Where English meets Spanish: Las tiendas and on the telly

For the language learner, I think that the order is eye, mouth, and then ear, that is, we learn first to read a word, say it, and finally hear it (and hopefully understand it), firstly on its own (which is rare in spoken language) and then in a sentence. Hearing is the hardest, and marks the learner as one who is beginning to understand.

So, to start the eye on the journey, I have taken some pictures of stores (tiendas) in Gijón that have English or part English names, to see how much English has crept into everyday life here and to help again with the general vocabulario. Rest assured that the Spanish needn’t worry as much as the French to protect their language, given that Spanish is the second language of the world behind Chinese*, and certainly not as much the French in Canada (les Québécois), whose Orwellian sounding Bill 101** outlaws English-only signs to help keep the loup at the door.





I’m not sure why Trendy couldn’t have been called (De) Moda or what Twin has to do with zapatos, but it could mean shoes for infants and kids (infantiles y juveniles) or that all shoes come in pairs (parejas).

Note that you will find the word REBAJAS on many shop windows in Spain meaning ‘reductions’ or ‘rebate,’ essentially SALE. In Asturias, you will also see REBAXES, the Asturiano equivalent. Alas, I don’t know why Animales wouldn’t do for a vet clinic (paw or pata included) but obviously Laboratorio de Vision is a mouthful.

And I don’t know what Boston has to do with calzados (shoes, boots, sandals, anything that goes on the feet), what OpenCor means (although it is Open every day), though Outlet gets right to the heart of selling. I guess Concesionario just doesn’t have the same draw.

Blue Sky Café (cielo azul) is a café bar in the centre of town where coming soon (starting October 11 from 9:15 to 11:30 pm) is the weekly Blue Sky Quiz. Check out the Blue Sky Café facebook page for details. Calling all quizzers. Be ready.

Our television channel 3 is also called Tienda, which as far as I can tell is a 24/7 anuncio for PestReject (promoción válida hasta 31 de marza 2014) and The XHose (Ocupa poco espacio, Muy manejable, y Fácil de guardar). When you’re learning a language sometimes los anuncios are better than las películas. At least, they speak slowly, clearly, and repeat themselves over and over (and over). Más rápido, operadores están esperando. But, fortunately, most shows have subtítulos, allowing the eye to learn first what the ear then tries best to catch up to.

Oh yeah, beware the DESDE on the real tiendas; you know, that famous UP TO lettering so small that it can’t be read even with the best of laboratorios de vision. Caveat emptor.

* Language rankings. Check out David Brown’s “Top 100 Languages by Population” for a full list plus sources. Note, French is thirteenth with 72 million speakers.





Chinese (Mandarin)



























Chinese (Wu)


** Quebec’s Bill 101
Bill 101 paved way for peace,” Hubert Bauch, Montreal Gazette, Aug 25, 2007
How Bill 101 saved Canada,” Tasha Kheiriddin, The National Post, Feb 7, 2011

Grammar ASIDE (Abbreviations and acronyms) In Spanish, plural abbreviations are doubled. Hence, the United States is EEUU (or EE. UU.) for Estados Unidos. The United Kingdom (singular), however, is RU (or R.U.) for Reino Unido. Some common national acronyms are RENFE (Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles) and FEVE (Ferrocarriles Españoles de Vía Estrecha), the two public train systems or ferrocarriles (literally ironways). Note that RENFE is the European wide-gauge standard used mostly throughout Spain now, whereas FEVE is the narrow gauge still found in the north.
EM is Empresa Municipal and SA is Sociedad Anónima, which is a type of company (SL is a limited company), and is used for city companies. For example, EMA is Empresa Municipal Agua. In Gijon, EMTUSA is Empresa Municipal de Transportes Urbanos de Gijón, the city bus system (which one can call to get the time of the next bus) and EMULSA is Empresa Municipal de Servicios de Medio Ambiente Urbano, the city recycling (which is community based, with large brown, yellow, blue, and green bins every kilometre or so for household recycling). I’m not sure what the L is for; maybe limpiar (to clean). Note, latas is cans and briks is short for Tetra Brik or Tetra Pak, the iconic rectangular drink container package.


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Names that may mean something

Spain is full of historic place names and family names, but do they mean anything? Do Madrid and La Coruña or the family names Fernández and Iglesias have any particular meaning? Aside from historical interest, knowing the meanings of names can help the vocabulary.

