Monthly Archives: April 2013

Spanish vs. French accent marks

When my students complain about “all those accent marks” in Spanish, I tell them that matters could be far worse. They could be studying French.

Consider the French phrase fête d’élèves (“student party”). This simple phrase illustrates four substantial differences in how French and Spanish use accent marks:

  1. The French phrase has three different accent marks: acute (é), grave (è), and circumflex (ê). Spanish only has one: acute.
  2. The word élèves has two accented vowels (even more are possible, as in répété “repeated”). Spanish allows only one per word.
  3. The French accent marks affect the pronunciation of individual letters: the é sounds roughly like ai in English bait, the ê and è like e in English bet, and the unaccented e‘s are silent. This never happens in Spanish.
  4. The circumflex accent in fête serves as a mini-lesson in the history of the word, memorializing the loss of an s from Latin festus (compare Spanish fiesta). Every Spanish accent mark has a contemporary purpose. In fact, the Spanish language Academy periodically purges accent marks that it considers passé. For example, it recently eliminated the accent on the word o  (meaning “or”) when it appears between two numbers, as in 8 ó 9 (now 8 o 9). Previously, it was thought that the accent would prevent this phrase from being misread as 809, but since most written Spanish these days is typeset, not hand-written, misreadings are no longer an active concern.

In fact, the only thing that French and Spanish accent marks have in common is that they are only found on vowels. Not that our more creative students don’t try putting them on consonants from time to time…

Any decent textbook or review book [Update: or this later postwill explain why Spanish does use accents: basically, to highlight stress that is unusual because it:

  1. breaks the normal rules for which vowel to stress within in a vowel sequence (e.g. día vs. diablo);
  2. breaks the normal rules for which vowel to stress within a word (e.g. teléfono vs. necesito).
  3. marks the member of an otherwise identical word pair that is usually more important to the meaning of a sentence, like vs. si in , vendré si puedoYes, I’ll come if I can.” If one of the two words can stand alone in a sentence, it’ll be this one.

For the punctuation fanatic, the ultimate read is the Academy’s  current spelling guide, or Ortografía, which devotes fully 65 pages (!!!) to the topic. 

Spanish vowels vs. English vowels

Spanish and English each have five vowel letters, but the resemblance stops there.

English uses the five letters aeiou to make 12 distinct vowel sounds — those heard in beet, bit, bait, bet, bat, bot, bought, boat, book, boot, butt, and the second (unstressed) syllable of chocolate. Of course, some of these vowels merge in some dialects of English, like the vowels of cot and caughtpin and pen, or Marymerry, and marry. [I feel quite smug about having all 12 English vowels in my own pronunciation.]

Spanish, however, has only five vowel sounds, one per vowel letter, as heard in para “for,” pera “pear,” pira “pyre,” pora “leek,” and pura “pure.” (These roughly correspond to the five vowels of bot, bait, beet, boat, and boot.)  In fact, a few words in Spanish manage to use all five vowels. My favorite examples in this group are abuelito “grandfather” and murciélago “bat.” You can find some more here.

[Can any one provide other contexts (besides pVra) that fit all five Spanish vowels? Or other words that use all five (besides the ones in the link)? Edit: see Daniel’s comment!]

When Spanish and English differ, Spanish usually turns out to be normal, and English weird. (My favorite examples are noun gender, capitalization, and multiple words for “you”.) This is again the case when it comes to vowels. Here’s some cross-linguistic data on vowel inventories, borrowed from the marvelous World Atlas of Linguistic Structures Online, to back this up:

  • Small vowel inventory (2-4 vowels): 93 languages
  • Average vowel inventory (5-6 vowels): 288 languages
  • Large vowel inventory (7-14 vowels): 183 languages [German wins!]

With 12 vowels, English is indeed an outlier.

In fact, if we were to take a closer look at which 5 vowels Spanish uses, it would become even clearer exactly how normal Spanish is. But that’s a matter for another post.


The top 5 Spanish-speaking countries

At some point during the first couple of weeks of a beginning Spanish class, I like to have my students pair up and, together, write down what they think are the top five Spanish-speaking countries by population. This is a partly an excuse for them to have a good look at the maps of their textbook and realize how just how widespread Spanish is. (I like to point out the Spanish areas in Africa while we’re at it!)  Country names are also a great way for beginning students to practice Spanish pronunciation: for example, the clear vowels, guttural x, and accented é of México. The same exercise works for a more advanced class if I have the students also estimate the countries’ populations, so that they can practice saying numbers in the millions.

