Monthly Archives: August 2013

Cada cual arrima el ascua a su sardina

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

Hoy tardé quince minutos en leer una línea de una novela española.

La novela es El séptimo velo, por Juan Manuel de Prada, un escritor español. Se publicó en 2007 y ganó el Premio Biblioteca Breve. Es larga (no comprendo el “Breve”) y bastante difícil de leer, con un vocabulario riquísimo. Si no hubiera adoptado la filosofía de “just read“, tardaría meses en leerla. El séptimo velo es la historia del amor trágico entre Lucía, una artista circense refugiada en Francia durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial, y Jules, un soldado francés amnésico.

En las semanas finales de la guerra, mientras el padre de Lucía está muriendo lenta y dolorosamente, Jules, tras leer en un periódico sobre la situación sociopolítica francesa, declara su incomprensión de la mezquindad de la gente, que se divide en la que debe ser su hora más unida. El padre recurre a un refrán español: “Cada cual arrima el ascua a su sardina”.

Fue esa frase que me tardó quince minutos, primero en comprender, luego en disfrutar. Una traducción palabra por palabra resultó completamente sin sentido: “Everybody brings an ember to his own sardine.” Gracias a Dios encontré una discusión bien informada sobre el refrán en el foro de Vocabulario Español/Inglés en Un tal “Oriental” (un apodo) lo explicó así:

Este refrán nació en Andalucía, cuando la sardina era plato habitual entre los braceros. Las comidas se hacían en común y todos se disponían alrededor de una fogata de manera que cada uno asaba su ración, tomaba un ascua, y la iba arrimando sólo a su propia sardina. De este modo, la hoguera se debilitaba, e incluso llegaba a apagarse. Nadie se preocupaba de volver a encender porque no lo entendían como cosa suya. El asunto llegó a tal punto que acabaron por suprimir la sardina de los almuerzos. El refrán quedó como muestra de la insolidaridad de los hombres.

Otros comentaron que el refrán inglés más cercano es “looking out for number one”, es decir sí mismo, pero a este le falta la implicación que las acciones individuales vayan reduciendo el bienestar comunitario.

Además del interés histórico del refrán mismo, la palabra ascua me pareció muy interesante. Es uno de los pocos sustantivos españoles masculinos (como mapa) que terminan en -a, pero no en -ma, ni en -ista. También es una palabra de etimología incierta. La RAE no ofrece ninguna etimología; el Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana (Joan Corominas, 1973) elimina orígenes posibles germánicos y vascos, sugiriendo un origen “probable” prerromano.

Así fue: un trozo del español difícil pero riquísimo.


Today, it took me fifteen minutes to read one line of a Spanish novel.

The novel is El séptimo velo (“The Seventh Veil”), by Juan Manuel de Prada, a Spanish writer. It was published in 2007 and won the Biblioteca Breve prize. It’s long (why “Breve”, I have no idea) and fairly hard going, with an extremely rich vocabulary. If I hadn’t adopted the philosophy of “just read“, it would take me months to finish it. El séptimo velo is the story of the tragic love between Lucía, a Spanish circus performer who is a refugee in France during the Second World War, and Jules, an amnesiac French soldier.

In the last weeks of the war, as Lucía’s father is slowly and painfully dying, after Jules reads in a newspaper about the sociopolitical situation in France, he exclaims that he can’t understand how the French people are being so selfish and divided at a time when they should be the most united. As an explanation, the father quotes the Spanish proverb “Cada cual arrima el ascua a su sardina”.

This is the sentence that took me fifteen minutes, first to understand, then to appreciate. A literal translation is impossible, resulting in something like “Everybody brings an ember to his own sardine.” Fortunately I found a well-informed discussion of this proverb in the Spanish/English Vocabulary Forum on A contributor with the moniker “Oriental” explained:

This saying comes from Andalusia, in the days when sardines were a regular dish for laborers. Cooking was communal and everyone sat around a bonfire so that each person, to roast their portion, would take an ember and bring it close to their own sardine. This meant that the bonfire would weaken and even go out. Nobody relit it because they didn’t see it as their own responsibility. The situation got so bad that they stopped having sardines for lunch. The proverb remained as a proof of mankind’s lack of solidarity.

