“No niños en la canasta” — not!

I’ve been meaning for some time to share this horrendous sign I saw in a shopping cart at my local supermarket:

This sign combines several mistakes, evidently as a result of a word-by-word translation:

  • The upside-down ¡ is missing.
  • You can’t say no niños. It would have to be ningún niño. This is way too formal for a shopping cart, suggesting that a complete rewording would be better.
  • Canasta ‘basket’ is a bit iffy — depending on where you live, the correct word might be cestaCarrito ‘shopping cart’ would be safer.

I asked native speakers on reddit and many recommended something like ¡No sentar niños en el carrito! ‘No seating children in the shopping cart”.

Separated at birth — and by speech therapy!

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Hace más de dos años escribí sobre los adultos hispanohablantes que no pueden marcar las erres. Desde entonces no he podido encontrar ningún dato publicado sobre la frecuencia de este problema, ni ningún recuento publicado fuera del Internet. Esta sequía terminó esta mañana cuando leí el artículo “The Mixed-Up Brothers of Bogotá” (Los hermanos confundidos de Bogotá) en el New York Times Magazine. La historia es fascinante aun para la gente normal que no esté obsesionada con el rotaciscmo adulto. Dos parejas de gemelos mellizos colombianos con veinte y pico años (Jorge y Carlos, William y Wilber) descubren que fueron cambiados al nacer y que en realidad son dos parejas de gemelos idénticos (Jorge y William, Carlos y Wilber). William y Wilber se criaron en el campo, y Jorge y Carlos en Bogotá, haciéndoles a los cuatro hombres una prueba ideal de la importancia de la naturaleza y la crianza.

El rotacismo entra en la historia cuando Carlos y Wilber se conocen por primera vez: “Wilber empezó a hablar, pero Carlos lo tenía difícil entenderlo. En vez de marcar sus erres, Wilber habló con las /d/ duras. ¡El trastorno de habla! Carlos lo tenía de niño pero lo había superado gracias a la logopedia.”

Por supuesto, la historica de Carlos y Wilber sugiere que el rotacismo, como el tartamudeo, tiene orígenes genéticos. Pero el trastorno es bastante común entre los niños que harían falta muchos datos más para demonstrar una tal conexión. ¿Acaso conoce alguien algún estudio sobre los gemelos y los trastornos de habla españoles? No he podido encontrar ninguno.

A propósito, las palabras mellizo y gemelo son otro ejemplo del fenómeno de los dobletes: parejas de palabras con el mismo origen latino. Las dos palabras vienen de la raíz latina gemellicius ‘gemelo’. Como es normal en tales parejas, la palabra más antigua (mellizo) ha cambiado en forma y significado, mientras que la palabra más reciente (gemelo) es más conservadora.


More than two years ago I wrote about native Spanish-speaking adults who can’t roll their r’s. Since then I have searched in vain for data on the frequency of this problem, or even any published (i.e. non-Internet) anecdotal accounts. This drought ended this morning, when I read the New York Times Magazine story “The Mixed-Up Brothers of Bogotá“. The story is gripping even for normal folks who aren’t obsessed with adult rhotacism (problems with r) . Two pairs of twenty-something fraternal twins in Columbia (Jorge and Carlos, William and Wilber) discover that they were switched at birth and are actually two pairs of identical twins (Jorge & William, Carlos & Wilber). William and Wilber were raised in a rural environment and Jorge and Carlos in Bogotá, making the four young men an ideal test case for nature versus nurture.

Rhotacism enters the story when Carlos and Wilber meet for the first time: “Wilber started speaking, but Carlos was having a hard time catching what he was saying. Instead of rolling his R’s, Wilber spoke with hard D’s. The speech impediment! Carlos had one as a child but overcame it with speech therapy.”

The experience of Carlos and Wilber obviously suggests that rhotacism, like stuttering, has genetic origins. However, it is common enough among young children that it would take much more data to prove such a connection. Anyone know anything about twin studies on Spanish language speech defects? I haven’t been able to find anything.

Incidentally, while writing the Spanish version of this post I learned for the first time the word mellizo, meaning ‘fraternal twin’. It turns out that it has the same Latin root, gemellicius, as the Spanish word for twin, gemelo, making this word pair a nice example of a doublet. As is normal with doublets, the older word (mellizo) has changed in form and meaning, while the more recent word (gemelo) is more conservative.

Leísmo ain’t new

Look for more red ‘ink’ below to understand the “ain’t” in this post’s title.