It’s always remarkable to see the mistakes that students make. Every year, several kids think that Brazil is a Spanish-speaking country. Or Haiti. Haiti, of course, would be too small to make the top five even if it were Spanish-speaking, but American students seem to have the impression that Caribbean islands are just teeming with population: Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic routinely come up in this exercise, too. (In reality, Cuba is the most populated island, clocking in at #10.)

Here, for your benefit, are the actual top five, based on the numbers in the Ethnologue database and the 2015 U.S. Census:

  1. Mexico (103 million) — Thank goodness, most kids usually get this one right.
  2. Colombia (41 million) — A dark horse. No student in the USA would ever predict that it is ahead of Argentina.
  3. Argentina (39 million) — Someone always puts Argentina in the top 5.
  4. Spain (38.4 million) — This is after subtracting for minority languages (mostly Catalan).
  5. United States (37.6 million) — 12.8 % of the population.

The rest are up to you.

[Post updated April 16, to fix problems described in this post.] 

What ex votos tell us about Spanish writing

Frida Kahlo had great taste.

Kahlo, the blockbuster-worthy 20th century Mexican painter who has become an icon of tortured femininity and surrealist exploration, chose to decorate the home she shared with Diego Rivera with her personal collection of Mexican ex-votos. Here are some of them on the wall in Room 5 of her house-turned-museum in Mexico City, La Casa Azul.

retablos ex votoAs you can see in the screenshot, ex-votos, sometimes also called retablos ex-voto, are small folk paintings, colorfully painted and hand-lettered. They are executed on tin sheets about the size of a license plate. Each ex-voto memorializes a miracle in which someone has successfully prayed for help in the face of an illness or accident The ex-voto is made afterwards, either by the petitioner or by a local artist on a commission basis, to thank the Virgin (or a saint) for her timely help.

Ex-votos mean different things to different people. To their creator (or commissioner) they are a genuine expression of gratitude and reverence. To an art historian they are an interesting blend of two genres, folk art and religious art. To proud Mexicans like Frida Kahlo, they are an important cultural tradition.

And to a linguist? More prosaically, they see ex-votos as a handy source of data on untutored Spanish. This puts them into the same category as graffiti and marginal notations in printed books: spontaneous examples of everyday language, as opposed to the language codified in textbooks, taught in schools, and written by the educated class.

As an example, consider the ex-voto below, from the collection of the Smithsonian Museum.

Smithsonian ex-voto

The text reads as follows. I’ve added corrections to the Spanish in red, and translations in [brackets]. (My translation differs slightly from the Smithsonian’s.)

“En 1942 [in 1492] encontrandome encontrándome en EE.UU. de Norte America América [finding myself in the U.S.] trabajando en una Linia Línea del Ferrocarril [working on a railroad line], se descarriló la carretilla en que ibamos íbamos [the car we were in derailed] abentan donos aventándonos [ejecting us] y dejandonos dejándonos bien golpeados [leaving us battered]. Inboqué Invoqué luego al Sr. de la Clemencia [I prayed then to Our Lord of Mercy] tan pronto llo lo supe [as soon as I found out] la desgracia de mi Marido [my husband’s misfortune] que me lo trajera con bien [that he would be all right]. Y abiendo habiendo concedido esto, [and this having happened] hago patente su milagro. [I am proclaiming this miracle]”

The most remarkable aspect of this text, as a piece of writing, is the abrupt unannounced shift in point of view. The accident is told from the perspective of the man who was injured; the petition, from the perspective of his wife. (The ex-voto bears both their names.)

In terms of language, the Spanish in the ex-voto exemplifies most of the common mistakes that uneducated speakers make in their writing. To begin with, almost all the required accent marks are missing, with the exception of the two past-tense verbs descarriló and invoqué. Readers who are learning Spanish as a second language might be relieved (in a schadenfreude kind of way) to see that accents can challenge native speakers, too!

