May 2010 Archives

¿Se habla «cristiano» en España?


As Tudor history buffs will know, Henry VIII's first queen, Catherine of Aragon hailed from Spain and therefore spoke fluent Spanish. The Showtime series The Tudors have taken advantage of this to allow some of the characters to communicate in Spanish (with subtitles of course).

In season 4 of course, Queen Catherine is no longer with us, but her daughter Mary (the future Queen Mary I or "Bloody Mary") is multilingual in at least Spanish and English. In this week's episode, she welcomes a Spanish courtier in Spanish. He seems caught off guard, but Mary says she speaks "Spanish" because, after all, isn't she the daughter of Catherine of Aragon? (¡Sí claro!).

Well, the subtitle says "Spanish", but what Mary actually says in the Spanish dialogue is that she speaks "cristiano" (lit "Christian"). It was the case that in that period of history, Catherine and Mary's dialect of Spanish (probably Castillian) may have been associated with Christianity in contrast to the Moors who did originally speak Arabic (although many later switched to Mozarabic, a sister language of Spanish spoken in Islamic Iberia). In the same vein Catherine of Aragon's parents, Ferdinand and Isabella were noted for being able to oust the last of the Moorish (Islamic) rulers, hence the religious distinction was an important part of Mary's family history.

Oddly though I haven't been able to find any references to Spanish being called "Cristiano". What there has been is a long running distinction between the term español "Spanish" vs. castellano, literally "Castillian" to designate the language of Castille in central Spain which then became the basis of standard Spanish. In Iberia though, Spanish has co-existed with other related languages including Catalan, Asuturian, Andalucian and others. Hence the persistence of "castellano" in Spain even though people outside of Spain (particularly in Mexico, the Caribean and Central America) prefer "español".

This is interesting, but I am still wondering if the dialogue writers really meant "cristiano" or "castellano". It looks like a little more investigation is in order....

Comments can be sent to if you have information.

Book Review: Txtng, The Gr8 Db8


Whenever a new cultural phenomenon like texting sweeps through suddenly, it can be very difficult to find a calm, data-based source of information. One that is neither prophesizing doom or saying that texting will change the fabric of the universe. The book Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 by David Crystal, the author of several linguistics books written for the non-specialist audience, fills in this gap for the texting (aka SMS) quite nicely.

As a linguist, any new communication medium is bound to be interesting, but the interest isn't so much the new abbreviations as the behaviors surrounding texting, both from the texters and those who react negatively to texting. That's not to say that Crystal overlooks abbreviations.

Crystal provides an in-depth guide to different texting abbreviation conventions in English and other languages, but he also points out that 1) the concept of abbreviation is nothing new and 2) one reasons they occur simply because the interface of a numeric keypad is so cumbersome. On the other hand, Crystal notes that there is little evidence that texters confuse texting with formal writing. In fact, he quotes several teens who scathingly dismiss the idea of using texting language on a school assignment as utter lunacy ("Duh"). Crystal also demonstrates that fears for the demise of English accompany every new communication technology from TV to e-mail.


In terms of behavior, the book provides a good summary of what we know. One of the chapters asks "Who texts?", and the answer is quite a lot do it, especially outside the United States. In fact, he remarks that texting in the U.S. actually lagged behind other areas in Europe and Asia, particularly the Phillipines, where the service is relatively low cost in comparison to voice. (Note: The same is not true in the U.S. Here texting is a huge profit center for phone carriers, one reason I have never texted, although I respect those who do).

In terms of WHAT is tbeing exted, Crystal acknowledges that most of the data is anecdotal because few people are willing to allow researchers open access to their personal texts. Data is collected either via survey or from random quotes. One interesting pattern that does emerge is that text messages both concise but self contained. That is, an effective message needs to convey the full meaning in one text chunk. Unlike chat, a sender cannot assume a recipient will reply. According to one study, SMS messages are actually longer than chat lines even though there is a 160 character limit.


As you might expect, there was much discussion of the impact of texting upon literacy, but Crystal regards texting as having a mostly positive impact. First some educators have noted that texting does provide another outlet for writing. Although most messages seem off the cuff, the reality is that the sender does have to consider length and how it will be read by the recipient.

And new literary genres are being born such as SMS poetry and the offshoot Twitterature in which Hamlet tweets "2bornot2b". I myself have always been amazed at how quickly Darth Vader and Batman adopt new communication channels.

Are there any adverse consequences to texting? Of course. One is the danger of repetitive motion injury (aka "Blackberry thumb"), and another is texting/phoning while driving (or driving a train in Boston). The third is that people do text in (ahem) inappropriate situations including religious services and apparently at least one funeral. One the main motivations for texting is boredom as well as conveying information. Sometimes popular culture gets it right.

Big Surprise

What really surprised me? Believe it or not, the non-English abbreviations. There are nativized abbrevations such as Spanish dnd for ¿dónde? "where" and 100pre for siempre "always" (or cien+pre).

But, I was shocked at how many English conventions had been adopted whole sale, up an including the use of 2 for the syllable /tu/. For instance, a Spanish texter might write ers2 for ¿Eres tú...? "Are you...?" Even English "k" is being introduced to replace "qu" in both Spanish and Italian texting (although just "q" may also be used).

Finally, there's the phonological information you can gather whenever writers switch to an informal phonetic based spelling. Abbreviations such as aora for ahora "now" show that there is a silent h and iwal for igual /igwal/ > [iɣwal] show that some /g/ are either silent or near silent. I guess those abbreviations are more interesting than I first thought.

Postscript: Other Sources

One researcher Crystal draws heavily on is Naomi Baron. She also has a book called Always On about social computing. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but it will also be on my list. And I always recommend danah boyd (all lowercase) who has done ethnographic research on teens and the use of different communication tools.

Preserving Indigenous Languages in the Big Apple


This is an New York Times article from April 29, 2010 on a CUNY effort to record endangered languages with speakers who have settled in New York city.

New York and other large cities have long welcomed immigrants from different communities who often form their own neighborhoods. The same is true for speakers from many endangered languages who may be forced to leave their native lands either due to poverty or political oppression. According to the article, some languages now have more speakers living in New York than in the original homeland.

The City University of New York (CUNY) is now organizing an effort to document some of these languages. Amazing how we've managed to overlook this amazing resources all these decades.