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…

5 thoughts on “The Spanish pretérito is like Tolstoy

  1. Shelley

    getting to a definitive answer as to the ‘merging’ of ir/ser in the preterit provides much ‘rich’ research and yet no clear consensus … would be interested in hearing what your findings are !

  2. Shelley

    Thanks for the link to your earlier post on the SER/IR in the preterit findings. It is true that “I went there” and “I was there” are not entirely unrelated. For me, it is the verb IR in Spanish that is the curious one, and this is reflected in the suppletion of the verb ‘to go’ in most of the Romance Languages … I came across a question that piqued my curiosity further : did IR (Spanish) = to go, in the preterit form, come from Fugere (Latin) = to flee ?! which perhaps might explain the initial f- in the preterit conjugations (linguists suggest that IR is diachronically composed of more than one verb) … Gracias otra vez ! I appreciate musing upon the intricacies of language and the posts in this blog.

    1. jhochberg Post author

      Hi Shelley,

      That’s an interesting idea about fugere, but everything I’ve read says that the preterit of ir comes from the preterit of ser, not from some other verb. Maybe this wasn’t clear in my earlier post?

      – Judy

  3. Shelley

    Judy, it was clear, that your research led you to that conclusion. And I concur, that is what the scholars have written. I was just offering another question to consider, or not, because playing with language is what entertains my mind 😉 this is one discussion that I found, and there are others : which piques my interest to continue linguistics research from here in my armchair…


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