'Se', the Anti-Hero. Learning Spanish. USE FOR MEMOIR

One day in the autumn of 1980, when I was living in Talavera de la Reina I spent a morning in Madrid. Keen to learn more Spanish, I browsed around a shop selling just about every text book you could think of.  Amongst this array of books, one caught my eye. It was a teeny tiny, skinny minny paperback which looked completely innocuous. However, as I flicked through the pages the contents were enough to make my skinny minny brain puzzled and perplexed.

The only subject of the book was the Spanish word, ‘se’.  Can’t be that bad, can it?  I can hear you mutter. And you’d be correct. He’s just a wee word is this ‘se’.  

But, gollee wollee, he certainly does change the meaning of sentences. He evolves and revolves, slipping and sliding just like any elusive anti-hero we all love to hate.

Let’s look at some uses of ‘se’.
El niño se llama Juan.    (The boy calls himself Juan.  The boy is called Juan.)
Ella se llama Ana.   (She calls herself Ana. She’s called Ana.)
¿Cómo se llama usted? (How do you call yourself? What are you called?)
¿Cómo se llaman ustedes? (How do you call yourselves? What are you called?)
Ellos se llaman Miguel y Juan. (They call themselves Miguel and Juan. They’re called Miguel and Juan.)
Ellas se llaman Marta y Josefina.   (They call themselves Marta and Josefina. They’re called Marta and Josefina.)
As you see from the above sentences ‘se’ can mean himself, herself, yourself, yourselves, themselves.
Here are other examples of sentences using ‘se’:
Ella se baña.  She bathes (herself).
Ellos se levantan a las ocho. They get up at eight o’clock. (They lift or raise themselves)

I’m sure you already have read about reflexive verbs and their reflexive pronouns, so maybe this is a bit too easy, but it’s always good to review things. Let’s look at another use of ‘se’.

The sentences that I love are the ones where you say something along the lines of “I give it to you”. What is the word for ‘it’, and, what is the word for ‘to you’, assuming we are using the formal singular or plural?  This is when you have to really think hard. Or, at least I always used to have to. Hmm. Where to begin?

What does ‘it’ refer to? Let’s assume it’s a book. That’s masculine, singular. ‘Lo’ in Spanish.
Sure would be nice if we just had to say “Doy lo a usted.” Gosh, doesn’t that look weird! It sounds weird too.

The ‘lo’ (it) goes in front of the verb. Most annoying, I know, but you do get used to it.
Lo doy.”  I give it. 

So far so good. But what about the ‘to you’?  Remember, we’ll use the formal ‘you’ here, singular and plural.

Roll of drums….. I wonder what teeny tiny word you need?  

It’s ‘se’!  

Se lo doy.   To you it I give. In other words, I give it to you.  The indirect object pronoun ‘se’ is placed first.

But, wait a minute. That pesky little ‘se’ can also mean ‘to her’, ‘to him’, ‘to them’. He is a pesky little thing, isn’t he?

What are all the possible meanings of “Se lo doy”?

I give it to him. I give it to her. I give it to you (singular and plural, formal). I give it to them.
Oh my!

Let’s clarify things.

Se lo doy a él.  Se lo doy a ella.  Se lo doy a usted.  Se lo doy a ustedes. Se lo doy a ellos/ellas. 

Yep.  Welcome to the exquisite expansion of sentences simply to clarify the meaning brigade.  Not to worry. With a bit of luck the context will let people know what the ‘se’ refers to. That would be good!  

What does this mean?  Se lo doy a Paco.  
(Not going to tell. It’s a secret! Ha ha.)

Have you seen funny things like, “Se habla español”, “Se prohibe fumar” “Se vende casa”? That’s that ‘se’ again just popping up everywhere. Here it can mean “Spanish is spoken”, “Smoking is prohibited”, “House for sale”. It’s the passive voice. Who really cares what it’s called? I know. Life is tough enough without having to get all dramatic over a silly little mannequin called ‘se’.

Here are some other examples of where ‘se’ is used.

Se puede comprar muchas cosas en el supermercado.  You can buy lots of things in the supermarket.
Se conduce muy rápido en España. People drive very fast in Spain.
¿Cómo se dice ‘table’ en español? How do you say ‘table’ in Spanish?

It’s basically the impersonal use. In English one translation is to use ‘one’.  One drives very fast in Spain. Does one? Yes, one does. (Just don’t forget that when you brake, your car doesn’t stop immediately. I don’t think people knew that way back in the seventies and eighties.)

I bet you think that that’s all there is to ‘se’.  Nope. It isn’t.

There’s more. (Yikes!)

Ellos se conocieron en una fiesta.  They met one another at a party.
Ellos se enamoraron. They fell in love with one another.
Ellos se escribieron. They wrote to one another.
Ellos se pelearon. They fought with one another.
Y ahora no se hablan. And now they don’t speak to one another. 

Yes, ‘se’ can also mean “one another”.

This is just some of the numerous meanings for this wee smout of a word.
Se usa muchísimo esta palabra ‘se’ en español, ¿verdad?  This word ‘se’ is used a great deal in Spanish, isn’t it?

So, how do you say ‘se’ in English?!  Well…