Spanish Spoken Here

Posted by

Se_habla_español_sign-01

Have you ever seen a sign in a storefront that says “se habla español”? It obviously means that the people in that store can speak Spanish, but what’s the exact translation? It’s kind of complicated, because that construction doesn’t exist in English. Here’s how it works:

Both in English and Spanish, we have active and passive constructions. Here’s an active one:

María repara un celular. María repairs a cell phone.

In this example María is the subject (the one doing the action), and the cell phone is the object (the one receiving the action). We can rephrase this sentence using the passive voice (using “es [participio] por” in Spanish or “is [participle] by” in English):

Un celular es reparado por María. A cell phone is repaired by María.

The meaning is the same, but the syntactic functions have changed: the cell phone is now a patient subject (the action is done upon it) and María’s syntactic role is something called the agent (she’s still the doer of the action even though she’s no longer the subject of the sentence).

In passive constructions, we can drop the agent, and the sentence still makes sense (we still add the implicature “por alguien” / “by somebody”):

Un celular es reparado. A cell phone is repaired.

Let’s now try this with a different example:

Español English
Active Los australianos hablan inglés. Australians speak English.
Passive, w/ agent El inglés es hablado por los australianos. English is spoken by the Australians.
Passive, w/o agent El inglés es hablado. English is spoken.

In Spanish, however, we would phrase the third sentence in a different way, using an impersonal/passive “se”:

Español English
Active Los australianos hablan inglés. Australians speak English.
Passive, w/ agent El inglés es hablado por los australianos. English is spoken by the Australians.
Passive, w/o agent Se habla inglés. English is spoken.

So how would you write a sign in Spanish that says “we repair cell phones” or “cell phones repaired here”? Well, you could always translate the first version literally, “reparamos celulares”, but it would be even more common to phrase it in the impersonal/passive-se way: “se reparan celulares”.

So, anytime that you see one of these “se” expressions, you can just think of it in a passive way, as in “the action of the verb is done at this place by the people that are here”:

Se rentan cuartos. Rooms are rented here. / We rent rooms.
Se buscan actores. Actors wanted. / We are looking for actors.
Se vende [algo]. [Something] for sale. / We are selling [something].
En Cataluña se habla catalán. Catalan is spoken in Catalonia. / People speak Catalan in Catalonia.
Se compran carros usados. Used cars bought here. / We buy used cars.

We hope it’s more clear now!

2 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s