Review of “¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish" by Judy Hochberg (SHS '78)

JudyH.jpgTake a pair of scissors, prepare to use them to cut verb endings, then brace yourself: you are about to embark on a memorable journey into the Spanish language. Archaic as it might seem in our highly technologised world, the pair of scissors is one of the pedagogical tools Judy Hochberg uses in ¿Por qué? as part of her ludic approach to language study. Her approach is both playful and academic, and the linguistic interrogations triggered by her own experiences as a student, researcher and teacher benefit from deftly structured and well-documented answers.

The first section of the book tackles some of the key issues that characterise contemporary Spanish, such as Real Academia’s role in promoting a language standard, the sensitive debate surrounding the minority languages of Spain, and the mutually enriching interaction between Spanish and its Romance siblings. Hochberg addresses the evolution from Latin to Spanish by assessing the impact of loss, innovation and change on different aspects of the language, interspersing rigorous reasoning with teasing remarks such as the one in which Spanish is considered lucky because “it got a double dose of Romance”. Readers are encouraged to meditate on a host of conundrums relating to the dominant language and power relationships during the Arab/Berber occupation of Spain , between 711 and 1492, and to dwell on the paradoxical nature of the relationship between Spanish and English. The difficulties of language acquisition for both native speakers and foreign students are also thoroughly examined, with useful tips that help the adult learner to overcome some of the inherent difficulties of the learning process.

The second part of the book turns to the versatile nature of Spanish wh-questions and delves into intriguing issues relating to vocabulary, phonology, and morphology and syntax, giving particular attention to the alphabet and the origins of the world-famous inverted diacritical marks. Far from providing an arid overview of stress rules or stern pronouns, these topics renew our sense of wonder, while making sure that disciplined thinking is not negotiable: linguistic, historical and comparative explanations harmoniously intertwine. For example, the Latin neuter gender was lost in the transition to Spanish, leaving the latter with masculine and feminine nouns. Consequently, speakers can structure the world more clearly, by resorting to gender agreement, the way it happens in other language families such as the Semitic (Arabic, Hebrew etc.) Few students could remain insensitive to the presentation of the “charming derivational endings” of the language – ‘cafecito’ is used for ‘a small cup of coffee’, ‘cafetal’ for a ‘coffee plantation’ – and Hochberg’s reassurance that the memorisation of irregular verbs is a rite of passage through which all learners must pass could win over even the most reluctant learner. Hochberg makes the whole process of learning fun through the use of pleasing and unexpected metaphors, such as the comparison she makes between the unpredictability of some Spanish prepositions and the movements of a nimble mouse.

Of particular note is the author’s ability to juggle clear- cut concepts and anecdotal information, encouraging both experienced linguists and their apprentices to turn word exploration into an exciting process. Hochberg’s meticulously researched book offers an invigorating perspective on how a language can be learned, taught, and – let’s give the question mark the pride of place – subjected to obstinate and fruitful enquiries.

Review done by: Iulia Bobăilă for Babel Magazine.