¿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.

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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…

Día and Dios are related

I learned that día and dios are related while looking into the topic of masculine nouns that end in -aDía is the most common of these words — we use it every day in Buenos días (note the masculine buenos).

To find the relationship between día and dios you have to go back to Proto-Indo-European (PIE), the language that was the ancestor of Latin, and hundreds of other languages from Gaelic to Gujarati. Día comes from Latin diēs, which is in turn derived from PIE *diéus, meaning ‘Sky-god’ or ‘daytime sky’. Dios comes from Latin deus, from PIE *deiuós ‘God’. These PIE roots are related to many familiar words. *Diéus is the root of both Zeus and Jupiter (the first syllable is the related bit). English words related to *deiuós include demon (that’s ironic), diva, and Tuesday.

The connection between the two PIE roots, *diéus and *deiuós, is too technical for me to really understand because I’m not an PIE expert. However, I know such an expert, Cornell linguistics professor Michael Weiss. He explained to me that *deiuós ‘god’ was derived from the word for ‘sky’ via a common PIE process of vowel affixation referred to by its Sanskrit name, vr̥ddhi. (This is a simplification of his explanation, and I hope I got it right.) As Professor Weiss is the author of the formidable Outline of the Historical and Comparative Grammar of Latin I am more than happy to take his word for it.

Incidentally, the fact that día comes from the name of the sky god — a masculine deity — explains its masculine gender. Its -a ending is another story, hopefully one I’ll have time to tell soon.

Fun with CORDE

I woke up this morning determined to nail down citable examples of something I’d read online and in Ralph Penny’s A History of the Spanish Language: that words like drama, enigma, and tema, which are masculine in modern Spanish, were often treated as feminine in earlier forms of the language. These -ma masculine were borrowed from Greek via Latin; they were neuter in gender in both ancient languages.

My starting point was Ralph Penny’s mention of:

UntitledThis BlogoLengua post listed some relevant -ma words:

blogolengua

However, the RAE’s first dictionary did not back up BlogoLengua’s examples. The words were either not in the dictionary (apotegma, fantasma, sofiama) or defined as masculine (clima, dogma, drama, enigma, primsa) or as ambiguous in gender (aroma, cisma).

I had better luck using another RAE tool: its marvelous CORDE, or Corpus Diacrónico del Español, which provides instant search access to Spanish texts “desde los inicios del idioma hasta el año 1975″, i.e. from the dawn of the language until 1975. One can customize a search by time interval, author, and other variables. Here is the search I did for enigma, using the time limit suggested in the BlogoLengua post:enigma

This search found 219 examples. I found it most helpful to look at them in “concordance” mode, which shows each example in a one-line context:

concordancia

Columns further to the right (cropped out here for display purposes) include the author, title, and country of each work cited, its theme (novel, legal document, etc.) and publication data.

On this list you can see a mixture of masculine and feminine uses of enigma. On the second result page I found my favorite example, from none other than Cervantes, the author of Don Quijote. Clicking on the word enigma in that example brought me to the full citation, from p. 399 of his first novel (pub. 1585), La Galatea:

Galatea

What could be a better example of early feminine usage of -ma masculines than la enigma de Galatea? That one is going straight into my book.

Using CORDE I was able to verify most of the other words listed in BlogoLengua. Examples ranged from the title of a 16th century work by Juan Rufo (Las seiscientas apotegmas) to a line from a poem by Lope de Vega about the climate of the New World (¿Es la clima ardiente o fría?) and a reference in a 15th century medical text to las dogmas evangelicas.

Thank you, RAE, for a truly enjoyable and productive intellectual morning.

Un nuevo recurso – A new resource

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

Actualmente estoy investigando los múltiples orígenes de las palabras españolas que son masculinas aunque terminan con -a. En el proceso descubrí el sitio web BlogoLenga. Tiene el sumario más útil sobre este tema que he encontrado, incluso el de la nueva Gramática de la Real Academia. Es una lástima que su autor no diga nada de su identidad.

