Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Te lo juro, se me quedaron los libros en casa

In an interesting post on Gradingspeak, New Kid comments:
This reminds me, irresistibly, of something a fellow grad student once said about the Spanish language - how it allowed its speakers to abdicate responsibility so easily. Said grad student was climbing a mountain while doing research in a Spanish-speaking country (mountain climbing being a favorite hobby of his) and partnered up with a native of the country. They were camping for the night and it was cold and windy, with ice on the ground, so they really needed the pad that goes under sleeping bags in such conditions (I have no idea if there's a better name for it), and they only had one, which they were sharing. Well, the Spanish speaker managed to drop the pad and the wind instantly snatched it and whisked it away into the darkness. When my friend looked at his partner, appalled, the partner said, in Spanish, with perfect aplomb: "It fell from me." Not "I dropped it," but "it fell from me." This was, my friend explained, a perfectly normal construction in Spanish, even though an English speaker wouldn't put it like that. The passive voice in my comments serves the same purpose - to remove blame, to maintain a polite fiction that the student, had they been paying enough attention to the strange independent being that is their paper, would have been able to produce something better, but in this case the paper got away from them and worked mischief of its own.

Ah, yes. Se me cayó. You've got to love the se le construction. It's all about avoiding blame, and it's great fun to teach in that gives me a fantastic excuse to shock students into paying attention by dropping large hardback textbooks on the floor without warning — I think every Spanish teacher I know who has to teach or review se le uses that technique at least once a semester. For those of you who can't speak or read Spanish, the title of this post includes an example of the se le construction: te lo juro, se me quedaron los libros en casa (I swear to you, the books left themselves at home on me).