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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.




One sentence, Three Learnings

We have often used sentences, phrases, and expressions from real-life Spanish conversations to learn and teach some of the most annoying and hard-to-grasp aspects of the Spanish grammar and drive home new vocabulary in the process. The philosophy behind this methodology is that you’re more likely (and strongly urged) to use these sentences in your own day-to-day conversations and help yourself get comfortably fluent in the Spanish language without actively memorizing any grammar rules. For this purpose, it’s reasonably important that you include these sentences in your flashcard decks and review them thoroughly and often.

Today’s sentence will help us understand and absorb a new slang word from Mexico, the annoyingly memory-resistant preterit form of an irregular verb, and the word-order for a typical exclamatory sentence in Spanish. All of this and more in a single sentence! This one is definitely going into your flashcard deck if you are any bit serious about learning Spanish! So, here’s the sentence:

¡Qué bajón!
¡Qué bajón!
Photo credit: Shawn Carpenter licensed CC BY-SA 2.0
¡Qué bajón que todos tuvimos gripa durante las vacaciones! (It was such a bummer that we all had the flu during our vacation!)

Do remember that the translation provided is not necessarily a word-for-word literal translation.

The nuts and bolts


As always, we will start by breaking down the entire string of words and expressions into individual, more manageable components and analyze what color they add to the overall meaning.

Qué – Word for word, qué means “what” in English. Because of the accent mark, this word would normally take on an interrogative or, as in this context, an exclamatory sense. Here, the word means “what” as in, “What a bad day!”

bajón – This is a common Mexican slang that roughly translates into “bummer” in English. Other principal translations also include “fall”, “sharp drop”, “slump”, or “depression”. The word probably draws from the Spanish adjective, bajo which means “low”. Interestingly, bajo comes from the Latin word with the same meaning, bassus which, in turn, morphed into “base” in English. And we all know that a base is the lowest portion of any structure.

que – Without any accent mark, this word just acts as a conjunction, something that connects two clauses of a bigger sentence. And in this sense, it translates into “that” in English as in, “I have always known that life is vulnerable.”

todos – This word, simply put, means “all”. Now, the correlation is an easy one because it comes from the Latin word, tōtus, which gave English its “total”. There is, however, a slight difference between its singular and plural forms. While the plural form, as in this case, includes all things in a collection of several countable things, the singular form carries the sense of entirety while talking about a single object, thing, or entity. So, todos los días means “all days” or roughly “every day” while todo el día means “all day” involving a single day in its entirety.

tuvimos – This is the preterite form of the verb, tener (to have), to be used with the first person plural, the nosotros form. Now, don’t worry about memorizing the meaning of the term, preterite. Instead, just remember that you use this form when you are talking about something that occurred once and for all in the past. In English, “I had,” can often be interpreted as “I used to have” or “I was having” or even “I had once”. Only the context dictates the best interpretation here. But in Spanish, you have different conjugations to tell which one you meant. If you “were having” or “used to have” something, you use teníamos. Otherwise, tuvimos. By the way, tuvimos reduces to tuve if its used with the singular first person, i.e., yo. Since the third person plural pronoun is implied (but omitted) here, the phrase, todos tuvimos comes to stand for “we all had”.

gripaGripe is the usual Spanish for “flu” and the word has Germanic origins and is thus related with the Old English word, “gripe” that means “complaint” or “problem”. And this gripe becomes gripa in the streets of Colombia and Mexico.

durante – This translates into “during” in English.

las vacaciones – Without a fuss, this one means, “the vacation” or “the holidays”. Just note that while “vacation” is a singular noun, its Spanish counterpart is almost always used in plural.

String’em all together


The sentence literally translates into, “What a pity that we all had the flu during the vacation!” The word-order followed is simple but first lets break this sentence into its clauses. The first clause is Que bajón que... (What a bummer that...) following an extremely simple word-order: Exclamatory (here, “what”) - noun or adjective of quality (here, a noun, “bummer”) - conjunction (here, “that”).

The first clause introduces the next clause that goes, ...todos tuvimos gripa durante las vacaciones (...all of us got the flu during the vacation). This piece follows this pattern: Subject (here, “all of us”) - verb (here, preterite conjugation of “to have” in the plural third person) - preposition (here, “during”) - object (here, “the vacation”).

As you would have noticed, this sentence doesn’t deviate from the regular word order followed in Spanish, i.e., Subject-verb-object. Most of us would be familiar with this pattern as this is what English follows more often than not.

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