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 periscope.) 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 never 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!


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!


El género desenfrenado — Gender gone wild

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

Últimamente he vuelto mi atención de los pluralia tantum al género gramatical (otra vez), y he investigado un poco la historia del género en otros idiomas relacionados al español. Ya sabía que el latín tenía tres géneros (masculino, feminino, y neutro), que heredó este sistema del proto-indo-europeo, que el francés y el italiano (como el español) solo tienen el masculino y el femenino), y que el alemán todavía tiene el neutro. He aprendido que:

  • Todos los lenguajes romanos perdieron el género neutro. Esto implica que ya habría ido fallando en el latín vulgar.
  • El alemán no es el único idioma indo-europeo moderno en preservar el neutro. Otros incluyen el gujarati (un idioma de India), el griego, y el ruso.
  • El inglés no es el único idioma indo-europeo moderno en haber perdido completamente el género gramatical. Otros incluyen el armenio y el bengalí.
  • El resultado romance (con el masculino y el femenino, pero sin el neutro) es el más común. Otros idiomas en esta ala incluyen el albanés, el hindi, los idiomas célticos, y los idiomas bálticos (el letón y el lituano).
  • El polaco y el sorbio (los dos eslavos) han sorprendentemente aumentado sus sistemas de género de tres a cinco géneros por medio de dividir el masculino en tres géneros distintos: objetos inanimados, seres humanos, y otras entidades animadas. Para una geek lingüística como yo, ¡esto es una de las cosas más interesantes que he aprendido en los últimos meses! Se puede enterar más de ello en Wikipedia (busca la expresión “five genders”) o, para una fuente más respetable, en las páginas 425-6 de Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, por Benjamin Fortson IV. Recomiendo este libro de todas maneras.


I’ve recently turned my attention from pluralia tantum back to noun gender, and did some research on the history of gender in languages related to Spanish. I already knew that Latin had three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), that it inherited this system from Proto-Indo-European, that French and Italian (like Spanish) only have masculine and feminine, and that German has neuter. Here’s what I’ve learned in the last few days.

  • All Romance languages lost the neuter gender. This implies that it must already have been on its way out in Vulgar Latin.
  • German isn’t the only modern Indo-European language to preserve the neuter gender. Others include Gujarati, Greek, and Russian.
  • English isn’t the only modern Indo-European language to have completely lost gender. Others include Armenian and Bengali.
  • The Romance outcome (masculine and feminine in, neuter out) is the most common. Other languages in this camp are Albanian, Hindi, the modern Celtic languages, and the Baltic languages (Latvian and Lithuanian).
  • Polish and Sorbian (these are both Slavic languages) have actually jumped from three genders to five by splitting masculine into three categories: inanimate, human, and other animate. For a language geek like me, this is one of the most coolest things I’ve learned in the last several months! You can read about it on Wikipedia (search for the phrase “five genders”) or, for a more reputable source, on pp. 425-6 in Benjamin Fortson IV’s Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, which I strongly recommend in any case.

Does “andurriales” have an English equivalent?

In my current research I’m revisiting the topic of pluralia tantum: words that are normally used in their plural form, even when no plural meaning is intended. Two good examples in Spanish are vacaciones ‘vacation’ and tardes in Buenas tardes ‘Good afternoon’.  In particular, I’ve been plowing through the list of pluralia tantum in the Real Academia’s Nueva Gramática de la lengua española (a lot of scholarly bang for your buck at $14.75). There I came across andurriales, which means parajes extraviados o fuera de camino ‘isolated or out-of-the-way places’.

I love the fact that there is, I think, no exact equivalent for this word in English. (Let me know if you think of one!) Andurriales doesn’t have boondocks’s negative connotation. In fact, this thoughtful exploration of the word on a Spanish vocabulary blog, La llave del mundo “The key to the world”, expands the definition poetiically as follows: esos paseos fuera de las rutas señaladas, que sugieren un paraje remoto, poco transitado, apartado, ignoto y cautivador… ‘those unmarked routes that suggest a remote, unknown, rarely visited, and captivating place.’

To my delight, the Llave bloggers illustrated the word with a passage from El séptimo velo, Juan Manuel de Prada’s prize-winning novel, which I wrote about a few times more than a year ago (most recently here). El séptimo velo is, as I described then, packed to the gills with recondite vocabulary, so it’s appropriate that andurriales should show up in it. The specific passage cited is from the dramatic description of the heroine’s family’s escape, over the Pyrenees, from Civil War-torn Spain: Sacando fuerzas de flaqueza, Estrada se internó por andurriales sólo frecuentados por las cabras, porteando a una Catalina exánime “Tapping his last reserves of strength, Estrada sought out andurriales barely used even by goats, carrying the exhausted Catalina.”

