Monday, December 21, 2015

The Virgin of Guadalupe reveals a language mystery

The image of the Virgin in the Basilica in Mexico City.
Here in Spain my colleagues sometimes kid me on my use of Mexican expressions.

Mexicans have a tendency to add the diminuitive suffix -ito or -ita to many words in ordinary conversation: your close friends might be your "amiguitos" (little friends), "Aquí tienes algún papelito" (here's some little paper for you) or "Ven aquí en la sombrita" (come on over here in the little shade).

So sometimes I might say, "tomemos una cervecita" (let's have a little bottle of beer), "vamos por un cafecito" (let's get a little cup of coffee).

I wondered about why this tendency was so common in Mexico but not in Spain. I think I discovered the reason while reading a book about the Virgin of Guadalupe -- the most revered religious figure in  Mexico and much of Latin America.

It was a translation into Spanish of the original text from the Aztec language, Nahuatl, describing the Virgin's miraculous appearance to the Indian Juan Diego in 1531 and the sign she left him -- her image on his tunic.

In the Spanish translation from Nahuatl, Juan Diego calls Mary, "my Little Virgin" (mi Virgencita) and she calls him "my little son" (mi hijito). It turns out that the translator was struggling to find an equivalent in Spanish for the Aztec suffix -tzin, which means something like "beloved" or "revered" but also is used for children and pets. So the translator used the closest Spanish equivalent, the diminuitive suffix, -ita or -ito.

Nahuatl is still spoken by more than 1 million Mexicans, and the linguistic tendency has lived on, so that when people are being friendly, they use the diminuitive for all kinds of everyday things.

English translators of Nahuatl have the same problem, as described in an article about the original text describing the Virgin's miracle:

A challenge for the English translator is the suffix -tzin, heavily used in this text. On the one hand, it is a diminutive, used for children and pets. On the other hand it is reverential, used for lords and gods. And sometimes it seems to be thrown in merely to show that the situation, the audience, or the text itself is classy or much loved or both. It is inaccurate to equate -tzin routinely with the Spanish diminutive, which is more limited in scope, although probably somewhat expanded in Colonial Mexico under the influence of Nahuatl usage.

So my use of the diminuitive sounds funny here to my colleagues. They enjoy kidding me about other Mexican expressions. For example, the professors refer to the students here as "chavales", roughly "kids", while in Mexico we called them "chavos/chavas". Add that to my soft Latin American accent (not as guttural on the "j" sound, softer consonants), and I am charming without even having to try.

If your Spanish is good and you really want to explore the many variants of diminuitives in Nahuatl, I recommend this four-page excerpt from a book by Jose Ignacio Davila Garibi, who wrote extensively about Nahuatl in the 1920s and '30s. (Thanks to Angel Arrese for calling my attention to it.)

Hillary Clinton and the Virgin 

When Hillary Clinton was secretary of state in 2009, she made a visit to the basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City where Juan Diego's tunic bearing the Virgin's image is framed and displayed (see my photo above).

Despite the vast intelligence-gathering resources of the United States government, and the enormous staff at Hillary's disposal, she made a horrible gaffe. She asked the priest who was explaining the image to her, "Who painted it?" The priest replied, "It was God painted it."

The Mexican press let her off easy. Since Hillary and Bill are people they like, they wrote it off as an itty-bitty error.


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