Language & Brain Lab members present at OSUCHiLL

May 6, 2018

Associate Professor María Piñango and PhD candidates Martín Fuchs and Sara Sánchez-Alonso discussed various topics in Spanish linguistics at the Ohio State University Congress on Hispanic and Lusophone Linguistics (OSUCHiLL). The work that the Language & Brain Lab members presented was done in collaboration with Associate Professor Ashwini Deo of the Ohio State University, who was formerly a faculty member at Yale. Together, the four scholars presented two talks showcasing the Language & Brain Lab’s interest in how psychological and neurological factors may cause languages to exhibit variation across communities or change over time. As an international language spoken in multiple continents with a rich history of written literature, Spanish presents an excellent opportunity to observe variation and change in action through its diverse population of speakers in different countries and time periods.

Martín’s research, for example, sees in modern Spanish a story that has unfolded many times before in other languages. Working with María and Ashwini, Martín is investigating two Spanish verb tenses: the present progressive and the simple present. 

  • Present Progressive: Juan está bailando. ‘Juan is dancing.’
  • Simple Present: Juan baila. ‘Juan dances.’

Usually, the present progressive is used to express the fact that an action is currently taking place: for example, the first sentence above means that Juan is currently dancing. The simple present is used to express the fact dancing is something that Juan usually does, but that is not necessarily dancing at this particular moment. However, the two different tenses may occasionally switch roles: in certain contexts, the simple present may be used to describe an ongoing action, while the present progressive may describe a habitual action. As speakers talk to one another more and more, the two tenses develop newer shades of nuance, gradually changing their meanings. In fact, Martín’s talk argues that these changes are following a pattern called progressive-to-imperfective shift. In the past, Spanish did not always have the present progressive form shown in the sentences above; originally, both ongoing actions and habitual actions were described using the simple present. When the present progressive form first appeared in the language, the distinction between the two forms was straightforward: the present progressive described only ongoing actions, reserving habitual actions for the simple present. Over time, Spanish speakers started using the present progressive in more diverse ways, leading to the present situation, in which both verb forms may describe both kinds of actions depending on the context. If Spanish continues down this trajectory as other languages have done, then eventually the habitual meaning will be used so often that the ongoing meaning will disappear. 

Sara’s work, collaborating with María and Ashwini, explores a similar process of change in Spanish. Whereas Martín studies verb tenses, Sara studies two versions of the verb to beser and estar. Those who have studied Spanish before probably know that ser typically states the identity of a person or object, while estar usually describes a person’s location or emotional state.

  • Ser: Juan es lingüista. ‘Juan is a linguist.’
  • Estar: Juan está aquí. ‘Juan is here.’
  • Estar: Juan está feliz. ‘Juan is happy.’

When estar entered the Spanish language from Latin in the 12th century, it only described the locative meaning: Juan is here. However, like the present progressive, estar came to take on more and more meanings over time as speakers began to use it in more and more diverse ways. Today, in addition to describing emotional state, estar​ may also be used to express that a statement is unusual or surprising. For example, among the sentences below, a speaker may choose to use estar instead of ser if the house is not only big, but bigger than average. On the other hand, the speaker may use ser if the house is big, but not much bigger than other houses.

  • Ser: ¡La casa es grande! ‘The house is big!’
  • Estar: ¡La casa está grande! ‘The house is big!’

While location, emotional state, and surprise seem unrelated to one another, they have one characteristic in common: in all three contexts, the speaker is stating that a person or object has a property that is temporary. For example, while Juan’s status as a linguist is more or less permanent, his location and emotions are likely to change rather soon. And an observer who sees a large house may re-evaluate her opinions if she were to see even bigger houses later on. If we understand estar to describe properties that are temporary, we may expect estar to take on more meanings in the future that refer to other kinds of temporary properties.

OSUCHiLL was held in Columbus, Ohio, from March 30 to 31. The program is available on the conference website.

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