“Dialect” means pretty different things in English and Spanish

One of the first lessons of Linguistics 101 is: “Everyone speaks a dialect.”  We all come from somewhere, we all belong to some social class, we all have some gender, and all of these—plus many more things—affect our language.  To a linguist, there’s no such thing as a “standard” dialect any more than to a surgeon there’s such a thing as a “standard” anatomy—everyone varies.  To a linguist, there’s no real difference between a language and a dialect—as the redoubtable Ilse Lehiste put it, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

To a linguist, the term dialect generally refers to a form of language that is associated with a particular geographic area.  Although the terminology varies from linguist to linguist, we have other words for varieties of language associated with particular social groups (sociolect), people who share very specific activities (jargon), levels of formality and specific social contexts (register), and so on.  How you will speak at any given time is an interaction between the tendencies of your dialect, sociolect, the register, and so on.

Back to dialect: there is a cognate term in Spanish, but the denotation is quite different.  In Spanish, dialecto typically refers to an indigenous language.  As one of our surgeons, a native speaker of Spanish, put it the other day, referring to a patient in the recovery room: “even though I speak Spanish, I don’t understand him, because he speaks a dialect.”  This was a patient who spoke one of the indigenous languages of Guatemala.  Most of these languages belong to the Mayan language family.  There are about 29 Mayan languages, of which 21 are spoken in Guatemala by the large indigenous population—about 70% of Guatemalans are native.  (The rest are called Ladinos.)  The Mayan languages are about as similar to or different from each other as English and German or Spanish and French.  Patients who speak one of these languages and don’t also speak Spanish must bring someone who can interpret between their language and Spanish, and then one of the Surgicorps interpreters interprets between Spanish and English.  I’ve seen four patients like that so far in the past three days.

This leads to the question: if the Spanish word dialecto means an indigenous language, how do you say “dialect” in Spanish?  I don’t know the answer.  The Spanish Wikipedia page for dialecto discusses it as a technical term in linguistics, with the same basic meaning as the English sense.  (Note that as is the case in English, there is sometimes a large difference between the technical meaning of a term and the meaning of that term in the general language.)  There is a Spanish term jerga that translates roughly as “jargon.”  The Spanish Wikipedia page for jerga distinguishes it from “dialect” in that a jerga is associated with a social group or a profession, and is used either to obscure communication with out-group members (slang) or to enhance communication on technical subjects (jargon).  The search continues.

Guatemala is funny if you’re Bulgarian, but maybe not otherwise

Arrived in Guatemala Saturday morning after two flights spent obsessively studying medical vocabulary and reading about health care interpreting.  I almost made it out of the airport without having to check a dictionary, but Zipf’s Law humbled me in baggage claim, i.e. before I even made it out of the airport.  Oh, well.

Getting to Antigua involves about an hour and a half drive.  Much of it is through Guatemala City and its suburbs.  The road is pretty much solidly lined with small businesses, many of them with hand-painted signs–Guatemala City has some very, very low-income, rough areas.  (In general, travellers are advised by guidebooks to just stay out of Guatemala City and go somewhere else.)  I amused myself on the drive by taking pictures of words that I don’t know—there were far more such words than I could capture on my cell phone camera.  Probably the most linguistically interesting was a huge advertisement for vaginal suppositories that was notable for the fact that it used a vosotros verbal form, which you don’t often see north of here (I don’t, anyways).

