Monthly Archives: July 2013

Some asymmetrical correspondences between Spanish and English

Spanish students spend a lot of time learning and practicing differences that exist in Spanish but not English. These include differences in pronouns (, usted, and their plurals), verbs (ser and estarsaber and conocer), verb tenses and moods (pretérito/imperfectoindicativo/subjuntivo), and other aspects of grammar (masc./fem., por/paraese/aquel). I’ve put together a little slideshow below that summarizes these differences.

Obviously this list could be a lot longer. Pedir/preguntarmudarse/mover, and hacerse/ponerse are some additional items that spring to mind. The differences I put on the slideshow are the ones that seem to come up most in an introductory Spanish class. I’m particularly fond of doler vs. lastimar because students seem to trip over this one until they realize that the two words represent different aspects of the English concept.

Note: slideshow updated 3 aug 2013, see follow-up post.

The last two slides present the only three differences I’ve been able to think of (or had pointed out to me) that go the other way: that is, important distinctions we make in English but not in Spanish. These differences are “there is” vs. “there are” (both singular in Spanish), “to do” vs. “to make” (both hacer in Spanish), and all the different meanings of su (his, her, your, their).

I’m sure there are many others besides these. Perhaps an ESL teacher could suggest some? I welcome your comments. [Edit: As discussed in this later post, another good example is the Spanish verb esperar, which combines the meanings of English ‘to wait’ and ‘to hope’.]

Quixote y Quijote

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

Comentando sobre mi aporte de ayer sobre las palabras escritas con xión y cción, Susan me pidió que explicara la diferencia entre xj, y específicamente el caso de Quixote versus Quijote.

Encontré la respuesta fácilmente en mi ejemplar confiable de la Ortografía de la Real Academia. Una sección corta del libro ( aborda el tema. Aquí la abrevio y parafraseo:

Hasta principios del siglo XIX, el sonido de j o g (antes de e o i) podía ser también representado con x. Así, eran normales grafías con x como embaxador, exemplo, mexilla, etc. En 1815, la Real Academia decidió eliminar el uso de la x con este valor fónico. Sin embargo, quedan algunos restos del antiguo valor de la x en ciertos topónimos y antropónimos como México, Oaxaca, Texas, el nombre de pila Ximena y los apellidos Ximénez y Mexía…En el caso de México y sus derivados, las grafías con j eran usuales hasta no hace mucho en España, donde se han impuesto también las grafías con x, que resultan preferibles por ser las usadas en el propio país y, mayoritariamente, en el resto de Hispanoamérica.

En el caso de Quijote/Quixote, la ortografía moderna oficial usa la j. La representación con la x es antigua, notablemente en la primera edición:


In a comment on yesterday’s post about words ending in xión and cción, Susan asked me to explain the difference between x and j, especially as regards the case of Quixote vs. Quijote.

My trusty copy of the Real Academia’s Ortografía provided an instant answer. A short section of the book ( addresses the topic. Here’s a rough translation/condensation:

Until the beginning of the 19th century, the sound of j or g (before e/i) could also be represented with x. So, it was normal to see spellings like embaxador, exemplo, mexilla, etc. that are written with a j today. In 1815, the Real Academia decided to eliminate this use of x…Nevertheless, some traces remain of the former use of x in certain place names like México, Oaxaca, or Texas, and people-names (“antropónimas”) like the first name Ximena and last names Ximénez or Mexía…In the case of ‘México’ and its derived forms, spellings with j were common until recently in Spain, where… the x spellings have since prevailed because they’re the ones used in their own country and, for the most part, in the rest of Latin America.

In the case of Quijote/Quixote, the “official” spelling is j. The version with x is old-fashioned, and was used notably in the first edition, pictured above.

Conexión and corrección

I love the Spanish spelling of conexión. The x is somehow very elegant. But I’ve occasionally wondered why the word isn’t spelled conección, with a cc as in corrección. I looked into this question recently and the answer is very simple. In fact, there are two simple answers.

First, the spelling difference reflects the proper Castilian Spanish pronunciation of x versus cc. The letter x between two vowels (conexión, examen, etc.) is pronounced ks. The letter sequence cc as in corrección is pronounced kth, since th is the Castilian pronunciation of c before i. Two spellings, two pronunciations, fair and square.