Others commented that the closest English expression is “looking out for number one”, that is, for oneself, but that the English version lacks the implication that the individual actions diminish the group’s well-being.

Besides the historical interest of the proverb, the word ascua “ember” itself turned out to be quite interesting. It’s one of the few masculine Spanish nouns (like mapa) that ends in -a, but not -ma or -ista. Also, its origin is uncertain. The Real Academia doesn’t give any etymology. Joan Corominas’s Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana (1973) rules out a possible Germanic or Basque origin, and suggests that the word is probably pre-Roman.

So there you have it: a challenging but rewarding morsel of Spanish.



Some surprising Spanish-English cognates

I’ve always been a big fan of cognates, i.e. genetically related words across languages, like Spanish insistir and English insist. As a language learner, I’ve found cognates enormously helpful in reading and in memorizing vocabulary. I really missed them when I studied Hebrew.

As a teacher, I point out cognates and also teach my students to use them just as I do: as an aid in reading and in memorization. An additional benefit is intellectual. Articles in the popular press with titles like “Latin comeback in the schools” invariably make the claim that studying Latin helps students learn the roots of English vocabulary. There’s no reason why students can’t have the same benefit from studying Spanish or other Romance languages.

As a linguist, I’m happiest when I learn a non-obvious cognate: the kind that gives you an “Aha!” or “Really?” moment. The table below lists my favorite “Aha!” Spanish/English verb cognates. For example, I’ve always explained the verb disfrutar to my students metaphorically, as enjoying the fruits of life (or whatever) — here I normally mime plucking fruit from a tree – but until I looked it up I didn’t realize that this was the verb’s actual etymology. Again, I’ve left out what I consider to be more obvious cognates, such as savvy, savory, or homo sapiens for sabercognitive or acquaintance for conocer, or dictate for decir. [There, I worked them in anyway!] My sources for the table are the etymologies on the Real Academia website and Douglas Harper’s very impressive Online Etymology Dictionary, which is great fun to browse.

Please write in with your own favorite cognates, including cognates for nouns and adjectives.

Some verb cognates

Summer summary for

While I’m not much of a “beach person” — I don’t like the heat! — the last few weeks I’ve been craving a beach day. It really wouldn’t feel like summer without going at least once. So on Saturday, a girlfriend and I visited lovely, peaceful Hammonasset State Park in Madison, CT. It hit the spot.

Hammonasset Beach State Park, CT

Just before leaving for the beach I received the long-anticipated “”Welcome to the fall semester” email from the Spanish language coordinators at Fordham University (this is where I teach). All of a sudden the first day of classes (Wednesday!) feels real. I’m sure my future students are going through the same mental process. I will be teaching two sections of second-semester Spanish, and getting to know a new textbook, Gente.

These end-of-the-season events have inspired me to review the summer’s activity on I’ve published 27 posts since the beginning of June, roughly 3 a week. My main focus (9 posts) has been on verbs, which are, or course, a Big Deal in Spanish. These include:

Five posts have concerned vocabulary: Spanish slang, Spanish last names (women’s issues and patronymics)  special vocabulary for disabilities, and new Spanish vocabulary from the economic crisis.

Five other posts have concerned the process of learning. Topics included mismatches between Spanish and English vocabulary (verging into grammar), the pedagogical value of reading popular fiction (including a terrific reading list), what I forgot when I didn’t speak Spanish for a few years, and the philosophy that “language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly.”

Four posts address Spanish spelling: accent marks, phonetic spelling (or not), x vs j, and x vs. cc.

Three posts address contemporary language issues: the minority languages of Spain, the high degree of metalinguistic awareness of normal Spanish speakers, and the political [in?]correctness of the language name Spanish.

This leaves two miscellaneous posts, on voseo and the surprising history of the word yand“.

Four of the above posts were part of Spanish Friday: here, here, here, and here.

