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Concepción Company: ‘Mexican Spanish is permeated by indigenous languages’ | USA

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Linguist Concepción Company was born in Madrid and became a naturalized Mexican citizen in 1978. She is a member of the Mexican Academy of Language, and as an academic with a foot on both sides of the Atlantic, she has a particular vision of the language that arrived from Europe more than 500 years ago with the conquest of Mexico. It is a version of Spanish shaped by the sea and sailors, she explains, and also by dozens of indigenous languages from all over Latin America. Rather than an imposed language, she considers Mexican Spanish to be proudly itself, and in continuous conflict with indigenous languages.

To mark the 500th anniversary of the fall of the Aztec Empire on August 13, Company spoke with EL PAÍS about the Spanish conquest of Mexico right up to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s demand for an apology from Spain for the events of the past. “It wouldn’t cost Spain anything,” Company believes. “But I believe that both sides are there negotiating, and weighing their votes, and it’s not going to happen.”

Question. What was the linguistic landscape like in Tenochtitlan in 1521?

Answer. Before the fall of Tenochtitlan, a whole multitude of languages were spoken. In present-day Mexico we have 68 linguistic groups, or families, which we call “trunks.” Some are single languages, such as Purepecha, and some are complex linguistic groups, like Zapotec, which incorporates quite a few languages. All of these, and surely more, were spoken at the time of [Spanish conquistador] Hernán Cortés’ arrival. Not all of these languages had the same social function. Nahuatl was the lingua franca, the language of the [Aztec] Empire, but the Nahuatl of Sierra [Norte] de Puebla is distinctive from the Nahuatl of Milpa Alta. There are even variants of Nahuatl that are not mutually intelligible.

Many Mexicans still feel that Spanish is an imposed language, and do not feel that this is their language

Q. And what language arrived?

A. The language of a handful of Spaniards arrived, which was not a homogeneous language, because there were people from Extremadura and Andalusia, and so on. We must remember that the Spaniards who arrived in what is known today as the Republic of Mexico had spent a long time in Cuba or the Dominican Republic. They were linguistically acclimatized to a ‘flat’ kind of Spanish, because they were influenced by many dialects, in a very complex human melting pot. That flattening has Andalusian influences, because there were many Andalusians, and because the zone permitted for embarkation to America was in Seville. In order to embark, permission had to be requested from the Casa de la Contratación [Crown Agency for the Spanish Empire], and it could take months or even years. So Seville in the 16th century was a polyglot capital, because ‘the race to the Indies’ was fought by Andalusians, Castilians, Basques, Catalans, French and Germans. And there were also many Jews and many Muslims, as let us not forget that a few decades earlier the Catholic Monarchs had taken the Kingdom of Granada. We must get rid of the idea that a homogeneous Spanish arrived. What came [to Mexico] was Spanish with many dialects influenced by Andalusia and the Caribbean.

Q. In a recent lecture, you said that the sea molded Mexico’s lexicon. What were you referring to?

A. Totally, we are heirs of the sea. But not only Mexico, much of America was also molded by the sea. Imagine that very intimate coexistence [on the ships that traveled to America], in unimaginable conditions, with horrific diarrhea. These very diverse dialects were coexisting in order to survive. These voyages lasted four to five months, and people adopted and added to the maritime lexicon. For example, the word zafarrancho [havoc, mess] is a maritime word: what the passengers did was to establish their rancho [ranch], the place to store their trunks. And if they were going to be shipwrecked, or there was an enemy ship, they had to break up the rancho to level the ship. The word cobija [blanket], which comes from cubículo [cubicle], is a sailor’s word.

Q. How was Spanish shaped when it met the indigenous languages of Mexico?

A. When you arrive in a new place, you have to dominate it, get to know it, and part of that mechanism of appropriation is to name things. So what did the Spaniards do? The first thing they did was to appropriate and name reality. There were several different strategies. One was to name things by what they heard: they began to incorporate indigenous words into Spanish. The proof that they did not always hear the same thing is that sometimes there are six, seven or eight spellings for the same word. This is a sign that in the indigenous languages – Nahuatl, Mayan, Mixtec, Zapotec – there was already variation. There are about nine spellings of the word ‘[Aztec Emperor] Moctezuma,’ for example, and that also happens with the word pulque [a fermented drink].

A fundamental principle of the survival of the Spaniards was naming things because they had to describe them for the king in the chronicles they wrote home. When writing about what they had done, the very rich world of the Americas appears, full of words from indigenous languages: Chalchihuite, pulque, tomato, chocolate, hundreds of words.

