Monday, April 19, 2010

What did you say?

If there is a word for "to mumble" in Spanish, I have yet to come across it. Sure, there is "hablar entre dientes," which means roughly "to speak without opening your mouth" and you can say that someone "no modula" (doesn't enunciate) of that they "habla muy cerrado" (speaks with a closed mouth) or pa' dentro (that they don't project), but that mumble-jumble, that word that you get to tell people to stop doing? It just doesn't exist.

Which is really a shame. Even though (and perhaps because) I've been speaking Spanish for years, I still get stressed out when someone speaks and I don't quite get what they're saying. It is an affront to my linguistic geekery and full-of-my-selfness in the language department to have to say, "what?" (cómo? qué fue? perdón? qué dijiste?)

Now, the lack of a direct translation for "to mumble" does not prevent people from doing it. There's the regular Chilean "eating" (swallowing) of ds, ts and s's depending on where in a word they occur, and then there are these people who talk alot like the adults in the Peanuts, only more quietly. And I can't understand what they're saying.

Which is another issue. For some reason that may be explained by physics, or may just be a complete misappropriation of a word, Chileans tend to describe someone who does not enunciate, and speaks very quietly as speaking "despacio."

You would think that despacio means "quietly." In fact, it means "slowly." In fact, one of the first phrases you learn in Spanish, right after "Dónde está el baño?," is "Puedes repetirlo?" (can you repeat that? which I would actually say "Me lo podrías repetir por favor?"), and then comes "Mas despacio, por favor." Slow it down, buster.

And certainly everyone understands that when you want someone to speak "mas despacio," it's that you want them to slow it down, not to speak more quietly, which when asking someone to lower their voice, you say that, "puedes hablar mas bajo? por favor."

I'm supposed to be a descriptivist, that is, a person who describes what people say, rather than a prescriptivist, who tells them how they should talk. It's a division among grammarians, a separating of the extreme geeks from the super geeks, if you will. So it should not bother me that people say "despacio" when they mean to say "bajo." I should note it in my anthropological linguistic notebook and move on.

But I hear this in my head all day long. Despacio, despacio, despacito (very slowly!) And I can either write about it or puzzle about it as I should be working on something else. And if my mind would just mumble, I wouldn't hear it so clearly, or maybe if it spoke lower (or even more slowly), or between its little mind-teeth, it wouldn't bother me so much.

But it does. And now it can bother you, too.

You're welcome.


Marmo said...

To mumble:
Mascullar, murmurar, pueden servir el mismo propósito.

Eileen said...

mascullar I take to mean to mutter, as in under your breath, or talking to yourself, and murmurar, as murmur as in something you hear distantly, and maybe also purposely not enunciated.

But I like them, and in absence of a clear winner on mumble (or do you have a preference?), I will use them both, further positioning myself for "gringa with most obscure word in Spanish at a party." Current favorite: envergadura (wingspan, but you knew that).

Also, my groundhog, what do you make of the use of "despacio" to mean quietly? Thanks for commenting, as always!

Tyffanie said...

This drives me nuts in Chile!!! Here's the thing--if you look at the trusty, it tells you that despacio means both slowly & quietly/softly depending on how you use it. Why then, can't they just infer that when we really say "más despacio por favor" we mean slowly and not quietly? You would think this is common sense!

Sara said...

Then if you are like me (once) and forget the modular means to enunciate, you go around telling people that they enunciate when you really want to say mumble and they are all "Really? That's good to know!"

Yes, Spanish should have a word. Can we just steal one from English and like put an -ar on the end. I propose mumblar. Or does that already exist?

Eileen said...

Hey Tyffanie, don't think I've seen you here before. Thanks for your comment. And if despacio also means low, well, then so be it. But I'm not convinced.

Sara, I love mumblar. It makes me want to go to Mumbai. I wonder if people mumblar there. Marmo says there are words for to mumble in Spanish, but I hear them as murmur and mutter, which to me are different. Maybe the problem is that Chileans don't think they mumble? Think again, young countrymen!

Sara said...

Haha...I´m giggling at your response. I just popped back in to say pila de lixviación (which means heap leaching) is my obscure Spanish brag word. Is it obvious I talk to a lot of engineers? *sign* I can actually have an intelligent discussion on those thingies too.

