Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Spanish does not speak itself here - that's your job!

'¿Como se llama?'
'Me llamo David'

Two of the first phrases most people learn, when beginning to speak Spanish and, for most people, their first introduction to, what appears to be, a reflexive verb.
'Appears to be?

Well, let's consider the translation.
'Me llamo David' doesn't really translate to 'I call myself David', it's 'I am called David'
Not sure?
OK, you may have seen a sign which reads 'Aqui se habla español'
Now, that definitely does NOT mean 'Spanish speaks itself here' - it means 'Spanish IS SPOKEN here', from which you can see that 'hablarse' is not a reflexive Spanish verb (if it even exists)

One more example, before we begin to look at the theory.
In Lila Downs' song La cumbia del mole the first verse opens with the words
'Cuentan que en Oaxaca se toma el mezcal con café' which translates as 'they say that in Oaxaca mescal is drunk with coffee' - it definitely does NOT 'drink itself with coffee'

So, what's going on?
Well, a true reflexive verb is one where the subject and object are the same
(Quick refresher - Subject is the do-er, Object is the recipient of the action)
so 'él se lava' means 'he washes himself', so 'se' comes to mean 'himself, itself, herself' etc.

However, in the construction we're looking at today, the verb isn't really reflexive, it's more like a way of expressing an action in the 'passive voice'
In that case (this will probably make grammar teachers cringe) 'se' acts more like the verb 'to be', while the verb acts more like an adjective.
So 'se habla' becomes 'it IS SPOKEN'
and 'se llama' equals 'he IS CALLED'
and you may have seen the signs on buildings in Spanish-speaking areas saying 'SE VENDE' ?
You can probably guess now that it means 'it IS FOR SALE' (OK 'for sale' might not be a real adjective, but the principle still applies.)

Now you know about this construction, you'll be able to spot it more easily, and it will make sense out of some of those apparently nonsensical 'reflexive' phrases you've seen.

I came across one only today, in a Podcast from . The podcast was actually about the use of the imperfect tense, but contained, by way of example, a typical use of this method:
'Cada invierno, los prados se cubrían de nieve'
'Every winter, the meadows WERE COVERED with snow'

Apart from '¿como se llama?' you may even have been using this structure without knowing it.
Ever asked your teacher '¿Como se dice en Inglés?'
'How IS IT SAID?' - passive voice - NOT 'how does it say itself?'

There's a good reference page (in English :-) at which explains more about the use of the passive voice, and about another method of invoking it, using the verb to be, which is beyond the scope of this posting, but includes examples like 'el libro fue escrito por Manuel' - 'the book was written by Manuel'
It also includes a quiz, so you can test yourself on a number of examples.

One final point:
The sentence or phrase doesn't even have to include the subject, as in the 'Se Vende' example above, where we don't know who is doing the selling, just that the building is being sold .

¡Hasta la próxima!

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