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Which Winston? Confusable names in the OED Previous Post: Which Winston? Confusable names in the OED

Spanish Internet terms – how to fill gaps in a language

Back when I was at school learning Standard Grade Spanish, the only computing word that we needed to know was ordenador, the word for the computer itself. While the Internet was becoming an increasingly useful adjunct to our lives, it was still something of a side issue, rather than the can’t-imagine-life-without-it behemoth that it is now.

Computing language wasn’t seen as important enough to warrant too much attention, and, in any case, who needs to learn the Spanish equivalent of the information superhighway? (Autopista de información, since you asked.)

As any new sector becomes more prominent, it requires its own vocabulary. Each new piece of technology, and each new situation to which this brings us, will find its way of being expressed. New language may be needed, or – more usually – existing language could be adapted to the interloping idea. How does Spanish fill the gaps?

Adapt available words

Take, for example, the English verb ‘to click’. This quickly became a vital word in the language of computers, and later in that of the Internet. The mouse (for which the Spanish ratón covers both the animal and the device) quickly became established as the primary method of manipulating a computer. Using this new device to make anything happen on the screen would require the user to press a button that makes a recognizable sound: ‘click’. In Spanish, the same sound is known as a clic. In this word’s entry in the 1983 edition of the Real Academía Española’s dictionary, which is renowned as the authority on the Spanish language, it is defined with reference to its use in linguistics.

In exactly the same way as in English, the onomatopoeic word was soon adapted to the computer action. Where an English speaker would ‘click on links and folders’, Spanish computer users ‘hacen clic en enlaces y carpetas’. The phrase was built logically, from three existing words, and applied to a new context.

The verbs clicar and cliquear are also becoming increasingly common. These are formed by adding regular verbal suffixes to clic – in the case of cliquear, reflecting the way in which saquear and barquear are formed from the nouns saco and barco.

Many Spanish Internet words show similar developments: words are appropriated from other contexts, filling a gap in the emerging semantic area. An adaptation that I particularly like is the use of the verb conocer (to know) in the Spanish equivalent of the ‘about us’ section of a website. Rather than learning ‘about’ the company involved in the relevant website, the Spanish user is invited to conózcanos, or ‘know us’. There seems to me something a little friendlier about that notion.

Borrow words from another language

English speakers have always had a powerful influence on the Internet, from the American inventors of ARPAnet through to Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates, and Jimmy Wales. Therefore, it’s no surprise that many Internet-related words used regularly in Spanish are direct borrowings from English, not least el Internet itself.

Words such as blog, podcast, chat, and even emoticón have all become common, all borrowed directly from English. Even though some of these words – chat in particular – have long histories in English, they have been borrowed by Spanish for their specific Internet-related senses only.

Borrowing a symbol (back again)

The humble @ symbol (arroba in Spanish) has a long and somewhat disputed history. What is known for sure, though, is that use of this symbol was widespread in Spain by the sixteenth century, and it is found in many surviving documents.

The word arroba referred to a measurement of weight, equivalent to 25 lb (or 11.5 kg), and was used to weigh large quantities of anything from sugar to gold.

As with any unit of measurement, traders soon looked to abbreviate the word for convenience and speed – just like the abbreviations above, for pounds and kilogrammes. They needed a symbol that would be easy to draw, recognizable, and distinguishable from standard letters. They settled on @.

A Spanish historian, Jorge Romance, has traced the earliest use of the @ symbol in this context to the registry of the taula de Ariza. He dates the document to 1448, over 500 years before the Internet had any need for it.

Now, of course, the arroba has found a new home: one can be seen in every correo electrónico, and it has become a vital part of the makeup of Twitter. Its success in the world of el web is down to the same advantages which made it useful for 15th-century Spanish trade. Circumstances may change, but the same rules of language are as relevant now as they were then.