IberianPeninsulaA quick look at a zoomed-out map of the Iberian peninsula reveals only a few major cities that appear to mean something and indeed do – León is lion (stress required) as one would imagine, La Torreta is the turret, and Los Palmas de Gran Canaria is the palms of the grand canary (not shown) – but for the most part, major city names refer to untranslatable historical names (e.g., Madrid, originally a Moor fortress, may be derived from the Arabic magerit or ‘place of many streams,’ appropriate it would seem for a capital).

At the more local level, however, translations abound. Santiago de Compostela shows the compound making of its two names. Santiago is a mix of Santo and Diego or Saint James, who is believed buried there. As the story goes, a star lit the way to St. James’s grave thus beginning the famous pilgrimage* walked or cycled from the French border by hundreds of thousands of peregrinos (pilgrims) every year, and giving meaning to Santiago as well as Compostela, a mix of campo and stela or field and star (in Latin). Here, we see also how Iago (Shakespeare’s star in Othello) and San Diego got their names, and the meaning of san, santo, or santa in many Spanish-founded cities around the world (San Juan, Santo Domingo, Santa Ana) as well as the Portuguese version são (São Paulo, São Tomé, São João). Peregrino also gives us the word peregrination in English.

There are many compound or part place names that translate either from the local language or from Spanish to English. In Galicia, La Coruña’ is ‘the crown,’ Foz is ‘mouth,’ Vilalba is ‘dawn town.’ Asturias boasts the most northern point in Spain, Cabo Peñas, literally Cape of Rocks. My favourite is Viaducto de Lindabarcas or Viaduct of Pretty Boats. Caridad is ‘charity,’ Cortina is ‘curtain,’ Torrelavega could be ‘the tower bottom.’ There are many more.

Language ASIDE (Gallego) There are four official languages in Spain, Castellano (i.e., Español, what we think of as the main Spanish language), Catalán, Gallego, and Euskera. Catalán, Gallego, and Euskera are the languages of the three separatist-minded communities Cataluña, Galicia, and País Vasco, and have their own language conventions. In Galicia, the letter ‘l’ is often omitted and thus ‘La Coruña’ is written as ‘A Coruña’ in Gallego (aka Galego in Gallego!). As such, the meaning of ‘A Coruña’ may be more easily understood by the English speaker as ‘The Crown’ (La Corona).
Pronunciation ASIDE (ñ, z, and c). The ñ (pronounced enya) is the first really different Spanish stress mark the English speaker encounters. á, é, í, ó, and ú are for syllabic emphasis but don’t change the sound, whereas ñ does. The technical term is diacritical tilde and changes the n to a ny sound. Most have heard of El Niño (neenyo) and La Niña (neenya), the cyclical weather conditions that screw up travel plans in the States every 5 years or so (by warming and cooling the western Pacific Ocean with high and low surface air pressure). The ñ does make a difference and can get one into occasional trouble. For example, año means year, but ano means ass, so it’s important to wish one Feliz año (an-yo) and not Feliz ano (an-no). Think of Enya, the Irish singer, to get the right sound.
As for the letter z, we have the golfer José María Olazábal to thank for helping the world to speak better Spanish. When he burst onto the golfing scene, no one outside of Spain really knew how to pronounce his name, although we all tried. Oh-laz-a-bel and Oh-laf-a-bel were popular for a while, but he now is generally called Oh-la-tha-bel (with the stress on the tha). One shouldn’t be surprised by his second name either; half of Spain has a first or second name María (more on that later).
The letter c is probably the most region-defining sound in Spanish, sounded either as a th (e.g., Barthelona) as spoken by most Spaniards (aside from Andalusia) or an s (e.g., grasias) as spoken in Andalusia and most of the Spanish-speaking non-Iberian world. To the English speaker, it sounds like a lisp. In Spain, it’s hip to lithp.

The Toronto Blue Jays have had many Hispanic players whose names mean something when translated into English (as do other teams). Here is my list with translations to help the vocabulario by word association. Some are obvious (blanco or white) and others perhaps not so obvious (ramos or bouquets). No doubt, I have missed a few, so please let me know of others and I’ll add them to my Las Urracas de Toronto** list. I have left out names that have doubtful Hispanic provenance, for example, Darnell Coles (sprouts) and Mike Romano (Roman), or are identical, for example, Frank Viola (viola).


