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The Witchcraft Of Spanish Vocabulary

The very first step to conquering a language is to tame its vocabulary. And sadly, that's the part that puts off most novice learners because memorizing strange-sounding words is too darn boring! A never-ending chant of rote rehearsal and a nervous prayer can see you through an upcoming test, but the process just won't cut it if your goal is to actually use the language in the street. It's a mystery how this incredibly inefficient method has survived this long and still continues to be perpetuated by schools and educators around the world. So is there any nirvana around this assault of monotony in our miserable lives? Anything that could make learning foreign words less painful?

So Many Ways "To Pull" In Spanish!

Languages don't always work in predictable ways. They have rules and they break their own rules. They have more than one word for the same thing and the same word for more than one thing. This makes them frustratingly complex and it is this complexity that makes them beautiful. This complexity is the very hallmark of an organic language setting them apart from the likes of Klingon and Dothraki. One such fun aspect of Spanish is its translation for the English verb "to pull." If you've just started out with the language, it's a no-brainer: halar. But there's more than meets the eye. Turns out, Mexicans and their neighbors don't even like the word!

Comprender Vs. Entender: Do You Understand?

These are words that get mixed up by even native speakers, let alone noobs like us. Going by the dictionary, both are synonymous and have the same translation in English. However, the two have quite dissimilar connotations. Now the good news here is that mixing up comprender and entender is not a exactly deal-breaker like mixing up, say, ser and estar or por and para. So depending on how far ahead you are in your Spanish learning program, this might be a non-issue. However, if you're like me and suffer from an itch for perfection, knowing where to use one instead of the other is surely the difference between a rookie and a native.

Decode Mexican Place Names Like A Native

When the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico, they asked the indigenous locals for directions and that's where this story begins. The Indians, you see, didn't speak Spanish (duh) and named their cities in ways only they could pronounce. First line of defense, maybe? Who knows. But the Spaniards did their best to learn. And in the process, wound up thoroughly messing up those names. This is what happens when you try to write a word that not only doesn't exist in your language but is also nearly impossible for you to pronounce. The mistakes, however, stuck and with time gave Mexican place names their unique tongue-twisting character.

Cool Trick For The Spanish Imperfect Subjunctive

Subjunctive, let alone imperfect subjunctive, has been terrifying rookie Spanish learners ever since the beginning of time. Why do we even need to deal with those cryptic conjugations anyway? Do they even matter in regular conversations? Well, you’ll be surprised to know that they not only do but do so way more than their English counterparts. Much has been written before on this subject and the grammar of Spanish subjunctive is as plenty easy to access. This article is not about reinventing the wheel. Instead, what we’ll do here is learn some super-cool tricks to nail the conjugation without a single minute wasted toward rote rehearsal.




Deconstructing A Very Mexican Saying

Mexico is where two worlds have fused together to produce a version of Spanish that is far richer in culture than that of its European birthplace. This richness of the Mexican culture should, to a great extent, explain our bias toward their flavor of the Spanish language. A language this rich in cultural heritage often grows into an interesting stewpot of local refranes (sayings) and proverbs unique to its people. It is said, Mexicans are loaded with a saying for virtually any situation in life, which is what makes them such excellent communicators! The sentence being deconstructed in this article demonstrates just that.

These pearls of wisdom are not only meant to liven up your speech or make life more philosophical for you, they also add a new dimension to learning Spanish by offering you some priceless insight into the cultures and lifestyles of the native speakers! These sayings are laden with some of the most local aspects of the Mexican vocabulary and often hint at some really deeply-rooted facets of Mexico’s pre-Columbian cultures. These features make them excellent subjects for our deconstruction activities and accelerated learning. Here’s our subject for today:

Ponte los huaraches antes de meterte en la huizachera. (Put on the sandals before you enter the thorn-field.)

What the little saying above intends to advise is that you should always take all necessary precautions before you embark on any tricky journey or start a difficult task.

The nuts and bolts


As always, we will attempt to assimilate the Spanish in this sentence by breaking it down into small edibel morsels and then putting those pieces back together in order; more like reverse engineering. Let’s start:

Ponte – The Spanish verb, poner means “to put” in English. The same verb, when used as a reflexive (ponerse) takes on the sense of “putting oneself” or “putting on”. This reflexive verb, when conjugated for the familiar subject (), becomes ponte. Note the suffix signifying it’s association with . A more formal conjugation would be póngale which, obviously, takes usted as its subject. The little accent mark on póngale is just to ensure you pronounce it exactly the way it’s meant to be: With a stress on “o”. Note again, the -le ending that signifies it’s association with usted as against . Coming back to our ponte, the word in this context stands for “putting on” as in “wearing something”.

A breeze-friendly huarache
A breeze-friendly huarache
Photo credit: Wicker Paradise licensed CC BY 2.0
los huaraches – This word comes from the P’urhépecha word, kwarachi, which directly translates into English as “sandal”. This pre-Columbian footwear is made from traditionally hand-woven leather and is a well-known icon of Mexico’s cultural heritage.

Huaraches began to gain popularity in the United States in the 1950s and became known all over North and South America by the turn of this century. If you have ever had the chance to watch Ask The Dust, a Hollywood film set in the Los Angeles of the 1930s starring Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell, you would instantly recognize the rustic sandals worn by Hayek. Hayek is shown to be visibly annoyed when Farrell, perhaps mockingly, mispronounces the word. Most Mexicans would readily concur if you said that few things are more Mexican than a pair of leather huaraches. Want to buy yourself a pair? Head straight for one of those huaracheríos scattered throughout the Mexican countryside.

antes de – This one is easy; simply put, antes de translates into English as “before”. Why de, you ask? We don’t know. These are idiomatic phrases and it’s best to learn them as is without much logic. The antes can, however, be explained; it comes from the Latin word for “before”. The same Latin word has come to form the root of many English words today lending a sense of “before” or “pre”, such as “antebellum” (before the war).

meterteMeter is a Spanish verb that means “to put in” or “to insert” in English. Used as a reflexive, it means “to put oneself into” or “to enter”. Despite the subtle differences, the context is usually enough to tell which meaning holds. Here, meterte means “you enter”; note the te ending.

A thorn-filled huizachera
A thorn-filled huizachera
Photo credit: Adapting to Scarcity licensed CC BY-SA 2.0
en – This one is a simple preposition which most often translates into English as “in”. In this context it gives a sense of “in” though while translating this sentence, this “in” is just implied and omitted in English.

la huizacheraHuizache is a very thorny legume found all over Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia, and Venezuela. It is regarded as a highly invasive weedy species threatening pastures whose pods are sold in local Mexican markets. The name derives from the Nahuatl word, huitztli (thorn). A huizachera is a field full of this plant.

String’em together


Now let’s bring these small pieces together and see how they lend to the final meaning of the entire sentence. The phrase, Ponte los huaraches means “Put on the huaraches” in the following word-order: Verb (here, familiar imperative of “to put on”) - object (here, “the huaraches”).

The rest of the sentence, antes de meterte en la huizachera translates as “before you enter the huizachera with the following word-order: Preposition1 (here, “before”) - subject (here, omitted but implied to be “you” in the familiar form) - verb (here, “to enter” in the infinitive form) - preposition2 (here, “in” or “into”; not translated into English) - object (here, “the thorn-fields” or “the huizachera”) 

Do note here that the reflexive object is often omitted in English; not so in Spanish. Also, such objects are usually suffixed to the verb if it’s in its infinitive form as is the case here (meterte).

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