Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Eng. discuss and Sp. discutir, Part 2

[This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

This is Part 2. Go to Part 1

Eng. discuss and Sp. discutir

Figure 1: Discussing the War in a Paris Café, a scene from the brief interim between the Battle of Sedan and Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War[i]

English discuss is first attested in the late 14th century, a loanword from (written) Latin, the written language of culture in England at the time, according to the experts. Its source would have been the passive participle form dscŭssus of the Latin verb dĭscŭtĕre (see the preceding section). When English borrowed verbs from Latin, it tended to borrow its passive participle form, in this case dĭscŭssus, not its present infinitive form, which in this case would have been dĭscŭtĕre (cf. Part I, Chapter 8).

On the other hand, the verb discuss could conceivably have been a loanword from Anglo-Norman, the form of Old French spoken in England by the upper classes after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Anglo-Norman had the verb discusser, attested at the end of the 13th century with the meaning ‘to debate, examine’ and in the early 14th century with the meaning ‘to decide, determine’. It is clear, however, that in this and other varieties or dialects of Old French, this verb was a loanword from written Latin, however, not a patrimonially (orally) received Latin word. This verb has not made it into Modern Standard French, however, but it could very well have been a source of Eng. discuss in the 14th century, in addition to the Latin one.

We should note that some varieties of Old French had another variant of this Latinate verb, namely discuter, first attested in writing in the 13th century. In the early 14th century it seems to have had the meaning ‘to examine the case for and against (something)’, and in the 16th century, the meaning ‘to contest, dispute’ (OED). Modern French discuter means ‘to debate, to discuss; to argue, to consider’, but also ‘to question, to dispute’ when referring to orders, ‘to debate, to question’ when referring to the veracity of a claim, or ‘to haggle over’ when talking about the price of something (Larousse Chambers). As we shall see, these are all meanings much closer to those of Sp. discutir than to those of Eng. discuss. As we said, Standard Modern French does not have a verb discusser, only discuter. Curiously, however, at some point English borrowed the Old French verb discuter as to discute [dᵻˈskjut], attested already in the mid-15th century. Most senses of this English verb are now obsolete in Modern Standard English, but discute is still a non-standard verb in some varieties of English with the meaning ‘to contest, dispute’, or so we are told by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

As we can see in any Modern English dictionary, such as the American Heritage Dictionary, the verb discuss, which is strictly transitive (must have a direct object), has two main, closely related senses: (1) ‘to speak with another or others about [something]; talk [something] over’ and (2) ‘to examine or consider (a subject) in speech or writing’ (AHD). This verb had a few other senses in the past, which are now obsolete, such as ‘to examine, investigate; to try judicially’ (OED). In other words, discussing a topic means either talking about it or presenting it to an audience in speech or writing, without any idea of opposing one’s thoughts or opinions to those of others.

The American Heritage Dictionary discusses the differences and similarities between the verb discuss and other synonymous verbs, namely argue, debate, dispute, and contend:

These verbs mean to talk with others in an effort to reach agreement, to ascertain truth, or to convince. Discuss involves close examination of a subject with interchange of opinions: My therapist discussed my concerns with my parents. Argue emphasizes the presentation of facts and reasons in support of a position opposed by others: The lawyer argued the plaintiff’s case. Debate involves formal, often public argument: The candidates debated the campaign issues. Dispute implies differences of opinion and usually sharp argument: The senators disputed over increases in the proposed budget. To contend is to strive in debate or controversy: She contended that her theory was easily proven.

Thus, as we can see, Eng. discuss is the one that least entails a confrontation of ideas. In this, it differs significantly from its Spanish cognate discutir, as we shall see.

Spanish and other Romance languages also have descendants of Lat. dĭscŭtĕre, though in these languages, the verb’s name goes by the infinitive form, which makes it more obvious that these verbs are related to the Latin verb dĭscŭtĕre. The earliest written attestations seem to be Catalan discutir (1344), and Italian discutere (1364), both in the 14th century (OED). Sp. discutir and Portuguese discutir are attested a little bit later, in the 15th century.