BlogoLengua

No dudo que mis lectores encontrarán algo de interés en el blog. ¡Que disfruten!

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Right now I’m looking into the many origins of Spanish nouns that are masculine even though they end in -a. In the process I came across the website BlogoLenga, which has the best summary I’ve seen of this topic, including the one in the Real Academia’s new Gramática. It’s a pity that the blog’s author has little to say about his (or her) identity.

I’m sure that my Spanish-speaking readers will find something of interest in the blog. Enjoy!

A unique example

The virtual ink was barely  dry on my previous post, about the expressive power of Spanish adjective syntax, when I came across another great example. This one is from Puerto Rico, in Magali García Ramis’s tender-hearted memoir, Felices días Tío Sergio. (By the way, I would recommend this book to any reader looking for a fairly straightforward read. Not too heavy on vocabulary, a strong narrative line, and only 160 pages long!)

Referring to Tío Sergio, García writes: “Él decía que nosotros éramos únicos porque éramos los únicos tres con ojos verdes en la familia.” (p. 85) [He said that we were unique because we were the only three people in the family with green eyes.] In this sentence García is playing with the two position-dependent meanings of the word único. Before a noun — or, here, the number tres, which acts as a pronoun in this context — the adjective único serves as a quantifier, meaning ‘only’. After éramos (a form of the verb ser ‘to be’) the adjective takes its basic meaning of ‘unique’. This is the same meaning you would see if the adjective appeared in its basic position immediately after the noun, as in un libro único ‘a unique book’.

This is a familiar pattern, by the way. Other adjectives show their basic meaning both after a noun and after ser (or estar, another verb meaning ‘to be’). For example, alto can refer either to physical or metaphorical height. The core meaning of physical height comes through in contexts like un árbol alto ‘a tall tree’ or el árbol es alto ‘the tree is tall’, while the metaphorical meaning requires the before-the-noun position, e.g. un alto funcionario ‘a high-placed bureaucrat’. Another example is un viejo amigo ‘an old friend’ (of long standing) vs. un amigo viejo ‘an old (elderly) friend’. Only the second meaning is possible in the sentence mi amigo es viejo. Likewise, adding muy ‘very’ or other modifiers forces the core meaning: muy alto ‘very tall’ or bastante viejo ‘quite old’ can only refer to height and age.

I guess one could describe a book as being muy único ‘very unique’ also — as in English, this would be good grammar, but bad writing.

Un ejemplo perfecto — a perfect example

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

Mientras investigaba la posición de los adjetivos en español me encontré con un ejemplo perfecto de la manipulación expresiva de este parámetro lingüístico. Viene de la novela Circuitos Cerrados: La segunda guerra de las marcas, por Fernando Labarta Vélez. (Tengo que confesar que no la he leído.) En la siguiente oración, Labarta juega con la posición del adjetivo perfecto para hacer hincapié en los aspectos estereotípicos que se combinan para producir una mujer perfecta:

Ensimismada en su perfeccionismo obsesivo, quiso ser siempre la mujer perfecta: la perfecta estudiante, la perfecta hija, la perfecta empresaria, la perfecta compañera. (p. 59)

Aquí la posición prenominal de perfecta en relación a estudiantehijaempresaria, y compañera indica que el adjetivo se une con cada sustantivo para crear una entidad conocida, como una olorosa rosaun tímido cordero. (Casi se puede imaginar comillas en el aire alrededor de estas expresiones.) Al otro mano, la posición posnominal y normal del adjetivo en una mujer perfecta indica que el atributo de la perfección es impredecible y objetivo.

De esta manera, la flexibilidad sintáctica del español contribuye al poder expresivo del idioma.

