Monthly Archives: March 2013

Spanish is easy to learn — but not too easy

In my experience, many Spanish students are surprised at how hard they have to work to make substantial progress in the language. I think they initially assume that Spanish is easy to learn because its spelling is more or less phonetic, and its pronunciation relatively easy (except for the rolled r). This certainly gives the Spanish student an advantage at first over someone studying, say, French. But as one’s studies progress, the complexities of Spanish verbs and pronouns can be a rude awakening.

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Spanish “was” = “went”

When you stop to think about it, it’s rather amazing that two of the most common Spanish verbs, ser “to be” and ir “to go,” are identical in the past tense. Fui can mean either “I was” or “I went,” fuiste can mean either “you were” or “you went,” and so on. Those of us who have spoken Spanish for years take this fact for granted, but it’s rather a shock when new students encounter it for the first time. They always wonder how Spanish speakers deal with this ambiguity: “How can they tell which one is which?” As a linguist I’m also interested in the historical side of the question: since the purpose of language is to convey meaning, how did such an ambiguous situation evolve?

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Pepe and Paco — 2 mysterious Spanish nicknames

Why are Pepe and Paco the nicknames for José and Francisco?

Thereby hangs a linguistic urban legend…

Most Spanish nicknames are formed with the diminutives -ito and -ita, as in Miguelito (“little Michael”) from Miguel, or Sarita (“little Sara”) from Sara. Others started as acronyms, such as Mabel from MAría IsaBEL, or abbreviations, such as Nando for Fernando. Two common nicknames, though, are real puzzlers: Pepe, the nickname for José (“Joseph”), and Paco, the nickname for Francisco (“Francis”).

When I studied in Barcelona one summer, I was delighted to learn that both these nicknames have religious origins. The explanation in our textbook went something like this:

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Spanish has no word for “it”

If you like Stephen King, you might choose to practice your Spanish by reading some of his novels in translation. You could read El resplandor (“The Shining”), Ojos de fuego (“Firestarter”), La cúpula (“Under the Dome”), or—It. Amazingly, this basic word (the 10th most frequent in English, according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English) lacks a direct Spanish translation. How is “it” possible?

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Whence the Spanish tilde

El CidIn a previous post, I explained that Latin’s long nn turned into the ñ sound of Spanish, which resembles the ni in onion. For example, Latin annus “year” became Spanish año. This development is also the source of the letter ñ itselfThe squiggly tilde ~ over the n started as a shorthand form of the letter n, so that ñ stood for a double n, i.e. n over n. Once the symbol was established, it came to be used for instances of the ñ sound that had other origins, including:

  • n before i or e (Hispania > España, aranea > araña “spider”)
  • n after g (signalis > señal “sign”)
  • mn (damnum > daño “harm”)

The ñ was already in use by medieval times. In fact, you can see it in the earliest known example of written Spanish, a 14th-century transcription (in Spain’s Biblioteca Nacional) of the oral epic poem El Cid. In the excerpt above, from the first page of the poem, there’s a visible tilde in the word señor, the third word in the last line.

Why Spanish has two r sounds

In a previous post, I described the two r sounds of Spanish — the trill of carro and the flap of caro — and why linguists think r is interesting. How did Spanish end up with these two different flavors of r?

The spelling of carro and caro us a strong hint: Latin had both long and short r, along with long and short versions of other consonants. The difference between Latin carrus and carus wasn’t how the r sounds were made, but how long they were held. Spanish did away with the length difference but compensated by introducing the trill/flap difference.

This is consistent with a larger pattern: except for long mm versus short m, which simply merged, Spanish found a substitute for all of Latin’s consonant length contrasts. My favorite other example is Latin’s long nn, which turned into Spanish ñas in año “year” (from Latin annus).

Any changes to long consonants generally also applied to short consonants at the beginning of a word. This explains why words beginning with r (like real) are trilled, even though they had a short in Latin and are still spelled with a single r.

An /r/ is an /r/ is an /r/

If you speak Spanish, then you probably already know that it has two r sounds: the trill of carro “cart, car” and the light flap or tap of caro “expensive”. In both sounds, the tip of the tongue makes light contact with the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth. In the trill, the tongue vibrates–at an average speed of 25 vibrations per second!–as air passes forcefully though the mouth. The flap is similar to the American English pronunciation of d as in rider. In fact, I’ve taught native Spanish speakers who misspell it as d.

You can see animations of both r types here; click on “vibrantes”.

Although both the trill and the flap seem exotic to English speakers, they are much more common world-wide than the gliding English r. This is one of the many cases where something that appears unusual about Spanish turns out to be something unusual about English. (Perhaps commenters will suggest more examples?) It’s also fairly common for languages to have two or more sounds.

What fascinates linguists about r, in Spanish and elsewhere, is the simple fact that it has so many variations. Every other sound is defined by where and how it’s pronounced. But r can be articulated either in the front of the mouth (as in Spanish), in the back (Hebrew, French, German), or in between (English). The tongue’s movement in making the sound also varies, including trills, flap, and glides. This heterogeneity makes a most curious critter!

For this reason, linguists generally define r—and only r—as a group of sounds that play a recognizable role in language regardless of their specific articulation. For example, any version of r can act as a buffer between a vowel and another consonant, as in both the Spanish and English versions of the phrase truco de cartas “card trick.” Members of the r group are also interconnected in language evolution, borrowing, and learning. Thus the front-of-the-mouth of Latin real evolved into the back-of-the-mouth trill of French reel, which was borrowed into English as the mid-mouth glide of real, which interferes when English-speaking students try to pronounce the front-of-the-mouth trill of Spanish real. An r is an r is an r.