Sp. discutir is definitely a loanword, not a patrimonial verb descended by word of mouth (uninterrupted oral transmission) from Latin over the centuries. This 3rd conjugation Latin verb (infinitive ending in ‑ĕre) was assigned to the third conjugation in Spanish (infinitive ending ‑ir). This was a typical adaptation when borrowing third conjugation Latin verbs (cf. Part I, Chapter 8). Although dictionaries tell us that Spanish took this verb from Latin, it is more than likely that Spanish borrowed this verb not directly from (written) Latin but indirectly through French since, as we have seen, this language seems to have borrowed the Latin word even earlier, in the 13th century. As we have repeatedly seen, the French language was definitely an innovator in Western Europe when it came to borrowing from Latin, and English and Spanish almost invariably followed its lead.

Sp. discutir is not commonly found in writing until the 16th century, when it already had the meaning it has today, pretty much the same meaning that its cognate has in other Romance languages. (This coincidence of meanings with other Romance language cognates, in particular French ones, is another strong indication that Spanish got the word from those languages, or through those languages, and not directly from a written Latin source.) Sp. discutir came to pretty much replace the verb contender, a somewhat rare verb today, whose main meaning is now ‘to compete, fight’, but which also means ‘to dispute, debate, argue’ (Sp. ‘disputar, debatir, altercar’, DLE) and ‘to argue, to contrast opinions, points of view, etc.’ (Sp. ‘discutir, contraponer opiniones, puntos de vista, etc.’, DLE).[1]

As for the modern meaning of Sp. discutir, the matter is somewhat complicated, in an interesting sort of way. Most Spanish dictionaries give as the first (and thus primary) meaning of this word something that would seem to be very close to the meaning of the English verb discuss. The Diccionario de Uso del Español de América y España VOX gives us the following as the fist sense of discutir: ‘for several people to examine and deal a matter or topic proposing arguments or reasons to explain it, find a solution, or come to an agreement about it’.[2] María Moliner’s dictionary has as the first meaning of discutir: ‘for several people to deal with the different aspects of some matter, each putting forward and defending their viewpoint; particularly for two people to talk with another to reach an agreement about the conditions of a deal’ (MM).[3] Similarly, the Academies’ dictionary (DLE, formerly DRAE) gives the following as the first meaning of this verb: ‘said of two or more people: To examine closely and in detail some topic’ (DLE).[4] Thus, one might be inclined to think that the main meaning of Sp. discutir is quite close to that of Eng. discuss: ‘to talk something over’, ‘to talk about something’.

However, the second meaning or sense for discutir in these dictionaries for the verb discutir describes a more oppositional or antagonistic type of conversation, one that is much closer to those expressed in English by the verbs debate or argue. Vox’s definition of this second meaning is: ‘said of two or more people: to defend opposing opinions or interests in a conversation or dialogue’.[5] María Moliner’s dictionary gives us the following as the second sense of discutir: ‘said of two or more people: to maintain opposite opinions or claims in a dialogue or conversation, e.g. Discuten de política ‘They are arguing about politics’. Los dos chicos discuten por quién va a ir por el periódico ‘The two boys are arguing about who is going to go get the paper’’ (MM).[6] We are also told that this sense of discutir is synonymous with argumentar and disputar.

Both of these dictionaries give a third meaning for discutir, which also involves confrontational postures on the part of the participants in the conversation. According to Vox, this third sense is ‘to express a contrary opinion or to contradict someone, e.g. discutir sus ideas ‘to debate their ideas’, discutir el precio ‘to argue about the price’’ (Vox).[7] María Moliner’s dictionary’s version of the third sense is: ‘for someone to express a disagreement with someone else’s opinion or order, e.g. No tolera que se discutan sus órdenes ‘He can’t stand for his orders to be questioned’. No debes discutirle al profesor lo que dice ‘You must not argue with (question) the teacher’’. Synonyms of this sense of discutir are contradecir and objetar (MM).[8]