Second, the spelling difference respects etymology. Spanish words ending in –xión had an x in Latin, too: conexión comes from connexĭōn(is), reflexión from reflexĭōn(is), and so on. Spanish words ending in –cción had a ct in Latin: corrección from correctĭōn(is)acción from actĭōn(is)inyección from iniectĭōn(is), and so on.

The cc words, by the way, greatly outnumber the x words. The latter include only the following (based on various google searches — I need a reverse Spanish dictionary!):

  • anexión
  • complexión
  • conexión etc. (desconexión, inconexión, interconexión, reconexión)
  • crucifixión, transfixión
  • flexión etc. (reflexión, inflexión, irreflexión, genuflexión)
  • fluxión

It’s interesting that English — especially American English — has moved many of the x words into the cc group, which we spell with the original ct (e.g. connection). In fact, the British “look” of the x is probably what makes Spanish conexión appear elegant to my American eyes. We’ve likewise adapted the various words derived from flexion (reflection, genuflection, and inflection), though not, mysteriously, the word flexion itself. Complexion and crucifixion are probably the most commonly used xion holdouts in American English.

So, this post is one for your X-files!





Latin versus Spanish verb tenses

Believe it or not, after my last post about the subjunctive I had resolved to take a long break from writing about verbs. But as part of my research I just performed the following summary analysis, which I found so useful that I couldn’t resist sharing it.

The series of tables below summarizes the fate of the many Latin tenses in Spanish. What’s most interesting is that although Latin had a rich verb system, and Spanish does too, there’s very little direct overlap. The present indicative and subjunctive, and the two simple past tenses (imperfect and perfect), are the only four tenses to survive more or less “as is” in Spanish, though the perfect became a more general past tense (the pretérito). Two Latin pluperfect tenses were adapted as the two versions of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, and two others as the now-defunct future subjunctive (thereby hangs a future blog post). Seven other tenses were lost.

Latin tensesWhile losing 9 Latin tenses in total, Spanish added ALL the perfect tenses (haber + past participle), and also the future and conditional, which are likewise based on haber.

Now I promise to stay away from verbs for a while.

A lovely thought about language learning

I subscribe to a lively mailing list for language teachers, FLTEACH. In a recent message, a professional translator recommended Kató Lomb’s classic book Polyglot: How I Learn LanguagesIt’s a fun read, and interesting for its emphasis on the important of reading (for pleasure or work) for language learners at all levels.

My favorite passage from the book, which motivated this post, is the following. I’ve highlighted my “most favorite” bit in red.

      We should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorlyIf someone knows how to play the violin only a little, he will find that the painful minutes he causes are not in proportion to the possible joy he gains from his playing. The amateur chemist spares himself ridicule only as long as he doesn’t aspire for professional laurels. The man somewhat skilled in medicine will not go far, and if he tries to trade on his knowledge without certification, he will be locked up as a quack doctor.
Solely in the world of languages is the amateur of value. Well-intentioned sentences full of mistakes can still build bridges between people. Asking in broken Italian which train we are supposed to board at the Venice railway station is far from useless. Indeed, it is better to do that than to remain uncertain and silent and end up back in Budapest rather than in Milan.

Lomb’s observation that “language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly” is amazingly astute. It goes hand-in-hand with what every language teacher knows: it’s important to make mistakes while learning a language, and even more so, to not be afraid of making them. This is why I often tell my students “Me gusta el español malo”. As a language learner, I don’t mind sounding like an idiot when I attempt to communicate in German or another language that I barely know.

Depending on one’s personality it can be hard to be fearless — but one must always try!


The sadistic Spanish subjunctive

I can remember the exact moment when Spanish utterly and permanently captivated me. I was fifteen years old and in my fourth year as a Spanish student. Our class had wrapped up the basic tenses and the present subjunctive, and was ready to launch into the imperfect subjunctive. Our teacher explained to us that this tense was based on the pretérito and incorporated all of its irregulars.

This struck me as laugh-out-loud funny. We had already learned that the present subjunctive inherited all the idiosyncrasies of the normal present tense, including the ones that only show up in the yo form (the -zco and -go types). But the preterit is even thornier. It seemed bizarre beyond belief that the subjunctive should adopt the most problematic elements of both these tenses.