Margaret said...

I'd go for mumblar! Which of course by the time it got conjugated and plugged into an appropriate sentence would come out something along the lines of "CHIS po oye... ¡no mumblai porfis! ¿ya?"
My dictionary also shows farfullar, although I'd say the chances are pretty far-fullando-fetched that I've ever heard that one before!

lydia said...

hahaha. perfect timing. i just sat on the couch for an hour awkwardly trying to chitchat with the gasfiter's son, who MUMBLES like NO OTHER.

i just figured it was a lost cause, if he didn't catch on after me saying "what" 50 times, we progressed to me attempting to answer the question and then saying "wait, what was the question?" at the end when i would realize i obviously heard (guessed) wrong.

So many chileans like to tell me how its hard to understand them because "chileans talk really fast" which, they may or may not do, but to me talking fast isn't the slightest obstacle as long as i can hear them....which i never can. strange there isn't quite the word for it, and if there was that its not used. i always just hear it going backwards with "not enuciate"

very interesting've obviously hit a nerve with a few of us hahah

Marmo said...

I hope I can explain this, if not, I´ll switch to spanish, but maybe then you wouldn´t understand, who knows xD.
When we say "despacio" among the ideas asociated with the term come
How can we tell the idea our interlocutor means? It depends on what you´re doing:
If you´re speaking in a hospital, or when someone else is speaking, if someone tells you "habla más despacio" means speak more quietly.
If you´re explaining something, and there is no reason to quiet down, it means you´re speaking too fast, and need to slow down a little.
If you are doing something that requires some accuracy (like repairing a computer, for example), and some one tells you to do it "más despacio" it means "do it more carefully".
Remember, some words in english and spanish seems to be the same, but their meaning is different, like support (apoyar) and soportar (endure).
If what I said makes no sense, I´ll try to explain it in spanish.
I´m a groundhog, I shouldn´t know any of this stuff after all.

Marmo said...

Oh, and "más despacio" also means "with lesser strenght", like "golpea más despacio la leña con el hacha".

Eileen said...

Marmo needs to write a whole thesis about despacio! Here I thought people were misusing the word, when in fact, I'm the one who's lost! Love that! Thanks, seriously. And you said it great. But I don't get slowly as less intensely, it's kind of an apples and oranges thing to me. It's like saying someone is taller than the other one is rich. Just doesn't work for me. I'll use it anyway, but still, puzzing.

Sara, you ROCK the obscure term contest!

Lydia, I'm sorry for you that you had that experience, so frustrating! And yes, I've been told by many Chileans that they speak quickly. The thing is, most actually don't. They just don't enunciate. I've been told by Chileans that I speak (Spanish) quickly. That may actually be true.

And Margaret, I also came across farfullar, and I will try to work it into conversation, but will not be held responsible for the side-splitting laughter that will likely ensue. I am a big fan of mumblar. If they can happy hour and after office and (recently seen) happy office, then why can't we mumblar? Except of course we won't.

translates said...

Mascullar = Hablar entre dientes, o pronunciar mal las palabras, hasta el punto de que con dificultad puedan entenderse.
Musitar = Susurrar o hablar entre dientes
Murmurar = Hablar entre dientes, manifestando queja o disgusto por algo
Rezongar = Gruñir, refunfuñar a lo que se manda, ejecutándolo de mala gan
Refunfuñar = Emitir voces confusas o palabras mal articuladas o entre dientes, en señal de enojo o desagrado

Eileen said...

But the real question is: What do you say to a child who doesn't speak clearly? What's the equivalent of "Stop mumbling!"

Mascullar is looking like the "winner" but I still feel like it's more mutter than mumble.

And I love the word refunfuñar (and any repetitive "fun"-sounding words), and shall now commence to working it into every conversation.

y vos?

Michelle said...

I'm eternally fascinated by the way words that seem perfectly serviceable and useful and perhaps even necessary don't always exist in each language. I notice it when non-native English speakers conflate 2 terms and use only one word to describe both (using "learn" for both "study" and "learn" or "listen" to mean both "hear" and "listen.")

I'm sure inuits feel the same way about us mainlanders having only 1 way to say "snow." (Inside anthro/ling. joke...)