  • faja: This was the word for the thing that your baggage comes in on–more specifically, faja de retiro de equipage (baggage claim carrousel).  Faja has a variety of meanings in my dictionary, none of which is “carrousel.”  They mostly have to do with things that go around something–sash, girdle, bandage, newspaper wrapper. 2014-08-09 13.50.10
  • cuota: I think this was meant (see photo) in its sense of a fee or dues.  It can also mean a quota or share of something, as well as a tuition fee.2014-08-09 14.31.01
  • capilla: An interesting word, and I don’t know how to interpret it in this case (see photo).  One meaning is a chapel.  However, my dictionary says that another is a “death house”—I’m not sure what that actually means, but I think it has something to do with people who have been condemned to death.  There are additional, quite different meanings, and each of these has related words and expressions:
    • hood, cape: a related word is capillo, meaning a baby cap, a baptismal cap, a hood, a cocoon, or a cigarette filter.  Note that this is an example of two words that differ only in gender and have different meanings.
    • death house: an expression related to this meaning is estar en capilla, which can mean “to be in the death house,” but also “to be on pins and needles.”
    • chapel: a related word is el capiller, a churchwarden or sexton.
    • proof sheet: not sure where this one comes from, and I don’t know of any related words.2014-08-09 14.31.47
  • almacén: I knew this word in its sense of “warehouse,” but it turns out that it can also mean store or department store, which was probably the intended sense here (see photo).2014-08-09 14.36.10
  • ladrillo: a brick or tile. 2014-08-09 14.46.46Why Guatemala is funny if you’re Bulgarian: Guatemala is a mountainous country with lots of curvy roads.  Curvy roads are marked with the word curvas (curves).  It will immediately be obvious to you why this is funny if you’re Bulgarian, or, indeed, from any Eastern European country that I’m aware of, Slavic-speaking or not.  If you’re not Bulgarian: it’s not blog-appropriate, so write to me if you want the joke explained.


“It is a stain on America’s honor”

I served in the US military from 1979-1988.   I spent a little bit of that time working in the engine room of a guided missile cruiser, and a lot of that time delivering medical care, mostly to people with heart and lung disease.

I was, and am, proud of my service in the American military.  The reason that I was (and am) proud had nothing to do with my individual actions—the world was relatively quiet during that period, and the closest I came to combat was the Gulf of Sidra incident—and everything to do with the fact that the American military is one of the most moral armed forces in the world, and perhaps in the history of the world.  We do not commit rape in the territories that we take.  We do not kill unnecessarily.  We treat prisoners humanely.  We do not torture.

I was horrified to learn of the CIA’s torture of prisoners after 9/11, and even more horrified when the news came out that they had spied on a Senate subcommittee that was investigating their activities.  The CIA has a long history of valuable service to the United States, and I have no question that many CIA agents, analysts, and others have served honorably.  However: this is terrible.  Completely un-American.

The harshest critics of torture that I’m aware of are US servicemen: specifically, pilots.  They are perhaps the most at risk of being captured, and they know that hostility against them is likely to be the strongest of all hostilities towards enemy combatants: bombs kill indiscriminately, and sometimes pilots are responsible for bombs.

Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate for president in 2008 and a military veteran who was captured and tortured by the North Vietnamese, said this about CIA torture: “It is a stain on America’s honor.”  I couldn’t have said it better.

One French sentence, three new words: scheduling a talk

Part of academic life in every country that I’ve visited in an official capacity is going to people’s talks.  I found this to be a great way to practice my French listening skills, and I always learned new technical vocabulary.  I didn’t usually have to struggle through the talk announcement emails, but the consequences of Zipf’s Law are never far away, and this morning I ran into three words that I didn’t know just in the first sentence of an email announcing an upcoming series of talks by the LIMSI interns:

Les prochaines séances de séminaire du groupe ILES seront consacrées à des exposés des stagiaires, qui présenteront leur travail au sein groupe.

These are especially fun words, since all three of them have English cognates with totally different meanings:

  • la séance: session; in the context of the theater or movies: showing, performance.  I’m pretty sure I saw a wider range of uses in France, but don’t remember any off the top of my head.
  • consacré: dedicated to, devoted to, dealing with.
  • un exposé: report, account; in the context of a conference: talk, lecture; in the context of a class: presentation.


Today’s headlines in Guatemala

According to Wikipedia’s page about Guatemalan newspapers, the most widely read paper in Guatemala is Nuestro Diario.  Let’s see if I can make it any further in this paper than in a French newspaper… Nope, can’t even get past the headlines.  Let’s see what new words Zipf’s Law brings us today.  Nuestro Diario is a tabloid, so not surprisingly, the headlines are all about violence and Miss Teen Guatemalan Mayan.

  • baleado: shot down, shot dead.  Headline: Baleados en la terminal.
  • arrollado: mown down, swept along, dragged underneath.  Headline: Mueren dos hombres arrollados por camión en Guanagazapa.