A conquering language can be recognized as such because it is restricted to specific uses: Spanish was used for commerce, for administration and for religion

Another way of naming is to use words from one’s own language. So pimiento [pepper], for example, is a Latin word, from pigmentum, but chili peppers are from the Americas. It was renamed with a Latin word because they did not know what to call it. There is a whole dispute between pigmentum, chili, and aji. Ají is Caribbean, chili is Nahuatl, and pimiento is Latin. All describe and refer to the many species of peppers that exist in the Americas. What is also certain is that at the beginning, at least in the 16th century, the indigenous languages entered Spanish directly, with some very early adaptation, such as the final ‘e’ that Spanish adds to ‘tomato’ [tomate] or ‘chocolate.’ Because they could not pronounce the -tl at the end of tomatl, they called it tomate. That ‘e’ is a way of adapting it to the Spanish language.

Q. You have questioned whether Spanish in Mexico should be understood as an imposition.

A. Yes, from the very beginning. A conquering language can be recognized as such because it is restricted to specific uses: Spanish was used for commerce, for administration and for religion. But some Spaniards learned Nahuatl. In the 16th century, there was a coexistence of three languages: Spanish was the language of conquest; Latin was the language of science (the printing press printed many things in Latin, as it was the language of the academy); and there was the Nahuatl language, which was the language of daily life, spoken by many people. But we must make it very clear that there were also Nahuatl-speaking notary offices, there were Nahuatl administrations and it was independence that put an end to these.

Q. You have said: “Mexican independence [in 1810] is the worst thing that could have happened to indigenous languages.” Why?

A. Yes, that was the final straw. The 19th century was the child of the Enlightenment, without a doubt, and what interested the Enlightenment was the development and progress of mankind. And how was this progress going to happen? It was easier to do it in one language than with many. Nahuatl notaries completely disappeared in the 19th century. Independence meant an inhibition in the use of indigenous languages, because the official discourse inhibited the use of indigenous languages. Nobody is forbidden to speak Nahuatl, but Nahuatl would no longer be useful when going to a notary’s office or to make a will, because there are no longer any Nahuatl notaries. This is a process that has been going on for 300 years, and it is very complex. One other blow to indigenous language was the change of dynasty from the Habsburgs to the Bourbons.

Q. Why?

A. Because the Habsburgs always had a policy of separating the Indian villages from the Spanish villages. Divide and conquer. Separate them and then each one is in their corner and I can control them better. But in that separation, there was a great respect for their customs, legislation and indigenous ways of life. The Habsburg dynasty respected the separation of Indian villages and they used intermediaries. Documents show that they were Spanish-speaking Indians, in the sense that they spoke both languages. They spoke Zapotec and Spanish, for example.

When the Bourbons ascended the Spanish throne, they totally centralized the administration. They eliminated the separation of indigenous towns and Spanish towns, and of course imposed Spanish. Remember that they had been living together for 200 years, and that the Indians had also adopted Spanish because it was more fluid and faster for them to communicate in Spanish than to communicate in Nahuatl and to look for an interpreter. That was not because of ‘how nice it sounds.’ It was purely for survival.

What came to Mexico was Spanish with many dialects influenced by Andalusia and the Caribbean

Q. To survive, you have to speak the language of power.

A. Of course, here and anywhere in the world. But what I think is important to say is that little by little the Spanish of Mexico was permeated by indigenous languages. First, it was permeated by the sea, and we still have the sea, although we do not see it in our daily life. And in today’s Mexican Spanish and in a large part of Central America there is a profoundly mestizo Spanish, where we have phrases made and constructed basically with a mixture of Spanish and indigenous languages. There is also a very clear process in Mexican Spanish of substitution with the indigenous lexicon. For example, in Mexico, apapachar is preferred to mimar [indulge, spoil]. Pita or mecate is preferred to cuerda [rope]. Today there is a process of substitution of the Latin lexicon in favor of the indigenous lexicon, and everyday Mexicans do not notice that this has taken place, and that it is a profound fusion.

Q. This has been a major focus of your work. That the Spanish that feels so imposed in Mexico that is actually more Mexican than is recognized.

