The Other Silent Letters of Spanish

By: Daniel Nappo (email:

Orthography is the bad conscience of phonological change. The sounds of a language are never stable. They change at a glacial pace, inexorably, often splitting from other sounds, merging, or disappearing entirely. Because of this change, the rules for fixing the language to the written page invariably lag behind. Every student of Spanish knows that the letter «h» does not represent any sound at all (búho [búo]; hacer [aθér]; etc.); la hache is understood to be a letra muda (silent letter).

What many students of Spanish may not know is that there are other letras mudas in our language, although the vast majority of them are currently in the process of being eliminated orthographically by the Real Academia Española (RAE). A few of them, though, persist. These other silent letters are «c», «p», «m», and «g», when they are in the word-initial sequences «cn», «pt», «pn»,«ps», «mn», and «gn». We see examples of these silent letters in the following words of Greek or Latin origin: cnidario [niđárjo]; pterodáctilo [terođáktilo]; pneuma [néṷma]; psicología [sikoloxía]; mnemónica [nemónika]; gnosticismo [nostiθísmo]. Each of these words, and others similar to them, are entries in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (DRAE) (

But phonological criteria usually trump the etymological. In Spanish, it is natural that the articulation of two consonants at the beginning of a word (or syllable) feature either «r» or «l» as the second letter; anything else—for example, the words listed above—became part of the Spanish lexicon because it is a learned or semi-learned loan word from another language, usually Greek or Latin. Spanish words that begin with “psi” are called “Hellenisms” because they derive from Greek («psi» being a letter of that language). In normal contemporary usage, however, it is acceptable to write sicología instead of psicología, or sicólogo instead of psicólogo. Other examples of Greek loan words that have abandoned the initial «p» are sicosis, siquiatra, seudo, and soriasis. The words salmo and salterio are also written without the initial «p» although they were originally Latin words (psalmus; psalterius). The illness “pneumonia” has lost its initial «p» and should be written in Spanish as neumonía. How should one write “mnemonic device” in Spanish? According to the DRAE, it may be written nemotecnia or mnemotecnia.

On the other hand, he word pterodáctilo (a flying dinosaur) continues to be written with the silent initial «p» because of the semi-learned status of the word and its continued use in the specialized vocabulary of biologists and paleontologists. Like pterodáctilo, the Hellenism cnidario is still written with the initial silent «c» because of its specialized, zoological meaning (referring to a phylum of sea creatures). Gnosticismo and pneuma may be written with or without their initial consonantes mudas because of their semi-learned status and specialized meanings in philosophy. It is interesting to note, however, that pneuma refers to a philosophical concept and the variant neuma to the system of musical notation that existed before the modern system. This is one case where the absence of the initial consonant affects meaning, making the variants homonyms.

So, as one can see, there are other silent letters in Spanish apart from la hache. However, all of these examples are from learned or semi-learned words, largely restricted to scientific or similarly technical fields. When one of these terms manages to become diffused into general, spoken Spanish, the variant without the initial silent consonant becomes the standard (e.g., sicología, neumático, neumonía, seudónimo…), thus illustrating popular phonological change through amended entries of the latest DRAE.

(The contributor is an Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Tennessee at Martin.)

Más allá de [beyond] car/gar/zar

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

Todos conocemos (o debemos conocer) los cambios ortográficos que sufren los verbos que terminan en ‑car, ‑gar, y ‑zar. Por ejemplo escribimos saquéjugué, y almorcé en vez de conservar los letras originales (cg, y z). Para el cambio de cqu y el de gqu hay un buen motivo: conservar el sonido original (/k/ o /g/). Para el cambio de zsolo hay el motivo conservador de no usar la letra z antes de e. Es por eso que el español pidió prestado la palabra italiana zero como cero.

El español tiene un montón de otros tales cambios ortográficos. Recientemente reuní una lista de ellos. Aquí están en toda su gloria. No incluí los cambios de ‑car, ‑gar, y ‑zar por ser demasiado conocidos.

cambios ortográficos

Es importante tener en cuenta que estos cambios solo afectan la ortografía, no la pronunciación. Ni se deben considerar irregularidades, porque son predecibles. Es decir que cualquier palabra con tal ortografía sufriría el mismo cambio.


All of us are (or should be) aware of the spelling changes that afflict verbs that end in ‑car, ‑gar, and ‑zar. For example, we write saquéjugué, y almorcé instead of keeping the original consonants (cg, y z). There’s a solid motive for the changes of c to qu and of g to qu: to keep the original sound (/k/ or /g/). The only reason for the change of z to z is the spelling rule that prohibits z before e (this is why Spanish borrowed the Italian word (zero as cero).

