An English Alphabetic Guide To Spain

A – Accents and keyboards.

Learning a new language is a new struggle within itself. The Spanish alphabet has 27 letters – it adds the letter ‘ñ’ (en-nye), each of course pronounced differently to our own alphabet. When you add accents to this, however, it gets more confusing – even more so when Catalan hops along with its accents that don’t follow the same rules, or slant the opposite way to make a word sound different. When writing in Spanish, I’m used to not using accents; because my English keyboard, of course, doesn’t allow me to put these on without using ALT + a combination of numbers that I’m never in a million years going to remember. So, of course, I’m just getting used to writing Spanish without the accents. Something that might seem trivial, but remember words can change even with the slightest of pronunciations. I’m sure it’s not going to be too problematic, but all the same, it’s a nightmare to get your head round. Accents are useful, as it tells you where the stress is on the syllable, or the way to say the letter, but it’s almightily confusing for a girl who’s used to the altogether more complex English way of not pronouncing most of the letters in a word. I never realised how many sounds and letters in English end up being silent – give a sentence to a Spanish child such as ‘he thought he brought the boughs to the trough’, and they might end up in hospital with a mild case of concussion.

B – Bibi/Baby talk

Baby talk in Catalan and Spanish is something I’m picking up more than grown-up talk. Spend your evenings with a two-year old and you’ll probably find the same. The amount of times when I go to school, and repeat what the child has said the previous evening or morning, to ask what it means, and am met with blank stares. Excuse my spelling, but having never seen the words written down, I don’t know how to find out what ‘a goli’ or ‘la busha’ means. And I can’t exactly ask the child for the translation. I do know ‘el bibi’ is a baby’s bottle of warm milk, for instance, and the family call a bath ‘chif-chaf’, which is quite endearing. Anna is my Catalan corrector, despite being only two years old. On the rare occasions I speak Spanish to her (I’m not allowed to speak Spanish in the house when Marta and Maria are around for fear of spoiling the illusion that I have no idea what even the word ‘si’ means), I find myself reprimanded in Catalan. ‘Mira, Anna, un perro!’ (Look, Anna, a dog!) is met with ‘No, un gos’ (the same, but in Catalan). You can’t win them all, I suppose. Animals make different sounds in Spanish, too – for instance, a cockerel for us is ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’, and for a Spanish child, it’s ‘ki-ki-ri-kee’. A dog, from what I can tell, says ‘guau guau’, or ‘bouf bouf’. Cows, I’m afraid, are the same.

C – Cortados

The Spanish sure can make a cup of coffee. And the best thing about it, is that it’s so darn cheap. The only problem is that I got used to my long drinks of coffee in England – for me, a coffee isn’t correctly served unless it’s brought my mug full to the brim, with plenty to spare in the сafetière. Here, even a café con leche isn’t that big: four gulps and you’re done. It’s often not served piping hot, either. The closest you’ll get to our huge English lashings of caffeine related drinks, is a trip to Starbucks, but at roughly 4 euros a pop for the usual size coffee I have, it’s not really worth it. Also, it makes you feel like a traitor. Here, though, they do have a new way for coffee that I’ve never experienced in England. I’m sure this would take off faster than the flat white. The word cortado, literally translated, means ‘cut’. In the beverage sense, however, it’s a small shot of coffee, just as an espresso, but with a hit of warmed milk, often served with hot water on the side so you can elongate the pleasure if you so choose. You might be thinking, hey, we have that – it’s a macchiato. Sorry, but it isn’t. I’m not going to get all technical and moan on about milk to coffee ratios, but it’s something to do with that, and other sciencey coffee-related nonsense. Ask a barista.

Perfect for waking you up on an early morning.

