Saturday, May 11, 2013

5.11.13 - HEADLINES: Puerto Rico to Cut Off Water to Non-payers - 5/11/2013 | Governor: I’ll cut water bills by 2016 - 5/10/2013 | The New York Times on Venezuela and Honduras: A Case of Journalistic ... - - 5/10/2013 | Part linguistic primer, part cultural history, "The Story of Spanish" zips along crisply - Polyglot Stew - Wall Street Journal - 5/10/2013 By JOEL MILLMAN | Spanish Government, Business Woo Investors on Wall Street - 5/11/2013 - Latin American Herald Tribune

Puerto Rico to Cut Off Water to Non-payers - 5/11/2013

Governor: I’ll cut water bills by 2016. Read: - 5/10/2013

The New York Times on Venezuela and Honduras: A Case of Journalistic ... - - 5/10/2013

Polyglot Stew - Wall Street Journal - 5/10/2013

In 30 years of reporting on Latin America, I've learned that the proper name for the language most Americans call "Spanish" is "Castilian"—"Castellano," in the parlance of my south-of-the-border sources. It's an homage to those plucky warlords from Castile who unified Spain in the 15th century. (There are many other tongues spoken in Spain that, arguably, are equally "Spanish.") And I know "Iberian," an adjective referring to all things "Spanish," derives from a river, the Ebro, which crosses the northeast corner of the peninsula and links the city of Zaragoza to the Mediterranean.

The Story of Spanish

By Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow
St. Martin's, 428 pages, $27.99
But it wasn't until I read "The Story of Spanish" that I discovered "Zaragoza" is a bastardization of the Latin "Caesar Augustus" or that the words "Spain" and "Spanish" came from the Phoenicians. Their explorers arrived on the Iberian coast around 1200 B.C., and noted it was over-run with a long-eared mammal that multiplied rapidly. They described it as "I-shepan-ha": the "Land of Rabbits." Hundreds of years later, the Romans Latinized it to "Hispania."
Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow's book is filled with such nuggets and is a guide to how one region's polyglot stew of ancient words and phrases spread to become the primary language of nearly half a billion people worldwide, as well as "the unofficial second language of the United States."
Part linguistic primer, part cultural history, "The Story of Spanish" zips along crisply. We witness mostly-forgotten kings and the scholars who filled their courts creating a formal grammar and syntax from "vulgar" Latin hundreds of years ahead of speakers in the rest of Romanized Europe. And we discover how bits of Arabic, Germanic, Latin and Celtic took hold among "Spanish" speakers.
The Spanish for "cotton," for example, is "algodón," one of many Spanish nouns —"almuerzo" ("lunch") and "almacén" ("warehouse") are two others—that retain the Arabic definite article, "al." The Arabic "al-qutn" became "cotone" in Italian and "coton" in French, in both cases after a cycle through Latin. Only Spanish ditched the Roman middleman and created a slew of double-articled oddities such as "el algodón" and "el almacén."
However entertaining "The Story of Spanish" is to browse, at times it feels as though its authors, a Canadian couple who have previously written books about French, are over-reaching. "Languages generally acquire prestige when their speakers gain political clout," they write, and that seems true enough when they are describing how Rome co-opted local chieftains by franchising things like tax collection—which required Latin fluency.
Yet this is precisely what didn't happen during the centuries of Moorish rule (700-1492) in Spain, when few among the native elite learned Arabic. And the authors concede that Spanish's success in the New World owed less to political "clout" than to the smallpox virus that triggered a genocide that some estimate eliminated 90% of our hemisphere's original non-Spanish speakers.
While I did enjoy learning that a "ten gallon" cowboy hat has nothing to do with measuring liquid volume—it's a corruption of the Spanish phrase "tan galán," or "how spiffy"—much of what passes for erudition in "The Story of Spanish" feels like trivia. That's particularly the case when it comes to the two Canadians' understanding of Spanish-speakers south of their border.
Take Cinco de Mayo, which the authors report was organized in San Francisco in the 1970s as a "pan-ethnic U.S. celebration for all Hispanic immigrants." They write: "It was a savvy choice: most Latin Americans, even Mexicans, had never heard of it, so it didn't pit nationalities against each other. In the long run, the popularity of Cinco de Mayo was also secured by the fact that it has no religious association, a handy feature, since 15 percent of Hispanics in the United States today are Evangelical Christians, not Catholics."
This is just silly. There was already such a day commemorated "pan-ethnically" across the Americas: September 15, which marks the 1810 "grito" ("shout") that launched a continent-wide rebellion from Spain. Cinco de Mayo rose, like much Latino activism, from the campuses of California's state university system in the 1970s, when Chicanos were eager to include their ethnic pride in an era of raucous social "identity" movements. We celebrate "Cinco de Mayo" mainly because on September 15 college kids are barely settled into their dorms, making May 5 the better date for partying—which beer and liquor companies were not slow to seize upon.
The authors undermine their authority on language—after all, their book is called "The Story of Spanish," not "The Story of Spanish-Speakers"—with similar digressions into the films of Luis Buñuel, Cuba's medical diplomacy or the fact that both Colombian pop star Shakira and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim are of Lebanese descent. The bitter deathbed revelation from Simón Bolívar that the authors quote is apt: "From heroism to ridicule is but a single step."
—Mr. Millman covered Latin America for the Journal from 1996 to 2010. He reports now from Portland, Ore.
A version of this article appeared May 11, 2013, on page C12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Polyglot Stew.

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