Interestingly, the Academy’s dictionary (DLE) seems to conflate the second and third ‘oppositional’ senses that we just saw into one: ‘to contest and give reasons against someone else’s opinion, e.g. Todos discutían sus decisiones ‘They all questioned his decisions’, Discutieron con el contratista sobre el precio de la obra ‘They argued with the contractor about the price of the job’ (DLE).[9]

No matter how one splits the senses of discutir, some of them obviously imply the connotation of a confrontational exchange or conversation, something that is not really the case with any of the senses of the English cognate verb discuss. Even if we look closely at the definitions that seem to describe a non-confrontational conversation for Spanish discutir of the type the English verb discuss denotes, we find that there is something different between the two types of conversation being described. Thus, if we look at the example sentences for that non-confrontational and primary definitions of discutir in these dictionaries, we find that the type of conversation or exchange being described is not a mere friendly chat, bus rather a serious back-and-forth with at least weak opposition and confrontation involved. The example given for the first sense of discutir in Vox is El Parlamento discutirá la cuestión el próximo día 24 ‘The Parliament will discuss/debate the matter on the 24th’, which sounds more like a debate than a friendly chat of people shooting the breeze. In María Moliner’s (MM) dictionary, the example sentence is Están discutiendo el precio del coche ‘They are discussing/arguing about the car’s price’, which actually describes the act of bargaining or haggling, not merely chatting. Finally, the example for the first, not obviously confrontational sense for discutir in the Gran Diccionario de la Lengua Española LAROUSSE (GDLEL) is Hay que discutir este tema en la próxima reunión ‘We have to discuss/talk about this topic in the next meeting’. Although the kind of talking that happens in a formal meeting can be described as a discussion, it is clear that it is typically quite different from an informal chat, one in which opinions are presented often forcefully and typically in opposition to other people’s opinions.

Thus, although the first sense of discutir as expressed in most Spanish dictionaries would seem to be quite compatible with the first sense of the English verb discuss, which would thus make these two verbs ‘good friends’ (having very similar meanings), it is quite clear that Sp. discutir is rarely going to be a good option to translate the English verb discuss. That is because, as the non-primary definitions make very clear, Sp. discutir involves the presentation of ideas and opinions that are typically contrasting, incompatible, irreconcilable, inconsistent, antithetical, contradictory, clashing, contrary, different, divergent, dissimilar, opposed, opposite, and incompatible to some extent. The opposition may be mild, strong, or something in between, but it is always present in the meaning of the Spanish verb discutir, whereas it is not there in the meaning of the English verb discuss.

As for the second sense of Eng. discuss, namely ‘to examine or consider (a subject) in speech or writing’ (AHD), there is no doubt that Spanish discutir could never be an acceptable translation for it. In English, for instance, you can say that a speaker discussed a particular topic, or that a book discusses something or other, but that sense of the verb discuss are best expressed in Spanish by the verbs analizar, examinar, or (in writing) tratar (de), in addition to hablar (de), the least ostentatious synonym of all.

Most Spanish-English dictionaries give various possible translations for Sp. discutir but invariable the first one given is to discuss, which may lead those who consult these dictionaries into thinking that that is the safest or default choice. That, however, is rarely the case, for the reasons we have just discussed. The other options (senses) that are given in such dictionaries are typically much better choices, such as to debate, to challenge, to dispute, to question, to argue, and to quarrel. As for the translations for Eng. discuss in English-Spanish dictionaries, we are happy to report that discutir is rarely the first option given (though there are exceptions). For the first sense of Eng. discuss the options hablar (de) and tratar typically come first. As for the second sense of discuss, as we just saw, analizar, examinar, estudiar, and tratar (de) are given (and never discutir).

