American in Spain

Spanish People Is Weird

August 24, 2009
Spanish Question

One tough grammatical hurdle for English speakers learning Spanish, or vice versa, is the word "people". In English it's plural, and in Spanish it's singular (la gente). I still find myself incorrectly conjugating verbs when "people" is the subject. e.g. La gente están contentos esta noche. As fellow blogger Eleena pointed out in a recent comment here, this difference affects the way people think about themselves as a group.

The individual isn\'t as important as the collective. In English, “people are…” (plural, group of individuals) but in Spanish, “la gente es…” (singular, one entity). In Spain, there\'s less a sense of individualism and striking out on one\'s own and more a sense of conformity and staying with the pack.

Another interesting aspect of learning a new language is noticing when two different words in the foreign language translate into the same word in your own language. It forces introspection of your own language, which inevitably leads to noticing that yes, actually, the two ways that you use that word are different and hold different meanings. Lets look at an example...

  1. There were four people in the car.
  2. People don't like that bar.
  3. The Basque people are proud.

Those three sentences use the word "people" in very different ways. When translated to Spanish, there are three different words for "people".

  1. Habí­a cuatro personas en el coche.
  2. A la gente no le gusta ese bar.
  3. El pueblo vasco es orgulloso.

That third usage got me thinking about a particular weirdness in English. That definition of "people" is: "a body of persons sharing a common religion, culture, language, or inherited condition of life," and its the only time when you can pluralize it to "peoples". e.g. "The Basque and Cantabrian peoples..." Bizarre. And the really counterintuitive part is that if you remove the 's', seemingly making it singular, you still have to treat it as a plural. e.g. "The Basque people are...", not "The Basque people is...". It's times like these when Spanish makes more sense to me than English.

But then you just have to back up a bit and realize that languages, like people, cultures, religions, sports and everything each have their strengths and their weaknesses, and none is necessarily superior.