Waiting In Hope

Yes, taking issue with what is essentially advertising copy for Aer Lingus is the activity of someone beset by reptiles of the mind, but still…

The quiet life in Andalusia – The Irish Times – Sat, Oct 17, 2009

It’s best not to be in a hurry in this part of Andalusia. Linguistically, the Spanish draw no distinction between waiting and hoping; esperando means either. When you know that, you know everything you need to know about the local character.

Is it true that linguistically the Spanish, and the Spanish-speaking population of the rest of the world draw no distinction between waiting and hoping? As they say in Andalusia: no. It is true that the verb ‘esperar’ can translate as either to wait, or to hope, or even to expect, but strangely enough the Spanish have this thing called context which allows them to draw the distinction. Actually, the distinction is only really needed for the purposes of someone who needs to translate the words back into their own language. Therefore it’s more accurate to say that they rarely need to draw a distinction between esperar in the senses of waiting and hoping just as they rarely need to draw a distinction between an elephant and a telephone. So if you are making off down the street with my sofa because I have not been keeping up with my debt repayments and I call out ¡Espere!, I am imploring you to wait, and I do so confident that you will not misinterpret this as an exhortation to hope. Now, when it comes to things like ‘esperando el autobus’, I have done a lot of this in Spain, and elsewhere, and I can attest that there is no greater an element of hope in this activity in Spain than there is anywhere else. Indeed, my experience of buses in Spain is that they tend to be a lot more reliable than those of, say, Bus Eireann. There are other things to be said here, like how the subjunctive mood may be a clue to the non-native speaker as to whether the intended meaning is ‘wait’ or ‘hope’, but I shall not bore you with these.

As well as some famous remarks about history, Marx’s 18th Brumaire makes a rather apposite remark in this regard: ‘the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue’. One of the consequences of translating things back into your mother tongue is that you can end up attaching salient features to particular words which have no salience for the native speaker. I remember sitting in a Spanish class and hearing someone remark about how delightful was the Spanish verb disfrutar -to enjoy- with its connotations of eating fruit. Well, it’s true that the origin of disfrutar has something to do with fruit (though not necessarily with the fruit of a plant), but the association itself does not indicate that when a Peruvian tells you he enjoyed the Randy Newman concert that his experience of the same was more inflected with the prior experience of the enjoyment of fruit than your own experience was. It may very well turn out that his experience was inflected with the prior experience of the enjoyment of fruit, but that would depend mostly on his taste for fruit. If he spent every waking hour devouring bananas and papayas, then it may well turn out that when he said ‘disfruté del concierto de Randy Newman’, the image of fruit loomed large in his mind and he picked this word instead of many others that might convey a sense of enjoyment, but I would surmise that this would be down to a coincidence rather than any general property attached to the meaning of the word disfrutar on the part of the average speaker.

So hopefully you can see how unfortunate it might be for the traveller suitably aroused by the promo article to arrive in Spain with the expectation that they will come across people who do not tell the difference between waiting and hoping. Let us hope they do not wind up in the waiting room of a casualty ward, lest their experience be inflected by a wholly unnecessary despair. My personal experience is that waiting times in casualty in Spain are considerably shorter than those in Ireland. And -shock- you do not have to pay. Which leads me on to the next sentence in the article.

Nonetheless, the bullfight, perhaps alone in Spanish society, always starts on time.

I would have edited this a bit, replacing ‘perhaps’ with ‘certainly not’. Where this idea comes from, I have no clue. It’s true, for example, that the evening meal in Spanish society starts late, but it only by the standards of the likes of people who associate the evening Angelus bells with the onset of dinner time. As to whether the bullfight always starts on time, I have no idea, having never attended one and no intention of doing so at any point in the future. Maybe the idea of the punctuality of the bullfight in opposition to all other things comes from the Lorca poem about the bullfight, La cogida y la muerte, which begins with

A las cinco de la tarde.
Eran las cinco en punto de la tarde

And then repeats a las cinco de la tarde -at five in the afternoon- on each alternate line. I would submit, hopefully uncontroversially, that Lorca’s primary preoccupation here -though he was fond of bullfighting (as a spectacle, I should stress: he was not a bullfighter himself) – was not with the striking punctuality of the bullfight in general, though I suppose that is a potential line of interpretation, if a rather dull one.

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