Un Lugar de la Mancha


There’s a structure in English grammar called the causative, and you use it to indicate that although it’s you behind a move—a haircut or new paint on your house—you are not the one executing it. You are not cutting your hair but having it cut. There’s no secret to the causative; it’s utterly straightforward. You use either have or get and then the object, hair or house, and then the past participle of the principle verb, cut or painted or what-have-you. The causative is a shortcut that allows you to keep from saying that you paid someone to do something for you or cajoled them into it. That’s all understood anyway, and what’s more, isn’t it beside the point whether you begged or wheedled or simply took out your money? The job is getting done, and you are the instigator, and that’s that!

I hardly understand how people can get along without the causative. Do they say, “Yes, I cut my hair, though in truth I didn’t cut it, the hairdresser did.” Who wants to go through that? No one, I should think. But the Spanish, who have no causative, somehow make do without it. And when offered this fine little trick to cut sentences in half without telling a lie, they do not wonder how they survived without it but instead scratch their heads. It gives them pause.

There’s another grammatical structure in my brain as fundamental as the causative, but it’s a cinch to teach because it exists as well in Spanish. “There is” or “there are” is simply hay. I’m partial myself to this formation, and I recall right now a hundred songs that use it, a hundred stories, a hundred essays. This essay is one. But Spaniards, I’d think, would be even more partial to it, considering Cervantes set Don Quijote in motion with the simple line, “Hay un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme.” There’s a place in La Mancha whose name I don’t want to remember. You couldn’t better that line, could you?

When I checked, I found that Cervantes did better it: he chose not the hay I’ve given him, but wrote instead, “En un lugar de la Mancha.” In a place, not There is a place. Existence is good, but action is better, though you’ll have to wait several words for the verb, and it’s a quiet one, vivía, lived, and the subject, un hidalgo, a gentleman. “Well, and what of it?” is a question that occurs more readily about a life than about mere existence, and so we read on, as Cervantes wanted.

Enough of my musings about grammar and genius.

“How could you say in Spanish that you’re getting your hair cut?” I asked a student.

“I just say I’m cutting my hair.”

There you go, the shortcut to the shortcut.

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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