A Concepcion Company (68 years old, Madrid) likes to ‘kick’. That very musical word is one of his favorites from the Dictionary of Mexicanismsa work that brings together the particularity of the Spanish spoken in Mexicoand whose second edition will be presented next week at the Guadalajara International Book Fair. Papalotear —from papalote, the way Mexicans name a kite— is to waste time or wander. “Papalote is so onomatopoeic and I like it probably more than cometa, which means hair,” explains Company, born in Madrid in 1954, but who has lived in Mexico since she was 20 and assures that she is “Mexican through and through.”
The philologist explains in this interview how the Spanish spoken in Mexico has been enriched by a “miscegenation” that has taken hold over the centuries thanks to the union of the language brought from Spain with other indigenous languages. Company warns, however, that Mexicanismo should not be confused with indigenismo. “A mexicanism is a form that has the status of a standard used daily in any sphere of Mexican life,” says the academic, who gracefully exemplifies how Mexicans prefer to use their own words to define some activities. This is how in Mexico it is better to be pampered than pampered, children take an itacate to school instead of a snack or chellon for whining.
Company also explains how the Spanish from Mexico have “an impressive erotic imagery”, during which investigation she and her team had a good laugh. “The dictionary is a joyful, playful encoding of sex,” she says. “This work was very joyful and laborious, because we had to collate, search and document, but we laughed a lot. We said to ourselves ‘it’s not possible’ when we came across things like ‘bringing the iron together’, she comments with a mischievous smile, the author of a key book in linguistics: the Historical Syntax of the Spanish Language.
Ask. Spanish is the daughter language of Latin, but it was also enriched, for example, with Arabic. How much of that enrichment also comes from Nahuatl?
Response. What the Spanish of Mexico has done, and in a very active way since the second half of the 18th century, is to replace the Latin patrimonial lexicon with indigenisms. So, for example, we Mexicans prefer apapacha to pampering, we prefer a cenote to a carcamal. In fact, I don’t think there is a Mexican who knows that the same referent of a river that sinks and leaves a hole is called carca in Latin. We prefer grasshopper to grasshopper. We prefer macho to format, to mold, to shape. We prefer ropes to ropes.
P. But a Mexican prefers the word gis to chalk, which is from Nahuatl.
R. That is very interesting. We have also given indigenisms to the world through the Spaniards who came and traveled. So, the Spanish-speaking world uses chalk on the blackboard, but in Mexico we only use chalk for the billiard stick. We use an Anglicism that comes from Latin. Those are the dynamics you see in the dictionary.
P. How does Nahuatl influence Mexican Spanish?
R. It must be remembered that Nahuatl, until the 17th century, was a vehicular language, a lingua franca. There were many more indigenous speakers than Spanish speakers. Something that we Mexicans do over and over again is a pattern of collocations or complex constructions, which I have called mestizo constructions, where the Spanish puts the word of light meaning, like ‘dar’, and we create our own interesting construction like ‘ to give it, that is mole de olla’ [que una cosa debe ser hecha de inmediato]. It is a creative, metaphorical extension. If you’re not Mexican, you don’t know what it means.
P. There are Spanish words that in Mexico have been given another meaning. For example, there is that thing that a Spaniard can take a plane, but a Mexican would never do it.
R. No, we have other preferences to take. Notice that fucking is a Mexicanism. This is a dictionary contrasted with Castilian Spanish, it is differential with respect to Castilian Spanish, but integral with respect to Latin American Spanish. We wanted to know what was ours, exclusive to us.
