American in Spain

Double Consonants and Secret Agents

September 5, 2008

Most days, I get to watch a few minutes of my favorite Basque celebrity television chef, Karlos Arguiñano. Karlos has a daily television program where he cooks a recipe and tells jokes. He's the kind of person that is so funny that you're laughing before he even gets to the punchline. Recently, Arguiñano told a joke that perfectly illustrates a phenomenon that every native anglophone living in Spain has noticed. Here's the joke:

Q: What's the name of James Bond's black brother?

A: Carl.

This joke is really quite a clever bit of wordplay, and, when told from one Spaniard to another, will almost certainly get a chuckle. If you're not Spanish and haven't spent much time around native Spanish speakers, you probably don't get it.

Boos and Astro

When I first came to Spain, I was visiting my, then girlfriend's, parents and family. My future father-in-law, Juan, kept asking me about "boos", and how things were going with "boos". I just shook my head and said I didn't know what he was talking about. He was incredulous. "How could you not know who the president of your country is?" OHH!!! Bush!

Some time later, I was in a bar with some family and friends, and the Tour de France was on television. Those around me were talking about how great "astro" is. "Astro is really amazing." "How about that astro!" I was aware that "astro" means "star" in Greek, and figured it was either someone's name or the brand of bicycle that some riders were using. This clueless speculation was fine until someone asked me directly, "What do you think of astro?" At that point, I had to come clean and admit that I had no idea what people were talking about. Again, incredulity. "How could you not know the greatest cyclist ever? He's from your country!" OHH!!! Armstrong!

Double Consonants

In Spanish, the only adjacent consonant pairs that can exist within the same syllable are ch, br, cl, cr, dr, fr, ll, pr, rr and tr. For instance, the words mucho and cristo both have two syllables each, mu-cho and cris-to. All other adjacent consonants represent the border between two syllables. For example, cantar and entender break into syllables along these borders: can-tar and en-ten-der.

The result is that native Spanish speakers, when pronouncing English words, have a very difficult time with the instances in English when two consonants must be pronounced together. This is why Spaniards pronounce words that start with "st" or "sp" as though they had a preceding "e". Espanish estreets with estop signs.

Obviously, these pronunciation hurdles can be overcome, and often are by students studying English. But they are not overcome by all the Spaniards who have not studied English when they attempt to pronounce the myriad of English words that have been absorbed into the Spanish language in recent years. In adopted gerunds like "parking" or "casting", the "g" is never ever pronounced. For these absorbed words, it has become proper Spanish to pronounce them incorrectly. Even the Spaniards that have studied English and native English speakers like myself, who know how they should be pronounced in English, understand that these words must be pronounced in the Spanish way when used in Spanish sentences. Otherwise you might not be understood.

Secret Agents

Now let's look back at the joke above. It revolves around how a Spaniard would say the name of 007's brother. Neither the "l" nor the "d" would be pronounced...

...making his name "Car Bon". In Spanish, carbón is the word for charcoal, and the obvious chemical element. Get it?