Mike Wilson: Apologies to the queen

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 2, 2022

By Mike Wilson

In light of recent events, I feel the need to offer sincere apologies to Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II since I have regularly taken her name in vain each August for the past 46 years and actually did so in front of 75 witnesses just a couple of weeks ago.  Let me explain:

Since Americans do not embrace the notion of nobility, it isn’t always easy to find a relatable example for what is known as polite or formal versus familiar address in Spanish.  The formal version of the singular “you” is usted (usually abbreviated Ud.), which evolved over centuries of usage from Vuestra Merced (“Your Grace”); perhaps you can sift out the consonants and a couple of vowels in that title to see “usted.” Centuries ago the full-length honorific was directed toward lesser nobility.  None of this is especially difficult to fathom, but the fact that it agrees with third-person verb forms — the ones that match “he” and “she” — seems to be the sticking point.  Here is where the queen comes in.

I tell the students to imagine that the queen is visiting Catawba and that we spy her retinue walking down the second floor hallway.  Do I yell out, “Hey, Liz!  You are welcome to come in and visit the class, girl!”  No! Heaven forbid that one should address a monarch directly as “you”; you must address her majesty, which accompanies her at all times like a hologram.  You have to say, “Your majesty is…” and also bow or curtsy.   And so it goes with everyone in Spanish whom one might address with any sort of title, even the simple daily “Sr. “ (except for the curtsy part).

The students are also generally unaware that the forms thee/thou/thine/thy still living in our churches are not meant to suggest awe of an omnipotent authority since we wear ties to worship services, but are rather remnants of English familiar address from a couple of centuries back.  When you use them in a prayer or hymn, you are actually addressing God as if He were your loving parent or friend.

I demonstrated this concept for roughly the 200th time in Spanish 101, and then a couple of weeks ago a student who was looking at his phone interrupted the class to inform us that the queen had just died.  I must admit I was shocked in that instant; I knew that her condition had been guarded, but the actual event was still unexpected.

After a moment, I said, “Bueno,…” and the same student asked, “You think it’s good!?!”  This interjection required yet another explanation of “forms of vacillation.” He had dutifully learned the denotation of “bueno,” but he did not know that it also has the value of “Well/OK, …” when one is starting a sentence.

So much to learn and so little time… I guess I will have to take a new tack next fall, maybe “Hey, Charlie, you wacky nut!  Come on in here, boy!”

Mike Wilson is chairman of Modern Foreign Languages at Catawba College.

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