There is an important grammatical difference between Eng. discuss and Sp. discutir, namely that the former is always a transitive verb, where the matter discussed is expressed as the direct object. Sp. discutir can also be used transitively, particularly when it means ‘to debate’, as in El Parlamento discutirá la cuestión el próximo día 24 ‘The Parliament will debate the matter on the 24th’ (DUEAEV), or in discutir el precio ‘to argue about the price’ (DUEAEV). This, however, is not the most common way to refer to the matter being ‘discussed’ when it comes to the verb discutir. In Spanish, discutir is primarily an intransitive verb, in particular when it unequivocally means ‘to argue’, as in Mis padres nunca discuten ‘My parents never argue’. With intransitive discutir meaning ‘to argue’, if the matter under ‘discussion’ is mentioned is always as a complement of the preposition de or, less commonly, sobre or por, as in Discuten siempre de fútbol ‘They’re always arguing about soccer’ (GDLEL), or Discuten sobre quién va a ir primero ‘They’re arguing about who is going to go first’. Note that Eng. argue, unlike Eng. discuss, is an intransitive verb (cannot have a direct object) and if a complement is added to express what is being argued about, it must come as the object of the preposition about, not as a direct object, as in They’re arguing about politics (not *They’re arguing politics).

The verb discuss is one that is used a great deal in academic contexts in the US. It is quite common for teachers and professors to ask their students to gather in groups to discuss something or other, such as a reading they have all just done. Invariably, this means that the students should talk about the topic, but not in a confrontational, oppositional, argumentative manner, the way it would be done in a debate for instance in which different parties present opposing views or in an emotionally-charged conversation or argument. Such an outcome may take place in the course of a discussion but there is nothing in the meaning of the verb discuss that guarantees or even suggests it will the way that connotation is present in the Spanish verb discutir. Because of what we have said about the difference in meaning between Sp. discutir and Eng. discuss, it is obviously best not to translate Eng. discuss as discutir in academic contexts. Better translations are typically conversar (de/sobre), hablar (de/sobre), estudiar, or analizar.

Go to Part 3: Eng. discussion ~ Sp. discusión



[1] Although contender is not a common word in Spanish today, a word derived from contender is indeed common, namely the adjective and noun contendiente, which as a noun means ‘contender, contestant’ and as an adjective, ‘contending, competing’.

[2] The original says: ‘Examinar y tratar entre [varias personas] un asunto o un tema proponiendo argumentos o razonamientos para explicarlo, solucionarlo o llegar a un acuerdo acerca de él: el Parlamento discutirá la cuestión el próximo día 24’ (Diccionario de Uso del Español de América y España VOX).

[3] The original says: ‘Tratar entre varias personas, exponiendo y defendiendo cada una su punto de vista, los distintos aspectos de un ↘*asunto. Particularmente, hablar una persona con otra para llegar a un *acuerdo sobre las ↘condiciones de un trato: ‘Están discutiendo el precio del coche’’ (María Moliner).

[4] The original says: ‘Dicho de dos o más personas: Examinar atenta y particularmente una materia’ (DLE, 2020.09.11).

[5] The original says: ‘Defender [dos o más personas] opiniones o intereses opuestos en una conversación o un diálogo’ (Diccionario de Uso del Español de América y España VOX).

[6] The original says: ‘Sostener dos o más personas opiniones o pretensiones opuestas en un diálogo o conversación: Discuten de política. Los dos chicos discuten por quién va a ir por el periódico. Argumentar, disputar’ (MM).

[7] The original says: ‘Expresar una opinión contraria a algo o contradecir a alguien: discutir sus ideas, discutir el precio’ (Vox).

[8] The original says: ‘Manifestar alguien una opinión contraria a ↘algo dicho u ordenado por otra persona: No tolera que se discutan sus órdenes. No debes discutirle al profesor lo que dice. *Contradecir, objetar.’ (MM)

[9] The original says: ‘Contender y alegar razones contra el parecer de alguien. Todos discutían sus decisiones. U. m. c. intr. Discutieron con el contratista sobre el precio de la obra’ (DLE).



[i] Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ParisCafeDiscussion.png; The Illustrated London News, 17 September 1870.


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