Judy Hochberg’s delightful new book ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish, published in 2016 by Bloomsbury Academic, is an engrossing and meticulously researched 326-page book that will be a joy to read for any Spanish linguistics teacher, general linguist, Spanish speaker, or any person curious about how language (and Spanish in particular) functions. David Crystal has called ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish “a masterclass in linguistic exposition.”
Hochberg, a professor at Fordham, claims that she wrote the book to “synthesize and share the most interesting things” (xxi) she has learned as a student, linguistics researcher and Spanish teacher. She (and with her, many of us) wishes she could have read a volume such as this one when she was “getting serious about Spanish” (xxi). The book’s concise, highly readable [End Page 332] chapters are indeed structured as one hundred and one questions about the inner workings of Spanish, its development and psychosocial context. One can imagine most of the questions being asked in Spanish classes of any proficiency level; however, they are undoubtedly of interest to scholars who do not specialize in Spanish linguistics. The one hundred and one brisk, insightful chapter-answers draw on research of a variety of scholarly sources, including academic books, census reports, dictionaries, online corpora, journals, newspapers and literary texts spanning more than 275 years.
Part one of the book, “Spanish in Context,” is further divided into five subcategories of questions that treat the most important synchronic, diachronic and comparative aspects of Spanish: Spanish today; From Latin to Spanish; Spanish and Romance; Spanish and other languages; as well as its learning and acquisition, both as a first and a second language. The first thirty-five questions and answers contain the “what” and “how” (rather than “why”) of Spanish and its usage (xxii). Some of my favorites from this first part (although there are really too many to mention) are topics dear to many a sociolinguist’s heart, such as: Can all Spanish speakers understand each other? (33); Who’s in charge of the Spanish language? (4); If Basque isn’t related to Spanish, what is it? (83); Is Spanish the easiest language for a speaker of English to learn? (126); and Does speaking Spanish change the way you think? (121).
Part two, named “Inside Spanish,” delves into more strictly structural topics—the “why” questions covered in Spanish linguistics texts and language textbook, although without Hochberg’s stylistic flair: chapter 6 deals with the lexicon, chapter 7 with the alphabet and writing conventions of written language, chapter 8 is on phonetics and phonology, and chapters 9–10 cover morphosyntactic topics, namely, proper names, nouns and pronouns (9), verbs (10) and sentences (11).
I find the idea of framing topics of interest as sharply formulated questions, answered in under three pages, with useful charts, boxes and illustrations and completed with a brief but fundamental bibliography (to learn more sections), extremely appealing. Hochberg’s accessible though erudite writing does not sacrifice any complexity in the treatment of each phenomenon. Some of the topics contained in part two include: What happened to ch and ll? (163); How do you write txt msgs in Spanish? (177); Is there a version of Pig Latin for Spanish? (199); Why conjugate? (233); How can Spanish use the same word for was and went? (249); Why does Spanish have the “la la” rule? (Or does it?) (285). Each answer starts with a thorough description of the relevant aspect “written in a way that assumes no prior knowledge of either Spanish or linguistics” (xxii). Various salient themes covered across several question/answers are organized into principal strands, indexed as: Blame Latin!; Don’t Blame Latin! (that discuss aspects original to Spanish); Perfect Storm (morphological aspects resulting from “a virtual conspiracy” (xxii) of multiple factors); Spanish is special; Spanish is normal (aspects, such as capitalization, that are common to other languages), and Linguistic legends. Again, replete with language data and rigorous analysis, Hochberg’s prose will not bore an experienced scholar of Spanish, and, at the same time...