Other classic mistakes seen in the ex-voto are the confusion of b and v (in invoqué and aventándonos), which are pronounced identically in Spanish, and the omission of the silent h in habiendo — but not hago, probably because this word is more common. Second-language learners are now welcome to feel smug: bv, and h errors are much more common for native speakers, who learn vocabulary first by ear only. Second-language learners, who are guided by spelling from the start, have the reverse problem: remembering to pronounce b and v the same, and to drop the h.

What I’d like to see, but haven’t yet found, is a serious linguistic analysis of ex-voto Spanish beyond spelling. Your pointers are welcome.

A great source for learning more about ex-votos is this museum exhibit:




Why Spanish invented usted

In a previous post I wrote about the Spanish “invention” of the formal pronoun usted, the polite way to say “you” when talking to a stranger, a teacher, a police officer, etc. To recap: in the 1500s the polite pronoun vos had lost its formal connotation and was in the process of disappearing. The new coinage usted, derived from the polite expression vuestra merced “your mercy”, replaced it.

Why bother? English lost the informal/formal distinction between thou and you back in the 17th century, and we get along fine with a single “you” pronoun. Why not Spanish?

The simplest, yet most intriguing, explanation is that by maintaining an informal vs. polite distinction, Spanish was falling in line with a regional trend. As shown in this lovely map from the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS) Online, the two-way politeness distinction became the norm all over Europe (yellow circles) as languages achieved their modern form. English turns out to be one of the few exceptions on the continent.

polite pronouns europeThis “keeping up with the Joneses” uniformity (or should I say, with the Müllers, Smirnovs, Rossis, and Martins?) is especially impressive because the languages of Europe aren’t even all related. Most are Indo-European, but others are Finno-Ugric, Altaic, and Basque. Also, the languages used different techniques to create their polite pronouns. Some drew on plural (y’all-type) pronouns (Turkish siz, French vous); some, like Spanish, on formulaic expressions (Romanian dumneata from “your lordship”); and still others on third-person pronouns (e.g. German Sie, from “they”, and Italian Lei, from “she”).

Politeness in second person pronouns is thus an excellent example of what linguists call an “areal” feature: one that arises, as if by conspiracy, in geographical clusters of languages regardless of their genetic relationship. You can see other clusters in the map above, and also in the Americas, whose native languages are mostly politeness-free (here’s the relevant WALS map):

polite pronouns americas

As with any large-scale trend, whether in language, food, or clothing, it’s hard to reconstruct the details of how this particular feature spread across Europe. I’ve seen one account that cites Spanish as a trend-setter, and another that focuses on the key role played by Latin, while referencing other authors who assign the lead to French. It’s also possible that no one language served as an inspiration, but rather that budding polite pronoun usage in each language reinforced the same tendency in the others. But Spanish was definitely a player in this zeitgeist — and still is today.

[Update from 12 August 2013: The author of the article linked to through “one account” above has provided me with a citation for her assertion about German modeling its pronoun usage on Spanish. It comes from C. J. Wells, German: A Linguistic History to 1945.  Clarendon: Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985, p. 274-5.]

No se habla español – Spanish not spoken here

Living in the United States at a time when Spanish is increasingly ascendant — as of 2007, 12% of Americans aged 5 or older spoke Spanish at home — it’s easy to forget that Spanish has actually lost ground dramatically, here and elsewhere, since its zenith during the Age of Exploration. Much of the United States, after all, is former Spanish territory: the Louisiana Territory and large parts of the West, Southwest, and Southeast. Elsewhere in the Americas, Spain used to control Jamaica, Trinidad, and Belize. All three are now officialy English-speaking, although Spanish is still the predominant spoken language in Belize.

[As an aside, can anyone explain why English, the official language of Belize, is its fourth most spoken language? According to the CIA World Factbook less than 4% of the population speaks English, compared to 46% for Spanish, 33% for Creole, and 9% for various Mayan dialects.]

The Philippines haven’t been Spanish since the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Spanish influence lingers in Filipino place names (Manila, San Juan, etc.) and last names, and the country has its own branch of the Spanish language Academia. However, Spanish has completely vanished as a spoken language in favor of Filipino (Tagalog) and, again, English.

While Spanish retains some presence in Africa, it is no longer spoken in Western Sahara, nor in Morocco outside of Ceuta and Melilla.