Spanish has an impressive quantity of other such spelling changes. I recently made a list of all of them to share with you in their orthographic glory. I didn’t include the ‑car, ‑gar, and ‑zar changes themselves because they’re too well known.

cambios ortográficos en

It’s important to keep in mind that these changes only affect spelling, not pronunciation. Nor should they be considered irregularities, because they’re predictable. That is, any word spelled like these would undergo the same changes.



The most frequent Spanish verbs are irregular

It may seem perverse that the first verbs presented in most Spanish textbooks, typically ser and tener, are irregular. In fact, ser is undoubtedly the most irregular verb in the language. Why not start with nice, friendly regular verbs like hablarcomer, and vivir, and deal with the irregulars later?

The answer, of course, is that the most frequent, can’t-live-without-‘em Spanish verbs are irregular. This is not a coincidence. Over time, the natural tendency in language evolution is to reduce irregularity by imposing a language’s normal patterns on previously exceptional forms, a process called analogy. That’s how English ended up with regular past tenses like helped in place of the Middle English form holp. Only the most frequently used words are able to resist analogy and maintain their irregularity.

(Analogy can also go in the opposite direction, causing previously tame verbs to ‘go rogue’, but we’ll sidestep this inconvenient fact for simplicity’s sake.)

Actual verb frequency data are impressive. The table below shows the regular and irregular verbs among the 100 most frequent Spanish words, as cataloged in Mark Davies’s A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish: Core Vocabulary for Learners. The dozen most frequent verbs are all irregular. The most frequent regular verb (llegar ‘to arrive’) appears more than halfway down the list, and irregulars remain common throughout.

Reg irreg verbs in top 100

I’ve counted llegar and creer as regular verbs, by the way, because their spelling complications (like the u in llegué and the y in creyó) are completely predictable given the rules of Spanish pronunciation and spelling.

Because Spanish splits ‘to be’ into ser and estar, and ‘to have’ into haber and tener, the English versions of these verbs are of higher frequency. According to Mark Davies and Dee Gardner’s A Frequency Dictionary of Contemporary American English: Word Sketches, Collocates and Thematic Lists, ‘to be’ is #2 in English, and ‘to have’ #8. Another comparative goodie concerns subject pronouns. As you might expect, since Spanish usually relies on conjugation alone to say who did something, its subject pronouns are further down the frequency list than are those of English. See the comparison below.

subject pronoun frequency span eng


Overall, it’s surprising how much information one can glean from these lists. Muchas gracias, Prof. Davies.

Un libro que todos deben leer

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

Acabo de leer un libro verdaderamente sobresaliente sobre la lingüística. Se publicó en 2005 y ojalá que lo hubiera descubierto antes.

Si alguna vez se ha preguntado “¿Por qué cambian los idiomas?” or “¿Cómo se desarrollaron los primeros idiomas?”, el prof. Deutscher tiene las respuestas que Ud. ha ido buscando.

Un experto en los idiomas semíticos, Deutscher es un escritor extraordinario. Explica los conceptos sofisticados clara y animadamente.

El libro se centra en tres conceptos claves de la evolución lingüística: la economía (la tendencia a simplificar y reducir), la expresividad (la tendencia a crear nuevas formas), y la analogía (la tendencia a crear conexiones y generalizar las reglas implícitas). En los primeros capítulos, el prof. Deutscher explica estos conceptos en el contexto de los cambios actuales o pasados en una variedad de idiomas. Luego, él los aplica de una manera más teorética a las raíces posibles de los primeros idiomas.

Unos ejemplos en de los tres conceptos en español son los siguientes:

  • la economía: la pérdida de la /s/ final en muchos dialectos hispanos
  • la expresividad: la creación de la conjugación del futuro (hablaré, hablarás, hablará, etc.) del infinitivo más las formas del verbo haber (he, has, ha, etc.)
  • la analogía: la creación de las formas irregulares como produzco según el modelo de las formas hagodigo, que se desarrollaron del latín por cambios fonéticos normales.

Lea, y disfrute.


I just finished reading a truly outstanding book about linguistics. It was published in 2005 and I wish I’d discovered it earlier.

[see illustration in Spanish version above]

If you’ve even wondered “Why do languages change?” or “How did the first languages develop?”, Professor Deutscher has the answers you’ve been looking for.