During the summer the blog has been enriched by comments from readers from around the world. I really appreciate this and encourage you to keep writing. Please feel free to suggest new topics you’d like this blog to address, or enhancements — I’ve added an RSS feed but still haven’t invested any time in Twitter or Facebook. I much prefer to “just write”, but if any bells and whistles would make a difference I will invest the time. I just added a snazzy new background (made with Wordle) and hope it renders well on your screen.

To subscribe by email, use the form on the right.

It’s been a great summer, and I’m looking forward to continuing into the new academic year.

¿What’s in a Spanish name?

In today’s New York Times, Pamela Paul describes the challenges that she faces because, like many women in the United States, she uses her maiden name in professional contexts and her married name otherwise. These include practical issues, like whether her husband can use her Costco card; emotional challenges, like her children’s “permanent state of confusion”; and even legal issues. Ms. Paul was once detained at an airport for 40 minutes because her ticket and her ID had different names.

Since I’m always wearing my “Spanish glasses”, so to speak, I was immediately struck by how unnecessary these issues must seem to folks who follow the Hispanic naming system. Married women keep the same two last names they’ve had since birth: one apellido from their father and one from their mother. They can optionally add de X to show that they’re married to a Sr. X. This seems somewhat sexist, implying that a wife is her husband’s property, but at least it’s simple and consistent.

A celebrity example may be in order. The adorable Suri Cruise’s full name, Hispanic-style, would be Suri Cruise Holmes, after her father (Tom Cruise) and mother (Katie Holmes). If she were to marry, say, Knox Pitt Jolie (the son of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), she could optionally go by the longer name Suri Cruise Holmes de Pitt. Suri and Knox’s children would all have the last names Pitt Cruise.

last namesI don’t have a dog in this hunt, personally. I kept my maiden name and haven’t had many problems with it. In fact, it’s a useful way to weed out sales calls, since the caller will often ask for me by my husband’s name or the reverse. But I do sometimes wish that the United States followed the Hispanic system so that there would be no ambiguity.

I’d love to hear from some readers from Spanish-speaking countries about their personal experiences with apellidos. How often do women use the de X convention? Is there any confusion with school registrations or other formalities involving children? Are you happy to be following the Hispanic system?


Spanish and and and

You can’t speak Spanish without the word y (“and”). It’s the fourth most frequent word in Spanish, after el/lade, and que. It’s indispensable for telling time (Son las dos y veinte) and counting (treinta y cinco). It shows up in everyday expressions like blanco y negromadre y padre, and ida y vuelta. And it has the magical property of both creating longer sentences (Comimos en la taquería y fuimos al cine) and shortening questions (¿Y tú?).

You probably already know that y changes to e before a word that begins with i or hi, as in Mi madre es bonita e inteligente or Tengo veinte sobrinos hijos. This is more than a spelling change. The pronunciation changes, too, to prevent the adjacent /i/ sounds from blending together.

I knew this. And I also knew, from studying Latin for a year in college, that the Latin word for “and” is et. But somehow I never put two and two together (that’s dos y dos) to realize that Spanish e is a lot closer to the original Latin than the normal y form is.

In fact, as Tom Lathrop explains, y is another case of a historical “flip” in the language. Earlier this summer, this blog considered verbs like conocer and hacer, whose yo forms conozco and hago are irregular by modern standards but historically conservative. All the other present-tense forms of these verbs, plus the infinitives, have diverged substantially from Latin. Likewise, e can be traced back directly to Latin, while y is a Spanish innovation. So although from a modern perspective y is normal and e exceptional, from a historical perspective it’s the other way around.

Seen from a modern perspective, “y” is normal and “e” is exceptional. Seen from a historical perspective, it’s the other way around.

Let’s see how this happened. As Lathrop explains, Spanish lost the final t of et, as it did final -t in general; compare Latin dicit and Spanish dice (Lathrop p. 129). When the resulting e form came before a word that began with a vowel, it was natural to turn the sequence e + vowel into y + vowel. Lathrop gives these examples (p. 200). If you say the words out loud you should be able to recreate this transformation for yourself.

  • e amigos > yamigos > y amigos
  • e obispos > yobispos > y obispos
  • e uno > yuno > y uno

This change happened before all vowels but /i/, for obvious reasons, and then took over before consonants as well. Poor e was now the odd man out.