My Spanish students often have difficulty telling the difference between direct and indirect objects. They say things like Quiero conocerle ‘I want to meet him‘ (instead of Quiero conocerlo) or, conversely, Lo di el libro ‘I gave the book to him‘ instead of Le di el libro. I inevitably have to assign students helpful activities like this one to attune their ‘ear’ to this often subtle difference.

The first of these ‘errors’ (conocerle) is ironic because for many Spanish speakers it is perfectly normal Spanish. Leísmo — the substitution of le instead of lo for masculine direct objects that are human — is a widespread Spanish pattern, especially in Spain. In fact, leísmo is a long-established object pronoun pattern, rather than a recent development (as many native speakers assume). In this regard leísmo is akin to English ain’t, which was a widely accepted expression of negation (beginning in the 1700s) before it became stigmatized. (See David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words for details.)

I’ve recently researched the history of this transformation (for leísmo, not ain’t). Leísmo certainly goes way back: consider these leísta examples from the 13th century epic poem El poema de mío Cid:

leísmo en El Cid

What truly impressed me was the official embrace of leísmo. The first edition of the Real Academia Española’s (RAE) grammar guide, published in 1771, was exclusively leísta: it required le as both a direct and an indirect object masculine pronoun (note also the endorsement of laísmo in díganla lo que quieran):

1771 RAE grammar, p. 37

1771 RAE grammar, p. 37

The first mention of lo as a direct object masculine pronoun was in the 4th edition of the RAE grammar, published in 1796. In this edition the grammarians adopted a sarcastic tone, speculating that non-leísta writers must have had a bad copy editor, or been careless, or had “sacrificed the rules of grammar to satisfy the ear”.

1796 RAE grammar, p. 73

1796 RAE grammar, p. 73

Between 1796 and the fifth edition of the RAE grammar in 1854, the Valencian linguist Vicente Salvá and the Venezuelan linguist Andrés Bello published their own, influential grammars. Salvá proposed, and Bello adopted, the compromise position that is so widespread today: le for human masculine direct object, lo otherwise. Under the influence of these In the 1854 edition the RAE changed their posture. First, they presented both sides of the leísmo argument:

1854 RAE grammar, p. 35

1854 RAE grammar, p. 35

This sentence is a doozy! I practically had to diagram it to finally understand it as: “The most intractable controversy is between those who favor the use of le as a masculine direct object pronoun, to avoid confusing such objects with the abstract ones assigned to lo, and those who find this potential confusion less of a problem than the use of le for direct and indirect masculine objects as well as feminine indirect objects.” (By “abstract” they mean pronoun uses like Lo siento, where lo doesn’t refer to a specific object.) The grammarians went on to praise, though not explicitly endorse, the Salvá/Bello compromise, an attitude maintained today:

Diccionario Pan-Hispanico de dudas, “leísmo” entry

I have to conclude with a thank-you — from the bottom of this researcher’s heart — to the RAE, and to the various libraries that have cooperated with Google, for making these original sources available on the Internet.

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From te to le in ‘Idilio’

Who doesn’t love object pronouns?

This is a rhetorical question, obviously. Most people don’t care about object pronouns, Most students who have to learn them, loathe them. For a linguist, though, they’re language candy — pure creatures of grammar, with no meaning of their own.

I noticed a curious pronoun phenomenon the other day while visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The museum’s current photography exhibition “From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola” includes examples of surreal photomontages by Grete Stern published in the avant-garde Argentinian journal Idilio from 1948 to 1951. You can learn more about this series here; an example is below.

Grete SternI didn’t care for Stern’s photomontages, but I got a kick out of their linguistic context. They illustrated a regular Idilio column on Freudian psychoanalysis whose original title was El psicoanálisis te ayudará ‘Psychoanalysis will help you’. After a few issues this changed to El psicoanálisis le ayudarále also means ‘you’, but is more formal than te.

te ayudaráAn early column, showing the original title (with te)

le ayudaráAn later column, showing the revised title (with le)

The choice of te versus le depends on context — who is speaking (or writing), and who is listening (or reading). In this case, le was a more correct choice because the column itself struck a formal tone. Consider the banner-style first sentence below the te title: Queremos ayudarle a conocerse a misma, a fortalecer su alma, a resolver sus problemas, a responder a sus dudas, a vencer sus complejos, y a superarse ‘We want to help you to know yourself, to strengthen your soul, to resolve your problems, to address your doubts, to defeat your complexes, and to improve yourself’. This sentence presents a raft of formal markers: the object pronoun le ‘you’, the formal reflexives se and sí misma ‘yourself’, and the formal possessives su and sus ‘your’. The next sentence includes the formal subject pronoun usted and corresponding formal verb forms such as conteste and siente.