Las Urracas de Toronto English translation
Jose Bautista baptist
Rod Barajas decks, pack of cards
Henry Blanco white
Pedro Borbon bourbon (borbón)
Carlos Delgado thin
John Candelaria Candlemass
Rico Carty rich
Tony Castillo castle
Francisco Cordero lamb
Felipe Crespo curly
Victor Cruz cross
Edwin Encarnación incarnation
Leo Estrella star
Edwin Hurtado stolen
Alexis Infante infant
Nino Espinosa spiny
Justin Germano German
Luis Leal loyal
Manny Lee read
Hector Luna moon
Orlando Merced favour
Domingo Ramos Sunday bouquets
Jo-Jo Reyes kings
Jose Reyes kings
Alex Rios rivers (ríos)
Davis Romero rosemary
Ricky Romero rosemary
Francisco Rosario rosary
Valerio De Los Santos of saints
Sergio Santos saints
Moises Sierra mountain chain
Hector Torres towers

Alas, as good as Otto Vélez, Tony Fernández, and Roberto Alomar were as players, their names don’t translate into English. Note that the –ez ending means ‘son of,’ like Mc in Scottish or O’ in Irish, and thus Fernández means son of Fernando.

As for the meaning of Fernández and Iglesias? Fernández is a name, but Iglesias means churches. So the next time you hear Julio or Enrique singing from the heart, think of them in a church. Try this particularly cringeworthy video of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord as sung by Julio Himself, festooned with an endless supply of apparently sweet and lord-like supermodels. Well, he has loved lots.

* An entertaining book on The Way is the autobiography I’m Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago by the German comedian Hape Kerkiling, where he records his six-week adventure from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela (mostly by foot with a few motorized interludes). Shirley MacLaine did much to popularize el camino with her bestseller The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit, with transcript of an interview with Larry King about the book. An interesting recent movie is The Way with Martin Sheen. (Note that Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, the founder of Opus Dei, wrote a book entitled Camino about an entirely different way.)
** La/El and Las/Los: Las Urracas de Toronto is feminine in Spanish. La urraca is a bluejay (or magpie) and las urracas is a collection of bluejays (or magpies). The team, nonetheless, (el equipo) is masculine as are all the others (los equipos). For another translation of bluejay, check out Spanish and Major League Baseball by Jill K. Bishop, Multilingual Connections, June 14, 2012.

“Many go to seek wool and come home shorn themselves.” – Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, pg. 39 Wordsworth Classics, 1993.

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El Mar Cantábrico (Bay of Biscay)

Autonomous_communities_of_Spain_no_names.svgThere are 17 so-called autonomous communities* in Spain (what we would call states or provinces or counties), which were formally created in 1978 by the Constitution of Spain after Franco’s 40-year regime ended with his death and Spain returned soon after to democracy. Some are more independent minded, e.g., the Basque, Cataluña, Galicia (which all have significant nationalist aspirations) and all have varying levels of self-government. Four border el Mar Cantábrico in the north of Spain, namely from the French border to the Atlantic Ocean, País Vasco, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia.

Pronunciation ASIDE (V and stress) A few points of order: the V is sounded as a B in Spanish, hence ‘Vasco’ is sounded as ‘Basco.’ Furthermore, all letters are pronounced (making Spanish easier than French for English speakers) and thus ‘País is ‘Pie-ees’ with the stress on the second syllable. By default, without an explicit stress mark (here over the i, í), the stress would be on the first syllable as is typical with most two-syllable Spanish words.

Unlike the Costa del Sol in the south where temperatures routinely hit the 40s in summer and where most of Spain’s 60 billion annual tourists flock, the Costa Cantábrica is less developed and less touristy, the temperatures more bearable, and the scenery more rugged (the so-called Green Coast or Costa Verde is entirely in Asturias, from Llanes east of Gijón to Castropol on the Galician border).

Tourist access from abroad is easy with main airports in Bilbao, Santander, Oviedo, Santiago de Compostela, La Coruña, and Vigo, and is already serviced in part by existing tourist routes along the famed “Camino de Santiago” (more about The Way of St. James later).

The main cities are all connected by the Autovia del Cantábrico, roughly 600 km from San Sebastián on the French border to La Coruña on the Atlantic (aka the AP-8 in País Vasco and the E-70 in Galicia). An ideal trip would be to fly into San Sebastián and drive to La Coruña via Bilbao, Santander, and Gijón, stopping whenever along the way. The Cantabrican autovia or autopista is a first-rate national road most of the way (i.e., two separated two-lane highways) with sweeping views and long viaductos through scenic sierras and across sloping valleys. Work continues on three unfinished stretches (in Llanes, Luarca, and Mondoñedo), otherwise the drive is uninterrupted.

