It all began with a request

Someone at ReQuest said:

tell me about a colour. Maybe one of the ones listed here.

English, as you may know, is not my first language. I’m fortunate to have been born in a place, time and background that allowed me to start learning it early in life, I’m fortunate that I’ve had no shortage of ways to practice it—except maybe for actually speaking it—and I’m fortunate to have had good teachers, materials and sources of inspiration. I’m fortunate to live in proximity to a loud English speaking country and I’m fortunate to have encountered many a good thing come from the Queen’s subjects overseas.

But it’s not my first language. Most of this knowledge has come as a result of conscious effort: trying to understand the songs and videogames I’ve come across («Eight days a week» and «Startropics» are two of the earliest examples), reading for pleasure, doing better homework and assignments, taking part in play-by-post games and forums (remember those?)… My being a nerd has been a distinctive advantage in that regard: being an earlier adopter of technology than my peers has meant that I needed to understand English to use the technology and now I sadly see otherwise intelligent adults—some of my grad school classmates, for instance—failing and even refusing to learn because nowadays there’s lots of translated apps, and the ones that are not… well, they won’t use those. Some people I know will never buy a ticket to a subbed movie because “reading and listening is hard” and they claim they can’t do it and follow the plot at the same time, which makes me wonder about how they think they get information to their brains.

All of those have been in one way or another conscious choices.

In everyday life, I don’t have a choice: everything in my immediate circle is in Spanish. People talk, write and speak with me in Spanish, a good deal of media available here is only translated because the market for materials in English is of course smaller. Old words like «teporocho» and new words like «sida» exist at the same time and sometimes the only way to know the difference is to research how they came to be.

All this to say: my English is largely a product of my needs, while my Spanish is a product of my background everything.

Why does this matter?

Having a “mother” language and an “adopted” language in a single brain doesn’t mean they are well connected to one another. Often the opposite is true: ask any bilingual person—with good grasp of both languages—if they have ever blurted out a foreign word because it came faster than its analogue in the native language. And even when a translation is possible, that doesn’t mean it fully captures its meaning; I suspect that’s why English has «sabotage», «joie de vivre», «fiesta» and «et/cetera».

I have learned English consciously and through needs. I didn’t know there was a thing like “British English” and “American English” until well into my teens. My mixed learning materials made me think for a long time that a phrase like «The color of autumn» was pretty much standard everywhere; «fall» was just wrong and «donut» was a lazy way of writing “the actual word.”

Now I know better, but not by much.

So, what about colo(u)rs?

I suggest reading a bit on the names of colors in different languages, and how they came to be. Essentially, all languages share a few schemas for the most basic shades and tints, but beyond that there exist very interesting divergences.

But colo(u)rs are important when trying to write about them. I could be lazy for the ReQuest and just pick an easy target that has a direct translation and little ambiguity, like «Red» («Rojo»), but that’s no fun.

Some colours, of course, are also easy targets because the color is also the name of an object or material («gold, coral, ivory, chestnut») but again, those are no fun to write, there’s nothing essentially mine to add.

And if not those… what? I must admit—with some personal shame—that I don’t know a large portion of the list of names: «sallow, perse, incarnadine, ecru, glaucous…» I’m sure that the history of how these terms are created/adapted/adopted in the English language will be a fascinating thing to read… but those being essentially unknown categories to me means I don’t have any “thing” to write about.1 The history? Sure, I could research, but that brings me back to “useful, but without soul.”

How, then, to write about colors in another language?

The colors I know in English have come to me because I’ve needed them. Many have easy translations and so I know a basic word. For more complicated categories, my mind tends to think of the closest tint, closest category available and file it as “a variation of.” The more poetic terms are truly lost on me, since it demands a conscious effort in learning English and Spanish at the same time and in parallel.

Moreover—as bilingual people can attest—there comes a point where learning words and idioms in a foreign language becomes fully or almost fully disconnected from the mother language. For instance, I know of no “easy” or “direct” way to translate «{blank}-off» or «out-{blank}» without resorting to verbose definitions or descriptions.2 Colors are like that, and it’s impressive just how many color terms one can learn in passing without actually knowing exactly what they are.3

A request is not just a request

Why am I writing all this?

Well, for starters someone asked me if I could write about a color. I can and I want to. But these questions started popping into my head: What is this color? When and how it’s used? How does it came to be? Is there a direct translation?

One of the benefits of writing in a foreign language is learning a lot about languages in general: how they work, why they are the way they are, even tricks that can be applied to one’s native language. Writing in a foreign language has helped me think, organize my writing and polish my style in both my languages. It’s not perfect, but it’s a very distinctive advantage that I couldn’t have gained by writing exclusively in my native Spanish.

The main disadvantage is that it’s a constant reminder of being foreign in one way or another.

There’s this scene in «Modern Family», where Sofia Vergara’s character is angry:

–Do you know how frustrating it is to have to translate everything in my head before I say it? To have people laugh in my face because I’m struggling to find the words? You should try talking in my shoes for one mile.

–I think you meant—

–I know what I mean to say! Do you know how smart I am in Spanish? Of course you don’t.

I’ve never seen that show, but those words resonate a lot with me. Of course, I have to acknowledge the privilege of using a second language mostly by choice and not by need. I have the privilege of writing here because I want to and not because I have to. I have the privilege of being fluent enough in this second language to see that struggle diminish in general.

But—here’s the catch—it never goes away.

Yes, there’s always more language to learn, both native and adopted/learned. But navigating in a native language, in its native environment is “natural” in a way that navigating a foreign language is not. Arriving at a new word in Spanish is vastly different from arriving at a new word in English; assimilating them is also not the same.

