Fideos. It’s a pasta, not a ballet. No matter what they tell you.

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…

this way (to the recipe).

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11 Comments

Filed under History, Recipes

11 responses to “Fideos. It’s a pasta, not a ballet. No matter what they tell you.

  1. I do plan to eat one of those fideos some day and when I do I am certain to think of its garden variety diphthong, which does contain that surprising tidbit of the extra h. (As long as we are nitpicking.) Awesome rant.

    • Janet

      Hahaha! I don’t exactly stick to standard phonetics, do I. I wondered who’d be the first to notice. How perfect that it’s you 😀 Thanks for the thumbs up.

    • Janet

      Better yet, corrected. (Both our dads have just breathed a sigh of relief.)

  2. Great article, Janet. We always brown the nests in oil, but baking sounds like a much less messy way of doing it! Never thought to do it that way.
    Schelly Talalay Dardashti
    Tracing the Tribe – Jewish Genealogy on Facebook

    • Janet

      Browning the pasta in oil is a very old technique, Schelly, in practice since at least the early 13th century and doubtless long before that – and it was news to me! Not even my great grandmother used the oil. I’ll write more on this in future posts.

  3. Walter Franco

    Kara Janet, artikolo endyamantado. Only I want to clear something from your linguistics observation. As history confirms we the Jews were earlier into Iberia (Sefarad) than the Moors (“Arabs”) which gives as an early influence in the roots of the Spanish languages, there are plenty of Hebrew vocablos as well as Arabic. Sometimes due to the familiarity of our semitic words most people forget our contributions giving credit only to Arabic. anyway you are rigth about fideos sofritos which coincidentally also is true about the arroz sofrito that is popular all over the mediterranean as far as Persia and Indonesia and those not versed on our culinary skills think as burned or overdone. As far as I remember it was always a royal treat to eat the sofrito. Have a wonderful day and keep the great work to enriching so many tablas.

    • Janet

      Walter, Jews not only predate Moors in Iberia, they also predate the Visigoths, and possibly the Romans, too, though opinions vary on that one. Yes, they left many lasting marks on Spanish culture, but Hebrew isn’t part of that picture; it was not widely spoken conversationally, and you can be certain it wasn’t used at all outside of the Jewish community, which was always a minority, anyway. They may have held influence in medieval Spain, but not linguistically. Under Moorish rule the day to day language of Iberian Jews was Arabic, and under Spanish rule it was Spanish. There are at least twelve hundred Spanish words that come from Arabic. That just can’t be said for Hebrew. Which is probably as they wanted things to be; you can hide a lot of information when nobody understands your language (and they did!).

      I always appreciate your comments, Walter. You keep me on my toes! 😉

    • Yehuda (Walter)

      Dear Janet, I love to agree with you but there is a veil that must be open. There are books respect to the Hebrew influence in Spanish. The corrupted words that the Inquisition propagated in order to diminish Judaizant Anusim is a little example of how the cover up against anything Jewish still prevalent to obscure the Iberian History. Let’s view a couple and I will rest my case (by the way I will try to find book titles so I could introduce the evidence B’Seder) Bruja = Brajah, this word replced “hechicera” and “pitonisa” as you may deduce the church wanted people to associate Jewish Blessings to a lower value. Sota/ Zotah a word used in many Spanish speaking countries to denigrate somebody that is able to conduct successful negotiations etc. etc. I will research for the books, Un dia endyamantado ke tengasch Principesa.
      Previous to the Expulsion Jews enjoyed a promininet status, documents were written in Hebrew, as well as Arab also the schools of translators were dominated by Jewish scholars and the fact that Hebrew scripture survived in few buildings demonstrate that those that deny important aspects of the Iberian Juderias just repeat a fallacy. There are Hebrew names to cities like Toledo or Bejar (Behar) that are not cleared/ I am amazed as the example of the last name Perez or Peres that is a Biblical name when some people explain ignoring the fact it is presented as deriving from pera or piedra etc.
      Also if one investigates population wise also we can find places like Gerona that once counted with a strong Jewish majority. The forced conversions and the “inducements that occurred for many centuries in order to diminish the Jewish population does not mean that we were a small minority. We can deduce that the efforts of the conquering Catholics that were meaner to the Jews to the point that the Arab surrender required from the Catholic Kings to sign a 100 point pledge not to damage the Jewish Communities is something to consider.

