As we continue our journey through the Spanish alphabet, we are now arriving at our fourth vowel – the letter O. The O sound is made with the lips nicely rounded and protruding, with the mouth as open and hollow as possible. This is quite distinct from the English O many of us say. Actually we have two ways of dealing with O in English.
For example, if you have a standard or southern English accent, listen to yourself saying the English O sound slowly and clearly, for example in the word “judo”. The more you slow it down, the more you will hear your voice moving through a range of sounds to make up the one O. The activity is accompanied by a changing of the shape of the mouth as we move through the sound. This is a very English way of dealing with vowel sounds and one of the reasons why our pronunciation is so difficult for other nationalities to imitate exactly. This English O is described by linguists as a “diphthong”, which means a double sound. In contrast, the Spanish vowels only consist of a single sound. Diphthongs also exist in Spanish, but have to be written with two letters. Our other O is uttered at the back of the throat and is short and clipped, as in “hot”. The Spanish O is not exactly like this either. It is in fact closer to the way we say “au” in the word “automatic”, than to our usual O sound. Also, if you have a Scottish, Welsh or northern English accent your O is much closer to the Spanish O. I am generalizing somewhat about accents here, but hopefully you get the point.
O is a letter that is commonly found at the end of Spanish words as it is the most typical ending of masculine nouns and adjectives as well as at least two verb forms. It is also the ending of common words like “yo” (I), “lo” (it – amongst other meanings), “esto” (this/this one), “eso” (that/that one) and four of the basic numbers. One of the biggest giveaways that we are foreigners speaking Spanish (apart from more obvious ones which I won’t go into) is our tendency to turn all these O endings into diphthongs, that and our general inability to do anything sensible with the letter R.
Now here are some of our words of common ancestry beginning with the letter O which have managed to retain the same meanings in both English and Spanish. “Oasis” (oasis) notice how very different this word sounds with the Spanish vowels, “obediente” (obedient), “obeso” (obese), “obligación” (obligation), “obscene” (obscene), “observer” (observe), “ofender” (offend), “oficial” (official) , “opera” (opera) , “opción” (option), “opinion” (opinión), “origen” (origin), “orquesta” (orchestra).
One word that is commonly used and definitely has a different meaning in both languages is “occasion” and likewise therefore “occasional”. The noun “ocasion” has a greater sense of “chance” or “opportunity” than the English word. Therefore “ocasional” means “by chance” or “accidental” and not “occasional” in the strictly English sense. We can express the English idea of “occasional” or “occasionally” with “de vez en cuando” (from time to time). In English we might say “I have the occasional cigarette” the Spanish would probably express this with “Fumo de vez en cuando”. (Literally: I smoke from time to time). If you come across something that is described as “de ocasión” this means second hand, as in the sign “coches de ocasión” that you sometimes see advertised at the side of roads. Another “false friend”, or as I prefer to say “estranged cousin” is the word “ordinario” which has more of a sense of “common” and “vulgar” than the everyday English meaning. A word that is a little unexpected in meaning is “oficio” which means job or profession, and has nothing to do with offices. So if we ask “¿Cuál es su oficio?” we mean “What is your job?”
As ever the letter O brings up some interesting words to talk about. Let’s take for example the verb “oír” meaning “to hear”. The Spanish language is full of word families and “oír” generates a few related words, notably “oído” meaning “hearing” and also “the hearing part of the ear” as opposed to “oreja” which refers to the visible part of the ear. One part of the verb “oír” which often stands alone as an expression heard in noisy public places is “oiga”. This is actually a polite imperative; in other words, an order given to someone in a formal way, so therefore literally translates as “hear!” or “hear me!”, although we would say in the same circumstances “Excuse me!” in a fairly loud or commanding way. Many English people dislike the word because it sounds like our English “Oy!” but actually has nothing to do with that whatsoever.
One final word beginning with O which happens to be one of my favourites is “ojalá”. This is a word of Arabic origin, like many words in Spanish, and it means “if only” (as it contains the word “ala” it would probably be translated more accurately as: “if only God would grant this wish”). It makes a great one-word response to statements like “Aren’t you the person who lives in that huge mansion over there?” or “Didn’t you say your husband was a rock star?”
And so to our sayings containing O words and I have two for you which contain words already mentioned. Here’s the first: “La ocasión hace al ladrón” “Opportunity makes the thief” – a highly debatable point expressing a rather pessimistic view of human nature. A slightly more optimistic saying is: “No hay oficio malo” “There’s no bad job”, which means that all jobs are worthy of respect, even the apparently fatuous activity of writing endless reams about letters of the alphabet.
Jane Cronin, Spanish classes and talks. www.janecronin.eu
Tel: 968 18 32 58.