All the above doesn’t change the fact that Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, behind Chinese and ahead of English. But it’s a reminder that nothing is permanent: empires crumble and languages fade. Just not yet.


Spanish in Africa

My first-semester students are always surprised to learn of the existence of Equatorial Guinea, the Spanish-speaking country on the Atlantic coast of Africa. Equatorial Guinea became independent from Spain only in 1968, and Spanish is still its majority language.

Map from CIA World Factbook

It was my turn to be surprised when a student of mine from Morocco mentioned that he had been to Ceuta in what he called “Spanish Morocco”. When I looked this up, I saw that Spain controls both Ceuta and Melilla, two small cities some 140 miles apart on the northern coastline of Morocco, with a total population of about 150,000.

Spanish Morocco

Map from CIA World Factbook

The cities are autonomous cities, and are not part of any Spanish province (comunidad autónoma). Although they have been Spanish for centuries—Melilla since 1497, and Ceuta since 1668—Morocco still disputes Spain’s claim to them. Diplomatic sparks flew most recently in 2007, when the King and Queen of Spain visited Ceuta and Melilla, inspiring celebrations in the two cities and protests elsewhere in Morocco.

The other Spanish territories you can see on the map above the video — Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera, Peñón de Alhucemas, and Islas Chafarinas — are Spanish military garrisons on three tiny islands, two of them smaller than Alcatraz. (Peñon means a big rock, as in the Rock of Gibraltar.) And of course, Spain still holds the Canary Islands, off Morocco’s west coast.

Map from Cia World Factbook

Like Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, which are still in British hands, the Spanish territories in Africa seem anachronistic, relics of a bygone, heavily militaristic past during which the world’s colonial powers were still duking it out for control of the Mediterranean and Atlantic sea routes. The Canary Islands, for example, were a useful stopping-off point for Spanish ships sailing to the Caribbean. But just as England still clings to its territories — and even showed, during the Thatcher regime, that it was willing to fight for them  — and as the United States holds onto Guam, Wake Island, and its other territories, Spain is unlikely ever to cede its African possessions. They will probably never be of strategic importance again, but “better safe than sorry”, ¿no?

Latin American country names as historical shorthand

When we lived in New Mexico, back in the 1990’s, our kids used to get a kick out of the names of some of the local towns. There was Truth or Consequences, the town that voted to change its name from Hot Springs in 1950 to win the privilege of hosting the radio show’s 10th anniversary special (the TV show came later). Elephant Butte was named for a volcanic rock formation that looks like you-know-what (the whole beast, not just its tuchis). Santa Fe’s Amtrak station was located out of town in Lamy, named for an early local archbishop, and pronounced “lay me”. You can imagine how that went over with our pre-teen boys.

Little did they realize that toponyms, or place names, can be a serious object of study. Like fossils, toponyms are revealing artifacts, vestigial clues to history. This is certainly true in Latin America, where the various country names are practically a mnemonic shorthand for the key aspects of the colonial period: Continue reading

Usted is a second-generation polite pronoun

I wish I had been able to think of a catchier title for this post. But if you think that pronouns are intrinsically interesting (I do! I do!), the idea of multiple generations of polite pronouns should be irresistible.

Spanish speakers and Spanish students all know about and usted, the two ways to say “you” in Spanish. is for equals (friends, family) and inferiors (babies, pets), while usted is for superiors (teachers, policemen, bosses).  comes straight from Latin, whereas usted was derived in the 1500s from the respectful phrase vuestra merced, or “your mercy.” I always picture its coinage as looking something like this:

vuestra merced

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Puerto Rican r

[This is the English version of an earlier post in Spanish (in celebration of “Spanish Friday”).]

I’ve previously written about several aspects of the Spanish r sound: its pronunciation and linguistic identifyits origin, and the difficulties that some adults (and many kids) have pronouncing it. Today we’ll consider a dialectal variation, the r of Puerto Rico.

In parts of Puerto Rico, it’s common to hear a French-style, back-of-the tongue, unusually long r in place of the normal Spanish trill. Puerto Ricans see this pronunciation as a distinctive marker of island identity, and therefore a source of either shame or pride — or both. Author Magali García Ramis described this love/hate relationship in her essay “My Father’s R”. This was her inaugural lecture when she was inducted into the Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española in 2009, and is also the title essay of her 2011 book:


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