Starcat 1 by my favourite artist

Tuesday, 11 September 2012


One for the psycholinguists among us

What is it with the Spanish? How come they can’t spell? I must admit that I have no convincing explanation of Jhon. In fact in Madrid there is actually an avenue called Avenida Jhon Lennon and there’s one in Seville in the old Expo’ 92 site, now La Cartuja Technology Park, called Avenida Thomas Alba Edison, instead of Thomas Alvar Edison. The typical reaction when this error is pointed out is “Does it really matter? We know what it means”.

The Jhon/Jhonny and Alba are simply examples of laziness, of not being bothered to double-check the name. This is not exclusive to the Spanish. I have read countless books in English with misspelt Spanish names[1].

The Deep/Depp question, however, is definitely more interesting. This is not laziness – this is subconscious filtering. My theory is as follows: in Spanish it is highly unusual to find a repeated consonant, with perhaps the exception of ll. The Spanish brain recognises that there is one repeated letter in the name Depp, and as it is used to seeing double vowels[2] and not repeated consonants it subconsciously assumes a repeated letter will be a vowel. Hence Depp becomes Deep, both when written and spoken. Interestingly enough, Deep is pronounced correctly and not Deh-ep as would be expected of a non-English-speaking Spaniard. This gives further weight that the filtering going on is subconscious.

In Seville, there’s a chain of American-style restaurants called Sloppy Joe’s[3], pronounced Sloopy[4] Joe’s, even on radio adverts.  As I’ve said, in my opinion this is not sloppy thinking; there really is a deep reason behind this inability to spell certain words.

[1] Have a look at the chapter on Seville in Eric Newby’s ‘On the Shores of the Mediterranean’. If you speak Spanish, you’ll be driven to distraction by the spelling and grammatical errors. I stopped reading his books after that as I felt I could no longer accept anything he wrote as being accurate.
[2] There are actually people in Spain who rejoice in the surname Poo, pronounced Po-oh
[3] Interesting in itself. The first restaurant was set up by a US servicemen who had been stationed in the American airbase in Seville. A sloppy joe is fried loose hamburger meat that hasn’t been formed into a patty.
[4] Actually, given the Seville accent, it is actually pronounced Ehloopy with a lightly aspirated h. Try it, it’s not impossible.


  1. I spent some months in Seville as a student. As this was my first extended stay abroad and my first real encounter with the civilization whose language I had been studying, it had a big impact on me and memories of it still resonate in the depths of my mind.

    I am sure that that Seville (a certain generalísimo still ruled the country then) is long gone and that it is today very different.

    Strangely, when I have forgotten so much else, I still remember the address of the house where I lodged: García Ramos, 17.

  2. Hi Silver Tiger,
    thanks for the comment. You really did live in the Sevilla auténtica, then. Sevill is indeed different from when I arrived here, but to paraphrase a current truism "You can take Sevile out of the 16th century, but you can't take the 16th century out of Seville.".
    Keep up the good work on your own highly enjoyable post.