“To Be” or not “To Be”: CLAIS Colloquium Series Kicks Off with a Presentation on the Uses of “Ser” and “Estar” across Spanish Dialects

January 30, 2023

On Friday, Jan 27, a group of students and faculty gathered in Rosenkranz Hall to attend Maria Mercedes Piñango’s colloquium titled “Understanding the Many Uses of Ser and Estar Across Spanish Dialects.” The presentation, the first installment of CLAIS’ semester-long colloquium series, featured a lively discussion of linguistics and grammar in the Spanish-speaking world.

Mercedes Piñango, an associate professor in the Yale Department of Linguistics, began by emphasizing the innate connection between languages and the larger cognitive system. This connection forms the basis of her research, which she has been conducting along with seven students from Yale, Reading University, and Universidad Central de Venezuela. Mercedes Piñango and her team have conducted tests in several countries to explore the specific question of how Spanish-speakers differentiate between the uses of “ser” and “estar.”

As Mercedes Piñango explained, most people assume that the difference between these two verbs is mainly temporal. In other words, “ser” is thought to describe permanent states of being, while “estar” describes something changeable or temporary. What this assumption misses, however, is that “estar” often refers to things that are not temporary, like in the sentence “el relleno está suave” (“the filling is soft”). She found that “estar” is not necessarily temporary; rather, the verb is relative and context-dependent. Whereas “ser” tells something that is true no matter the context, “estar” is an attention-seeking device that is based on the here-and-now. These findings were replicated in studies in Argentina, Spain, Mexico, and Venezuela. Some of the colloquium’s attendees compared Piñango’s findings to their own Spanish dialects to highlight regional variations, but all were impressed by this new framework for understanding two of the language’s most essential words.

The colloquium ended with a Q&A in which the speaker and attendees discussed directions for future research. One participant asked how these findings translate to Portuguese and other Romance languages. Another wondered how “ser” and “estar” are used by bilingual people as compared to monolingual Spanish-speakers.

If you are interested in keeping up with future colloquia and other CLAIS events, check out CLAIS’ website and Twitter!

By Charlie Mayock-Bradley, Student Program Assistant