I guess there’s no larger point to this essay other than my wanting to express that. Even in a non-critical environment like this one, the small differences between native and non native English speakers are present. The imbalance of a predominant language in any one environment (neighborhood, website, country) is always tied to an imbalanced cultural environment. As I mentioned in the chatbox a few nights ago, sometimes I refrain from posting more about my language, my country and my culture—not because I fear it won’t be well received here, au contraire—but because translation is hard, and it’s never just about words, syntax and grammar. I need to translate cultural nuances, attitudes, perceptions, assumptions and purposes and make them fit a different environment than the one they thrive in, so that people who don’t speak Spanish might know about them.

Are these topics—including but not limited to my food, holidays, poems, authors, phrases…—important enough to be transplanted in this way? I think they are, and I like them too much to think that their beauty and cultural worth should be restricted to whoever knows my language. I share here because I like to, and e2 is but a small corner of the internet, with no larger scope than sharing text. E2 is not the place to decide larger cultural trends and politics. I share here because I can and want to.

But in the larger world out of these walls this imbalance is more pronounced and—sadly—almost never seems to reverse. In this world full of willful monolinguals, it looks like it’s “us” who must work to bring these gifts to light and never the other way around.

Hopefully it won’t be like that always, or everywhere. La esperanza muere al último.

  1. Note that I mention unknown categories, but not unknown colors. Language seems to shape in some form how we see colors, for instance there’s a distinct word in English that some languages might refer to as “pale red”: «pink».

  2. For instance, a «dance-off» can only be translated directly as «a dancing competition»; there’s no single word translating «outnumbered» and being «voted out» is regularly presented as «losing the voting/election», which does convey the meaning, but it’s inelegant.

  3. Seriously, go read physical descriptions and any time you hit a color-word pretend you don’t know what tint or shade it is. Many authors just use obscure or overly generic terms but without any comparison or any other direct reference, and thus they become irrelevant. I learned at a very young age that «flaxen» is a word, but didn’t bother to learn its translation for years because it didn’t seem to matter, all I needed to know was that it was a popular hair color.



Just as an exercise, I went to my kindle and extracted all the words I’ve looked up in a dictionary since I bought it around 2014. I’m pleased to know that by this imperfect metric, I’m about as ignorant in Spanish as in English (98 and 85 unknown words, respectively).

For many of these I still need a dictionary. And there’s at least one word appearing in both lists («pogromo» and «pogrom»). I still have much to learn.

  1. abigeato
  2. adusta
  3. ajimez
  4. ajorca
  5. ajorca
  6. almalafa
  7. amanuense
  8. animadversión
  9. antistrofa
  10. antonomasia
  11. apero
  12. apocado
  13. apoteosis
  14. archivolta
  15. armilar
  16. arqueta
  17. arquitrabe
  18. baladí
  19. barbacana
  20. berzas
  21. canotier
  22. carmen
  23. cartapacio
  24. chucrut
  25. cillerero
  26. cimera
  27. coetáneo
  28. confaloniero
  29. connivencia
  30. coribantes
  31. crápula
  32. cáfila
  33. damajuana
  34. dislate
  35. ebúrneo
  36. efebo
  37. empréstito
  38. entimema
  39. escudilla
  40. estramonio
  41. estulticia
  42. exiguo
  43. extático
  44. faca
  45. giba
  46. girándula
  47. gorjal
  48. guindilla
  49. guirigay
  50. heteróclito
  51. hierático
  52. hipotiposis
  53. hopalanda
  54. ignaro
  55. impeliar
  56. loriga
  57. losange
  58. lunfardo
  59. lupanar
  60. légamo
  61. límpido
  62. mamotreto
  63. mayólica
  64. meretriz
  65. moyo
  66. médano
  67. níveo
  68. opúsculo
  69. osario
  70. panegírico
  71. parterre
  72. pecuniario
  73. pergeñar
  74. pogromo
  75. presbicia
  76. prevaricar
  77. prosternar
  78. putativo
  79. quelonio
  80. quinterno
  81. recusar
  82. redomón
  83. ribazo
  84. ruano
  85. ríspido
  86. semanero
  87. septentrional
  88. septentrión
  89. sextario
  90. sino
  91. sinsonte
  92. sinécdoque
  93. siroco
  94. solecismo
  95. túmulo
  96. votivo
  97. zaino
  98. zíngaro

  1. Beaujolais
  2. abasement
  3. abet
  4. abrogation
  5. accosted
  6. aver
  7. baize
  8. brandade
  9. buttress
  10. caisson
  11. callous
  12. cavorting
  13. cockamamie
  14. compleat
  15. corniche
  16. craw
  17. deliquescent
  18. doodad
  19. doublet
  20. dour
  21. dross
  22. épée
  23. ersatz
  24. excrescence
  25. exegesis
  26. fracas
  27. gaols
  28. graminivorous
  29. grist
  30. gruel
  31. haggard
  32. harangues
  33. hedgegrows
  34. hoosegow
  35. hunches
  36. inchoate
  37. inchoate
  38. indvidious
  39. inured
  40. jostled
  41. kvetch
  42. levy
  43. loitering
  44. louvered
  45. maudlin
  46. narking
  47. newel
  48. paean
  49. paucity
  50. pecuniary
  51. pennon
  52. persimmons
  53. philandering
  54. pilloried
  55. pinafore
  56. pizzle
  57. pogrom
  58. poignant
  59. prostatitis
  60. proviso
  61. pumice
  62. quagmire
  63. querulous
  64. quisling
  65. raucous
  66. retinue
  67. rigmarole
  68. rump
  69. samizdat
  70. scurrilous
  71. sere
  72. shashlik
  73. shawled
  74. soirée
  75. suet
  76. tarmac
  77. tithe
  78. to dovetail
  79. transept
  80. tripos
  81. turpentine
  82. unassailable
  83. waif
  84. wanton
  85. writhing

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