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Dispatches from Linguists: Trying to talk Spanish – It Goes Wrong

By Valentin Pradelou

This month the Dispatch is from Valentin Pradelou, who uses a rather funny anecdote about the pitfalls for language learners to explore polysemy. It is always enjoyable to read of funny language mishaps especially when they are so relatable and show that such things happen to us all.

I would like to tell a story to prove that polysemy should not always be considered relevant across languages, even close ones. This short story takes place in Spain, a number of years ago.

But first, let’s be clear about polysemy. We saw this notion in a previous article (in Issue #29). We explained that polysemy is the fact of having several meanings attached to a word, and related to each other. For example, the word “fish” means the animals we find in the water, or it means the action of catching them, or (based on my own experience) trying to catch them. Same idea for “last”: if considered an adjective, it will be a synonym of “final”. If considered as a verb, it will be defined by the fact of continuing for a certain time, or survival. Indeed, these significations do have a link with each other.

This notion has to be bound with homonymy in order to be clear. The only difference is the following: the different significations attached to the word do not have a clear link. For example, “book” means the thing to read or the act of making a reservation. Another example: “bear”, as a verb, is a synonym for “carry”. As a noun, it means the animal you wouldn’t find in a corridor when hungry.

The purpose of this article is then the following. I’ll tell a story to show that polysemy can exist in a language and target a particular word, but goes to pieces when translated into another one. I’ll set the context of the story, before telling the actual core. It’ll allow us to analyze what will have just happened in the frame of polysemy.

We were in 2011. My friend (who’s going to be the central character here) and I were high school juniors, in eleventh grade, we were 16. At the end of the school year, pupils had the possibility to apply for a class trip in Spain.

We then decided to apply for it, as we considered this as holidays before actual holidays.

At that time, our linguistic skills weren’t that sharpened. We were around B1 to B2 level (equivalent to a mid-level) in English (which didn’t serve us at all in Spain) and around B1 to B2 in Spanish, maybe closer to B1 (according to the CECRL model). We will see it does play a role.

This trip went pretty well from what I remember, and one particular moment is stuck into my mind. Going from city to city (such as Valladolid or Salamanca), this story takes place in this last Spanish city.

What happened?

So we stopped in Salamanca for lunch and maybe in the afternoon, our supervisors and teachers let us have some free time to wander around and visit the city on our own. My friend and I had our sandwiches, and we told each other that a Coca-Cola would definitely be a good idea.

At that moment, we were on the Plaza Mayor (literally the “major place”, the most important public place of Spanish cities), and a McDonald’s wasn’t far, so we then decided to head towards it.

Waiting in the queue, we finally reached the counter and got ready to order in Spanish. My friend’s goal was the following: ordering this drink without ice in it. He held his breath and said: “Hola, un Coca-Cola sin helado, por favor”.

The waiter looked at him and said nothing, as if he was waiting for something. Awkwardly, my friend didn’t say a thing either and they looked at each other for what surely must have been the longest ten seconds in my friend’s life.

After that, he went to get the drink, gave it to my friend, who paid without a word. But it wasn’t over yet. My friend shook his drink, as he actually wanted to verify it didn’t have ice. Guess what, he did shake it, and heard the ice-cubes. So, he looked at the waiter, who was looking at him as well, the same way as when my friend ordered. I wanted to laugh loudly, but without a word, we left.

What did just happen? That is the question we asked each other. Either the waiter was very weird, or my friend said something wrong. Thinking back to what he said, there only was one word which could have been problematic: helado.

And then we looked in the dictionary. And yes, he said something wrong. In Spanish, helado is “ice-cream”. The word he was looking for, only meaning “ice” or “ice-cubes”, was hielo. He had actually asked a Coca-Cola without ice-cream!

The waiter had this reaction because saying “Coca-Cola sin helado” implies that the ice-cream is supposed to be served with or in the drink, which is weird (and rather funny).

No need to leave you in any doubt: I made fun of him for several weeks after that, even if I’d have done the same mistake. Under pressure, I’d have even been able to ask for a Coca-Cola without fries.

This event raises other questions. What happened on a linguistic plan?

My friend surely learnt the word helado without having heard of hielo. Helado is the past participle for helar, meaning “freeze”, or “turn to ice”. It actually could have been valid, but in this context, only hielo would have been accepted. Hielo is a noun, literally meaning “ice”, helado is a verb though.

The problem must have been the following. In French, we use the word glace either for an ice-cream, or for ice or ice-cubes (also often called glaçons). He actually had the French model in mind, thinking that the only one word having a signification close to “ice” would be accepted in every context (as it would have been in French, most of the time). At least, saying Un Coca sans glace OR glaçons is perfectly understandable and has no ambiguity.

The thing is, the polysemy we have in French on this particular word is not transposable to Spanish, and my friend fell for it.

The one thing we can say from this story is the following. It actually shows one very important thing in language learning: the importance of practicing a language in contact with native speakers. They can help learners to understand details and pragmatic usage of words, as in this case (even if we can think the waiter’s will wasn’t really to help my friend).

But I’d be glad if I had the occasion of being a part of such events, which are very (very!) funny.

Thanks for reading!

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