Starcat 1 by my favourite artist

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

How to Speak Non-lexical Spanish and Impress People

Constant is the debate between Spanish and English speakers over which language has more words, which is the richer, &c. &c. &c.

English, obviously!

However, there is one area where Spanish has English firmly beaten: non-lexical interjections. This is probably due to the Latin roots of Spanish. As anyone who has studied Latin knows, it is bursting with such interjections. Arturo Pérez-Reverte, one of Spain’s most popular authors – his books are actually readable instead of the usual logorrhoea pumped out by writers in Spanish both past and present – has on occasion referred to English as the onomatopoeic chirrups of a race of shepherds. In so saying he is referring to the brevity of English words and syntax. In other words we can usually say a lot in English in a small space. However, when it comes to non-lexical portmanteau interjections, Spanish trumps us hands down.  

My favourites are "ea", “ojú” and “halá. The first two are common in Andalusia, while halá is common coin throughout Spain. To become a master of the ea, you pronounce the e as the English letter A, and then follow it with an a, as it at) You should also try to add a slightly nasal twang for optimum effect. “Ojú” is quite easy to pronounce: o as in odd and a nasal as in who?, coupled with the rising intonation of a question. There are other variations for those who crave variety: “Ofú”, as in tofu – without the trising intonation;  and “Osú”, also with a rising intonation. It also helps if you let your cheeks go loose to give any of the above versions a certain slurred plosive quality. True experts and other advanced practitioners might even venture to add the merest hint of a smidgeon of a cough for a truly dramatic effect. The pronunciation of "halá" is as follows: silent h, a as in at and la as in lad, the stress falling on this second syllable. Usually the second a is quite a prolonged affair, maybe lasting a couple of seconds, or even more.

First, ea. This is a multi-use expression usually employed to denote finality. If you want to add emphasis to a statement, or turn an opinion into a universal fact, add ea.  

 “My dad's bigger than your dad. Ea.”

Mine's got more 
emeralds. Ea.
Mine's got a nicer suntan. Ea.
“My church’s statue of the Virgin Mary is prettier and more miraculous than yours. Ea.”

This issue is actually quite a serious matter here in Seville where people seem to have forgotten that even though the idols might be different, the deity being adored is the same. Still, logic and religion have always been strange bedfellows. Ea.

It can act as "I told you so.":
"Ea. What did I tell you? Now you've gone and burnt the gazpacho."

A: "Ofú! My MP3's on the blink.
B: " Ea. Didn't I tell you that buying a cheap Chinese one was a false economy?"

You can also use it as a form of bidding people farewell as you get up from a meeting/leave the pub to go home:
“Ea, gents, I’m off to tell the wife I've just got the sack. Ojú”

Let us now take a look at “Ojú” and its variants. Ojú is used to introduce a statement, usually with an element of fear, exasperation and resignation.

When the boss finds out you’ve been stealing pencils and paper clips.
“Ojú, I’m in for it now...”

On a hot day (40ºC+):
“Ojú, I’m sweating like a pig.”

When your child comes home from school with his/her exam results:
“Ojú, ojú, ojú, ojú, ojú.”

For greater emphasis, add vamos (va as in van, mos, as in moss. The more experienced can remove the s and say: “vamo” while the true expert can experiment with the even shorter “amo”.

Indeed, Vamos and Ojú can be concatenated indefinitely:

Adolescent daughter: “Daddy, I’m going to have a baby. Rodrigo and I love each other and he says he wants to marry me”

Sofa-bound son with a mouth full of crisps: “Haláaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!”

Terrified father: Ojú, ojú ojú, vamos, ojúuuuu, amo, amo, amo, ojú, ojúuuuu, vamos. Osú osú osú. Vamo, vamo, vamo.

Practical mother: “Ea, I told you he was only after one thing, vamos.”

Finally, halá denotes surprise, annoyance and outrage at any form of undesired excess, or disbelief at an obviously egregious lie. For even more emphasis, you can add a sort of strangled gargle at the end:

On being overtaken on Sluice Road by a boy racer rattling past at 60mph: 
"Halaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagghhh! Where's the fire, brat?"

William Hague to the British press 08/08/2000: “I drank 14 pints of beer a day when I was a teenager.”
Plain People of Britain: Haláaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

A: “How much did you pay for that fake iPod?”
B: “€50”
A: “Haláaaaaaaaaaaa. You can get one for €10 in the Chinese shop.”
B: "Yeah, but will it still be working next week? Ea.

Tutti Frutti
On being woken up at 3am when the glass recycling container just under your bedroom window is being emptied: 
“Haláaaaaaaa! How’s a body to sleep with all that din?”

When your neighbours' annoying child vomits on your rug after scoffing the tub of your favourite ice cream (selflessly given to him by your good lady wife) you were keeping to enjoy while watching Real Madrid vs. Barcelona that evening:
“Haláaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Who’s going to clean that up? I’m not.

Fast and Spurious
Boy Racer talking about his superannuated Opel Corsa in the Saracen's Head, Holbeach St. Marks: “I did 115mph down  Sluice Road on the way here.”
Unimpressed mates: “Haláaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

Drunken Husband: “Sorry I’m late, darling. The boss just sacked me for stealing pencils and paper clips.”
Exasperated wife: “Haláaaaaaaaaa, Who’s going to pay for my bingo cards and the baby clothes now, eh?

Or, if you are into brevity, quite simply say:

Ea. That’s all for now.


  1. I have often heard such debates and know that they are pointless: every language has its virtues and faults and no language that can produce poetry can be said to be inferior to another.

    From the time when foreign travel ceased to be the prerogative of the rich, people have taken an (often limited and naive) interest in languages and this has given rise to what we might call the phrasebook culture. People able to order a beer and a bocadillo in a Spanish bar think they are professional linguists and go home to boast of their proficiency. The serious learner, on the other hand, soon discovers that what he learns in class or in the text book is but the very small tip of a very large iceberg. My discovery that I was learning more in the streets of the country than I had ever learned in school was both sobering and liberating.

    Another thing, of course, is that while the language of the text book remains static or changes only very slowly, the language of the streets is continually changing. The street language I learnt in France when I first went there is now laughed at as quaintly old fashioned. As for the street language I learnt in Spain as a student, well, I will wisely keep quiet about that!

  2. As an active student of languages, including my own, I am fascinated by the richness of vocabulary, expression and ideolect.

    When I went to France for the first time I discovered that, after more than 10 years of studying the language, real French was totally incomprehensible to me, as was I to the real French. However, as I spent more time in Paris as part of my degree, the more I became interested in argot, a street French that has its own extensive vocabulary for everyday objects.

    After (too) many years in Spain, I have discovered that Spanish has very little argot - it has regional dialects, but there is no real argot on the French scale. So how do the Spanish, a very individualistic people, develop individual styles of speaking? They give a new spin to the semantics of a word. Words can acquire a meaning, loosely associated with the original, that is understood in context - something quite similar to English.

    The great advantage that English has over both French and Spanish - and probably other languages - is that its dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. This converts our mother tongue into a rapidly-evolving, highly creative language where many words are like shooting stars that appear, shine brightly for a few moments and then die. At the same time, however, it has historical a depth and breadth of meaning. French and Spanish glow like a well-polished mahogany table. English both glows and sparkles.