A terrific website for Spanish learners

[On Halloween, I turned in the manuscript for the book on Hispanic linguistics I’ve been working on for the past 5 years (¡Uy!), and expect to be getting back into more regular posting now that I have more time.]

A contributor to the Spanish subreddit posted some time ago about a terrific website for Spanish learners, called Readlang. Frankly, I don’t know much about Readlang except for what I’ve seen while playing around with the links on the subreddit post, but I strongly recommend that you check it out if you learn or teach Spanish. Each Readlang entry (at least the ones linked to on this post) has a video of a series of speakers reading different thematic passages in Spanish, with the passages reprinted below. You have the usual video controls, plus the ability to slow down or speed up the video. A cursor in the reading passage shows your current location. You can click on any word to get an instant translation.

The entry labeled “Day, Date” gives the country each speaker is from. (I wish all the entries had this feature, but “chiggers can’t be boozers”.)

Here’s a screen shot:

Truly awesome — many thanks to the folks at Readlang and to whoever posted these specific entries on it.

In Spanish “hog heaven” with ANLE

Last night I attended an event of the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española (ANLE), the United States branch of the Real Academia Española. The event was the induction ceremony for ANLE’s newest member, Eduardo Lolo, a professor at CUNY’s Kingsborough Community College.

For this linguist, the event was Spanish hog heaven. First, ANLE’s General Secretary, Jorge Covarrubias, introduced the inductee. Sr. Covarrubias is from Argentina, and his cadences were delightfully Italian. (In case you didn’t know, some 70% of Argentinians have Italian blood, and the Spanish there shows definite Italian influence.) Prof. Lolo then spoke. He is from Cuba and his Spanish sounded completely different from Sr. Covarrubias’s. Understanding him was at first rough going for this non-native speaker, but I got the hang of it after a few minutes. Finally, ANLE’s director, Gerardo Piña-Rosales, critiqued Prof. Lolo’s presentation. He is from Spain, so this was yet another accent, one that I am more familiar with.

All three men spoke beautiful, erudite Spanish, elegant yet crisp and communicative. It was a treat to hear these three different accents produced at such a high level of linguistic sophistication.

I shouldn’t neglect to say that the subject of Prof. Lolo’s talk, and Sr. Piña-Rosales’s critique, was children’s theater, a topic that I knew nothing about, and in fact had no idea had been the topic of academic research. Now I know a little more, and am impressed with how rich the subject is.

Lo pasé muy bien; gracias, ANLE.

¡Estoy en El Diario!

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

Le agradezco a Carmen Molina Tamacas por haberme incluido en su artículo:

Sin embargo, no comparto el optimismo del artículo en cuanto al futuro del español en los EE. UU. Según los lingüístas cuyas obras he leído, como Carmen Silva-Corvalán de USC (en California) y John Lipski (Penn State), los inmigrantes hispanos, como los italianos, griegos, alemanes, y judíos en décadas anteriores, van perdiendo su idioma dentro de pocas generaciones. Solo la llegada constante de nuevos inmigrantes permite la continuación del idioma.


Many thanks to Carmen Molina Tamascas for having included me in her article about Spanish in the United States (see image/link above). However, I don’t share the article’s optimism regarding the language’s future here. According to the linguists whose work I have consulted, such as Carmen Silva-Corvalán at USC and John Lipski at Penn State, Spanish-speaking immigrants, like the Italians, Greeks, Germans, and Jews in earlier decades, generally lose their own language within one or two generations. Only the constant arrival of new immigrants enables the language’s continued vitality.

Acronyms in English vs. Spanish

I got hung up on a matter of terminology while revising a section about Spanish nicknames in my book: are nicknames like Mabel for María Ísabel acronyms? Not according to the English definition: “an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word.” However, the RAE’s Ortografía, my source for the Mabel example, states that it is an acronym (p. 628). When I looked up the RAE’s own definition of acronyms, copied below, I saw that the first meaning matches the English definition: an acrónimo is a sigla, or initialism. The second meaning, though, is broader: “A word formed by the union of elements from two or more words, made up of the beginning of the first and the end of the last, or, frequently, other combinations.”

Live and learn!


“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 historia 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 demostrar 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!