“Yours truly” and other linguistic gestures of modesty

Giros como 'su servidor' (o 'yours truly' en inglés) son pequeños gestos lingüísticos de humildad o modestia. Pero, como casi siempre, hay un interesante matiz de diferencia entre las dos lenguas.

Phrases like “yours truly” (or Spanish “su servidor” and its variants) are small linguistic gestures of modesty. But here, as so often happens, subtle but striking cultural differences can be seen in how the languages make the gesture.

Enlace al español /Link here for Spanish 

Dear reader,

In English, an indirect and somewhat humorous way to refer to oneself is “yours truly”, a phrase originating in the common closing for letters (Spanish “Atentamente” is similar).

It’s widely used, for example in statements like “That painting was done by yours truly”.

The Spanish equivalent is “este servidor” or its variants, “un servidor” and “su servidor”, all meaning something like “your servant”.

And here we see an intriguing difference: both phrases, it’s true, are linguistic gestures of modesty or humility—a way to avoid saying “I” (English) or “yo” (Spanish). But something about the Spanish version is somehow more formal, even archaic.

Can you imagine the guffaws if someone said, in English, “That painting was done by your humble servant”?

Moreover, English speech uses “I” constantly (observe how that imperial pronoun is the only one that gets capitalized in English!) while Spanish “yo” is heard much less frequently. The reasons are partly—but, in my view, only partly—grammatical: conjugated Spanish verbs almost always clearly indicate the person. For instance, in “Toco la guitarra” the “yo” (I) is understood, it’s clear that the meaning is “I play the guitar”. In English, in contrast, “I play”, “you play”, “we play” can be told apart only by the pronoun.

Careful, though: this is in no way to say that Hispanics/Latinos are all modest, and English speakers all self-centered—an absurdly vast generalization. What we can see in that self-effacing avoidance of “yo” (I), though, is an expression in everyday language of a deeply-rooted cultural ideal of the Hispanic world.

¡Buenas palabras!


Copyright 2013 por Pablo Julián Davis. All Rights Reserved. This essay was originally written for the 3-9 March 2013 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), as part of the weekly bilingual column “Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”. Pablo J. Davis (www.interfluency.com) is an ATA Certified Translator (English>Spanish) and a Tennessee Supreme Court Certified Court Interpreter (English<>Spanish). 


About Pablo Julián Davis
Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, ATA Certified Translator (Engl>Span) and Supreme Court of Tennessee Certified Interpreter (EnglSpan), offers world-class Spanish/English language services including translation, interpreting, copywriting, and editing in both languages. His specialties are legal, business, medical, and humanities/education; he has wide experience in other fields as well. Also offered: interactive and transformative cultural-awareness training for companies, non-profits, communities, government agencies, institutions of faith, and other audiences. (See just a small sampling of testimonials from happy and satisfied clients: interfluency.com/testimonials.html) The ability to move effectively from language to language - which necessarily also means moving between cultures - has likely never been at a greater premium than it is in today's world. That ability is what we mean by Interfluency TM.

One Response to “Yours truly” and other linguistic gestures of modesty

  1. Pingback: “Un servidor”: los gestos lingüísticos de modestia | Interfluency: Translation+Culture

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