The real puzzle, then, is why informal te ever appeared in the original title. The most likely explanation is an editorial snafu: surely some higher-up decided on the title, but the writer proceeded to adopt a formal voice anyway, forcing a change in title once someone noticed the discrepancy.

Kudos to MoMA for mounting  a show of both photographic and linguistic interest!

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Respeto vs. respecto: an exceptional pair

One of my more recent posts had to do with doublets: word pairs descended from a single root, such as Spanish limpio ‘clean’ and límpido ‘clear, limpid’, both from Latin limpidus ‘clear’. As described in that post, the older member of a doublet typically shows the wear and tear of time in its sounds and its meaning. For example, limpio, which predates límpido by around 800 years (!!!), took on a new meaning as it lost a syllable and changed its final vowel.

An interesting exception to this pattern is the Spanish word pair respeto and respecto, both from Latin respectusRespeto is older, as you can tell from the simplification of /ct/ to /t/. Respeto and respecto capture different aspects of the English word respectRespeto is a kind of admiration or consideration, as in Benito Juarez’s famous dictum Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz ‘Among individuals and among countries, peace amounts to respect for your neighbor’s rights’. Respecto is limited to abstract uses like con respecto a ‘with respect to’ and a este respecto ‘in this respect’.

Respeto/respecto differs from the typical Spanish doublet in that neither Spanish word preserves the core meaning of its Latin progenitor. According to my go-to Latin dictionaryrespectus usually meant literally  ‘looking back at’. (It was related to the Latin verb spicere ‘to look at, see’, the source of English words from conspicuous to introspection.) The word’s secondary meaning is listed as ‘refuge, regard, consideration (for)’. The meaning ‘refuge’ has been lost entirely, while ‘regard, consideration (for)’ could apply equally to either of the two Spanish words.

Even though respecto is newer than respeto, and seems more recherché, it is actually the more common of the pair, at least in written Spanish: compare their Google ngram frequencies, as shown below.


This is a common pattern. In the doublets listed in my earlier post, newer lince, forma, fabricar, delicado, and bestia have overwhelmed their older siblings onza, horma, fraguar, delgado, and bestia, though older limpio and habla still trump límpido and fábula. Ngram them yourself and have a look!

A nomination!

I just found out that this blog has been nominated for LexioPhile’s “Top 100 Language Lovers 2015″ list. Now I feel terribly guilty for completely neglecting the blog over the last several months. True, I have the best of excuses — I’ve been putting all my time into my book ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish, which Bloomsbury Press is expecting in October, but still…

By way of apology, here are a few of the interesting things I’ve learned recently while researching my book:

  • The types of auxiliary verbs used to construct the Spanish past tense — verbs of possession (He hablado ‘I have spoken’), existence (Estaba estudiando ‘was studying’), and finishing (Acabo de salir ‘I have just left’ (literally, ‘I’ve finished leaving’)) — are the same types used in many other languages. In fact, a Proto-Indo-European verb of existence is the source of the imperfect ending of modern Spanish (-aba, -abas, and so on).
  • A lot of Spanish -ir verbs used to be -ere verbs in Latin.
  • The various forms of the Latin demonstrative ille ‘that’ (e.g. ille liber ‘that book’) are the source of some of the most common function words in Spanish: the personal pronouns él, ella, ellos, and ellas ‘he/she/they’, the definite articles el, la, los, and las ‘the’, the neuter pronoun ello, and the direct and indirect object pronouns lo/la/los/las and le/les. That’s an impressive list, ¿no?
  • The b in words like tremblarhombre, and hembra is a Spanish addition. The original Latin words were tremulāre, homine, and femina. When the underlined vowels were lost, Spanish added the b to break up the resulting consonant clusters. (In hombre and hembra, the n also changed to r).
  • Pavo ‘turkey’ used to mean ‘peacock’. When Spain conquered the New World they adapted the word to the new bird they enjoyed eating. This caused confusion — was pavo a turkey or a peacock? The word real was therefore added to pavo in its ‘peacock’ sense to create the modern pavo real — literally, a ‘royal turkey’.
  • Spanish text messaging abbreviations use the same conventions as in English. Single characters replace sound-alike parts of words (salu2 for saludos), or words shrink to their first letter (b for besos) or syllable (do for domingo) or lose their vowels (dfcl for difícil). Doubled plurals (dd for días) are reminiscent of normal abbreviations like EE. UU. for Estados Unidos.