The anatomy of the hand in Spanish

I can make it through the first sentence of the Spanish-language Wikipedia page on hand anatomy, but by the second sentence, Zipf’s Law strikes…  Here are the first two sentences:

Las manos forman parte de las extremidades del cuerpo humano, siendo el cuarto segmento del miembro superior o torácico, están localizadas en los extremos de los antebrazos, son prensiles y tienen cinco dedos cada una. Abarcan desde la muñeca hasta la yema de los dedos en los seres humanos.

  • abarcar: in this context, to span.
  • yema del dedo: fingertip.  Other meanings of yema: talking about eggs, it’s the yolk; talking about plants, it’s a bud or a shoot.


The risks of hand surgery

Informed consent is important anywhere that you practice.  Getting informed consent includes explaining the risks of the surgery to the patient.  Zipf’s Law applies to the vocabulary of surgical risk, of course (although I don’t know if it applies to the actual adverse effects themselves or not).  Here are some words that come up in the discussion of risks of hand surgery on this web page about hand surgery:

  • conllevar: most of the meanings are in the area of entailing or bringing (as in power bringing responsibility), conveying or carrying (as in a feeling), or implying or involving.  Another sense is to bear or put up with.  La mayoría de las cirugías conllevan los riesgos de la anestesia y de hemorragia.
  • la sensibilidad: feeling, sensitivity.  Pérdida de sensibilidad o movimiento de la mano o los dedos.
  • coágulo: clot, blood clot.  Pueden formarse coágulos de sangre.




Stuff that I didn’t know about Kent State

For me, part of preparing myself for any trip is a lot of listening to the radio.  Yesterday I heard a long story about the Kent State shootings.  I learned a lot that I didn’t know–in particular, that the shootings came in a period of rapidly increasing anti-left-wing hysteria in the region.  I guess I had always thought of them as happening out of nowhere.  What a sad story.

Zipf’s Law strikes in tragedies as much as any other time.  Here are some words that I learned from this story:

  • tropas: troops.
  • disparo: a shot.
  • prever: to anticipate, foresee, forecast, plan.


What is hand surgery, anyway?

Last year I spent a lot of time working with a wonderful hand surgeon, and want to make sure that my hand surgery vocabulary is up to snuff in case I end up with him again.  Last year Zipf’s Law pulled its usual crap on me—like, when you go to see a hand surgeon, the first question he asks is, “are you right-handed or left-handed?”, and I knew how to say “left-handed”–zurdo, which everyone learns in school because it’s easy to confuse with sordo, “mute”–but, I had no clue how to say “right-handed.”  (Turns out it’s diestro.)  For today, I’m starting with a web page that gives a general description of hand surgery.  Zipf’s Law raises its ugly head in the very first sentence, of course.

  • amplia: adjective with a range of meanings including wide, spacious, loose.
  • gama: range, spectrum.  Having looked up these two words, I can finally understand THE FIRST SENTENCE of the web page defining what plastic surgery is: Cirugía de la mano es un término general que incorpora una amplia gama de diferentes tipos de cirugía de la mano. 
  • colgajo: flap, as in colgajo de piel, “skin flap.”
  • suministro: supply, as in suministro de sangre, “blood supply.”
  • ubicación: location, whereabouts, position.

Zipf’s Law is embarrassing sometimes

I’m getting ready for a trip to Guatemala to spend a week interpreting for a wonderful bunch of surgeons.  Check out Surgicorps–it’s a great group, and you should totally donate.

The embarrassing thing about Zipf’s Law is that it often leads you to stumble on words that aren’t unusual at all.  For example: preparing for a trip means spending lots of time listening to the radio in the relevant language.  A few weeks ago, I was listening to a “health and beauty” show in Spanish.  The host used the word recetar, where I would have expected prescribir.  Both mean to prescribe.  I knew the word receta “prescription” (also “recipe”), but just had never heard the verbal form recetar before.  Had no clue it existed.  Unusual?  Only in the sense of rare, and then no more “unusual” than anything else.  Zipf’s Law.