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Updating Spanish in a Brave, New World

September 03, 2002|MARJA MILLS | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

A glance at some of the new words included in the latest University of Chicago Spanish Dictionary would make you think editor David Pharies didn't have to work very hard.

The words "CD," "fax" and "URL" for example, translate into Spanish as ... CD, fax and URL.

But revising the dictionary was no easy job.

A landslide of new terms has entered the mainstream since 1987, the last time the popular dictionary was updated. More than 10 million copies of the dictionary have been sold since the first edition was published in 1948.

Pharies, a professor of Spanish linguistics at the University of Florida in Gainesville, added thousands of them, including such signs of the times as "bungee jumping" (puenting), "gene splicing" (empalme genetico) and "smart bomb" (bomba inteligente).

Pharies and a team of assistants spent 18 months overhauling the dictionary for the just-published fifth edition. They labored in what the professor dubbed "the dungeon," two windowless basement rooms in a University of Florida classroom building.

"I've suffered so much with poor dictionaries," Pharies said, "that my goal is no one would have to put it down after consulting it without being sure they have the right word."

Actually, he said, he was going for what Spanish speakers call la palabra justa, exactly the right word with the perfect connotation for a particular situation. English doesn't have an expression that evocative, Pharies noted, so it usually borrows the French mot juste.

Take a seemingly simple word such as "deck," Pharies said. He and assistant Irene Moyna could not write a one-word-fits-all translation.

Telling someone to "hit the deck," for example, doesn't work, word for word, in Spanish. Instead, you say cuerpo a tierra, literally, "body to [the] ground." Meantime, "deck" translates as cubierta if you're talking about the deck of a boat, terraza if you're referring to the deck on a house and baraja if you mean a deck of cards.

What is striking about the new words Pharies included is how many English terms Spanish assimilated.

All kinds of computer terms, for example, have been adopted, or adapted, from English, since the U.S. is the country developing and selling much of that technology.

"Scanner" became escaner. "Web site" became sitio web.

"Words only flow in one direction," Pharies said. "They flow from the dominant culture to the less dominant culture."

"We have not borrowed that many words from Spanish, and usually they're words for food, like 'taco' and 'tamale,' " Pharies said.

Pharies predicted that English will begin assimilating more Spanish words as the Latin population in the U.S. grows.

"When English speakers decide certain concepts from Spanish are cool and they want that to be part of their identity, then there will be a big flow of Spanish words into English," Pharies said.

Pharies said he does not believe the current influx of English terms hurts Spanish.

"English has absorbed more foreign words than almost any language you can imagine, and yet English is now the dominant language in the world," he said.

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Marja Mills is a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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