Friday, June 4, 2010

Fun with Spanish grammar, a personal anecdote.

He’s a personal, a friend said, describing someone we both know, trying to distinguish him from someone else of the same name.

A personal what, you may wonder. A personal friend? Or perhaps a personal assistant? Bodyguard? Chaplain? Computer? Contact? Customer? Member? Shareholder? Shopper?

If you live in Chile you know the answer to this. The person who is walking around the gym with the word "Personal" printed on the back of their shirt is a personal trainer. A person that runs you through the paces at the gym for a not unsmall sum of money, in the case of my gym something like $300 a month when the actual gym (if you pay by yearly contract) costs about $35 a month. Eeep, that’s a lot of money.

But if you’re getting an assistant, bodyguard, chaplain, computer, contact, customer, friend, member, shareholder, shopper and trainer all in one, I suppose it’s worth it.

You may wonder why the trainer is called a personal (and not a trainer), or perhaps you are wondering where I got all my clever examples. I got them from a concordancer, like this one , which can tell you the word environment in which your word of choice tends to be found (description mine). And I know that because I used to teach English and study theoretical linguistics and I secretly love the resurgence of corpus linguistics, and if that didn’t make you want to stop reading this, then you’re a big geek, too, and welcome!

So, a personal. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, when I’m not perusing the obscure language geekery forums late at night. Joking, mostly.

I have come to the following conclusion. The reason that “personal trainer” in English is abbreviated to “trainer” is because we know that the second word in the phrase tends to be the noun, and that’s the important part. What kind of house? A white one. Are you with me?

So then there’s Spanish, and the great tendency to (at least in Chile) import words and phrases willy nilly (but not that one, because we have enough problems figuring out how to pronounce Llewelyn Jones in Spanish without introducing willy-nilly (seriously, how do people pronounce that street name?)). So rather than creating our own phrase for personal trainer, which would probably be something like “Entrenador personal” or maybe “Entrenador individual” or even "Entrenador privado" (I'm really stretching here for another term), we import “personal trainer.” Sounds posh! (for $300 a month in a country where that is about the monthly minimum wage, it’d better be!)

But then there comes the abbreviation. In English we try to take the noun, which tends to be the second word. And in Spanish they like to take the noun, too, though it tends to be the first word (programa verspertino (nighttime program) is still a type of programa (program). Following the Spanish grammatical pattern, of taking the first word as the noun and important part, this is applied to the imported English expression (which works in the opposite order), and takes the first word of the phrase “personal trainer” as the noun, and therefore the important part.

And so you get a whole bunch of men muscular (hey! Spanish grammar) walking around my gym in shirts red (look at me! Spanish grammar again) that say Personal on them. Except the new shirts say personal trainer on them, which wrecks the story a little bit. Until someone tells you that they’re reading “un comics,” (a comic book, origin of plural unclear). There’s no concordancer in the world that can explain that to you.

And I shan't even try (though I’m sure it’s a hypercorrection).

9 comments:

planetnomad said...

How fun. They do that in French too. And I love to hear how they use their newly-imported English phrases. C'est cool.

Abby said...

Haha. I'd never heard of "Personal" before, but that's probably because I've never been to the gym here in Chile. Another one I can think of is "el living" (room).

Marmo said...

Really interesting. I never thought before about it, and it´s a good explanation.
Made me remember, when I was a young grounhog, and everybody had a "personal" for "personal stereo", or walkman; oh, those were nice days, going to school on my dad´s pterodactyl...

Annje said...

I hadn't heard that one, and I am wracking my brain because I know there are other examples that I have heard. Abby's el living is a good one.

and I love that Marmo rode to school on his dad's pterodactyl.

I had noticed the un comics thing... just curious, one language nerd to another, what rule do you suppose is being hyper-corrected? It seems to be almost an unanalyzed word transfer or something along those lines...

Margaret said...

uuu, you said shan't! I've been waiting all my life for a chance to say that! Dare say I shan't ever have the chance!
OK- I've got 2 takes on this... one with you, one, not so much...
With: "voy al shopping" which, of course is Chilean for "shopping center or shopping mall" but the adjective becomes the noun and therefore follows your $300 per month "personal" rule...
The other is that "Personal" also means "Personnel" which, of course, means STAFF... which really wouldn't be all that weird in a gym... of course, I completely admit to an allergy to such places, so I'm speaking absolutely hypothetically for the sake of keeping the game going--which is probably why my (Chilean) husband accuses me of arguing for the sake of arguing (but then, what other reason is there?)

Stephanie said...

So, this is why they call the supermarket the "super"?

Heather said...

I love this. I consider myself to be a bit of a language nerd too, but obviously not a big enough one since I can't think of any examples off of the top of my head! Great post.

carerica said...

Oooh I came about the same conclusion as well! I have been explaining it to my classes since I started teaching. When my students say "This weekend I took my family to the shopping," it's is a classic cringe-inducer.

Aside: I wonder why in Viña they say "ir al mall" (pronounced moll) and not shopping..? You might be impressed that they got it right, but a friend of mine once got on a bus and said "Voy al mall" with an American pronunciation of "mall" and the driver proceeded to give him a class on how to say Muuuull correctly. Classic!

Sharon said...

The last part reminds me of one of my pet peeves: when they use jeans as a singular word, like tu jeans. It makes me really, really angry.