, the World in the 80's, I'm not even really sure, please cool kids fill me in) Castillo Hidalgo, at the "after office" (please say with Chilean accent) and how I surprised myself by staying late, as I tend to escabullirme early. And I thought to myself, escabullir? where did that come from? I had to look it up to make sure it was real. And what do you know? It means to escape or flee. Which is exactly what I meant. But where did it come from? Maybe if I weren't so despelotada (disorganized) with how I learn language, I'd know. But where would the fun be in that?

FWIW, I don't know where despelotado came from either. I used to have a theory about the number of times you heard a word before it became real to you, but I've lost track of it, and I'm beginning to think I'm just the crazy word lady.

Whatever. At least they don't shed.


Margaret said...

Genial, as always... You know you are becoming bilingual when "Spanglish" becomes your first language and when the days of speaking and thinking in just one whole language for an entire day is a thing of the distant past, when you have to stop and remember if despelotada or perno are the language you meant to be speaking at any given moment, and when you have to start translating yourself for family and friends from home!
By the way... I LOVED the story about remembering your friend's name!

Emily said...

I often have this same thought when I come up with a seemingly random word and have no recollection of when or why I learned it.

Also, could we please get a post on After Office? I've never been precisely because I feel like it would be full of self-satisfied rich kids trolling for their future trophy spouses. Kind of like the Marina district in San Francisco, where everyone goes because it has good bars, but where you also kind of have to shrug and say "the Marina" in a tone of voice that makes it clear that you know it's pretentious.

Eileen said...

I have never been so observed or inventoried in my entire life, plus did you see the come-on lines? I didn't think it was as posh as people led me to believe it would be. I find Ky, for example, to be a ton more pretentious, but with much less ogling. (and much better drinks). You should go to after office sometime! If you go with your bf, I don't think anyone will bother you. And if they do, rip off your gauze, show your stitches and laugh maniacally!

Abby said...

Funny you should mention visagras. I do remember where I learned this word, because I went to Homecenter with F. one time and I was in charge of looking for them because we were running late. I had no idea what they were, so I just asked the guy who worked there to show me where the visagras were, and that's how I found out they were hinges.

Then, fast forward a few months and I was in a Poli Sci class my senior year. The class was taught in English by a profe from Argentina, and he stopped in the middle of a sentence once and said "Ahh, I can't remember the word in English, the things on the door...visagras..." And I piped up and said, "HINGES!". I was so proud.

Off topic, but all was well in Pomaire. VERY BUSY (given it was a holiday and all) but no unfortunate bus or empanada incidents. :)

Dirk said...

I appreciate the labour you have put in developing this blog. Nice and informative.

Sara said...

I am pretty split between having no recolection on where I learned a word a being able to suddenly pull it out of thin air or remembering exactly where I learned a word. The worse part is most of the memories of the latter are because of words my ex taught me. *gag* Not fun vocab memories.

Bystander said...

Ah, words! In English a screwdriver is, um, a screwdriver and is for driving in screws. In Chile it is a destornillador. It is now removing screws rather than driving them home. In Perú it is a desarmador. It takes things apart with no mention of putting things back together again.

Margaret said...

Bystander- I love the way language works this way in different languages! If you're interested, see the difference between cynical and cínico at:

Bystander said...

Yes, Margaret, cínico/cynical is verbal quicksand. So is estúpido/stupid. I suppose we react in the same way when a Spanish speaker says "shut up" thinking it is as harmless as "cállate".