    • Janet

      I don’t dispute what you’re saying, but it’s misdirecting the focus of my comments, and of my post. Arabic and Spanish were the vernacular in their respective kingdoms, and after the Reconquista, Arabic continued to be so widely spoken among Moriscos that that language was eventually outlawed. But based on there being thousands of Spanish words that come from Arabic (most of them nouns naming everyday objects), it’s fair to say they’d already been absorbed long enough ago to be considered Spanish, because they were not banned. Place names are place names, period. And as for a few Hebrew words (and Jewish surnames, by the way) that were turned into Spanish pejoratives, that is a radically different conversation.

  4. Mark L

    Beautiful blog as always Janet- I love hearing about word roots and cuisine. The Arabs that colonized Spain were rich, powerful people but I never really realized it until I started noticing that all the words in Spanish for comfortable things- like pillow, almohada- come from Arabic. And of course the new foods like sugar (azucar), oranges, (naranja), and even entire concepts like lunch (almuerzo). It makes you wonder what kind of life the Spanish lived prior to the Arab conquest! A much more rustic one, to be sure.

    Now for a linguistic point: I believe that the Spanish ” J”, the jota, is a direct cognate of the “kh” sound in Arabic, or at least a direct descendant. Lending weight to this thesis, I even saw the jota used as a stand-in for the Hebrew “chet” sound in a Mexican Jewish film, where they literally wrote out Hashem Elojénu Hashem Ejád. Ah, languages.

    Is this why every era of Spaniards seems to be obsessed with creating a “new, clean Spain” based on some abstract concept of purity? Are they just paranoid since the actual reality is mixed and confusing? When will they learn to relax, accept their multicultural selves and take a chill pill? Pueblo español que vuelve a resurgir.. I’d like to see the “resurgir” interpreted in a different way than an imperial one.

    What’s the deal with the silent H in Spanish, anyway? Some have put the silent H down to the Arab influence, too. Portuguese doesn’t have it- and I’ve noticed older Spanish lacks it, too. Portuguese says formosa for beautiful and older Spanish says fermosa. What do you think? If the Arabs had so many other throat-rattling H sounds in their native tongue, they could surely manage to pronounce the H in hermosa, helado, hermano..

    • Janet

      What kind of life did they live before the Muslim Conquest? Toward the end it was pretty awful. The Muslims conquered the Visigoths (Germanic people who sacked Rome – including their outposts further afield). They weren’t warm and fuzzy. Life wasn’t grand for anyone under the Visigoths, really, and it took the Muslims all of about seven years to defeat them and conquer most of the Iberian peninsula. (By 711 the Visigoths had fallen apart due to tribal infighting and were easy marks.)

      Next point. I don’t know that so many Arabic words necessarily mean the Arabs invented the concepts attached to them – in some instances yes, in some no – but their domination in Iberia lasted several hundred years and obviously helped shape the Spanish language. (BTW, Arabs introduced oranges to Iberia, but the word “naranja” came along with the tree, from Asia. Etc. etc.)

      Regarding the jota, I did consider that one sound when I was writing my earlier comments, but since I don’t know whether that comes from Hebrew or Arabic, I went with “Semitic” and left it at that. It could also come from Gothic – the language of the Visigoths, although the Gothic language faded away once the Visigoths embraced the Church of Rome.

      In re “f” vs “h”: when you consider the evolution of language, it’s tempting to want a neat, precise chronology. Forget it. Spanish is a mash-up of Latin origin with a heavy dose of Arabic words and Semitic sounds. That said, the h vs. f has nothing at all to do with the “throat rattling” sound you refer to. That’s the jota.

      I believe the f vs. h question, both in terms of pronunciation and spelling, is rooted in the evolution of Latin languages. Spanish spelling was only standardized by the Spanish Royal Academy in the early 1700’s. So in older Spanish texts, you’ll see f and h used interchangeably. The punctuation’s enough to drive you crazy, too. The f was pronounced like an f, and the h I think could go either way. Why did certain words wind up with f in Portuguese and h in Spanish? Why not. And why did the h go silent? Lazy tongues? Climate? Class distinction? You say potayto and I say potahto. Certain Spanish words written with a silent h today, used to be written with an f, which was pronounced as an f. Or an h. Or eventually nothing. It’s easy to drop an aspirated h before vowel. That’s not about Arabic, that’s everyone. One Englishman says hello and another says ‘ello.

      I will tell you this with certainty: if you want to know what old Spanish really sounded like, get a copy of the Poem of El Cid (or any very old Spanish literature) and ask a native Ladino speaker to read it aloud. It’s beautiful.

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