An expert on Semitic languages, Prof. Deutscher is an extraordinary writer. He explains sophisticated concepts in a clear and lively fashion.

The book focuses on three key concepts in linguistic evolution: economy (the tendency to simplify and reduce language), expressiveness (the tendency to create new forms), and analogy (the tendency to create connections and generalize implicit rules). In the first chapters, Prof. Deutscher explains these concepts in the context of ongoing or historical change in a variety of languages. He then applies them in a more theoretical manner to the possible roots of humankind’s first languages.

Some examples in Spanish of the three concepts are the following:

  • economy: the loss of final /s/ in many Spanish dialects
  • expressiveness: the creation of the future tense conjugation (hablaré, hablarás, hablará, etc.) on the basis of the infinitive and the present tense of the verb haber (he, has, ha, etc.)
  • analogy: the creation of irregular forms like produzco on the model of hago y digo, which developed from Latin via normal phonological change.

Read and enjoy!

Fun with Proto-Indo-European roots

Recently I’ve been playing with John Slocum’s terrific Indo-European Lexicon website and wishing I’d discovered it earlier. In case you didn’t know, Spanish and the other Romance languages are part of the Indo-European language family. Other branches of this enormous family include Germanic, Greek, Celtic, Slavic, and Indo-Iranian. Spanish is therefore related to language as diverse as Gaelic and Gujarati; to Sanskrit, Serbian, and Swedish; to Pashto, Persian, and Polish; and to Hindi and Hittite.

Dr. Slocum’s Lexicon lets you trace vocabulary roots up and down the Indo-European family tree. For example, let’s say you’re curious about the origin of the Spanish word pan “bread”. If you click on the Language Index you can then scroll down to Spanish. (For a shortcut, you can access the Spanish page here.) This page lists almost 500 Spanish words whose Indo-European roots are included in the Lexicon. Pan is traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root pā-. Click on that root and you’ll move up the tree, to an entire page devoted to pā-. This page provides a definition and a list of the root’s descendants in all ten branches of the Indo-European family.

It turns out that pan is related to several sets of English words. I knew about some of them, but not all.

  • food and fodder
  • company, companion
  • forage, foray, foster
  • pantry, pannier
  • pastor, pasture, repast, pastern, pester
  • antipasto (but not “pasta”, go figure)
  • pabulum

For other words, though not pan, tracing a root back down the tree can show you surprising connections within Spanish. For example, llama “flame” and blanco “white” share the same Indo-European root, as do armisticio, arrestar, asistir, costar, estado, and estar.

Why are you still reading? Run along and play!


Spanish verb pairs that differ only in conjugation class

While researching the origin of the three conjugation classes of Spanish — ar, er, and ir — I recently turned to the lovely folks at the Spanish-English vocabulary forum to help me think of pairs of Spanish verbs that differ only in their conjugation class. The only two I had thought of were sentar/sentir and crear/creer.

These pairs are a nice reminder that the conjugation classes, by themselves, are void of meaning. Please see my original post (link above) for an example of a language (Hebrew) where the same verb root can appear in more than one conjugation class, with each class adding a predictable nuance to the verb root’s core meaning.

Here is my full list, which I will continue to edit as I learn of more. Note that there are no triplets on the list, and that all the pairs contrast -ar with either -er or -ir. This may be a coincidence, but the fact that -er and -ir verbs have almost identical conjugations (the only difference is in the nosotros and vosotros present indicative) would make triplets or an -er/-ir contrast hard to learn and to maintain.

Please let me know if can think of any more.

  • asentar/asentir
  • crear/creer
  • fundar/fundir
  • mentar/mentir
  • molar/moler
  • morar/morir
  • parar/parir
  • podar/poder
  • rendar/rendir (render is also in the RAE, but only as an antiquated form of rendir).
  • salar/salir
  • sentar/sentir
  • solar/soler
  • sumar/sumir
  • tejar/tejer
  • vivar/vivir

Spanish is normal, English is weird

“Spanish is normal, English is weird” is a frequent theme in my classroom. Students coming from a monolingual English background are quick to assume the contrary: that where Spanish and English differ, Spanish is the oddball. I consider it part of my responsibility to shake up their world view a little, playing Copernicus to their Aristotle.

Below I detail six examples of this principle: three from pronunciation, one from spelling, and two from grammar. Readers are invited to contribute others.