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While I was looking into the position of the adjective in Spanish I came across a perfect example of how this linguistic parameter can be manipulated for expressive purposes. The example comes from the novel Circuitos Cerrados: La segunda guerra de las marcas, by Fernando Labarta Vélez. (I must confess that I haven’t actually read the novel!). In the following sentence, Labarta plays with the position of the adjective perfecto to emphasize the stereotypical aspects that combine to produce a perfect woman:

Absorbed in her obsessive perfectionism, she always wanted to be the perfect woman: the perfect student, the perfect daughter, the perfect business woman, the perfect mate. (my translation)

The pre-nominal position of the adjective (before estudiante ‘student’, hija ‘daughter’, empresaria ‘business woman’, and compañera ‘mate’) in the Spanish version indicates that the adjective combines with the following noun to create a well-established entity, like a ‘fragrant rose’ or a ‘timid sheep’. (You can almost imagine air quotes around these phrases.) In contrast, the normal position of the adjective after the noun mujer ‘woman’ indicates that perfection is an unpredictable and objective attribute.

The greater syntactic flexibility of Spanish thus contributes to the language’s expressive power.

Do Spanish adjectives usually follow nouns?

One of the first things that every Spanish student learns about adjectives is that they follow nouns: think Casablancaperro caliente, and living la vida loca. But sooner or later, this neat picture becomes muddled as our student learns that adjectives can also precede nouns, usually with some change in meaning (see the illustration below). I was curious to know how often adjectives appear in these two locations in actual usage. Do they usually follow nouns, and if so, by what margin?

gran hombre hombre grandeFortunately, the perfect resource exists to address this question quantitatively and painlessly: Mark Davies’s hundred-million word Corpus del Español. I downloaded the freely available list of the 50,000 most common two-word sequences in the 20th century portion of this corpus, some 20 million words. I then compared the frequency of the noun-adjective and adjective-noun sequences on this list, omitting special types of adjectives that always come before nouns: possessives like mi ‘my’ and tu ‘your’, demonstratives like este ‘this’ and ese ‘that’, ordinal numbers like primero ‘first’ and segundo ‘second’, and quantifiers like mucho ‘many’ and algunos ‘some’.

In this reduced data set, noun-adjective sequences indeed outnumbered adjective-noun sequences, accounting for 60% of the data. The textbooks are right! What was particularly striking was the degree to which a few adjectives dominated the adjective-noun group. The ten adjectives that most frequently preceded nouns (grande, mayor, bueno, nuevo, próximo, cierto, alto, largo, principal, and propio) accounted for 75% of adjective-noun occurrences. Grande alone accounted for 24%. In contrast, the ten adjectives that most frequently followed nouns (político, humano, pasado, siguiente, económico, nacional, social, general, público, and internacional) accounted for only 30% of noun-adjective occurrences.

Also striking was the disjunction of the two lists. 331 distinct adjectives in the dataset occurred after nouns, and 62 before nouns, but only 20 occurred both before and after nouns. For the curious, these were actual, antiguo, bajo, corto, determinante, difícil, especial, fuerte, importante, largo, libre, mayor, pasado, principal, propio, próximo, siguiente, vecino, vital, and vivo. Note that this list includes only half of the top ten adjectives that preceded nouns (mayor, próximo, largo, principal, and propio) and only two of the top ten adjectives that followed nouns (pasado and siguiente). Grande, the adjective responsible for 24% of adjective-noun sequences, was completely lacking in the noun-adjective sequences. Presumably it would show up if one were to extend the analysis to lower-frequency word sequences.

Linguistic gems from recent reading

Ages ago I discovered the joys of reading Spanish novels for fun. It helps to keep up my fluency and build my vocabulary, while adding bits of cultural knowledge. Of course, I always keep my linguistics hat on in case I find anything particularly interesting. This post describes two such findings.