A. Yes, there is a very deep fusion. However, from the official discourse, and not only now but always, there is an idea that Spanish is an imposed language. You ask a Mexican and he feels conquered, and he feels that it is an imposed language. And you ask him, “What other language do you speak? He says none, that he does not speak any indigenous language. But there has been a process that seemed to happen in the post-post-post-colonization stage. Because there was a very deep process of mixing with Spanish. I will give you another example of substitution. Here we say buena pal petate, mala pal metate [roughly: bad in the kitchen but good in bed]. The adjectives ‘good’ [buena] and ‘bad’ [mala] are from Spanish, and the other words are from indigenous languages, in this case, Nahuatl. Or chapulinear, to speak of a politician. And the word chapulines is preferred to the word saltamontes [all relate to the word for grasshopper], which has been eliminated in favor of indigenous versions. Nevertheless, many Mexicans still feel that Spanish is an imposed language, and do not feel that this is their language. And the official discourse has contributed to this since independence, because they have rescued the indigenous world in a rather impractical way, I would say. They have not rescued anything, nor have they given a better quality of life to the indigenous people.

Q. What do you mean when you say that indigenous languages today are in conflict?

A. It is a sociolinguistic concept to say that two languages are in consensus when with either language you can function in any facet of life, and you can climb the social ladder with either language. Like Hindi or English in India, or Catalan and Spanish in Spain. And they are in conflict when you only have quality of life with one of them. And unfortunately in Mexico, there has never been a relationship of consensus. Spanish and the indigenous languages have always been in conflict. The indigenous people learn Spanish because it will allow them, for example, to increase their salary.

Q. Is Mexico far off from a consensus?

A. Absolutely. We would have to generate quality employment in the areas where the majority of indigenous languages are spoken. This is a socio-linguistic experiment that has already happened in many countries around the world, where you force the factory manager to learn the indigenous language. You generate quality of life. But for now, everything is done in Spanish, even though it is a language that continues to be seen as an imposed language. We have to have some coherence: if we see it as imposed, let’s do something so that the indigenous people can, for example, receive their paycheck in their own language.

Q. What do you think of López Obrador demanding Spain apologize for the conquest of Mexico?

A. It seems to me that it will not cost him anything, although history cannot be taken out of context, and that is what I think is being done. Well, the Spanish conquest was indeed imposed, and it had moments of light and darkness. And I think it would cost the Spanish monarchy nothing to say: ‘yes, we made mistakes.’ But that was another dynasty. Well, nothing would happen if the mistakes of the past were recognized. The world would continue to function in the same way, and Spanish-Mexican cooperation would continue to function in the same way. You could do it and there would be no problem. Although it seems out of context to me… and they ask for it in Spanish.

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How Italy came to be Europe’s coffee capital

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Given how protective Italians can be over their coffee culture, you might be forgiven for thinking they invented the drink.

But that title actually goes to Ethiopia, where much of the world’s coffee is still grown today.

According to the coffee blog Home Grounds, the story goes that in 700 AD, an Abyssinian goatherder named Kaldi found his goats prancing around and acting strangely.

Seeing red berries on some nearby bushes, Kaldi surmised that they might be behind his charges’ odd behaviour.

At this point different versions of the story emerge: one says Kaldi gave the berries to a monk, who was happy to find something to help him stay awake to pray all night; another says the monk disapproved and threw the beans on the fire, where they released the delicious aroma of roasted beans.

Unripened coffee beans growing on branches.
Unripened coffee beans growing on branches. Photo by Rodrigo Flores on Unsplash

Either way, humans started drinking coffee, and they haven’t stopped since.

From Ethiopia, coffee spread across the ocean to Yemen and proliferated throughout the Arabian peninsula. Here it gave rise coffeehouses or qahveh khaneh, which became hubs of social and cultural activity.

Coffee didn’t make its way to Italy until 16th century, when Venetian sailors brought it back from the Ottoman empire.

READ ALSO: Where, when and how to drink coffee like an Italian

At first this black, bitter liquid was feared to be from the devil, and local priests called on Pope Clement VIII to denounce it.

But, the legend goes, the pope decided to give the drink a try before delivering his judgement; and after a few sips, he proclaimed, “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” He gave the drink his blessing – but not before baptising the beans, just to be safe.

Coffeehouses subsequently started popping up in Venice in around the late 17th century, and by the mid-1700s there were over 200 of them, frequented by great artists, writers and poets of the time.

But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that a series of Italian inventors started coming up with the innovations that led to Italy gaining its current reputation as Europe’s custodian of coffee.

As coffee became more and more popular, people started looking for ways to produce it at speed rather than having to leave each cup to brew for several minutes, and the idea of forcing steam through coffee grounds at pressure in order to make coffee quickly began to take hold.