D  – Dinner

Spanish eating times, as I’ve mentioned previously, are very late compared to us. The average lunch is at two to three o’clock, and the evening meal is usually around nine, to as late as ten PM. But what do they call their meals? Breakfast is ‘desayuno’, and is relatively small, not so important. Your lunch is where it starts getting confusing for Spanish kids learning English – they call it ‘dinner’, or ‘almuerzo’. The evening meal in Spanish is called ‘cena’, but in Catalan, ‘suppar’. The children in 4é are now learning daily routines, and they get especially muddled with the names for English mealtimes. I wonder if I should make it much more complex for them and throw in ‘tea’, as being from Yorkshire, this is what I’ve always called dinner. I tried to explain this to one of the teachers at school, and to this day I’m pretty sure he thinks I just have a cuppa on an evening and nothing more.

E – Elections

Last week in Spain, the general election was held, and they have a new president. Everybody knew that their equivalent of the Conservatives – the Popular Party – would gain power, because of the crisis. It wasn’t so different to our elections, with the campaigning, TV publicity, and debates, etcetera, etcetera. However, one thing I did find intriguing is that the Spanish usually vote on a Sunday. Never a weekday. I was explaining this to a Spanish woman, and she looked entirely baffled by the fact that we vote on a weekday. She said to me ‘nobody would vote if we had elections on a weekday’. The turnout for voting in Spain is even worse than ours. Which is highly surprising to me, seeing as it’s on a day where virtually nobody’s at work anyway. The voting starts at 10am and continues until 8pm. I feel sorry for the children, seeing as they don’t get to share in the excitement of voting – this might seem a strange sentence to you, children being excited about the election…until you remember a lot of schools are polling stations so therefore elections = day off school. Here, I didn’t even see anything that would remotely resemble a polling station – I don’t know where they go to do it: whether it’s a school, church, place of public interest, or otherwise. I am told, however, that they’re staffed by people under thirty, unlike our own, which are run by only pensioners.

F – Flan

This isn’t your typical English flan. Flan for us can be rather like a quiche, or a pastry related product that is mostly savoury. Flan here is quite different – it’s much like crème caramel, an egg based sweet sensation that I still can’t quite decide if I like it or not. It seems to be made solely from sugar, and when consuming I have the sensation that I’m going to overdose on a rush from the substance. On one particularly helpful package of the stuff, they’d translated ‘flan’ to English to come up with ‘egg custard’, which I did have to pick a bone with. To me, egg custard is what you’d find in a curd tart, and it’s very different to the dessert you’d call ‘flan’ here. It’s nice, of course, but like most Spanish desserts, it makes me want to reach for the phone and call the nearest Doctor just to check my heart rate’s not tripled in the last thirty seconds after eating.

Not quite the same as a curd tart, but it's getting there.

G – Guay

Work around children and you learn how to pick up ‘cool’ language – which is exactly what ‘guay’ means. The children often express ‘qué guay!’ when they see something they like (they often say this in relation to my nails, which change daily in the way they’re painted). Other words I hear often are ‘tio/tia’ which normally means uncle, or aunt, but in this case the children use it with one another in a relaxed sort of way that means ‘man’, if we were to translate it into our own language. Rather like ‘hombre’, which Spanish children also use a lot, but mostly in a mock-affronted way, when they’re disagreeing with one another – ‘ay hombre, qué pasa!?’

H – Ham/Jam

I have been asked several times by numerous amounts of people if I would like jam with my cheese and bread. No, this isn’t just some strange Spanish tradition – even though I would most likely believe it to be true – it’s just a word mix-up. The ‘h’ and ‘j’ sound for the Spanish is quite easily interchangeable when they write in English, just like ‘v’ and ‘b’, because in their alphabet, it’s said so differently. This can result in humour over the breakfast/lunch/dinner table at various points in the day. Maybe one day I’ll really ask if I can have jam, cheese, and bread, and really freak them out. Although, I suppose, it’s not that different to chutney, so why shouldn’t it work?