The first is from La carta esférica, a novel about a sailor who joins a mysterious woman on a treasure hunt for a sunken ship carrying a priceless cargo of Jesuit emeralds. It’s by one of my favorite Spanish authors, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, best known for the Capitán Alatriste series. Besides its pleasantly page-turning plot, this novel features the best example I’ve ever seen of the stylistic exploitation of the two different versions of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive. Here, the narrator alternates between -ra and -se subjunctives as he waits for the mysterious lady of the emeralds to stop him from walking out. This alternation adds an extra back-and-forth rhythm to the parallel structure of the successive que clauses.

Todo el rato, hasta que cerró [la puerta] detrás de sí, estuvo esperando que fuese hasta él y lo agarrara por el brazo, que lo obligase a mirarla a los ojos, que contara cualquier cosa para retenerlo.

“The whole time, until the door closed behind him, he hoped that she would go to him, take him by the arm, make him look her in the eye, and say anything to keep him there.

Right now I’m reading Magali García Ramis’s memoir of growing up in Puerto Rico, Felices Días Tío Sergio. I first learned about García Ramis when she was inducted into the Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española (basically, the Puerto Rican branch of the Real Academia Española). In a previous post I described her inaugural lecture, on the Puerto Rican /r/. I bought a copy of Felices Días back then but only recently got around to reading it. It is absolutely delightful, written in simple Spanish that would make it a good first novel for a student to read.

The passage that caught my linguistic eye has to do with another cardinal aspect of Puerto Rican pronunciation, the aspiration of final -s. Here the protagonist, a young girl, is asking her mother to make cat-shaped cookies for the funeral in absentia of their lost cat, Daruel. It’s an interesting passage from a sociolinguistic perspective because it shows the two speakers’ awareness that this is a stigmatized feature. In the first line, Ramis uses the letter j to show the aspirated /h/ pronunciation of the /s/ of los.

– ¿Ah Mami? ¿Ah, nos laj haces? [Mom, will you make them for us?]
– Nos lassss hacesss – corrigió Mami [Will you make them for us? – Mom corrected]
– Bueno, nosss lass hacesss ¿Sí? [OK, will you make them for us?]

I love the exaggeration of the multiple ssss and the way the daughter extends them to nos, which she seems to have pronounced correctly from the start.

Spanish sign language

First, a personal note: I’m delighted to announce that I’ve signed a contract with Bloomsbury Academic Press to publish the book I’ve been working on the last few years, tentatively titled ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish. If you like my blog, you’ll love the book! Stay tuned for updates on the publication process. So far I’ve written 70 questions, so there’s a ways yet to go.

Lately I’ve been looking into Spanish sign language and wanted to share a terrific website, Sématos.eu, an on-line video dictionary of Lengua de signos española (LSE) and Lengua de signos catalana (LSC). Yes, there are separate sign languages for castellano and catalán (wouldn’t you know?) Here are the signs for artista in LSE and LSC.

The LSE/LSC split is just the beginning of the diversity of the Spanish sign language situation. Every Spanish speaking country has its own sign language, or even more than one. Some of these, including the sign languages of El Salvador, Bolivia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, derive from American Sign Language (which itself comes from French Sign Language, or LSF). Mexican sign language comes also from LSF, while Venezuelan sign languages is based on LSE. Many countries developed their own sign languages independently. This group includes Spain, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Nicaraguan sign language has given researchers a rare opportunity to observe the genesis of language, both first-hand and retrospectively. The Nicaraguan deaf community only coalesced in 1977, when a special education school opened in Managua, soon joined by a vocational center attended by many of the school’s graduates. Within six years enrollment in the two institutions had topped 400: a critical mass. By 1986 the idioma de señas de Nicaragua had taken shape and linguists began to catalog its progress. Today’s Nicaraguan deaf community includes the full spectrum of ISN signers, from children who are learning ISN as a first language to middle-aged Nicaraguans who participated in its creation. It’s a great population to study.

A good place to learn more about the various sign languages of the Spanish-speaking world is the SIL International website. (Obviously that list includes other countries too, but you can skip them.) The Nicaragua entry has lots of detail and references.