And, @Marmo -- Sra. Raddock, my 9th grade Spanish teacher taught us the very useful "Soap isn't soap, rope isn't rope, and butter is mantequilla" to remind us of false cognates.

Rachel said...

"Chileans tend to describe someone who does not enunciate, and speaks very quietly as speaking "despacio.""

So ... now I get that all the Chileans who've commented on how "despacito" I speak aren't telling me I speak slowly.

Eileen said...

Michelle, I just told that story about soap and rope the other day, and I love your inside ling/anthro joke.

Rachael, sorry, they might mean that you they can't understand you, I'm afraid! Are you a very quiet talker, or a sometimes-enunciator, by chance?

And for what it's worth, readers, a friend of mine JUST used this despacio thing about an hour ago, and then I has to ask if she'd read this blog entry (hi, if you're reading this now!), and she had not.

Sharon said...

Like I already told you, I swear by refunfuñar. I use it on a daily basis with my refunfuñón (who does it on purpose to annoy me)

Eileen said...

I love this word even more now that you've turned it into a noun! Looking forward to the big meetup in March/June with you and your refunfuñon!

Fly Girl said...

Oh thanks Eileen! I needed another language issue to worry about. There's so much that doesn't literally translate in Spanisg. I know it can mess with you after awhile.

Katie said...

Hi Eileen,
I stumbled upon your blog the other day and really enjoyed reading your language musings. I have many of the same! I currently live in Bogotá, Colombia. I´ve also wondered about mumble-- I conducted some very informal surveys among friends lately, and this is what I´ve come up with for mumble lingo in Bogotá. Don´t know how relevant it will be for Santiago--

Mascullar- X (nobody had ever heard it)

Farfullar- X (nobody had ever heard it)

Musitar- X (most had never heard it, but one friend told me that you could say, "Ella no musitó palabra." Or, "Nadie musitó palabra." Google backs this up. It seems to mean something like, to utter a word/ not utter a single word.)

rezongar/refunfuñar- X (to grumble...speaking under your breath after your parent lectures you and is then walking away)

balbucear- X (most agreed that this is used with children, for when they mispronounce and slur together words- to babble, I think)

murmurar- maybe (perhaps cd. be mumble, but seemed to mostly be for deliberate whispering/talking softly because you´re complaining to sb or gossiping and don´t want sb to hear)

The *winner* was (and by winner, I mean the smallest loser) probably hablar entre dientes. Here, they also say hablar enredado to express that.

I agree with you; I don´t think there´s one perfect word for mumble, and I think that other words are usually used when you tell sb to STOP doing it. I was told that you´d probably say Hable bien (w/ friends, family), or Vocalice. (Enunciate!) I think that the desire for the illusive word is ultimately our problem, and so is the mumbling itself, sadly. Thanks for sharing your hang-ups....they always lead to somewhere interesting!

Javiera Quiroga said...


How about "balbucear"?... You could say: ¿Qué dijiste? estás balbuceando!

I'm a student at the Finis Terrae University.My classmates and I will be interviewing you on Wednesday.

I have to ask you something. We are all working on questions with backround for you. Where you ever the editor of, or is that another Eileen Smith?

And, are you from Virginia? I lived there when I was younger!

Anyway, hope my language proposition works. See you on Wednesday!

Eileen said...

Hi Javier, thanks for commenting. That Eileen Smith is not me (the one who writes for Texas Monthly). I didn't ever live in VA but I did work there for a couple of years, so perhaps you came across that.

I take balbucear to mean more nonsense talking, of the repetitive syllable type, but maybe that's because that's what "babble" means in English. I have never heard anyone say anyone but a baby or a crazy or drunk person balbuceas (or in better Spanglish, balbucears), but we'll have to keep investigating.

Looking forward to meeting you and your classmates on Wed!

Fly Girl, there is no end, no end at all.

Katie, thanks for such a lengthy and spot on response to the blog. I've been over to your neck of the internet and it looks fab. Also interesting to know how differently people in Colombia and Chile deal with their own language. I'm trying to make it to Bogotá one of these days, so maybe we'll get a chance to mumble something at each other!

Eileen said...

whoops, and by Javier, I meant Javiera! sorry about that.

Javiera Quiroga said...

Thanks for answering, Eileen!

Your blog is great.

And by the way, its Javiera (girl), hehe.