As a student, it amused me to imagine that a twisted “Spanish committee” (perhaps a branch of the Spanish Inquisition?) had designed the subjunctive. (My little PowerPoint below depicts this scenario.) As a teacher, I now like to tell my students that the present subjunctive is God’s way of getting them to review the irregular verbs that they’d studied weeks, months, or even years ago. I figure that teaching at a Jesuit university authorizes me to invoke God in the classroom.

In fact, the many irregulars of the subjunctive are neither a cosmic joke, an evil machination, nor an act of God. They’re simply a coincidence. The present and imperfect subjunctive happened to follow the same evolutionary paths as several distinct categories of irregular verbs in the present and pretérito indicative.

Consider the examples of irregular verbs shown in the table below, color-coded for your convenience.

irregular subjunctive

The “boot” verbs, in yellow, are irregular in the present tense because of a language-wide process that changed stressed /o/ to /ue/ and stressed /e/ to /ie/. The corresponding present subjunctives have the same vowels and the same stress pattern, and therefore the same irregularity.

The -ir “sole” verbs, in blue, are irregular in the present and the pretérito because of another general process: the raising of /e/ to /i/ and /o/ to /u/ before /j/ (the sound of English y). All Latin -ire present subjunctive endings, and the “sole” (3rd person) endings of the imperfect subjunctive, contained (or still contain) /j/, triggering the vowel change.

The -zco and -go irregulars of the present tense, in green, evolved because the o ending of the yo form insulated it from changes that affected the other present tense forms and the infinitive. The subjunctive endings for these verbs begin with a, which had the same insulating property.

Finally, the drastic stem-changing pretéritos, in magenta, descend from Latin’s “strong perfect” past tense forms. The imperfect subjunctive is based on Latin’s pluperfect tense, which had the same irregularities.

This leaves “only” the six additional irregulars of the present tense subjunctive. Their diverse origins are summarized below.

6 irregular present subjunctives

As always, if you want to learn more, the best source is Ralph Penny’s A History of the Spanish Language. But beware — nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Enfatizando los verbos

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

Este verano he escrito mucho sobre los verbos españoles: sobre el presente (aquí, aquí, aquí, aquí, y aquí), el subjuntivo, y el pretérito. Este énfasis ha sido en parte porque actualmente estoy investigando los verbos por un libro que estoy escribiendo sobre el español (todavía busco una editorial, si tienes una conexión…). Pero más fundamentalmente ha sido por la importancia que tienen los verbos dentro del español.

Hablo, en parte y como siempre, del punto de vista pedagógico. A veces me parece que paso la mayoría del tiempo en la clase ayudándoles a mis estudiantes a comprender, aprender de memoria, y practicar nuestros varios tiempos verbales. Pero este énfasis recibe apoyo cuantitativo de nuestros textos. Por ejemplo, en mi libro de gramática favorito (The Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice), más de la mitad del libro trata sobre los verbos. En Amazon se venden al menos 36 libros específicamente sobre los verbos españoles, incluso libros especializados como The Spanish Subjunctive Up Close y Spanish Past-Tense Verbs Up Close(Tengo que confesar que no sé si esto es igual o más de lo típico en libros sobre otros idiomas.)

A veces todos nosotros nos sentimos aplastados por los verbos.

A veces todos todos nos sentimos aplastados por los verbos.

De todas formas, los verbos les importan a nuestros libros, a nuestras clases, a nuestros estudiantes, a nuestro idioma. Por eso deben importarles también a nuestras comunicaciones sobre el español, como este blog, y puedes anticipar más aportes de mi parte en el futuro.


This summer I’ve written tons about Spanish verbs: the present (herehereherehere, y here), the subjunctive, and the preterit. This emphasis has partly been because I’ve been researching verbs for a book I’m writing about Spanish (I’m still looking for a publisher, if you have a connection…). But more fundamentally, it’s been because of the importance of verbs within Spanish.

I’m partly speaking, as always, from a pedagogical point of view. Sometimes it seems like I spend most of my classroom time helping students to understand, memorize, and practice our many verb tenses. But books about Spanish certainly provide quantitative support to this emphasis. For example, more than half the pages of my favorite grammar book (The Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice) are devoted to verbs. Amazon sells at least 36 books specifically about Spanish verbs, including specialized books like The Spanish Subjunctive Up Close and Spanish Past-Tense Verbs Up Close(I confess that I don’t know how this compares to grammar books for other languages.)

