On Language Variation

I was addressed as “Madre,” and it utterly knocked me back. I had never been addressed that way, or heard anyone addressed that way, and the last time I read it was in La Celestina (1499, but see also the movie with Penélope Cruz as Melibea, and Maribel Verdú as Areusa).

I had just arrived in a small Andean town, and I asked the driver of a mototaxi whether he knew where my designated hostel was. “Sí, Madre,” said he. And I thought, “He is addressing me as La Celestina was addressed.” Verily I repeat unto you-all, I had never heard this form of address used in real life before.

What was going on? I wanted to know. Was I just older now, to be addressed this way, or was it a regional archaism or a ruralism, like “caser@” when used as a form of address? Then I heard “Madre,” directed to me and also to others, several more times as I progressed to smaller and smaller towns, further and further up in the mountains. It felt utterly ancient and exotic to me.


I waited to ask about it until I could ask a native speaker and a Celestina scholar. Do people in contemporary real life address women as “Madre?” Yes, they do, he said. But he had just met a family from the area I visited. He had asked the teenager whether she had a boyfriend, and she had answered, “No, yo no conozco varón alguno.” It knocked him back for the same sorts of reasons as being addressed as “Madre” did me. Yet to me it sounded normal, as “Madre” did to him.

And this man would not blink, I am sure, if he heard a Peruvian pronounce madre as “mare,” but I always do, because it makes me think I have changed places and eras, maybe even chronotopes. Yet I ought to expect it, since we know Latin American Spanish is heavily Andalusian.


Archaic style and vocabulary always amaze me more than archaic verb forms. I have heard and noted verb forms like “vide” and “trujiese” en el merito Albuquerque. Yet I know which are officially archaic and which are modern. But due to regional differences and varying degrees of preservation, in terms of vocabulary and style I am never quite sure whether what I am hearing, or saying, is contemporary or not.


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