I will try to find time over the next few weeks to write here again.

Until then, un saludo.

Apertura Abertura Obertura

While looking at Spanish “doublets” like forma ‘form’ and horma ‘cobbler’s shoe form’ (both from Latin forma), or delicado ‘delicate’ and delgado ‘thin’ (both from delicatus), I was struck by the fact that Spanish almost always imposes a difference of meaning on words derived from a single Latin source. The only exception I know of is the synonyms flama ‘flame’ and llama ‘flame’, both from Latin flama.

Another pair that comes close to synonymy , though not all the way, is apertura vs. abertura, which both mean ‘opening’. I was moved to post about these words when I looked up the subtle differences between their meanings. Abertura, the older word (derived from abrir ‘to open’), refers to the act of opening, a physical opening or hole, a mountain pass, or candor (‘openness’). The newer apertura (from Latin apertura) refers to a show’s opening, an opening mechanism, or a chess opening. Either word can be used to refer to a camera aperture.

Abertura versus apertura

This intimidating list of meanings makes me wonder how good a second language learner you’d have to be to get this right, and also whether native speakers ever confuse the two words. Any of you care to weigh in?

For good measure, Spanish also has obertura, meaning ‘overture’ in the musical sense (i.e. the opening to an opera or other long work), a borrowing from French. Personally, that’s about all the openness I can take.

Doublets: The chicken or the egg?

My current research and writing topic is doublets: word pairs from a single Latin root. These typically pair an older word that has been passed down orally from Vulgar Latin with a newer Latin borrowing dating from the 13th century or later. The older word shows the wear and tear of time in its form and meaning, while the newer word remains closer to the shared Latin root. Some examples are shown below.

Some Spanish doublets

Pairs like these raise an interesting chicken-or-egg question. Did the older words shift in meaning, thus creating gaps that made the new borrowings necessary, or did the pressure of the new borrowings push the older words into new semantic territory? My usual gods are silent on the subject. Ralph Penny merely notes that “the popular form [is] associated with changed meaning] (p. 40); Steven Dworkin likewise refers to “semantically differentiated sets”. There is a 1989 monograph on doublets by Belén Gutierrez that I need to track down and plow through, but I have no idea whether he addresses the chronology question.

I’d put my money on the egg — that is, the latter of the two possibilities I outlined just above. Focusing on the forma/horma example, it strikes me as unlikely that Spanish would develop a gap for a concept as basic as ‘form’. It’s more likely that forma was brought in as a cultivated word, as was common starting in the late 13th century, and that the two forms co-existed for some time, but in different registers (e.g. formal and informal speech), much as older llama ‘flame’ and newer flama still do today, until horma was pushed out into its current specialized territory.

But the only way to know is to analyze actual documentary evidence, for example from CORDE, and look for shifts in meaning over time. This would make a great dissertation if nobody has ever done it!

For more posts on this blog about doublets, please use the search field.


A tale of two shrimp

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Primero, les pido perdón. Últimamente he escrito poco para este blog porque estoy trabajando tiempo completo en mi libro, ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish. Supongo que es bueno que sea así: Bloomsbury Press lo espera para octubre.

Pero tuve que compartir con Uds. una perla de sabiduría que acabo de adquirir sobre la etimología de jamóngamba, and camarón.


Resulta que, como muchas palabras españolas para los comestibles, jamón nos viene del francés. La palabra francesa jambón viene de su palabra jambe ‘pierna’, que a su vez viene de gamba en el latín vulgar. Y aquí las cosas se ponen interesantes, porque ¡gamba en latín no tiene nada que ver con gamba en español! Más bien, gambacamarón vienen de la palabra latina con el mismo significado, cammarusCamarón es su descendiente nativo, y gamba es un préstamo del catalán.

Es chévere, ¿no?


First, an apology: I haven’t been posting lately because I’ve been working full time on my book. I guess that’s a good thing: it’s due to Bloomsbury Press in October.

But I had to share a fun tidbit I just ran across, concerning the etymologies of jamóngamba, and camarón. These mean ‘ham’, ‘shrimp’, and ‘shrimp’.

It turns out that jamón is, like many Spanish food words, borrowed from French. French jambón ‘ham’ comes from the French word for leg, jambe, which in turn comes from Vulgar Latin gamba. Here the going gets fun — because Latin gamba ‘leg’ has nothing to do with Spanish gamba! Rather, gamba and its synonym camarón are both derived from the Latin word for ‘shrimp’, cammarus. Camarón is its native Spanish descendant, and gamba as a borrowing from Catalan.

How fun is that!