automatic writing

Yesterday, I signed off an email to a colleague with the Spanish phrase que te sea leve. It seemed appropriate, knowing that the summer is upon us, compañeros de trabajo are off on holiday and teams that are stretched at the best of times are now at snapping point.

bare bone on bare earth
Let the earth lie light...
“Que te sea leve” ~ “may it (life) be light for you.”

I like the phrase, but had no idea of its derivation.

Fortunately, despite the absence of colleagues, there is usually time for an exchange of ideas and information, and he pointed out that this is more or less what the Romans put on the tombstones of loved ones:

Sic tibi terra levis. ~ Let the earth lie light upon you.

What a lovely phrase.

Still, that’s all rather incidental to this post, which was prompted by the actual physical act of typing que te sea leve, rather than by its meaning.

Each time I type that phrase, I have to go back and remove an unwanted “l” from the end. I can’t imagine I’ve had cause to write about “sea level” more than a couple of times in my life, but my fingers appear to be tuned into my maritime heritage as a Brit.

Which made me think of certain language mistakes that we make time and again, not through ignorance, but through automation.

My fingers are so tuned to the written patterns of English that a word ending in “in” frequently gets an additional “g” added, and it’s hard to type “ratio” without it becoming “ration”. I’ve lost track of the number of times I intended to write “yo” (the Spanish first person singular pronoun “I”) and ended up with “you” instead. (I don’t think this means that writing in Spanish makes me less egocentric.)

Similarly, I’ve often seen “de” written instead of “the” by Spaniards, almost certainly because it’s a familiar motor pattern, although no doubt connected, too, to their pronunciation of the letter “d” as a very thick voiced “th”. (My phonetics is rusty, but I think the technical description is that the Spanish “d” is a laminal alveolar – pronounced with the blade of the tongue against the alveolar ridge – rather than apical – where the tongue tip touches the ridge as it does in English.)

Of course these learned patterns occur in speech as well as writing: When I was teaching and sharing a flat with a colleague, the phrases “¿vienes a clase?” and “¿vienes a casa?” were both high frequency for me. The number of times I bumped into a student in the bar and invited him home when I meant to check whether he’d be attending class might have got me quite a reputation if it hadn’t usually been clear that I was simply on automatic pilot.

Of course the automatic speech patterns relate back to language chunking where we don’t stop and analyse each word separately but learn standard phrases as chunks of information.

Learning frases hechas as vocabulary without analysing the grammar is a really useful technique for adult language learners: I’ve no doubt that’s how I first discovered que te sea leve, and it never bothered me that I was using an irregular subjunctive long before I’d studied it. By repeatedly using the form sea, though, it became familiar, and was easy to accept when I learned it officially.


Oh, if anyone’s wondering about the photo, yes, it is a bone. I though it was a white stone and walked past it on my way to and from the village for days without stopping to look more closely. Having stopped, though, I was taken with how it looks like a skull. I have no idea what animal it comes from, nor what kind of bone it is. But I am intrigued to be living in a country where (parts of) skeletons lie unburied within spitting distance of my house.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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