Summer cooking has roots in Spanish

Posted Sunday, Jun. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Every summer, millions of Americans repeat again and again a word that has its roots in Taino, the Caribbean language spoken by the people Christopher Columbus met when he first landed in the Americas.

Spanish speakers brought the word into their language as barbacoa. Cooking beef on sticks over a fire was an early “fusion food,” as we learn in the engaging new nonfiction book The Story of Spanish (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99). What English speakers have come to call “barbecue” combines “Arawak technique, European meats and Mexican flavors.”

Every language, of course, contains within its structure and vocabulary a record of its past. There’s a lot of Spanish embedded in English thanks to North America’s proximity to Spanish-speaking lands and to the United States’ conquest of part of Mexico in the 19th century.

As the authors of The Story of Spanish point out, Americans study Spanish more than any other language. But today, many Americans are deeply ambivalent about it.

“Spanish is a cluster of contradictions,” write Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, the authors of previous books about the spread of another language Americans like to learn, French. “Over its history, Spanish became one of the most organized and systematic tongues in history, and a finely honed tool used to express disorder and passion.”

Spanish, we learn, is the major language closest to Latin. Its roots are in “vulgar Latin,” the language of the common people and the provincials of the Roman Empire. Spanish is “by far the most phonetic and most transparent of all Latin languages,” Nadeau and Barlow write.

Its simplicity makes it a relatively easy language to learn, and it owes that simplicity in part to the influence of another language brought to the Iberian Peninsula by invaders: Arabic. In their work to formalize their language, early Spanish grammar mavens were influenced by the rigor of Arab scholars. Many Arabic words came to be incorporated into Spanish as well; among them limón (lemon) and naranja (orange).

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