Homeroom’s over. Sit up straight and pay attention.
If you take a look at transliterated Arabic some time (I’m dreaming, aren’t I), you’ll find the roots of a lot that’s Spanish. Arabic-speaking people ran the peninsula for hundreds of years; they left more of a linguistic legacy than just the word for meatballs. They also introduced many foods, including one in particular – fideos – that anyone whose cooking has deep roots in Spain thinks of as their own. Which after so many centuries making the stuff, it is, across Latin America and in Sephardic homes wherever in the world you may find them.
Today, fideos is Spanish for noodles in general, but originally it referred to a category of dry pastas made from durum wheat. This post is about words, not wheat. The word is spelled as you see it here: F-I-D-E-O-S. It is not – NOT! – spelled ‘fidellos’, nor has it ever been, not correctly, anyway, and neither should it ever be. If you’ve been spelling fideos with a double L thrown in for good measure, and maybe thinking you were pretty clever about it, to boot (“It’s got that Spanish ‘Lyeh’ sound, so it gets a double L!”), I’m sorry but I’m about to burst your bubble. Likewise if you think it’s got four syllables. It’s not ‘fih-DEH-lee-yohss.’ (Cringe, cringe.) That’s an opera, and occasionally a ballet, but never a pasta dish. Though I’ll grant you most ballerinas are as thin as spaghetti.
To be fair, if you are guilty of the over-pronunciation and bad spelling, it may be because you first encountered the egregious offense while reading up on Sephardic food somewhere, perhaps not yet knowing you were supposed to be reading about fideos. You may have read that the double L is a Ladino spelling – which is sooo wrong (it’s fideyos). Maybe, to your credit, you even sensed it must be wrong, but against your better judgment you caved, because it seemed to come from, you know, a trustworthy source.
So I’m going to straighten this out. Because as time goes by, I see the offensive misspelling cropping up more and more, not exactly going viral but definitely spreading itself about – believe it or not, even in Spain. Give it time, it’ll get worse. It’s on the internet. It’s in books – books! Books that got their information from other, more authoritative books, so it must be right, right? Wrong. Wrong! Where are the editors?
Next time you’re in the Spanish foods section – which is where you have to go to buy Spanish pasta – pick up a box of fideos. Any brand. Plain as day, same as it ever was. F-I-D-E-O-S. There’s no double L. The stuff’s been around for a thousand years. Trust the Spanish pasta makers on this one.
What’s up with that ‘Lyeh’ sound, anyway? Where does it come from? Well, from all over Iberia. Every Latin language in Spain uses some form of it. Also Portuguese. French, too. (They especially punch it up in Marseilles.) Oh, yeah – and Arabic.
Linguistically, the ligative Y of Arabic (stop yawning!) – an extended, double Y sound that ends one syllable and begins the next – is related to the Spanish LL. Take the word b’stiyya (pastilla in Spanish). Say “EEEY-ya” enough times, and you’ll hear and feel a soft L coming from the middle of your tongue, between those two syllables. Now you’re speaking Arabic! Also Spanish, and French with a Marseilles accent.
Loads of LL words are rooted in Latin, but when it comes to the ones taken from Arabic, the original would have needed that double Y going on to get the double L treatment in Spanish. Our friend fideos comes from a medieval Arabic word: fidaush. Where’s Waldo, eh? There’s not a ‘yy’ in sight. The ‘eo’ in fideos is a garden variety dipthong. No bonus sounds or letters. Just as ‘naïve’ is pronounced nah-eeve, not nigh-yeeve, the ‘eo’ in fideos is pronounced eh-oh, not ey-yo, which would be spelled e-l-l-o. And Harry Belafonte sang “Day-O!”, not day-yo, which would sound ridiculous. As ridiculous as fih-DEH-lee-yohss.
Such a nitpicking rant! You bet. This isn’t really about your bad spelling or pronunciation. It’s about the truth that’s stored in words, even in mundane ones. Histories large and small are constantly being rewritten, which is not always good nor wise nor honorable. Opinion is one thing, but if someone can get you to believe an ‘untruth’ about others, they can get you to accept one about yourself. Mistakes happen, sure. But when someone goes out of their way to distort the facts about something so innocuous as a noodle dish, or a loaf of bread, ask yourself why. These were cultural propaganda tactics of the Inquisition, and if that’s bad enough – which we can all agree it is – they’re at least as damaging when they come from within. It’s your culture, and your history. Own it.
Okay, I’m off the soapbox. Fideos the food is really interesting, too, and I have plenty more to say about it. To begin with, it’s a delicious staple with an irresistible, sexy texture, real comfort food in the way that only pasta can be. It’s versatile, too, but in a Sephardic kitchen we make it only one way…