  • English versus Spanish /r/. As described earlier on this blog, Spanish has two types of /r/: the rolling trill of carro and the short flap of caro. According to a cross-linguistic survey by Berkeley professor Ian Maddieson, both of these are are more common in the languages of the world than the gliding /r/ of English.
  • English versus Spanish vowels. Spanish has five vowel sounds, corresponding to the five vowel letters aeiou. In contrast, English has 12 distinct vowel sounds – those heard in beet, bit, bait, bet, bat, bot, bought, boat, book, boot, butt, and the unstressed first syllable of baton. As described in an earlier post, a five or six-vowel system is the most common type worldwide. The most vowel sounds found in any language is 14, making English quite the outlier.
  • English versus Spanish syllable structure. English has an impressive ability to combine individual consonant sounds into groups. The single syllable of strengths, my favorite example, begins with three consonants (/s/, /t/, and /r/) and ends with four (/ŋ/, /k/, /θ/, and /s/). Spanish is more restrictive. It allows at most two consonants before or after a vowel, and these are strictly limited (thereby hangs a future post…). Here again English is an outlier: most languages allow only limited consonant combinations, as in Spanish.

Writing: capitalization. English capitalizes more words than Spanish: not just proper nouns, but also the pronoun I, days of the week, months of the year, and various other categories. Here English is truly an oddball: it is the world’s second most exuberant user of capital letters, behind only German.


  • Singular and plural “you”. My oh my, how Spanish students struggle with singular  and usted versus plural vosotros and ustedes. I routinely encounter students who have been studying Spanish for three or four years and are still convinced that ustedes (“you all”) means “they”. This is partly because the verb forms for ustedes are identical to those for ellos/ellas (“they”), but mostly, and more profoundly, because English lacks a plural “you” (leaving aside the dialectal form y’all). In this regard Spanish is, again, normal. David Ingram’s classic (1978) survey “Typology and Universals of Personal Pronouns” found that 67 of 71 languages reviewed had both singular and plural “you”.
  • Noun-adjective order. Spanish speakers say casa blanca instead of white house, and so on for most pairings of a noun and its modifying adjective. The Spanish word order is found in over half the languages of the world. It has always struck me as the logical order in terms of sentence processing: that way, one starts with the basic concept (“house”), and then “decorates” it with details of color and the like.



What makes Spanish unique

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

¿Cómo es único el español?

He ido pensando recientemente en los pocos aspectos únicos que conozco del español, los aspectos que diferencian el español de los otros idiomas del mundo. Si algún lector puede sugerir otros aspectos únicos, o eliminar alguno de los míos, claro que estaré contenta de revisar mi pequeña lista. Ignoro el vocabulario porque cada idioma tiene un vocabulario único.

El primer elemento único que conozco del español es ortográfico: las marcas invertidas. La Real Académica inventó la ¿ y la ¡ en el año 1754, una mejora dramática a su propuesta previa (de 1741) de usar las marcas normales (? y !) al comienzo y al final de preguntas y exclamaciones. Según mi conocimiento, ningún otro idioma ha adoptado estas marcas. No sé por qué no; a mí me parecen muy útiles.

El segundo elemento es de gramática: la existencia de dos paradigmas flexionales paralelos. Este fenómeno se encuentra en el imperfecto del subjuntivo, que se puede conjugar o con ‑ra-ras, etc. o con -se-ses, etc. (Dos ejemplos son hablara / hablasecomiéramos / comiésemos.) Según mis investigaciones, el español es el único idioma con tal redundancia. Los otros ejemplos de redundancia gramatical que conozco en otros idiomas se limitan a vocabulario y formas específicos. Un ejemplo es las dos (o tres) conjugaciones del verbo francés asseoir en el presente, el imperfecto, y unos (no todos) otros tiempos verbales, y las dos terminaciones plurales genitivas -den-tten para ciertas palabras finlandesas.

El tercer elemento único es cultural: el español tiene el órgano lingüístico académico más activo e internacional del mundo. La Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española, (ASALE) la organización cuyo miembro más famoso es la Real Academia Española, es increíblemente activa en cuanto a publicaciones y reuniones, y también resolutamente internacional en su estructura y sus publicaciones. De los pocos otros órganos académicos existentes de idiomas internacionales, el mejor conocido, la Académie Française, solo representa Francia, el órgano alemán solo se preocupa por la ortografía, y las instituciones del árabe y del portugués son poco activas.

Finalmente, el español es el idioma internacional más hablado. El chino tiene más hablantes, claro, pero el español es más internacional, como idioma oficial de países en cuatro continentes: Norteamérica, Sudamérica, África y Europa.

