For the past 28 years I have been writing a weekly column in Ultima Hora based on cookery in general and restaurants in particular. Although the Spanish articles I write today are more correct than those in 1992, they are still well peppered with mistakes — which is why I give them to my son to correct.
You come across people who speak a foreign language beautifully, understand it perfectly and can read it as if it were their own language. But few people can write really well in a language that isn’t their own. An amazing number of people, in every country, cannot write well in their own language.
Although Spanish is reckoned to be the easiest language to learn, all languages are difficult — including the one we are born with. Only those who have studied their own language to university level and beyond ever really begin to understand it.
The student learning English as a foreign language has an advantage over those studying Spanish or French — English verbs have fewer tenses. Over the centuries, the English have streamlined their verb tenses and have fewer than most other well-developed languages.
The Spanish and the French, on the other hand, subdivide present, past and future time in a wide variety of ways. Few British people, no matter how long they have lived here, ever find their way around the labyrinth that is Spanish tense endings.
But although English verb tenses are much easier to learn, the language is fraught with other pitfalls that give students real headaches. Last week I was talking to a Spanish woman who is learning English and she was having problems with the vagaries of the vocabulary.
Among her main difficulties are those suffixes that look the same but are pronounced differently (‘ough’, for instance) and those words that are spelt and sound the same but have quite distinct meanings.
This Spanish woman had just discovered that ‘sound’ has at least four quite unconnected meanings and queried why it could be a noun meaning noise, a strait, and adjective for healthy or in good condition and a verb for establishing the depth of water.
As always with these matters, the root of the problem is in the root of the words.
Sound is a rather complex word and the two-volume Oxford Shorter Dictionary and the full-size Webster’s take more than a page to deal with it and its variations.
In the meaning of noise, ‘sound’ comes from the Old French ‘son’ via the Latin ‘sonus’. It was originally written in English as ‘soun’, which is how you find it in Chaucer.
The final ‘d’ was added in the 16th century. This occurred in other words: bound was originally ‘boun’.
In the sense of a narrow channel, we get ‘sound’ from the Old Norse ‘sund’, meaning swimming or a strait. It got that name because the stretch of water, usually between the mainland and an island, was short enough to be swum across. Its original spelling was ‘sounde’, although in the Shetlands it was called ‘soond’. When ‘sound’ means healthy, it comes from the Old English ‘gesund’, which is connected to the Latin ‘sanus’.
The Old English word also gives ‘gesundheit’, one of those German words we have borrowed to wish people good health — especially after they have sneezed. But when ‘sound’ means establishing the depth of water with a plummet, we get it from the French ‘sonder’ via the Latin ‘sunundare’ (to submerge) and ‘sun anda’ (under the wave).
The Spanish, ‘sonda’ (an echo chamber or depth finder) has the same etymology.
If you look at a good dictionary you will find several unusual words that contain ‘sound’.
There’s ‘sound hole’, which is cut out of the upper surface of stringed instruments.
The violin and related instruments have two holes shaped like an ‘f’ and called the ‘f-hole’. The lute and most guitars have one hole cut in an ornamental manner, somewhat like a flower, and called a ‘rose’.
A ‘soundpost’ is a piece of wood connecting vertically the upper and lower surfaces of the body of a violin and other stringed instruments.
It helps to support the pressure of the strings on the bridge (and hence on the upper surface) and serves to distribute the vibrations of the strings over the body of the instrument.
When we use ‘sound’ in its healthy meaning, there are various unconnected similes that have been popular for hundreds of years. We can be as ‘sound as a bell, roach or trout’ and in the mid-19th century people were said to be as ‘sound as an acorn’.
Another common 19th century colloquial term was ‘sound as a pippin’, meaning that a person was very healthy and looked rosy-cheeked, just like the apple. Americans preferred the term ‘sound as a dollar’, but that was in the good old days when the all-mighty dollar was a good deal sounder than it is today.
Other colloquial terms include to ‘sound off’ about something, meaning that we speak loudly and freely on some subject, especially when we are complaining.
It could also mean to boast or to talk too long and boringly, especially in an after-dinner speech.
When we are asked to ‘sound someone out’, a few discreet questions are called for in order to discover what that person thinks on a particular subject, perhaps new plans for business improvements.
From the 17th to the 19th century, a ‘cly’ or ‘cloy’ was a purse or pocket and a ‘cloyer’ was a thief or pickpocket. The term ‘to sound a cly’ meant to attempt to pick someone’s pocket.
In the 16th century, regulars at inns and taverns had friendly terms to describe each other. These included ‘mad Greek’, ‘true Trojan’’ and ‘sound Card’.
In British police slang, to ‘sound the flute’ meant to blow one’s whistle — perhaps when chasing after someone who had ‘sound a cly’.
During the Second World War, artillerymen frequently did a bit of ‘sound-spotting’ —trying to work out the position of enemy guns from the sound they made.
But a person who is ‘sound on’ something is both intelligent and reliable, with orthodox or well-grounded views.
To be ‘sound on the goose’ was a late 19th century American colloquial term that meant much the same as the Briton who is ‘sound on’ something. And a ‘sound egg’ was mid-20th century slang for a very decent fellow.
It all sounds easy enough, but perhaps the Spanish woman learning English should be sounded out on that to see if she agrees.