Bolivia Stories and Tips

The Sixth Vowel

La Paz Photo, La Paz, Bolivia

"What was heard?" is the literal translation to English of a popular greeting phrase in my language. It makes as little sense in English as its parallel "what’s up?" does in the other language. Each language is different in the way it addresses the world; for the traveler it is essential to understand cultural differences between languages before making embarrassing statements. Not always these would be judged with humor.

While comparing languages from different linguistic families and using different writing systems, the differences are obvious. However when dealing with related languages – like English and Spanish – things can get tricky. Sometimes things are less clear than they seem to be.

Some peculiarities of Spanish speakers are easy to spot. I learned the UK had in the past a king called "Guillermo." They tend to translate names, or find similar ones in Spanish to be more accurate. I learned Beijing is still "Peking," using the old imperial Romanization instead of the more phonetically accurate pinyin. If they don’t like – or understand - a letter, they drop it. Thailand becomes Tailandia. The "h" denotes the "t" before it is aspirated. "ia" is added to the end as a reminder of another striking characteristic of Spanish: the language is vowel oriented. Foreign words beginning with an "s" followed by another consonant would get an "e" at the beginning; "stadium" would be pronounced "estadium." In the "Soochee" entry of this journal I expanded on other examples.

Technically, Spanish has no tones. All the vowels are long and sentences have not a most emphasized word. Syllables are not separated; people try to speak as fast as possible; often far beyond the speed of thought. Despite that, every area where Spanish is spoken has a specific intonation. I described in the past how Aymara and Quechua had influenced the Spanish spoken on the Altiplano; that’s a good example of an intonation which elongates vowels in order to emphasize things. Sometimes, the intonation creates an almost unintelligible gibberish; especially in places where the "s" is often obliterated, like in Chile.

Vowels are a key characteristic. Coming from a consonant – and consonant-roots – oriented language causes me to see Spanish as my antipode language. "There are five vowels" they teach in Spanish schools. They present them as a separate alphabet "aeiou," but they never do the same with the consonants. Vowels are more emphasized than consonants. The last often appear thoroughly separated by vowels, so that people can pronounce the word quickly. "There are five vowels" they keep saying to the extent of denying the existence of others. While teaching my language to Spanish speakers I often found people refusing to pronounce sounds not existing in Spanish. "There are five vowels" is a mantra; anything different must be downgraded into them. Strangely enough, speakers on the Altiplano technically use at least 8 vowels (counting short and long variations); however they won’t admit that.

"There are four seasons!" They also say with the same level of accuracy and thought rigidness. I expanded on that in the Seasons entry of this journal. Guillermo, Tailandia, aeiou, 4 seasons, Peking. Are these unrelated curiosities or do they provide a meaningful insight into these cultures?

I met Spanish speakers claiming their language is phonetic (i.e. the transliteration of sounds into letters is straightforward and constant). When confronted with the obviously different reality (for example "que" is pronounced "qe"), they find excuses (it’s an exemption) or simply deny it.

You walk down the city’s main avenue and see a military parade fir of the 19th century. Cobbled streets, adobe houses. What about economy?

In the electronics’ market you search for a digital camera. The sellers do not know well their merchandise and use odd selling techniques. "The first item of its kind is always the best; quality deteriorates with newer generations" is a claim I heard many times. This is what in economics is known as a negative market environment; people search for the cheapest merchandise, inducing a negative spiral of prices and quality.

Eventually an image of a culture forms. I apologize for the brevity, but any of the examples brought here can be easily expanded by travelers staying in the area for a while. A conservative culture, to some extent stuck in the 19th century. Driven by a negative market mentality, the conservative strike is continuously reinforced. Then, a language with a highly dogmatic attitude seals out the culture even more. Interesting for a traveler seeking out for lost worlds; sad for those entrapped in a world without the sixth vowel.

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