Además de estos aspectos, sospecho que el sistema pronominal español es únicamente complejo. De los otros idiomas que conozco, ninguno tiene reglas tan complicadas de posición (¿antes o después del verbo?) ni de combinación (el fenómeno de le –> se). Pero sería un gran trabajo investigativo confirmar esto.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the few aspects of Spanish that I believe to be unique: those not found in any other language. If a reader can suggest others, or disprove one that I propose, I would be happy to modify my short list.

The first unique element of Spanish has to do with spelling: the upside-down punctuation marks. The Spanish language academy invented ¿ and ¡ in 1754, a dramatic improvment over its previous proposal (in 1741) to use the normal punctuation marks ? and ! at the beginning and end of questions and exclamations. As far as I know, no other language has adopted these symbols. I don’t know why; they seem pretty useful to me.

The second unique element is grammatical: the existence of two alternative inflectional paradigms. This phenomenon is seen in the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, which can be conjugated with forms ending in -ra-ras, etc. or with -se-ses, etc. (Two examples are hablara / hablase and comiéramos / comiésemos.) According to my research, Spanish is the only language with such a drastic redundancy in its grammar. Other examples of grammatical redundancy are restricted to specific vocabulary and/or forms. One example is the two (or even three!) possible conjugations of the French verb asseoir in certain verb tenses; another is the two possible genetive plural endings -den and -tten for certain Finnish nouns.

The third unique element is cultural: Spanish has the most active and international academic language organization in the world. The Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española, (ASALE), whose most famous member is Spain’s Real Academia Española, is amazingly active in terms of publications and conferences, and is also resolutely international in its structure and publications. Of the few existing academic groups for other international languages, the best known, the Académie Française, only represents France, the German organization only focuses on spelling, and the Arab and Portuguese institutions are, as far as I can tell from their web pages, relatively inactive.

Finally, Spanish is the international language with the greatest number of speakers. Chinese has more speakers, of course, but Spanish, unlike Chinese, is an official language in four continents: North and South America, Africa, and Europe.

Besides these four aspects, I suspect that the Spanish pronominal system is also unique for its complexity. Of the other languages I know, none has more complicated rules for pronoun positioning (before or after the verb) and interaction (the nasty le –> se business). But it would take a serious effort to research this question properly.

Malayalam is a palindrome

To be honest, this post only tangentially concerns Spanish, by virtue of references to the Indo-European family, and to the delightful word blablablá. And it’s more about language than linguistics. It’s my way of kicking back and celebrating the end of my teaching semester — already!

Although I’m the linguist of the family, my husband has his own way with words. He’s always playing with them in his head, turning them around, looking for palindromes and anagrams. Perhaps this compulsive mental rearrangement comes from years of playing competitive chess as a teenager? His favorite palindrome is wonton ↔ not now, which suggests the following madcap dialogue:

Person A: How do you say wonton backwards?
Person B: Not now!
Person A: No, I really want to know!
Person B: Not now!
and so on…

His skill most impressed me on the day, perhaps ten years ago, that a young driver rear-ended my car on a busy street in the nearby city of New Rochelle. The driver and I chatted while waiting for the police to come, and I learned that his parents were from Kerala in southern India. This meant that he spoke Malayalam at home. While I don’t remember our conversation too well, I’m pretty sure that, compulsively didactic as always, I explained to him that his family’s language, like other languages of southern India such as Tamil and Kannada, was part of the Dravidian language family. These survived when the original languages of northern India were overwhelmed by the Indo-European invasion that swept the subcontinent from the northwest thousands of years BCE. The effects of this invasion can be seen in Indian genetics as well as linguistics.

When I came home that day and announced that “I was rear-ended by a Malayalam teenager in New Rochelle”, my husband asked, without blinking an eye, if I knew that the word Malayalam is a palindrome. This is true, though only with Roman alphabet spelling. The original spelling in the Malayalam script is the asymmetrical


Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching two Fordham students from Malayalam-speaking families. Both were wonderful students, not only bright but gregarious, hard-working, and upbeat. When I met each of them, I of course went into my usual spiel about Indo-European versus Dravidian languages in India (blablablá, an actual, RAE-sanctioned Spanish word!, is perhaps the best way to describe this), combined with my husband’s. Both already knew that Malayalam was Dravidian, but neither had realized that their language name was a palindrome.

So, dear readers, now you know how to amaze any Malayalam-speaking acquaintance. You can tell them both the bad news — that their language is unrelated to Spanish since it’s Dravidian, not Indo-European — and the good — that its name is one for the books.