Every pair of languages undoubtedly has bountiful examples of such untranslatable vocabulary. Here’s a pretty good list for Spanish versus English. I take issue, though, with pena ajena ‘shame on someone else’s behalf’ (since it’s a phrase, not a word) and estrenar, since English has debut, and I wish they’d included anoche ‘last night’ along with anteayer ‘the day before yesterday’ (it was interesting, though, to learn the variant antier). The word tuerto ‘one-eyed’ is part of a larger set of words for disabilities that I discussed here.

My favorite example of an English word that doesn’t translate directly into Spanish is borrow, whose awkward Spanish equivalent is the phrasal pedir prestado ‘to ask for as a loan’. It’s remarkable that Spanish lacks a word for this everyday action.

Here is a longer list of words from a variety of languages that don’t translate well into English — but perhaps should.

A RAE map for Spanish dialects

I just stumbled across a fun feature on the Real Academia’s website: an interactive map that lets you find country-specific dictionary entries:

As an example, if you mouse-hover over Cuba, you will see that the country has 1892 acepciones, or lexical entries, in the dictionary. Clicking on the country brings you to a list of these entries. Some words on the list are used only in Cuba, such as abakuá, meaning a member of a men-only secret society. Others are general Spanish words with uses specific to Cuba. For example, in Cuba abanico ‘fan’ can refer to a wooden device that signals to a train conductor the correct branch of a track fork to take.

To my disappointment there are no acepciones for the United States, even though we have our own branch of the Academia, and more Spanish speakers than Spain. In contrast, the Philippines have 88 entries even though Spanish is no longer spoken there. Not fair!


¿Why is día masculine?

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

La verdadera pregunta aquí es por qué día es masculina Y termina con -a. Llevo unas semanas investigando tales palabras españolas, de las cuales día es la más frecuente. Día es masculina porque viene de la palabra proto-indo-europea *diéus, que significaba el dios del cielo (un dios masculino) o el cielo diurno. Recibió su -a final principalmente porque su progenitor inmediato latino, diēs, era la única palabra masculina en la clase de sustantivos de la quinta declensión latina. Otros sustantivos en esta categoría también terminaban con -ēs, o aun -iēs. Incluían effigiēsrēs, y speciēs.

La terminación de muchos sustantivos en este grupo cambió de -iēs a -a cuando el latín se desarrolló al español. Speciēs, por ejemplo, nos dio especia. Otros ejemplos incluyen materiēs, la fuente de materia y madera, y rabiēs, la fuente de rabia.

Estos cambios eran parte de una tendencia española de extender la terminación explícitamente femenina -a a sustantivos que ya eran femeninos, tales como infanta (de infante en latin) y señora (de seniōre). Muchos sustantivos masculinos igualmente adquirieron nuevas terminaciones de -o. Estos incluyen pájaro ‘bird’, de passare, y corcho, de cortice. Ralph Penny nombra estos cambios ‘hypercharacterization’.

Para diēs el cambio a ‑a resultó en un conflicto entre el género masculino del sustantivo y su terminación femenina. Sin duda el hecho de que diēs era ambigua en cuanto al género contribuyó al cambio. Aunque normalmente era masculina, diēs era femenina cuando tenía el sentido de ‘fecha límite’ o ‘cita’. O sea, la confusión de género ha sido una parte de esta palabra desde sus orígenes.


The real question here is why día ‘day’ is masculine even though it ends with -a, the Spanish feminine ending par excellence. I have been looking into words like this lately; día ‘day’ is the most frequent of them. Día is masculine because it comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *diéus, meaning ‘Sky-god’ (a masculine deity) or ‘daytime sky’. It ended up with a final -a mostly because its immediate Latin progenitor, diēs, was the only masculine word in Latin’s ‘fifth declension’ noun class. (Doesn’t “The Fifth Declension” sound like a good name for an amateur rock band composed of linguists, like Stanford’s “Dead Tongues”?) Other nouns in this category also ended in -ēs, or even -iēs. They included effigiēs ‘effigy’, rēs ‘thing’, and speciēs ‘sight, view; shape, form’.

The ending of several fifth declension nouns changed from -iēs to -a as Latin evolved into Spanish. Speciēs, for example, became especia ‘spice’. Other examples include Latin materiēs, which evolved into Spanish materia ‘matter, substance’ and madera ‘wood’, and rabiēs, the source of Spanish rabia ‘rage’.

These changes were part of a broader tendency to extend the explicit ‑a marker to nouns that were already feminine, such as infanta ‘princess’ (from Latin infante) and señora ‘madame, lady’ (from seniōre). Likewise, many masculine nouns acquired a freshly-minted -o ending. Examples include Spanish pájaro ‘bird’, from Latin passare and corcho ‘cork’, from Latin cortice. Ralph Penny refers to these changes as ‘hypercharacterization’.

For diēs the change to ‑a created a conflict between the noun’s gender and its ending. It was probably abetted by the fact that diēs was sexually ambiguous. While normally masculine, diēs was treated as feminine when used in the sense of ‘appointed day, deadline’. In other words, gender confusion has been built into the word from the get-go. Plus ça change…