Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Not Fit for Publication in a Family Newspaper

(Prefatory note: Blogger just ate my post! What follows is a reconstruction.)

Now that I am at the point of introducing the Libro de Alexandre in my introductory course, I am reminded of an episode from my upper-division seminar last fall when I completely inadvertently taught my students to curse in Spanish in a more historically-informed and literate way:

The topic of the course was Andalusi ways of reading and writing. And so the major theme that I was hoping to convey to my students about the
Libro de Alexandre was the idea that a text can be self-conscious and tell the reader something about the circumstances of its own composition, relatively similar to the major point that I'm making about the text this semester.

In class, one of the things I asked my students to do was to break into small groups and compile a list of all the references to reading and writing that they could find in the excerpts I had assigned. One reference that did not make the list was to the fact that Alexander's journeys were so wondrous and extensive that their description would not have fit on the skin of
quinze cabrones (fifteen goats). The point, in this context, is that the narrative voice steps away from the narration to tell the reader something about the composition of the text. It came out that none of my students had understood the reference. That was completely fine and expected — truly, my main goal in that class session was that my students would walk away with a basic comprehension of the first medieval text they had ever read in the original, and with some strategies that they could use to approach the language of other texts we would read over the course of the semester. In the interest of developing the latter, I thought it might be more effective to approach the problem Socratically instead of going right in for the big reveal.

So I asked: "In modern Spanish, if you call someone a
cabrón, what are you literally calling him?"

My intention was for them to make the connection themselves between a word they already knew — an insulting swear word that is courser in usage than its literal meaning, big goat,  would suggest — and the use of goat skin in making vellum as a writing surface.

The next time I try this, I will be more emphatic in my enunciation of the word
literally, because instead of the lightbulbs going off over their heads, my students started to exchange glances until one of them gingerly raised her hand. Tentatively, and with more than a hint of incredulity in her voice that the professor should have asked such a question, she answered, "Um, a f***er?"

Nervous laughter changed to some genuine giggling, much of it on my part when I saw that I had, essentially, given a lesson in the historical development of a popular and serious Spanish swear word. I regained my composure and explained the connection I was trying to make. But I bet that nobody who was in that room will ever forget that the
Libro de Alexandre was written on vellum!

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