The letter T represents one of those soft consonant sounds in Spanish. With very few exceptions, Spanish consonants are softer than English ones, and become increasingly soft when the language is spoken at speed.
In the case of the letter T, it has basically the same sound as in English except that it doesn’t have that rather harsh “spitting” sound that our letter T has. You possibly had never thought that you were spitting your language, but when teaching the letter to foreigners learning English, it is sometimes referred to as the “spitting T”. In Spanish it is an altogether drier, deader sort of sound with the tongue further forward against the back of the front teeth. Practise individual sounds and notice the differences between the two languages. It’s not just a case hearing the differences, but also knowing what happens with your mouth to make them. When you are speaking Spanish, if you use the English “T” sound, you will be understood, but your English accent will just be more marked, that’s all.
There are plenty of words beginning with the letter T that look and mean almost the same in both languages, so here are just a few: “taberna” (tavern), “talento” (talent), “té” (tea), “técnico” (technical, also technician), “tecnología” (technology), “teléfono” (telephone), “telepatía” (telepathy), “television” (television), “temporal” (temporary, seasonal, but also means storm) “tenis” (tennis), “tentación” (temptation), “termómetro” (thermometer), “terror” (terror), “terrorismo” (terrorism), “terrorista” (terrorist), “típico” (typical), “tóxico” (toxic), “tranquilo” (tranquil, calm – remember not to pronounce the “u”), and then lots of words that begin with “trans” like – “transformación” (transformation), “transferencia” (transfer), “transmisión” (transmission), “transparente” (transparent).
Another word which both languages have in common is “total”, with the obvious meaning of “total” in all the same contexts as it would be used in English. This word is also used though to sum up conversations. Sometimes you might be explaining a whole series of episodes leading up to a particular event, or describing all the reasons someone has given you for not doing something. At the end of the list you might say: “Total, salió todo muy bien” (In the end, it all turned out well) or “Total, no lo hizo” (The result was, he didn’t do it).
An interesting T verb is “tomar”. We can translate this as “take” or “have” but it is only used in certain specific contexts. The most common use is the equivalent “have” when we mean “eat” or “drink” in English. To “have a cup of coffee” is “tomar un café”. This is an area where many learners of Spanish make mistakes by using the verb “tener” for “to have”. “Tener” does mean “to have” but mainly in the sense of “to possess”, so if you say “tengo un café” it would mean that you “have” a coffee amongst your possessions, possibly sitting in a display cabinet in your living room.
“Tomar” has many other uses; for example “tomar el sol” is “to sunbathe”. “Tomar el autobús” is “to take the bus”. Also if you hand something to someone you can say “toma” (informal) or “tome” (formal) meaning “Here you are”. “Toma” is also used as an exclamation meaning “Take that!” heard in fighting and sporting situations, especially amongst small boys.
Two T words that one hears a lot are “también” and “tampoco”, which mean “also” and “neither”. Used on their own they are good conversational gambits when you want to express general agreement with someone – “también” agreeing with a positive statement and “tampoco” agreeing with a negative one. During my first year in Spain I had a landlady who chatted to me a length about the state of the world, and most of the time I understood about 10 per cent of what she was saying. I learnt to pick up the clues of when she was expressing positive or negative opinions and would nod and shake my head accordingly with “también” and “tampoco”. She seemed to be satisfied with my state of understanding and attention, only looking at me quizzically very occasionally, so I thought I would pass this on to you as a useful tip!
Here are two examples of false friends – those pesky words that seem to mean the same in both languages but don’t. The first one is the Spanish word “tensión” which is used in a medical context to mean “pressure”, as in blood pressure. The full term is “tensión arterial” which gets abbreviated to “tensión” in everyday speech. This gives us the sentence: “Tiene la tensión arterial muy alta”, or simply “Tiene la tensión muy alta” which means “He (or she) has very high blood pressure.” Also we can “tomar la tensión” that is “take” or “measure” one’s blood pressure.
The second false friend is “tópico” which means a commonplace saying or rather jaded cliché. For example, to accuse the Spanish of always saying “Mañana, manaña” could be regarded as a “tópico”. A “tópico” about the English is that we wear bowler hats and drink afternoon tea at 4 o’clock! The word for “topic” in Spanish is “tema”, related to our English word “theme”. This is used for a topic of conversation, and for the subjects that make up a course of study.
This leads me to our Spanish saying for today, containing a T word, “Más vale tarde que nunca”, “better late than never”, an excuse that all those unpunctual, procrastinating Spaniards might well use in their defence!
Last but not least I am going to leave you with a Spanish tongue-twister. Here it is: “Tres tristes tigres tragaban trigo en un triste trigal.” The meaning is irrelevant of course, but just so you know, it means “Three sad tigers swallowed wheat in a sad wheat field”. You can now practice that lovely TR combination, made at the front of the mouth with teeth and tip of tongue.
Jane Cronin, Spanish Classes and Talks. www.janecronin.eu Tel 968183258