The change of o “or” to u before o is a horse of a different color, by the way: a change that never quite got off the ground. O is the natural development of Latin aut. Penny explains that “The form u probably arose in pre-vocalic position [like y for e], and has only in the modern period come to be restricted to use before words beginning with /o/” (p. 199). It coulda been a contender!

All about Spanish accents

¡Los acentos importan! — the subject is Panamanian politician Ricardo Martinelli. The accent on él is from rule 3 below, and the accent on cambió is from rule 2.

People are always asking me about Spanish accent marks. I don’t think this is because accents are intrinsically difficult, but rather that most explanations fail to put together some related issues. It’s a not-seeing-the-forest-for-the-trees situation.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, what unites all uses of Spanish accent marks is that they serve to highlight unusual stress: stress on an unusual vowel, syllable, or word.

  1. A written accent can break the normal rules for which vowel to stress within in a vowel sequence. Spanish normally stresses the second of two vowels, as in fuE·go “fire” or diA·blo “devil” (this is actually a slight simplification). A written accent signals a deviation from this pattern, as in con·ti·nÚ·e “continue” or co·mÍ·a·mos “we were eating”. Notice that changing the stress pattern also creates an additional syllable. What power!
  2. A written accent can break the normal rules for which syllable to stress within a word. Spanish normally stresses the last syllable of a word that ends in a consonant, and the next-to-last syllable of a word that ends in a vowel. Think mu.jEr vs. hOm.bre. With a written accent mark you can break this pattern: lÁ.piz ends in a consonant, and hin.dÚ and te.lÉ both end in a vowel. A final s or n doesn’t “count” because it’s usually a grammatical marker: there’s no stress difference between hA.blahA.blas, and hA.blan, or between and
  3. A written accent marks the member of an otherwise identical word pair that usually carries more stress within a sentence, and can even stand alone. This is most obvious for question words. Compare the stress on accented versus unaccented quien and como in ¿Quién se llama Juan? and ¿Cómo nada un pez? versus Tu amigo, quien se llama Juan, nada como un pez. The accented varieties can stand alone: ¿Quién? ¿Cómo?

Once you know these fundamental rules, mysteries vanish. Why does más have an accent? To distinguish it from the obscure word mas, which means “but”; note that the accented version can stand on its own (¡Más!). Why do some words gain an accent in the plural, some lose an accent, and some keep an accent? These cases all have to do with final n or s:

  • Words that gain an accent change from regular to irregular in the plural. Singular jO·ven has regular stress (next-to-last syllable, word ends in n) but plural jÓ·ve·nes is irregular (third-to-last syllable).
  • Words that lose an accent change from irregular to regular in the plural. Singular ja·mÓn has irregular stress (final syllable, word ends in n) but plural ja·mO·nes is regular (next-to-last syllable, word ends in s).
  • Words that keep an accent have irregular stress in both the singular and the plural. For ca·fÉ and ca·fÉs, regular stress would be on the a; for fÁ·cil and fÁ·ci·lesregular stress would be on the i.

Even native speakers make accent mark mistakes, so please — don’t stress! 😉

¿Es fonética la ortografía española? – Is Spanish spelling phonetic?

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

La sencillez de la ortografía española es una razón por la cual la mayoría de los estudiantes estadounidenses eligen estudiar este idioma en vez de uno cuya ortografía sea más complicada, como el francés, por no hablar del chino ni del árabe.

Pero — ¿cuán fonética es la ortografía española?

Cuando decimos que un sistema de ortografía es “fonético”, de verdad queremos decir dos cosas al mismo tiempo: que cada palabra se pronuncia como se escribe, y que cada palabra se escribe como se pronuncia. El español es completamente fonético en cuanto al primero, y mayormente fonético en cuanto al segundo.

Cada palabra española se pronuncia como se escribe. En inglés tenemos palabras como read por las cuales nos hace falta tener en cuenta el contexto para destacar entre las pronunciaciones red y reed. Tales casos no existen en español.

Cada vocal española se escribe como se pronuncia. El español tiene cinco vocales que se escriben con sendas letras correspondientes.

