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.

¿Qué tal?

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

La pregunta informal ¿Qué tal? significa ¿Cómo estás? Una lectora me escribió con una pregunta interesante sobre ella:

Me llamo Jenny y soy maestra de español.  Unos estudiantes me preguntaron de dónde viene la frase «¿Qué tal?»  Sé que es la forma corta de «¿Qué tal estás?» y que “tal” tiene muchos usos en el idioma pero, ¿Qué significa literalmente «qué tal»?  ¿De dónde viene la frase?  
¿Sabe usted algo de los orígenes de la frase?

Para investigar, primero consulté el diccionario de la Real Academia Española. Esto explica que, en general, qué tal es un sinónimo de cómo. Por ejemplo, ¿Qué tal resultó el estreno? significa ¿Cómo fue el estreno? También confirma que la expresión específica ¿Qué tal? es una versión corta de ¿Qué tál estás?, que significa ¿Cómo estás?

En cuanto a la historia de la expresión, qué viene de quid en latín y tal viene de talis. Mi diccionario latino no incluye la expresión quid talis pero Google Translate (que en general no consulto ni de lejos, pero que fue útil en este caso) la traduce como ‘qué tipo de’. Como sabemos, estar se usa para describir las condiciones; es cognado de la palabra inglesa ‘state’. En ese caso, ¿Qué tal estás? expresa ‘En qué tipo de condición estás?

Otra manera de interpretar la situación es la siguiente.Tal es vago a propósito. Unos ejemplos de esto en Collins son tal cosa ‘anything of the sort’, a tal hora ‘at such-and-such time’, fuimos al cine y tal ‘we went to the movies and stuff’. Por otro lado, qué pide la especificidad. Por lo tanto, la combinación qué tal espera extraer lo específico de lo vago: de todas las condiciónes posibles, ¿en cuál te encuentras?

Me alegraría recibir otras interpretaciones.

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The casual question ¿Qué tal? means “How are you?” or “What’s up?” A reader wrote me with an interesting question about it:
My name is Jenny and I’m a Spanish teacher. Some of my students asked me where the expression ¿Qué tal? comes from. I know that it’s short for Qué tal estás? and that tal has a lot of uses in the language, but what is the literal meaning of qué tal? Where does the expression come from?

To research this question, I first consulted the Real Academia Española’s dictionary. The RAE interprets qué tal in general as a synonym of ¿Cómo? ‘How?’. For example, ¿Qué tal resultó el estreno? translates as “How was the premiere?” The RAE also confirmed that ¿Qué tal? is indeed short for ¿Qué tál estás?. This is why it’s the equivalent of ¿Cómo estás? ‘How are you?’

As for the history of the expression, qué comes from Latin quid and tal from talis. My Latin dictionary doesn’t include the expression quid talis, but Google Translate (which in general I won’t touch with a ten-foot pole) translates it as ‘what type of’. As you may know, estar is used to describe conditions (it’s a cognate of English state). Putting the pieces together, ¿Qué tal estás? means ‘In what type of condition are you?’ or, more smoothly, ‘What sort of condition are you in?’

Another way to look at ¿Qué tal? is the following. Tal, which translates as ‘such’, is deliberately vague; some helpful examples from Collins are tal cosa ‘anything of the sort’, a tal hora ‘at such-and-such time’, and fuimos al cine y tal ‘we went to the movies and stuff’. On the other hand, qué demands specificity: ¿Qué libro? ‘which book’ and the like. Therefore, the combination qué tal serves to extract the specific from the vague: out of all possible conditions, in which do you find yourself?

I welcome other interpretations.

The Other Silent Letters of Spanish

By: Daniel Nappo (email: dnappo@utm.edu)

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) (http://www.rae.es/recursos/diccionarios/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 wordreference.com 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