Your Weekly Dose of Spanish by Spaniology: Semana 8

Published in Dungarvan Leader Page 15 on Tuesday 14th of September


One of the aspects of Spanish which tends to bewilder English speakers when learning the language is the apparent presence of two verbs corresponding to the English "to be": ser and estar. This phenomenon, called the Romance copula and shared by most languages derived from Latin, stems from a greedy etymological development of the language.

Spanish took its "to be" from, not two, but three Latin verbs; to wit: sedēre (to sit), esse (to be) and stāre (to stand or to stay). Eventually, the two first ones evolved into ser and the last one into estar. Their etymologies give us a clue as to the different nuances conveyed by each verb: whereas ser is, grosso modo, used with permanent or essential characteristics, estar is reserved for temporary or incidental ones.

In light of that, we say la puerta está cerrada (the door is closed) as its being closed is a temporary state —provided the hinges are well oiled—, whereas we say la puerta es grande (the door is big) since its size is something permanent. This dichotomy allows us to express reality in a variety of nuanced ways. For instance, if we say Gráinne es muy guapa (Gráinne is very pretty) we are asserting her natural and immutable beauty; on the other hand, when we say Gráinne está muy guapa (Gráinne is looking pretty) we are merely stating her transient good looks, possibly achieved through artificial means. Precaution is therefore advisable when giving compliments using these verbs.

Certain adjectives will even acquire different meanings depending on which of the two verbs is used. Listo is one of such words: Fiachra está listo means "Fiachra is ready", whereas Fiachra es listo means "Fiachra is clever". Moreno (dark-complexioned) can also adopt different hues —no pun intended—, and Sadhbh es morena indicates that she is dark-haired, whilst Sadhbh está morena informs us of her being tanned; semantics are here independent of the potential impact that external aids like spray tan or hair dye can have on the permanency or transiency of these qualities. Rico will likewise deserve a special mention as it means "rich" with the verb ser but "tasty" with the verb estar. An adequate command of the language can here dissipate any cannibalistic connotations when assessing the wealth of an individual.

Our readers from Ring and Old Parish will certainly not be as daunted as their Anglophonic neighbours as they are used to a similar structure in Irish with an chopail and an briathar bí —even cranked up a notch with an aimsir ghnáthláithreach and ghnáthchaite—. Nonetheless, if this charming feature of the language seems deterring, it will be useful to remember that ser is related to the English "essence" and "is", whereas estar is related to "state", "status", "stand", "stance" and "stay".

* Here is your weekly dose of Spanish: Oisín está aburrido porque esta clase es aburrida [Oisín is bored because this class is boring]

Sergio Fernández Redondo

Sergio hails from Asturias in northern Spain and has recently relocated to Dungarvan, where he is a Spanish teacher and PR assistant at Spaniology. Having an eclectic background in engineering, translation and linguistics, he is also a keen aficionado of history and languages.


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