Lost in Translation: Pragmatics

It’s high time we talked about some pragmatics on this linguistics blog!! Pragmatics is the study of how context contributes to the meaning of language, a.k.a. the interesting side of things, a world away from spelling and grammar. The pragmatics of language varies greatly across cultures, and even the pragmatics of Spanish in Spain is different from that of Latin America (just as Brits use English in different ways than we do).

El Salvador and Spain cross paths. Source.

El Salvador and Spain cross paths. Source.

Our housecleaner Myra is from El Salvador, and ever since I got back home we’ve had many a conversation, each more thrilling than the next, all shockingly revealing in the pragmatics of Central-American Spanish. Whereas Spaniards made every effort to compliment even single words that I attempted in their language, Myra greeted my vastly improved Spanish (after years of trying to chat with her with broken sentences and awkward misunderstandings) with: “Ooh wowwwww.” (At this point I’m thinking, here it comes! Let the compliments rain!). She follows that exasperation with: “You’re accent is so…..Spanish.” Ahem? Yes, that would make sense, seeing as I just came from Spain. At least I have an accent from a Spanish-speaking country, right? Isn’t that better than speaking some Americanized version of Spanish? Nope. Turns out Myra, and, according to her, everyone else from Central and South America, despise the Spanish accent, find it laughable and pretentious and a jumble of other derogatory adjectives. Noted.

The next week she comes and finds my sister and I sitting at the dining room table. I happen to be eating a bagel, and Katie is reading. Myra absolutely swoons at the chance to speak to us both, one big happy family, because she’s been with us for over a decade and has watched us grow up, and now occurrences where the whole family is in the same place are becoming a rarity. Of course, the first thing out of her mouth is, “Jenny, you are so much bigger than Katie now!!! I can’t believe Katie is older, she is such a skinny little thing, and then there’s you!” Whereas in Spain people take a leaf out of Hollywood’s book, apparently the pragmatics of this hemisphere dictate that bluntly voicing any opinion at all about someone’s figure is acceptable, and noting someone’s “bigger” size is actually a compliment, since it signifies that you have the monetary means to, um, gorge. Also duly noted, although harder to take this one without offense.

The last time I see her, right before I move back down to college, we continue our frequent chats. I’ve grown used to her blunt honesty, so it comes as no surprise when she spurts out, “You’ve been getting a lot of pimples lately!” Much like the previous encounters, however, I’m not quite sure how to respond. My Spanish fails me a little bit, since it’s easier to communicate when my mind is at ease, not being constantly struck by off-putting comments. But then I realize that I must place these conversations in a different pragmatic background. Myra uses Spanish (El Salvadorian) pragmatics in an American cultural setting. Since English has different views on what constitutes politeness, these statements may come as a shock. But Myra views it as mere conversation, a type of bond that can be shared over small talk and similar experiences. By pointing out my pimples (ugh!) she wants to help me, as she later goes on to recommend a facial cream. We’re buds! We’re chit-chatting! We’re discussing creams! Latin America’s pragmatics for politeness revolves around establishing common ground. The relation between language and culture is truly fascinating.

(However, I will admit that despite my recognition of these cultural differences, it might be nice if Myra could adhere to English pragmatics once in a while and say a little white lie! We native English speakers can be prone to over-politeness, but at least we don’t go pointing out acne and love handles to people’s faces!) .

  • Hahaha Cati, we'll see what comments your Grandma whips out when I visit!!

  • Jenny-bear,LOVE this post. Probs my favorite so far. I literally notice this all the time when I got to Latin America. Heavier? My grandma says, "Oh! Yay you finally filled out". Pimplier? "Maybe you should drink less milk and not eat chocolate". Badly dressed. "Why did you buy that duck sweater?"Love it. Cati