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La noche: Spanish for night owls

Alejandro Navarro • Apr 18, 2023 • 3 minutes
Updated Oct 9, 2023
La noche: Spanish for night owls
The Graf Method for Spanish Language

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In this volume, we discuss the alphabet, definite and indefinite articles, and verbs ser and estar, among other topics.

Recent studies have shown that forcing people to follow an early morning schedule can have harmful consequences. Many institutions, from schools to banks, offices, warehouses and factories, are structured around a schedule of early arrival and early departure. For those whose internal clocks match these schedules, life is fairly easy, at least in terms of being alert and awake during work hours. Some, however, hit their peak later, at night. They are, as we say in Spanish, noctámbulos. Here are some phrases, verbs and vocabulary to describe night owls, as well as morning persons.

Obviously, we’ll start with the word noche. When it hits its midpoint, it’s medianoche. Some countries, like Spain and Argentina, stay active late into the night, while others turn in earlier. The verb atardecer describes the end of the afternoon, while the noun atardecer means sunset. The change from afternoon, while there’s still some light, to night, when there’s no light at all, is called anochecer. Like llover, nevar, and hacer combined with words like frío and calor, these verbs are conjugated in the impersonal third person. Nobody causes the sunset, nobody brings about the darkness of the night; they just happen on their own - En verano anochece más tarde. En invierno atardece más temprano.

Our own behaviors with regards to the night have their own verbs and nouns. Trasnochar means to stay up late into the night. A trasnochador can be considered a night owl, a person who stays up, same as a noctámbulo. In Colombia, for example, when we see someone yawning, we say, “A dormir donde te trasnocharon” which roughly translates to, “Go sleep wherever they kept you up.” This verb, staying up, can also be conjugated in a reflexive manner, “Anoche me trasnoché viendo capítulos de Narcos” - Last night I stayed up binge watching Narcos. And you can even say, “Estoy trasnochado” to indicate that you have slept very little.

The wee hours, or the small hours, can feel very special. If you have the energy to stay awake, you’ll enjoy a quiet time, as there’s less traffic, less people on the street; well, maybe not so much in NYC, but for the most part, it is a quieter time. We call this time la madrugada. And people who wake up at this hour, very early, are called madrugadores. And there’s a verb, madrugar, which means exactly that, to wake up at ungodly hours. Don Quijote, for example, was described as “gran madrugador.”

Madrugar, the verb, is also featured in popular expressions. One says, “Al que madruga, Dios le ayuda” which is a theological version of “The early bird gets the worm” only in this case it’s God who gives him or her the worm. The other one, perhaps coined by a very pragmatic and agnostic person, states that “No por mucho madrugar amanece más temprano” which means that the sun rises when it rises, and it’s not going to rise any earlier just because you woke up super early.

Some translations of morning person include alondra, persona mañanera, madrugador, persona matutina, although they’re not really all that commonly used. The words noctámbulo or trasnochador, however, have a hint of bohemian or intellectual life.

Obviously we can bookend the night with our beloved reflexive verbs: acostarse, to go to bed, and levantarse, to get up. What’s interesting about these two verbs is that they require your active decision to go to bed or to get up. But a couple other verbs work closely with them: Dormirse is the involuntary process of falling asleep, while despertarse is the involuntary act of waking up. Anyone who has suffered from insomnia, insomnio, in Spanish, knows that acostarse and dormirse don’t always happen at the same time. We also call this desvelarse, meaning to stay up. Likewise, anyone who hits the snooze button more than once knows that despertarse and levantarse don’t always happen in immediate succession. To those who are late in the morning we ask, “¿Se te pegaron las cobijas?” or “Did your blankets stick to you?”

And between those two verbs we have, obviously, the verb dormir, and those who enjoy long hours of sleep are called dormilones, which is the name of one of Snow White’s seven dwarves. We also have the verb soñar which means to dream, and the word sueño which can mean a dream, both in terms of your recollection of the narrative created by your subconscious during sleep, but also an aspiration or a goal. To describe the contents of a dream you can say, “Anoche soñé que ganaba la lotería” meaning, “Last night I dreamed that I won the lottery” or “Anoche soñé con mi profesora de álgebra” meaning “Last night I dreamed of my algebra teacher.” Which brings us to the word pesadilla, nightmare.

If you want to read more about nightmares and pesadillas search for Jorge Luis Borges’ conference on nightmares. Its title is La pesadilla, and whether you can read it in Spanish or in English, you are likely to learn a lot about psychology, etymology and folklore.

Alejandro Navarro
Alejandro Navarro

Alejandro Navarro is a Spanish language instructor at Berges Institute.

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