You may have noticed that we have skipped the letter K in our romp through the Spanish alphabet. This is because it is a very uncommon letter in the Spanish language. If you check in your dictionary you’ll see it only appears in obviously imported words like “karate” and “karaoke” and measurements such as “kilómetro” and “kilograma”.
It has made some resurgence is recent years as a replacement for “qu” in texting, so that “qué tal” becomes “ke tal”, but this is not correct Spanish.
As for the letter L, the good news is that this is pronounced the same as in English, except that in Spanish we place the tongue further to the front of the mouth and make it very distinct, irrespective of where the L appears in the word. It may come at the beginning as in “lado” (side) or at the end as in “azul” (blue). English speakers need to be particularly careful in the way we pronounce the letter L at the end of words, and also when it appears next to another consonant within a word. Think for a moment how we say “milk” or “hill” in English. We employ what we call the “dark L” which is pronounced at the back of the mouth and in some accents disappears completely. If we carry this tendency over to our Spanish speaking, they will not realise we are saying a word containing the letter L at all. Someone I was talking to recently who works in a shop told me that the Spanish never seem to understand her when she offers them a bag – “una bolsa”. When she tried her pronunciation out on me it was clear that she was almost saying something like “bowsa” which the Spanish would hear as “bosa”. As silly as it sounds, a little movement of the mouth like that can make all the difference between comprehension and incomprehension even in a situation where we might think our meaning is obvious.
As you may know, when the letter L is doubled in Spanish it makes completely different sound, akin to the “y” sound in English. In actual fact the Spanish sound has slightly more “friction” in it than the English open “y” sound, as though the air is slightly forced out through a narrowed mouth. The LL combination used to be considered as a separate letter of the alphabet before the advent of computers. Now it creates a technological challenge to have two letters that act as though they are one letter, so LL as a separate item in the alphabet has been suppressed, although its use remains exactly the same. If you have a dictionary that was printed more than about ten years ago, it will still list LL as a separate section, whilst in more recent dictionaries it has been subsumed into the L listings. Here are a few common words that illustrate the LL sound for us: “calle” (street), “llave” (key), “lluvia” (rain), “tortilla” (potato omelette) and “millón” (million).
Here is our usual sample of similar words in Spanish and in English, this time beginning with L: “Legal” (legal), “legítimo” (legitimate), “letal” (lethal), “libertad” (liberty), “líquido” (liquid), “literatura” (literature), “lúcido” (lucid), “laberinto” (laberinto or maze). Another word similar in both languages is “líder” (leader), the reason for the similarity in this case being because the word has been imported from English into Spanish. Words of general interest beginning with the letter L include one that I rather like, “lapsus” meaning a “slip of the tongue”. Sometimes we call this a “Freudian slip”. The president of Spain José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero made a monumental “lapsus” which involved using a rather bad word at a press conference in relation to the Russians with whom he had just signed an agreement. A look of horror briefly crossed his face and then he rapidly carried on speaking, probably hoping against hope that no-one had noticed.
An interesting and quite common L word is “listo”. This word can mean two different things depending on whether it is combined with the verb “ser” or “estar”. “Ser listo” means “to be clever” whereas “estar listo” means “to be ready”. We would use the first expression to describe a person, for example “El niño es muy listo” or even an animal “Mi gata no es muy lista”. This is obviously quite different from saying “está listo” which we would use to indicate that someone or something was ready and prepared for action. There are actually quite a lot of words that change in meaning according to whether they are placed with “ser” or “estar” that can give rise to some interesting misunderstandings and really are a subject all on their own!
An L word that sometimes causes confusion is the word “libre” which means “free” in the sense of open, or not imprisoned, but does not mean “free” in the monetary sense, which is “gratis” or “gratuito”. That is why when you see a sign that says “buffet libre” it means you can take as much food as you like, but doesn’t mean that you don’t have to pay for it in the first place!
Another verbal estranged cousin is the word “largo” which means “long” and not “large” as it appears.
Finally to this month’s saying containing an L word: this one is short, sweet and useful in many situations. “Cada loco con su tema”, which means “each to his own” or literally, “every madman has his own subject of conversation”. Mine seems to be endlessly talking about Spanish!
Jane Cronin, Spanish classes and talks. www.janecronin.eu Tel: 968 18 32 58