P. And what did they find, what is uniquely Mexican?
R. The dictionary has about 11,000 lemmas, some of which have 30 meanings or more. Of those, we share approximately 6,100 with the rest of the Americas. This dictionary is a search for identity. What the Mexican Academy of Language does with this dictionary is to grant a letter of nature, normalize linguistic uses that have been in the Spanish of Mexico. And we must be very clear that this is our Spanish and is on an equal footing with other Spaniards. We decided to contrast what was identity. The word ‘catch’, for example. As the verb ‘to take’ has become super-specialized, in exchange for that we have had to generalize verbs like take and grab. Everything is taken and everything is seized; the coffee is drunk, the truck is taken, the child is grabbed, when in its etymological origin to grab was to throw the claw.
P. But Mexico, as they say in the dictionary, has also lost words like tomato, chocolate, which are no longer considered Mexican.
R. Gifts from Mexico to the world and that is how we should consider it. Look, an interesting discussion entered the Academy, in the Lexicography Commission, which was later brought to the plenary session. This dictionary was built, it must be said, collectively and collaboratively, by ten lexicographers, most of them UNAM graduates, with postgraduate degrees in linguistics, and by seven academics, one of whom is me, who directed and conceived. So, the discussion was what you tell me: what did we do with chocolate, tomato, taco, bite, did we remove them? They are Mexicanisms that are no longer ours. Chocolate is not ours since the 19th century. The tomatoes are not ours either. You go to any English-speaking country and the menus are full of tacos, or what they understand by tacos in the United States or England which, it must be said, is something very different from the reference. And after much reflection, we decided to exclude them.
P. So, what is a Mexicanism? Can it be compared with indigenismo?
R. No no no no no. This is very important. There are four concepts that help to understand what a Mexicanism is. One is the use that is normal for the Mexican Republic. We, for example, prefer ‘parteaguas’ to ‘hito’. Both are patrimonial, Latin, but we prefer watersheds to say something that means a before and after in an event in life or in a population. We prefer to ‘co-opt’, which is a cultured Mexicanism. So, a mexicanism is a form that has the status of a standard used daily in any area of life for Mexicans. It does not have to coincide with an indigenismo, but there are also indigenismo that are Mexicanisms such as ‘molcajete’: Mexicans do not use the Arabism ‘pestle’ or the Latinism ‘mortero’. Nor is a Mexicanism the popular folkloric speech of Cantinflas or Pedro Infante, although those speeches are also consigned when they had the appropriate frequency. There are highly educated, highly educated Mexicanisms, and daily, colloquial Mexicanisms, such as ‘banqueta’. Mexicanisms are also that daily life with which we build our day to day.
P. In the Mexican language there is also the albur and many words with sexual connotations.
R. Something you see in the dictionary is a joyous and playful encoding of sex. It is an impressive erotic imagery. And, in addition, it is also seen that it is a very macho imaginary. In real life, men and women in an intimate relationship have an equally good time, but the code that Mexicans choose is almost always macho, because ‘arrimar el camarón’ is good. The world of shellfish and shellfish is a very fun imaginary. This work was very joyful and laborious, because we had to collate, search and document, but we laughed a lot. We said to ourselves ‘it’s not possible’ when we came across things like ‘pushing the iron’. In other words, this is a macho imaginary and has a constant code of homophobia.
P. Is Mexican Spanish more macho than others?
R. Probably not. What happens is that we will have to do the many other dictionaries pending in other countries. As we worked with my dictionary, I said: “Well, is this a dictionary of obscenities or a brainy academic work to naturalize certain words? But for linguists there are no better or worse words. There is no better or worse language. What there is is a linguistic code that is identity for a community.
P. How do you define Mexican Spanish?
R. It is a Spanish, like all languages, highly creative. He is a joyous Spaniard.
P. After all this investigative work, what words do you have left of the Mexicanisms?
R. I love ‘apapachar’, which is to caress. He replaced the Latin pampering. Mexicans, of course, also use pampering, but we much prefer apapachar and that we are given apapachos instead of mimos. In real life I love being apapachada. I love the apachos. And I also like papalote, papalotear, in a metaphorical sense of wasting time. Papalote is so onomatopoeic and I probably like it more than kite, which means hairdresser.
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