Cada acento escrito español sigue las reglasNunca hay que adivinar si una palabra debe llevar un acento escrito (qué o que, examen vs. exámenes, etc.). Si sabes las reglas de la acentuación, no cabrá duda.

Unas consonantes tienen dos escrituras posibles. Es por esas consonantes que no podemos decir que la ortografía española sea completamente fonética. Irónicamente, en general la escritura de estas consonantes causa más problemas para los nativos, quienes aprenden la pronunciación antes de la escritura, que para los estudiantes del español como segundo idioma, quienes suelen conocer la forma escrita de una palabra al mismo tiempo (o antes de) que la oyen por primera vez.

  • Las letras bv se pronuncian de la misma manera. Hay que aprender de memoria que bueno no se escribe vueno y que avión no se escribe abión.
  • El sonido /x/ se escribe con gj. Hay que aprender que jefe no se escribe gefe, ni gemelojemelo.
  • La letra h no se pronuncia. Hay que aprender que honra no se escribe onra, ni abrirhabrir.
  • Para nosotros que vivimos en latinoamérica, la z y la c (antes de ie) se pronuncian como s. Tenemos que aprender que zapato no se escribe sapato; ni saberzaber; ni cinesine; y ni , cé. Los españoles tienen una ventaja aquí porque su c se pronuncian como el th inglés.
  • Igualmente, para los latinoamericanos la letra x y las letras cc se pronuncian de la misma manera. Tenemos que aprender que conexión no se escribe conección, ni correccióncorrexión.
  • En la mayoría del mundo hispanohablante la letra y y el dígrafo ll se pronuncian de la misma manera. Hay que aprender que llave no se escribe yave, ni El YunqueEl Llunque.

¿Una llorosa en El Yunque, o una yorosa en El Llunque?

Además de estas pocas molestias gozamos de un sistema regular, y, a mi parecer, lindísimo.


The simplicity of Spanish spelling is one reason why the majority of American students choose to study Spanish instead of a language with more complicated spelling, like French, not to mention Chinese or Arabic.

But — how phonetic is Spanish spelling?

When we say that a spelling system is “phonetic”, we really mean two things at the same time: that each word is pronounced the way it’s written, and written the way it’s pronounced. Spanish is completely phonetic in the first regard, and mostly in the second.

The spelling of every Spanish word completely determines its pronunciation. In English we have to look at a word’s context to determine, for example, whether read is pronounced like red or like reed. There are no such cases in Spanish.

Every Spanish vowel is written the way it’s pronounced. Each of the five vowels of Spanish is spelled with its corresponding letter. [Check out the tricky/elegant adjective sendas in the Spanish version of this bullet!!!] 

Spanish accents follow the rules. You should never have to guess whether a Spanish word has an accent mark (qué or queexamen vs. exámenes, etc.). If you know the rules for using accents, there’s no room for doubt.

Some consonants have two possible spellings. These consonants are the reason why we can’t say that Spanish spelling isn’t completely phonetic. Ironically, these spelling issues are more of a headache for native speakers than for students of Spanish as a second language, who usually learn the written form of a word at the same time (or before) they hear it pronounced.

  • The letters b and v are pronounced the same. One must memorize that bueno isn’t spelled vueno and that avión isn’t spelled abión.
  • The sound /x/ can be spelled g or j. One must memorize that jefe isn’t spelled gefe, nor gemelojemelo.
  • The letter h is silent. One must memorize that honra isn’t spelled onra, nor abrirhabrir.
  • For those of us who live in Latin America, the letters z and c (the latter before i and e) are pronounced just like s. We have to memorize that zapato isn’t spelled sapato; nor saberzaber; nor cinesine; nor . Spaniards have an advantage here because their z and c are pronounced with a th.
  • By the same token, Latin Americans pronounce the letter x and the combination cc identically. We have to memorize that conexión isn’t spelled conección, nor correccióncorrexión.
  • In most of the Spanish-speaking world, y and ll are pronounced the same. One must memorize that llave isn’t written yave, nor El YunqueEl Llunque.

Barring these few exceptions we can take pleasure in a spelling system that is regular and, to my eyes, lovely.