At any rate, verbs matter to our books, our classes, our students, our language. Therefore, they should matter also in our communications about Spanish, like this blog, and you can expect to see more here in the future.

Spanish lessons from popular fiction

My second-favorite souvenir from a Spanish-speaking country is a reading list. (My absolute favorite is a mama cuchara, an oversized spoon that I bought at the open-air market in Otovalo, Ecuador.)

My mama cuchara is about 2 feet long and usually contains soup, not a tree.

This precious list was a parting present from a professor at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, where I took summer classes about six years ago. She explained that for advanced non-native speakers like us (many of whom were Spanish teachers), the best way to keep improving our Spanish when we got home was to read for pleasure. The idea is that if you get absorbed in a story, your fluency will increase naturally.

I love this approach because it combines two of my deepest passions: Spanish and light reading. Now I get to read a mystery novel or an adventure story and count it as “professional development”. Not in any formal sense, of course (hence the ironic quotation marks), but enough to feel that I’m using my time productively. Sometimes I read like a student, looking up new words and even making flashcards for them. But usually I “just” read.

Last night I finished a terrific book from the list, Guillermo Martínez’s La muerte lenta de Luciana B. The plot describes a writer’s Rashomon-like quest to understand a series of deaths — or are they murders? Martínez is Argentinian and of course I got a big kick out of the voseo, but the biggest linguistic thrill for me, having just blogged on the topic, was the following passage, which combines both versions of the imperfect subjunctive:

Hubo un silencio del otro lado, como si Kloster ya tuviera el presentimiento correcto y se preparase a jugar una partida diferente.

Perhaps a native speaker who reads this blog can suggest an intuitive explanation for the author’s choices here.

One of my professor’s top recommendations was the wildly popular Capitán Alatriste series by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. These books feature a down-on-his-luck Golden Age swashbuckler with a knack for inserting himself into important historical events (like the siege of Breda) à la Forrest Gump and palling around with notable writers like Francisco de Quevedo. The series has spawned a restaurant in Madrid and a [by all accounts mediocre] film starring Viggo Mortensen, whose fluent Spanish comes from a childhood in Argentina.

Alatriste taverna

Taberna del Capitán Alatriste, Madrid

The Alatriste books are rich in vocabulary. Besides swordfighting and military terms, and adjectives good for describing sinister characters, they abound in idiomatic expressions involving a la or las pronoun that lacks a specific direct object referent. Examples include:

  • dársela “to pretend to be something”, e.g. “…que por ser antiguo sargento de caballos, mutilado en Nieuport, se las daba de consumado estratega.”
  • habérsela “to contend with”, e.g. “…permanecieron allí, quietos y silenciosos a uno y otro lado del candelabro … estudiándose para averiguar si se las habían con un camarada o un adversario”
  • tenérsela jurada “to have it in for someone”, e.g. (referring to Quevedo): “Algunos, como Luis de Góngora o Juan Ruiz de Alarcón se la tenían jurada, y no sólo por escrita.”
  • levantársela “to excite (sexually)”, e.g. (referring to an allegedly pure woman, a “santa”) “Y entre santa y santa — repuso Calzas, procaz — a nuestro rey se la levantan.”
  • arreglársela “to manage, carry out, finagle”, e.g. “A veces me pregunto cómo se las arreglan ustedes, los que no juegan [al ajedrez], para escapar de la locura o la melancolía.”

My favorite book so far by Pérez-Reverte, El maestro de esgrima, isn’t from the Alatriste series. It’s a complicated story involving the titular fencing teacher, an unusual student, and a blackmail plot. What fun!

¡Que disfruten!

The Spanish pretérito is like Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with the wonderful observation that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This quote always makes me think of the Spanish pretérito (preterit) past tense. The pretérito has lots of irregulars, and they are irregular in many different ways.

Unhappy families are like the pretérito.

We’ve already seen that in the present tense, most irregulars — the boot verbs-zco and -go verbs, and ver — developed as Vulgar Latin transitioned to Spanish. The pretérito is different because most of its irregulars were already irregular in Latin. (Well, Spanish added a few for good measure…keep on reading.)

