A Conversation about Spanish versus English

Perhaps there is no art in the ‘art of conversation’; my own theory is that the very best conversations have no idea where they are heading, no interest in any particular objective. Such conversations – with a ‘life of their own’ – can produce many an inspiring moment, and one such moment occurred last night as I discussed an aspect of the Spanish language with a Spanish friend.

Since the comparison which was being drawn between English and Spanish can be construed as rather complex, I’d like to start with a simpler comparison which may help establish the concept.

Did you know that a written question in Spanish is indicated not by one question mark but by two of them? For example, ¿Cómo estás? (How are you?). Easy enough, right? But why bother? Why not simply use one question mark in the same way that English does?

Well, here’s where Spanish is very smart. Have you ever read a long sentence in English and only realised at the very end that it was actually a question? After all, it’s only the presence of the question mark that’s going to be the indicator for you, and that question mark must appear at the end of the question. True enough, Spanish questions are also indicated by a question mark at the end of the question, but the key difference is that the start of the question is also indicated (by the upside down question mark). Here’s an extended version of the earlier example: Hola, ¿cómo estás? (Hello, how are you?). Of course, in very long Spanish sentences containing questions, indicating the start of the question to the reader is clearly beneficial, making the text as a whole easier to read.

The upside down question mark, then, is an example of how written Spanish trumps written English in terms of readability. But it wasn’t this difference which came up in conversation. No, instead my friend and I found ourselves discussing the merits or otherwise of how in Spanish a noun is placed before an adjective, whereas in English the reverse applies.

Now, when you learn Spanish you’ll quite quickly come up against this ‘anomaly’ since learning nouns and adjectives is an early stage in the language learning process. You’ll be told that Spanish speakers do it the other way round and you’ll accept that – because you are learning Spanish after all – and you’ll pick up the habit of saying the noun first and the adjective, or adjectives, to describe that noun, second. It will seem odd at first, but greater oddities will lie ahead, and you’ll soon become accustomed to copying the Spanish way.

I got used to the Spanish noun / adjective thing 20 years ago and I never questioned it. Why would I question it? Last night, for whatever reason, I did.

Last night my friend and I asked ourselves what difference there is, if any, between saying the name of the object before or after the word(s) used to describe it. And I suddenly realised there’s a world of difference! We took the example of morning as our noun and described it using the adjectives beautiful, peaceful and bright.

Now here’s the thing. If I use a string of adjectives such as beautifulpeaceful and bright I am conjuring up an image in the imagination of the reader or listener who, at this point, is likely still ‘in the dark’ as to what those adjectives are referring to. So in a sense the adjectives have to stand alone; it’s only when the noun is revealed that the true association is known.

‘It was a beautiful, peaceful and bright morning.’

We only find out at the end of the sentence that it’s a morning which is being described. Until arriving at that point our definitions of the preceeding adjectives are untainted; untainted because the noun with which they are associated is not immediately revealed. Let’s play with the sentence and put the noun before the adjectives:

‘It was a morning beautiful, peaceful and bright.’

Once we know that morning is the noun we have a ‘fix’ on that word and all its connotations. Do the proceeding adjectives therefore lose some of their impact? For example, I might already have ideas about mornings which do not correspond with beautiful, peaceful and bright. I might go as far as to block out those words because they don’t fit into my mental scheme.

In Spanish we must say morning first and then describe it:

‘Fue una mañana bonita, tranquila y luminosa.’

Is Spanish poorer as a result of this need to say the noun before the adjective(s)? Personally I don’t think that’s of importance. It is enough to quietly contemplate the cultural difference between one group of native speakers who put the noun first, and the other who put the noun second.

It’s just plain weird, don’t you think?

Until next time readers,


Jim Porter is a co-founder of Speekee®, home of the most comprehensive Spanish learning program for children ever to appear online

Jim began his Spanish learning journey in 1990. He has been a language teacher since 1994 and he lives in sunny southern Spain with his two bilingual children. Loves it! More…

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