Lexicalizing the differently abled

When my Spanish class learned about Don Quijote in high school, our teacher explained that Cervantes’s nickname was El manco de Lepanto because he had lost the use of his left hand when he was wounded in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. I found it interesting that Spanish had a special word, manco, for people with this disability (it usually implies actual loss of the limb).

Since then, even though the topic might be politically incorrect, I’ve become mildly fascinated with the small but significant set of vocabulary that Spanish uses for disabilities and other physical conditions. Besides manco there are zurdo and diestro (for left- and right-handed), tuerto and bizco (one-eyed and cross-eyed), and romo (snub-nosed). Using proper linguistic terminology, we can say that Spanish has lexicalized these concepts instead of using other words to describe them, as we do in English.

Most of these words come from Latin. Diestro is from dexter, meaning “right-handed” (or “skillful”, sorry), tuerto and bizco from tortus and versus, both meaning “twisted”, and manco from mancus, meaning “maimed” (a word related to manus “hand”). Romo comes from Portuguese rombo “rounded” and zurdo is of unknown pre-Roman origin.

To be fair, several words for physical conditions are lexicalized in both Spanish and English. These include ciego/blindsordo/deaf, mudo/mute, and tullido/cojo/crippled/lame. Moreover, the concept of a stutterer is lexicalized in English but only partially in Spanish (tartamudo combines the onomatopoetic tarta with mudo), while neither language lexicalized corcovado/hunchback.

I’m well aware of the danger of jumping to cultural conclusions based on language differences. The putatively prolific Eskimo words for snow are a notorious linguistic urban legend, as Geoffrey Pullum so ably explained in his title essay here:

Only recently has more solid research linking language and thought emerged, and it has to do with widespread patterns in language, like the se accidental construction in Spanish, rather than a handful of words. As a further caveat, my familiarity with this vocabulary domain is limited to Spanish and English. Nevertheless, it’s tempting to see the greater quantity of lexicalized words of this type in Spanish as going hand-in-hand with a macabre streak in the Hispanic psyche, along with bullfighting, El día de los muertos (I know, it’s a happy holiday, but still…), and the truly gory crucifixions one sees in many Spanish churches.

For what it’s worth, then — probably, not much! — my little list is yours. Make of it what you will.

Spanish patronymics

Patronymics — names that mean “son of” someone — are something of a mystery in Spanish.

In English and other Germanic languages, most patronymics contain the actual word for son or daughter, as in English Samuelson, Danish Christensen, or Icelandic Mínervudóttir. Hebrew patronymics are just as transparent, although the word ben “son” is a prefix, not a suffix. David Ben-Gurion’s last name was a famous example. But the Spanish patronymic ending -ez, seen in names like Martínez and Enríquez, is clearly unrelated to hijo.

There are no definitive explanations for the origin of -ezRalph Penny, my history of Spanish guru, attributes it tentatively to possessive (genitive) forms of Germanic names like Roderick that came into early Spanish with the fall of Rome. The genitive form Roderici (i.e., Roderick’s) was shortened to Ruiz, with the all-important final -z, and Roderick itself to Ruy. Once established as a patronymic ending, the -z spread to other names, including those shown below.


Some Spanish patronymics (patronímicos), plus Chávez

To complicate matters, some Spanish patronymics derive from names that are now obsolete. Have you ever met a Gomo (the source of Gómez)? A Velazco? A Valdo? Other Spanish last names end with -ez by mere coincidence, like Chávez (as in the late Hugo), which comes from the Portuguese word for “keys.”

As a teacher I’m often reluctant to recommend Wikipedia. However, its resources on patronymics are impressive. They include

  • descriptions of patronymics from languages around the world
  • a long list of Spanish patronymics, most with -ez endings, but others with -iz-oz, and -az
  • in the same article, some alternative, Basque-centric theories of the origins of Spanish -ez

By the way, most of these patronymics have a written accent mark. This is simply because the next-to-last syllable is stressed even though the last letter of the word is a consonant. Explanations here, here, here, and a zillion other places on the web (not to mention textbooks, dictionaries, and the like).