Basically, the Spanish pretérito tense derives from the Latin perfect, which was riddled with irregulars. Latin scholars refer to them as “strong” perfects, as opposed to the regular, or “weak” perfects. The strong perfects were characterized by stress on the root instead of the ending in some of the verb forms. You can still hear this difference in Spanish. For example, irregular dije and dijo are stressed on the di- root, while regular hablé and habló are stressed on the and endings. The strong perfects also lacked the normal /v/ ending of regular perfects, such as laudāvī “I praised” (from laudāre) or audīvit “he heard” (from audīre).

Caeser loved those strong perfects!

Most of today’s irregular pretéritos can be traced to three subtypes of the Latin strong perfect:

Strong perfects

As always, analogy muddied the evolutionary trail. Several common verbs that were regular in Latin picked up the u pattern of hube, supe and the like, including tener/tuve, estar/estuve, and andar/anduve. The irregular pretérito of ver (vi, viste, vio, etc.) influenced that of dar (di, diste, dio, etc.), while the pretéritos of ser “to be” and ir “to go” merged. On the other hand, many verbs with strong perfects in Latin became regular in Spanish. Some examples are temer, which belonged to Latin’s –class (Latin timuī, timuístī, etc.), escribir “to write”, in the – class (scrīpsī, scrīpsístī, etc.), and leer “to read”, in the –ī class (lēgī, lēgístī). Their modern yo pretéritos are regular temí, escribí, and leí instead of something like tume, escrise, and lije.

Finally, to make matters worse, Spanish “invented” its very own irregular pattern: the so-called “sole” verbs. These are -ir verbs with a “boot” change in the present, like servir (sirvo, sirves etc.), mentir (mientomientes, etc.), and dormir (duermoduermes, etc.). In the pretérito, the e or o of the root changes to an i or u in the él and ellos forms. This happens for the same reason I described in my boot verb post: raising an /e/ to /i/ and an /o/ to /u/ anticipates the height of the y sound (transcribed properly as /j/) that you get when you pronounce the -ió and -ieron in fluent speech.


Suela verbs are only Irregular in the sole of the boot

That’s a lot of irregulars — and a lot of unhappy families, at least the night before a major test…

Those wacky -ir verbs

In a previous post I described the origin of the three main categories of Spanish “boot” verbs, shown below:

Boot verbsThe first two types of vowel change, from e ie and from o ue, affect -ar-er, and -ir verbs. The third type, with a vowel change from e iaffects only ir verbs. I also described how a fourth change for -ir verbs, from o u , was sidetracked, with the relevant verbs switching over entirely to u (e.g. mullir, from Latin mollire).

At the time I overlooked a simple yet dramatic truth: the “boot” pattern has taken over all possible -ir verbs! This amounts to a significant difference between -ir verbs and -ar/-er verbs. When you learn a new -ar or -er verb that might be a boot verb (say, the hypothetical verbs felar and foler), you need to check a dictionary to see how the verb works. Is it regular, in which case the present tense forms are (yo) felo and (yo) folo, or boot (fielo, fuelo)? For a hypothetical -ir verb like felir, this question is moot: it’s a boot verb for sure. The only remaining issue is which type it is, i.e. fielo or filo.

[Note that the total change of o u in -ir verbs means that one will never encounter a new verb like folir; it would have changed to fulir.]

To verify this generalization, have a look at the comprehensive list of -ir verbs at (a website with which I am not affiliated; I just admire their verb lists). With a single bizarre exception (abolir, see below), every verb on the list whose final stem vowel is e or o is a “boot” verb.

FYI abolir (click for conjugation) belongs to yet another weird category: it’s a so-called “defective verb”, which means that its only allowed forms are those whose verb ending begins with i. For the present tense, this means that the verb only exists in the nosotros and vosotros forms, which are both outside the “boot”.

This generalization about -ir boot verbs is hardly earth-shaking. In fact, if you’re not a Spanish grammar lover, you’re probably asleep by now (but then how can you still be reading???). To me, though, it is somehow aesthetically pleasing. These -ir boot verbs are weird in general — consider their gerunds (dUrmiendo, sugIriendo) and preterits (dUrmió, sugIrió). Shouldn’t their present tense be special, too?