I – Insults

Similarly, whilst I pick up words about what’s cool and what’s not, I’m also picking up that most favoured hobby of all young children – how to insult others. Whilst I can’t ask if the shop has shoes in a different size, I can paint the air all the colours of the rainbow with my forked tongue. Want to know how to call someone bumface in Spanish? Come to me, si cabron?

J – Juegos

I’d been so long out of the loop of primary school, and school in general (more than five years now – sob – I’m getting on a bit), that I’d forgotten about crazes and games that children attach themselves to for weeks on end before changing to the next fad. At the moment, as far as I can tell, the crazes in this particular school are snake-like toys, not unlike a rubix cube in the way that they are moved around, but all the same colour, and just intended to change shape rather than match similar with similar. There’s one I also remember from my childhood – a moulded plastic-type substance that can be put onto the end of a tube and blown to form a large bubble, not unlike a balloon in the way that it stays inflated, unlike bubble gum. This, and skipping, is largely dominated by the girls – and I’ve yet to hear a Spanish skipping rhyme, as one of the English children that goes to this school has taught them all a few traditional English skipping songs, which they’re excited to show me they know. There is also a fad mostly favoured by the boys, and I don’t really understand it at all. As far as I can tell, it’s just coloured plastic discs in a net bag with pictures of cartoon heroes/monsters/transforming robots that aren’t under copyright. I don’t know if they trade them, use them like pogs, or what. All I know is they don’t want to part with them in classtime, even though I assure them they’re not going to be leaving the country any time soon: they’re bits of plastic. Boys and their toys definitely rings true.

K – Kneepads

It’s quite common for the young children (and some of the older, less co-ordinated kids) to have thick material sewn onto their shorts or trousers to protect their knees from scrapes and save the parents sewing up clothes at the end of every schoolday. On older children, it looks quite silly, but on the younger ones, it looks sweet beyond all measure, or at least for the kids that go to my school. Their uniform is green, so the patches are just darker green and blend in quite well. However, other schools aren’t quite so fortunate. There’s a particular one in Sant Cugat that has a bright yellow tracksuit uniform for the little ‘uns, but instead of having similarly yellow kneepads, they sport red ones. This still doesn’t sound so bad, but then bear in mind they get given elbow-pads too, in the colour of bright green, and another part of their uniform is bright blue. They look like an explosion in a paint factory, and one can’t help thinking when seeing them that they are making their way to a circus skills workshop.

The next step for Spanish school uniform?

L – Los Miserables

I was lucky enough to go and watch the touring company from Madrid perform the Spanish version of Les Miserables. First things first, I would like to say that the Spanish are the only people who have changed the title from Les Mis, to Los Mis, for reasons I don’t understand – probably because there are none, and they’re just doing it to be different. Whilst I really enjoyed myself, and am probably (definitely) biased in every way, the Spanish version lost something along the way, in my opinion. First of all, the songs don’t scan as well – largely because they have to cram long sentences into a specific musical structure, making it sound rushed, or odd, and out of place. A lot of the rhymes are lost, and when the lyrics do rhyme, it’s constructed in such a way that it doesn’t translate quite as well, and loses metaphor or deep meaning. For instance, take the simple line Fantine gives; ‘there’s a child that sorely needs me, please m’sieur, she’s but that high’ is just translated into Spanish and sung as ‘I’ve got a daughter called Cosette’. Not quite as tear-jerking, right? If I keep listening to the soundtrack, though, I’m hoping it’ll teach me how to use the formal ‘usted’ (polite way of speaking to people that I’ve been told nobody uses), seeing as they don’t use ‘tu’ as much in the lyrics, which I suppose you wouldn’t when you were speaking to a convict you’d been chasing for a long period of time. Formality is always best in cases like that.

