SThe Letter S

There’s good news about the letter S.  It’s pronounced the same as in English!  The only thing that needs pointing out about it is that the sound is the same as the English unvoiced S, that is, the sound we might make when imitating a snake, and not the English voiced S which is the same as a “Z” sound.

  In English we use both, with no very obvious spelling rule to tell us which is correct.  For example “Saturday” is said with an unvoiced S, whereas “museum” is pronounced with the voiced S.   If you want to test out whether you are using your voice or not, place your fingers lightly on your throat and say “Saturday” “museum”. Notice that you can feel the vibration on the second S but not on the first.  Now say the Spanish word for “museum” which is “museo” with a light unvoiced S.  It should sound quite different from the English word.

The S sound is somewhat subject to accent variations in a way that it definitely is not in English.  In Murcia, for example, they tend to miss off the S completely, especially at the ends of words.  I remember the confusion when I first moved to the Murcia region and a car mechanic told me the work on my car would take ma o “meno do hora”.  It was one of those moments when I doubted my grasp of the language, until I realized he was saying “más o menos dos horas”!

There are plenty of S words that mean the same or very similar things in both languages.  Here is a random sample:  “Sal” (salt), from which we get the word “salado” meaning “salty” or “savoury”.  “Salado” can also refer to a person as being “witty” or “charming”, as though their personality was “seasoned”.  Next comes “saliva” (saliva), “salmón” (salmon), “sardina” (sardine), and “saludo” (salute, greeting).  “Saludo” comes from the word “salud” meaning “health”, giving us the idea that we wish people good health when we greet them.  “Salud” is also what we say when we tip unhealthy amounts of alcohol down our throats!  More words are: “satisfacción” (satisfaction), “secretario” or “secretaria” (secretary), “seducción” (seduction), “segregación” (segregation), “sensación” (sensation), “separar” (separate), “separado” (separated), “sermón” (sermon), “siamés” (Siamese) “silueta” (silhouette).

There is also a fair range of words which count as ‘estranged cousins’, that is which appear to mean the same in both languages but don’t.  The Spanish word “sensible” looks for all the world as though it means “sensible” as in “level-headed”, but it doesn’t, it means “sensitive”, which is a quite different thing altogether.  Imagine thinking you were being told that someone was “sensible” when the person meant they were “sensitive”.  It could create some confusion.  The Spanish translation for the English word “sensible” is “sensato”.  Another interesting combination is the Spanish word “sano” which does not mean “sane” in English. It means healthy; that is healthy in body rather than in mind.  The Spanish word for mentally “sane” is “cuerdo”.   Again, serious misunderstandings could occur!

Looking at words of general interest beginning with S, we can start with a very well known one: the word for Saturday, which is “sábado”.  The interest in this word is that it actually means “Sabbath” which of course is the Jewish holy day and is a Saturday, rather than a Sunday.  The Hebrew word itself means “to rest” and is the root of our English word “sabbatical”.

A word that has two different forms is the Spanish for “south”.  When the word stands on its own it is “sur” as in “España está en el sur de Europa”.  However, when it is linked to another word it changes to “sud” as in “Sudáfrica”, “Sudamérica” and also “sudeste” (south east) and “sudoeste” (south west).

Some very important characters in Spanish social life are “los suegros”.  These are the “parents-in-law” which usually figure quite significantly in the life of a young couple.  Available to child-mind, cook Sunday dinner and help with other household duties, the “swegs” (as my English friend married into a Spanish family always called them) also come with their own demands about religious ceremonies, criticisms of modern home-keeping and a tremendously over-indulgent attitude to their grandchildren.   Of course I am generalizing, but I have always been quite thankful not to have had any Spanish “suegros” despite their various advantages!   I probably should apologise to all “suegros” for these comments and also sympathise with the fact that “la suegra” is the butt of jokes in exactly the same way as the “mother-in-law” is in British culture.  Some stereotypes are simply universal!

Jane Cronin, Spanish Classes and Talks. Tel 968183258