An old-fashioned Italian espresso machine.
An old-fashioned Italian espresso machine. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

The first effort at something approaching an espresso (literally, ‘pressed out’) machine was presented by Angelo Moriondo at the Turin General Exposition in 1884, where it won a bronze medal – but the device was somewhat impractical in its design, and was never produced commercially.

READ ALSO: Why is Italy called Italy?

A while later, in 1901, Milanese inventor Luigi Bezzerra developed and patented a smaller and more efficient version of the machine, making it commercially viable, though it still had some faults.

By 1906, Bezzerra and fellow inventor Desiderio Pavoni had more or less perfected their version of the instrument, and the first steam-based espresso machine went on the market.

This device was ultimately replaced by Achille Gaggia’s 1938 invention, which dispensed with the steam (which could give the coffee a burnt flavour) and made espresso by forcing hot water through the coffee grounds at very high pressure, producing a highly concentrated drink very similar to what we think of as espresso today.

In between, one Alfonso Bialetti came out with his stovetop Moka caffettiera in 1933, which allowed ordinary Italians to make something not unlike espresso coffee in the comfort of their own homes.

A bialetti moka caffetiera.
A Bialetti moka caffetiera. Photo by Sten Ritterfeld on Unsplash

With these inventions, Italy developed a reputation for being Europe’s, if not the world’s, coffee capital – a recognition it guards fiercely today.

The question of who ‘owns’ Italy’s coffee culture was raised earlier this year, when it transpired that the Consortium for the Protection of Traditional Italian Espresso Coffee in Treviso and the Region of Campania had separately sought UNESCO recognition for the espresso coffee tradition; the consortium representing all of Italy and Campania representing Naples, which is particularly proud of its coffee culture.

READ ALSO: Guardia di Finanza to Carabinieri – who does what in the Italian police force?

One academic who worked on Campania’s bid decried the Treviso consortium’s application as “an act of war by the north against the south”, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time, while the consortium’s founder Giorgio Caballini described Naples’ attempt to assert ownership over Italian espresso as “unacceptable”.

In the end, neither won: Italy’s UNESCO committee told the two groups it was disallowing both their candidacies, and to apply again as a united front next year.

Hopefully, they can resolve their differences – perhaps over an espresso or two.



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European Commission recommends travel ban on southern Africa amid fears over new Covid variant

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The EU is expected to announce an immediate travel ban to southern Africa because of the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant.

The B.1.1.529 variant, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant and could evade vaccines, has been discovered in South Africa’s most populous province Gauteng.

The EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: “The @EU_Commission will propose, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529.”

The future of this year’s United Rugby Championship (URC) could be in jeopardy as it has four South African teams in it.

Munster are in the country to play Bulls in Pretoria on Saturday night and are due to stay on to play Lions in Johannesburg next weekend.

The UK has suspended flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland).

Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, Michael McBride, said the emergence of the new variant was “undoubtedly a matter of concern”.

Recent arrivals to Northern Ireland from the six countries on the UK list will be contacted by the Public Health Agency (PHA) and asked to self-isolate and take a PCR test, which will be prioritised for genomic sequencing.

Further assessments will be made concerning other countries with strong travel links to South Africa, the North’s Department of Health said.

Dr McBride said the introduction of travel restrictions was on a “precautionary basis, while we await further evidence on the spread of this variant in South Africa and understand more about it.”

The official Munster rugby Twitter account stated: “We all are safe & well in Pretoria. We are working with URC on the ongoing situation relating to Covid-19 & will provide an update once we know more #MunsterInSA.”

The Covid adviser for the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP), Mary Favier has warned that if the new South African variant of the virus manages to “out run” Delta, then “we will have a problem”.

It was still unknown if vaccines would work against the new variant which was why so much attention was being paid to it, she told Newstalk Breakfast.

Dr Favier also welcomed plans to extend the vaccine programme to children aged 5-11. GPs knew the difference that vaccines could make, however, she pointed out that it would be a parental decision and GPs would be willing to discuss the issue with parents.

On RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland programme immunology expert, Professor Christine Loscher said she expected the World Health Organisation (WHO) to move the status of the new variant from one of interest to one of concern in the near future.

The new variant was of concern because of the number of mutations in the spike proteins and it was still unclear how this variant would respond to vaccines. It was a case of wait and see the impact, she said.

Within the coming weeks it would be known how good current vaccines were at neutralising antibodies in the variant, added Prof Loscher. But she pointed out that vaccine manufacturers have been able to “tweak” vaccines as the virus changed.