M – Mullets

Every time I’ve come to Spain previously, I’ve been shocked by the amount of mullet-spurning people wandering around, looking like it’s not in the least weird. It seems to be something of a fashion here, that we grew out of in the 80’s, and quite rightly too. I’m told it’s those of a ‘hippie’ persuasion, which is apparently more favourable here in Catalonia than it is in the rest of Spain. Still, that’s no excuse to let your children have mullets. You get all sorts – the standard mullet, with the hair long at the back but short at the front, but then you have your deviants. The now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t, as I’ve come to deem it, for example, makes one look like a normal person from the front, and from one side, but then as the wearer turns – you’re hit with the sight of a plaited strand of hair that hangs limply at the side of the head, wishing it were somewhere else. You then have your mullet con dreadlocks – which makes me wonder how anybody goes about having a shower sporting this certain ‘do. It can be solely dreadlocks, or a mixture of long hair and matted tendrils, as long as you have it short at the front, and big at the back. Curly, straight, big or small, mullets are not a thing of the past here in Spain.

N – Nuts and seeds

As stereotypes go, this is rather an odd one that the Spanish have of us: we can’t eat seeds or shell nuts properly. At first, I disagreed, but now I’ve spent some evenings sat around Spanish people eating sunflower and pumpkin seeds, I have to agree with them. We have no idea. I thought you just broke awkwardly into the sunflower seed, and attempted to salvage the tiny goodness in the middle. They literally eat like parrots – they break the outer shell between their teeth and then use their tongue to ferret out the seed inside. It’s like watching a nature documentary unfold before your very eyes.

O – Olive oil.

It’s lathered over everything – beans, peas, salad, meat, cauliflower, bread, tomatoes: you name it, it’s oiled like a Johnson’s baby. Personally, I don’t quite get it. I like olive oil, but even I have to draw the line when it comes to smothering it over spinach with béchamel sauce. You can call it healthy as many times as you like, it still doesn’t mean you have the right to eat a vat of it every lunchtime.

P – Pickpockets

Crime, of course, occurs everywhere – there’s no difference between here and any other nation in that respect. However, Barcelona does seem to have a large problem with pickpockets, distracting tourists and sneaking off with their precious items, or being so light-fingered you wouldn’t have had the slightest idea you were being robbed. A few of my friends have been on the receiving end of this nasty crime, and it does put a dampener on things. Whenever I go to the city, which is quite often, I pull my bag towards me, always in front of me, so I can see it at all times, but I still don’t feel 100% safe. It’s become the norm for me to hold my bag, so now I am used to it awkwardly hitting my leg – even walking home in safe old Valldoreix, I have it in my sights. I hate that I have to be so paranoid, but it’s worth it – I don’t want to lose the little money I’m getting on this programme, I’m robbed enough as it is by the people I work for!

Q – Queen and King

I know that Spain has a King and Queen, but I keep forgetting their names. Luckily, it doesn’t matter, as they don’t seem to hold their monarchy in as much stead as we do. They mostly seem resented for the amount of money they earn, doing absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell. They aren’t talked about in such a celebrity manner – there’s no Wills and Kate equivalent. In England, the Royal Family have become ‘cool’ again, but here it’s quite the opposite. I’m told elsewhere in Spain they’re more highly regarded, but in Catalonia, perhaps because of their strong wish to be separate from the rest of the country, they’re not fans of the monarchy.

Who? No, I didn't know, either.

R – Road Rules, or lack of.

I still don’t understand basic pedestrian rules when it comes to what happens when you want to cross the road. When you come to a zebra crossing, apparently you have the right of way, and most people just walk out without a care in the world. Being English, I’m undoubtedly terrified of being killed, just like the girl at 40mph, or kilometres as it would be here. Just because I have the right of way doesn’t mean I’ll get the use of my legs back should the worst happen. I am getting more daring, but I honestly don’t know the way it works – most cars seem to speed up before these crossings, then abruptly brake as if to say ‘I was only joking, idiot. Cross now, I’ve got some place to be’, and give you an elongated stare full of hatred because you’ve made their journey ten seconds longer. Also, I keep trying to get into the wrong side of people’s cars when they drive me anywhere, which is always hilarious for them, but rather embarrassing for yours truly.