There are numerous inlets, beaches (the best that I’ve seen so far in Asturias are in Ribadesella and Llanes), and other points of interest, not least of which are the Frank Geary-designed Guggenheim Museum (in Bilbao), El Palacio de la Magdalena (or royal summer palace in Santander), Los Picos de Europa (a mini Alps bordering Cantabria and Asturias), Covadonga where the Christian Reconquista of Spain began in 722 (in Asturias), Santiago de Compostela (including the conchal Peter Eisenman-designed Cidade da Cultura), and the Torre of Hércules, the oldest functional lighthouse in the world (in Galicia).




So, why do we call the large body of water north of Spain the Bay of Biscay, especially since no one in Spain does? The name is an outdated misnomer, referring to an old provincial term in País Vasco, where there are three traditional provincial names: Alava, Guipuzcoa, and Vizcaya. Biscay comes from Vizcaya. I suppose, Cantábrico is a little better since it at least refers to Cantabria, one of the four bordering autonomous communities, but I think the Autovia del Cantábrico says it best. The sweeping views of the sea are not to be missed on any northern adventure in Spain.

Pronunciation ASIDE (ll, g, j) The double l in Spanish is sounded as a y, hence ‘am-a-ri-yo’ for amarillo (yellow), Yah-nays for LLanes, and ‘pie-eh-ya’ for paella, which some English speakers still call ‘pie-ell-ah,’ the most recognized Spanish comida made of rice, seafood and saffron. The ll as y is not hard to get used to. ‘G’ and ‘j’ on the other hand are harder for the English speaker. The j is always an h sound, hence Havier for Javier or hamón for jamón. It isn’t too gurgly with practice. The G is also an H at the beginning of Gi words, such as Gijón, thus He-hawn (with the stress on the second syllable). Gibraltar is Hibraltar. All other G words are sounded as we sound g, thus guitarra as gee-tar-ra and guiri as gear-ree, an English-speaking person living in Spain, not I am told a pejorative, something akin to how one might refer to a Mexican-American as Hispanic.
 * 17 Autonomous communities: Andalusia, Aragon, Principality of Asturias, Balearic Islands, Basque Country, Canary Islands, Cantabria, Castile-La Mancha, Castile and León, Catalonia, Community of Madrid, Extremadura, Galicia, La Rioja, Region of Murcia, Navarre, Valencian Community
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¡Hola, mundo!

I recently moved to Gijón, Asturias, in northern Spain with my Asturian partner Belén after a few decades living in Ireland and Canada. As a native English speaker with a B1 level* of Spanish from the Instituto Cervantes, there will no doubt be a few aventuras along the way, so I thought I would share them with other interested native English speakers, Spanish students learning English, or tourists just visiting. We all graft our pasts to other’s when attempting to understand the new. Hopefully, one can learn from my mistakes or be amused by my own quirky concerns.

CaracolasThe blog is called caracolas, which Google translates as ‘conches’ and is far more poetic than ‘seashells,’ which is how I would have translated caracolas. For me, a seashell conjures up thoughts of adventure in its eerie oceanic echo, and seems particularly apt as language and culture reverberate everywhere here. Spain is many things: sun, food, wine, football, passionate European culture with seasoned stories in its weathered boots, but to me it has always been about the sea, and its great sea-faring people who set out to expand the old to meet the new, not to mention seafood in abundance.

In my semi-irregular caracolas, I will try to cite the new, seeking adventure and refuge in the old, here in Gijón, on the shores of the Cantabrican coast (Bay of Biscay), and throughout Spain. I bring my own preconceptions, of course, some of which will be redressed along the way, but all my tales – both new and old – reverberate through the beauty that is Spain. Espero que disfruten el viaje.


* B1 level http://diplomas.cervantes.es/en/information/levels/level_b1.html
  • Understand the gist of clear texts, in standard language, if they involve well-known topics related to work, studies or leisure.
  • Deal with most of the situations that may arise during a trip to where the language is used.
  • Produce simple, coherent texts about well-known topics or issues of personal interest.
  • Describe experiences, events, wishes and hopes, as well as briefly justify opinions or explain plans.
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