“That’s a positive thing to know, that they have the technology to vary the vaccine as variants arrive.”

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he is “deeply concerned” about the new Covid variant.

The Department of Health said it is monitoring the situation in a number of countries in southern Africa and in Hong Kong. No cases have yet been reported in Europe.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) will meet on Friday to to further assess the significance of this variant.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has not updated its travel advice to South Africa on its website. It no longer advises against non-essential travel.




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Italy tightens Covid restrictions as some regions face return to ‘yellow’ zone

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A government decree that comes into force from December 6th will require a ‘super green pass’ health certificate to access most venues and services across the country, in a bid to contain Italy’s rising infection rate and ensure Christmas celebrations can go ahead as planned.

The ‘super green pass’ can be obtained only by those who are vaccinated against or have recovered from Covid-19. 

It supersedes the basic ‘green pass’, which was also available to those who had recently tested negative for the virus; though the basic green pass will still be valid for use on public transport and to access workplaces.

READ ALSO: Italy to impose ‘super green pass’ Covid restrictions on unvaccinated

Speaking at a televised press conference on Monday evening, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi said the restrictions would mean a “normal” Christmas this year for those who are vaccinated, and would “give certainty to the tourist season”.

The announcement comes amid media reports that some Italian regions will be placed under increased restrictions starting next week.

People wearing a face mask do some window shopping on Piazza di Spagna in central Rome on December 13, 2020.

People wearing a face mask do some window shopping on Piazza di Spagna in central Rome on December 13, 2020. Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

The northerneastern region of Friuli Venezia Giulia will be returned to the more restricted ‘yellow’ zone from Monday, after it met all of the Italian government’s criteria for tightened restrictions.

Italy operates under a four-tier colour coded system for coronavirus restrictions, with ‘white’ zone areas under the most relaxed rules, and ‘yellow’, ‘orange’ and ‘red’ zones under increasingly strict restrictions.

Since October, the entire country has been in the least-restricted white zone – but this week, Friuli Venezia Giulia’s hospital ward occupancy and Covid infection rates exceeded the limits put in place by the government last summer.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How will Italy’s Covid restrictions change in December?

The region’s figures stood at 15 percent Covid patient ICU occupancy and 18 percent general hospital ward occupancy as of November 24th, according to data provided by Agenas, Italy’s National Agency for Health Services.

Under a law introduced by Italy’s government in July, any region above the threshold of 10 percent ICU and 15 percent general ward Covid patient occupancy and with a new weekly incident rate of 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants should automatically be placed in the yellow zone.

It’s thought that mass demonstrations held in the region’s capital of Trieste last month to protest the introduction of a Covid health certificate requirement for Italy’s workers are partly behind its deteriorating health situation.

A Santa Claus puppet wearing a face mask is displayed in the window of a food store at Rome's Trevi fountain square on December 23, 2020.

A Santa Claus puppet wearing a face mask is displayed in the window of a food store at Rome’s Trevi fountain square on December 23, 2020. Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

According to Italian media, Friuli Venezia Giulia’s governor Massimiliano Fedriga has agreed to enforce the government’s ‘super green pass’ rules from Monday, allowing the region’s vaccinated population to bypass restrictions they would otherwise be subject to.

READ ALSO: Q&A: How will Italy’s new Covid ‘super green pass’ work?

Currently, ‘yellow zone’ restrictions require an area’s inhabitants to wear a mask both outdoors and in indoor public spaces, and restaurants can seat a maximum of four diners to a table.

While those in a yellow zone will still be required to mask up outdoors, under the new rules, people who hold the ‘super green pass’ will be able to access “indoor catering”, shows (such as theatre performances), parties, nightclubs, sporting events, and “public ceremonies”, as normal.

Other parts of the country currently expected to join Friuli Venezia Giulia in the yellow zone within the next couple of weeks are the autonomous province of Bolzano, which had 10 percent ICU and 15 percent general ward Covid patient occupancy rates as of November 24th; as well as Marche, Liguria, Lazio, Calabria, which all have figures approaching the threshold.

Some of Italy’s larger cities are putting into place their own preemptive strategies to try to contain their infection rates.

On Thursday, Milan’s mayor Giuseppe Sala said he was preparing to sign a measure making facemasks mandatory outdoors across the city center from the coming weekend, reports news agency Ansa.

And in Venice, mayor Luigi Brugnaro has already signed an order requiring the use of masks at Christmas markets and other large outdoor gatherings in the city, reports Sky TG 24.



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