S – Speech marks

Yesterday I confirmed something I’d wondered about through nosily glancing over people’s shoulders on the metro – Spanish books don’t use speech marks as ours do, in fiction. A conversation would look something like this (I’ll give you extra brownie points if you can name the book):

-Ya está usted aqui –dijo el capitán, levantado su cabeza -. Siéntatese si gusta.

– ¿No va a dejarme entrar, capitán? –se quejó John << el Largo>>-. Hace una mañana muy fria para estar sentados a la intemperie y en la arena.

It’s very difficult for me to get used to, because it doesn’t look like a conversation to me, all these dashes and dots. I’m waiting for the speech marks to crop up, so I can tell it’s some people talking with one another. I never expected punctuation to be different. I suppose it’s something those learning English have to deal with as well – the amount of shortening we do with apostrophes in English sends the children round the bend due to the fact they don’t understand that it’s our basic grammar – ‘here’s’ means ‘here is’ and so forth – they just think the word ‘here’s’ stands alone, and is separate to ‘here is’. Come to think of it, I think English wins in being confusing.

T – Thomas Hardy

One of the things I’m finding more difficult to deal with is a lack of cultural reference for me to spatter into conversation. I don’t know who their equivalent of Hardy, Bronte, or Blake is. Who’s their Siegfried Sassoon? Their Cat’s Cradle? Who is it, instead of the lady who sells seashells on the seashore? Why don’t they know that not last night, but the night before, twenty-four robbers came knocking at my door? They don’t know who Bruce Forsyth is, or our stereotypes of several counties: they’re not aware that people from Liverpool in general are said to steal your tyres, or people from Yorkshire spent most of history down a mine shaft. It’s difficult, sometimes, when you realise we all rely on each other to reference our history, our culture. Sure, I can get on with people here, and pick up some of their experiences living here, but I never grew up in this country. I didn’t have the little mouse come to visit me in the night to come and take my tooth from under the pillow (it’s not a fairy here). I didn’t play the equivalent of jinx padlock – ‘TOMA!’ I never experienced having a Saints’ Day: you have your birthday, and then a special day for the saint you were named after, which you often get presents for. It’s difficult to know that nobody will have a clue what you’re talking about when you mention Compo’s love for wrinkly tights.

Not a well-known Sunday 'treat' here.

U – Upfront

Delicacy and tact aren’t things that the Spanish seem to be filled to the brim with – the message here seems to be, if it is that way, we’ll tell you it is. You can expect to be told you look rough, tired, or sick should you go to school without make-up, whether it’s by a teacher or the children. The children see a picture of you they don’t like? Qué feo/a (how ugly). You’re being an idiot? We told you so. Be quiet and don’t talk about things you don’t understand. We don’t like your hair that way or your rubbish English fashion? We’ll tell you, direct to your face. So just accept it and shut up about it.

That’s probably the reason I stopped wearing foundation.

V – ¡Vale!

This is probably the only word you’ll need to get by in Spanish. It means ‘okay’, and it’s said in roughly 75% of sentences/conversations, mostly more than once – think how often we say ‘okay’ and multiply it by ten, from what I can see. Whole conversations on the phone can consist of ‘vale, vale, vale. Si? Vale. Vale. Vale. D’accord (another Catalan word for ‘okay’). Vale. Adeu!’ It was one of the first words I learned – the others being biblioteca (library) and cerveza (beer), neither of which I’ve actually used yet. Coming to Spain on your jollies? Learn vale, and all will be vale.

W – William White, and the lack of ‘w’s.

A couple of weeks ago, in English class, the children were learning a tongue twister and practicing it. It won’t be one you’ve heard of, I promise, unless you study the Surprise! English textbooks for children in your spare time:

Does William White watch wildlife programmes? He watches wildlife programmes on Wednesdays.

