Compared to the chaos that is English, I find Spanish to be so serene and tranquil. The supreme order and rationality that reign in its grammar, spelling, and pronunciation are beautiful. When I taught English in Colombia, I took pity on my students and tried to frequently remind them that I wasn’t the one who invented phrasal verbs or devised the diabolical spelling. Whereas English can be downright willy-nilly and illogical, Spanish just makes sense. And for this reason, I always think it’s interesting when the native speakers get it wrong.
There are many different kinds of errors we could look at, but lately I’ve been thinking about verb conjugations. Here are three examples that come to mind.
I went to a bachata festival in another city this weekend, and naturally I got to meet people from all over and speak a lot of Spanish. I met a guy from Spain named Gonzalo, and at one point I was telling him that someone didn’t satisfy me. Although we’d been speaking for several hours in Spanish without a hitch, I struggled to conjugate satisfacer in the preterite. ¿No me satisfació? ¿No me satisfajo? ¿No me satisfizo? With that last guess, satisfizo, I was half-joking, sure that there was no way it was actually that. Gonzalo wasn’t any help, either. Neither of us had the slightest idea, so for the sake of efficiency we decided to just say No me dejó satisfecha and leave it that. Good grief. Now that I’m back home and have looked it up, I see that it is satisfizo after all. Color me surprised, but I guess I shouldn’t be. I knew that satisfago is the first person present tense conjugation of satisfacer, so it makes sense that it mimics hacer‘s conjugations. I’ll make sure I have satisfizo at the ready the next time, though I have the feeling I’m going to sound like a pedantic little ñoña when I say it.
I also remember two language doubts that came up when I was in Colombia last summer. One time, I was with a large group of friends in Bogotá– there were probably about 40 people there. The person talking, Alejo, said something like, “I want us all to add something.” Quiero que todos añadamos algo. And then he wondered out loud if he’d said it correctly, commenting on how weird and wrong añadamos sounded. The room broke out into a linguistic shouting match, everyone taking sides. I think many people, perhaps even most, concurred that it sounded wrong, and thus couldn’t be right. Of course, it was right. If there’s one thing a half-fluent gringa can offer to a room full of native speakers, it’s hyper-correct Spanish (often to a fault).
Another time on that same visit, I was talking to my friend Fanny in Bogotá and asking for advice. She said to me, Yo solo sé que de lo único que nos vamos a arrepentir al final de nuestras vidas es de las cosas que no hicimos, que no intentamos y que no dijimos. I just know that the only thing we’re going to regret at the end of our lives are the things we didn’t do, didn’t attempt, and didn’t say. And I must have responded by saying something like, Yes, when we die . . . Sí, cuando nos muramos . . . I had to interrupt myself, though, and ask if that was how you say it. She wasn’t sure. We knit our brows, pursed our lips, and scratched our heads for a bit, only to give up. It seemed like it had to be right, but it sounded so strange. I asked my friends Lorena and Claudia about it later on, and neither of them was sure either. They both majored in philology and now work as teachers. So much for native speakers speaking perfectly. If they can’t be bothered, why should you? In the same way, I’ve never known if it’s swam or swum, hanged or hung, or lay or lie, but that obviously doesn’t stop me from speaking English confidently. Stop quibbling and start speaking.
What verbs have you heard native speakers get tripped up by? What verbs make you break out in hives?