Easy, right? For us. The children were amazed at how quickly I could rattle this off – because the ‘w’ sound isn’t at all difficult for me. They don’t really have this sound. ‘Double-yu’ is said as ‘uvay-doblay’, and doesn’t feature a lot in Spanish words. Most of the words that begin with ‘w’ are borrowed from other languages, and quite modern (see ‘windsurf’ and ‘walkman’). Look at this paragraph alone and you can see how many words we have which involve this sound/letter. The children in 1é are currently learning that trees are made of ‘wood’ – and all of them call it ‘ood’, including the teacher.

X – Xocolaté or chocolate?

I can’t get used to this ‘x’ cropping up in texts, when reading in Catalan. Remember, I’m still largely confused when reading or listening as to what’s Catalan and what’s Spanish. The ‘x’ is a big giveaway, however. Read in Catalan, and this will crop up instead of the ‘j’ seen in Spanish written text. The accents also go left and right in Catalan, whereas all the Spanish accents go the same way. It’s still difficult to tell, occasionally, but if you’re reading a ‘periodico’ (paper), you can usually tell if it’s written in Catalan because the day of the week will begin with a ‘d’ – all of them do (dilluns, dimarts, dimecres, dijous, divendres, dissabte, diumenge). If I see any of these key features, I’ve usually binned the paper or stopped reading, because it’s just likely to confuse me more. Catalan’s easier for me to read, being similar to French, but it just means I’m getting used to a language I want to be less familiar with than Spanish.

Y – Yuck!

Qué asko! This means ‘how disgusting!’ and it’s said by children most lunchtimes. The discipline in Spanish schools may be minimal, but they sure do know how to make their little ones eat things they don’t like. I don’t know if it’s a regular English thing, but I’m used to children leaving whatever they don’t like, and not being forced to eat it, or if they are, it’s a half-arsed forcing that usually ends up in only one bit of the offending article being put down their throat. I suppose that depends on the family, too, but from what I see, Spanish children eat everything on their plate or face the wrath of the scary dinner ladies, or a cross mami for days on end. I take this mentality too, and force down forkfuls of cold, disgusting, oil covered cauliflower, overboiled and oversalted, when I really should be saying ‘I’m sorry, but cauliflower makes me sick for hours, and tastes like feet’. But I just eat it. I don’t know what happened to my fussiness regarding eating, but Spain and the ‘eat-it-or-suffer’ mentality has clearly got through to me.

Disgusting? Yes, but I haven't put olive on it yet! THEN it'll be fine.

Z – Zapatos

I refer to a particular type of ‘shoe’ – the Ugg boot. I know a lot of people who wear them, and people who like them, but sadly I’m not a fan of these shoes. If you are, I suggest you finish reading now as you’ll just think I’m being rude. Thankfully this blight on my eyesight that I see daily on English children/adults, looking like they’ve forgotten to take off their slippers, isn’t as apparent over here. They just don’t wear them. The few people I’ve seen sporting them are either English or stick out like a sore thumb. Whether it’s the climate, or just their, ahem, superior fashion tastes (I wasn’t aware denim on denim was ever cool, but apparently it is here), they don’t go in for the Eskimo look.


Author: savagearts

English living in Barcelona Ciudad. I teach English in a language academy (and take it seriously, not just doing it for the travel 'thing', although that is a perk). I love languages, including my own, and am struggling on with the Spanish, whilst picking up Catalan and absorbing up the life here.

2 thoughts on “An English Alphabetic Guide To Spain”

  1. It was me who rated your post ‘very poor’, and ‘excellent’ too. I thought I’d have to click on as many stars as I thought you deserved, not go straight to the top spot! I agree about the cultural references thing. We’ve been in France much longer than you have in Spain, and it doesn’t get any easier. At least you get to learn the nursery rhymes.

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