Monthly Archives: September 2013

Spanish vocabulary that’s hard to learn

Writing Sunday’s post about unfamiliar vocabulary in El séptimo velo, and in particular the words metralla and ametrrallada, started me thinking somewhat nostalgically about Spanish vocabulary I’ve found hard to learn, and what strategies have worked for me. In general, since I’m an analytic thinker, especially when it comes to language, I have trouble with words that I can’t tackle using cognates or other types of linguistic analysis. Strangely, the best solution for me in such cases is often anti-analytic. I specialize in truly ad hoc mnemonics, often based on false cognates (so-called amigos falsos). The more far-fetched, the better.

Some kinship terms beyond the basics caused me a headache “back in the day”. Sobrino and sobrina “nephew/niece”, for instance, lack an English cognate. My ad hoc mnemonic for them is therefore based on a false cognate: I think of a “sober” (i.e. non-drinking) nephew. Nieto and nieta “grandchild” are cognate with “nephew”, unfortunately; we owe to French the perversion of the original Latin meaning, which Spanish has preserved. My solution, then, is to picture a “nice” grandchild.

In-law terms were a mixed bag for me. Suegro and suegra “parents-in-law” came easily. These are ugly words — they sound like sweat or suet — which I have always found reminiscent of the negative stereotype of these relatives, especially mothers-in-law. (My own mother-in-law is an exception, thank goodness.) I had more trouble with other in-law terms. I finally mastered cuñado/cuñada “brother/sister-in-law” after learning the word cuna “cradle”, since one might visit one’s sister-in-law to admire her baby. My mnemonics for yerno and nuera “son/daughter-in-law” are truly bizarre. To me these sound like terms one might associate with animal husbandry, like yearling or nursling. And the propagation of the family line is, after all, the point of acquiring these relations.

Going back to metralla and ametrrallada, I’ve been seeing the word ametralladora “machine gun” for years without managing to remember it. I think the noun’s ending was playing with my analytic brain. The noun suffix or or -ora usually connotes a person or object that produces something. A tostador (or tostadora) makes toast. An escritor creates written work. An aspirador creates suction. But an ametralladora doesn’t make anything; it just kills.

Had I looked up the word’s etymology, as I finally did on Sunday, I would have known that metralla means shrapnel. Now I will always remember the word, because an ametralladora produces metralla. I guess the moral here is that one should always research etymology when dealing with a stubborn word.

My current struggle is with a substantial class of action verbs beginning with de- or des-, including derrotar, derretirse, derrumbar, deslizar, and desmoronar. These all have negative meanings: defeat, melt, demolish, slide (this can be negative if you’re on a cliff), and collapse. I have trouble with these words because I encountered all of them at about the same time, when I started teaching Spanish and began working on my language skills seriously again. I think of this as the geshem/shemesh problem. These two words mean “snow” and “rain” in Hebrew (or is it “sun” and “rain”?), but because I learned them together, I can never remember which is which.

The solution for the de(s)- set seems to be continued vigorous reading. Each time I see one of these words in context it becomes a little more distinct. Maybe in the not-to-distant future I’ll be ready to use them in conversation. Then I can go on to the next hurdle! There is always more to learn.

Spanish vocabulary in El séptimo velo

For the last several weeks I’ve been making slow but steady progress through Juan Manuel de Prada’s towering novel El séptimo velo. Like this blog, it’s been taking back seat to my teaching. As described in an earlier post, El séptimo velo is a romantic novel set mostly in post-war France and contemporary Spain. I learned of it from a reading list distributed by a professor at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

This novel is unbelievably rich in vocabulary. My Spanish is excellent, I think, good enough to tear through a sophisticated thriller like Guillermo Martínez’s La muerte lenta de Luciana B. in a matter of hours, and in a typical book I rarely find more than two or three new words on a page. De Prada’s Spanish came as such a shock that I decided, as an intellectual exercise, to (i) write down all the new words I encountered on a random page, (ii) record what I thought they meant, and why (iii) look up their actual meanings, and (iv) blog the results. The random page was p. 315 of the 2008 Harper Collins Planeta paperback.

This humbling experiment turned up 30 new words on one page!!! — of which I correctly interpreted more than half. The first part of this statistic gave me second thoughts — and even third and fourth — about writing this post. Revealing how much Spanish vocabulary I still don’t know, after years of studying and teaching the language, is somewhat embarrassing. But I decided to go ahead because vocabulary, and how we learn it, is such an important topic.

For one thing, while English speakers may be aware that English has an enormous lexicon — over 450,000 words, according to David Crystal — they may not realize the extent of the Spanish lexicon. The Real Academia‘s dictionary has about 162,000 words, almost 100,000 more than an educated person learns in a lifetime (again according to Crystal). The Spanish lexicon combines a native Latin base with substantial borrowings, mostly from Arabic, Germanic, other Romance languages, Latin (again) and Greek, English, and native American languages.

Second, since I’m always telling my students to use context, cognates, and familiar Spanish vocabulary to deduce meanings, I was curious to see how far this actually takes a reader (i.e., me). The use of context in particular is of broad linguistic interest, because it enables babies to learn language, and adults to communicate under difficult conditions, for example over a poor telephone connection.

Finally, I’ve become fascinated with de Prada’s Spanish. His vocabulary is not only immense but also erudite.  Elsewhere in the book, for example, he uses preñada, instead of embarazada, to mean “pregnant”. I would love to hear how native Spanish readers of this blog respond to the vocabulary listed below. How obscure is it?

The table below details the fruits of my analysis. As a summary:

  • The only word I couldn’t even guess at was chabola.
  • I misinterpreted several words: troncho, deje, forzar (in a weird context), barullo, ráfaga, metralla and ametrralladaatronar, corduraquincalleros, and zalamero. Of these, I came closest on deje (“accent”), recognizing its connection with dejar, and with barullo “racket, din” — I guessed “crowd”. The most personally galling were metralla and ametrrallada, because I’ve tried to memorize the word ametralladora (“machine gun”) several times. I’ve also run into zalamero and may even have flash-carded it a few years ago.
  • I correctly deduced the general semantic category of several words from context, like a good Spanish student (or baby). For example, I assumed that berza “cabbage” was a kind of food, and batahola “racket, din” a kind of noise. Other words in this category were chalánproleenjutoestrépitoapelmazado, esportillero, and arrumbadero. The last two were quite obscure. Esportillero wasn’t in, though I found it in the RAE. Arrumbadero was in neither. I “looked it up” by consulting the friendly and expert participants in the Word Reference Spanish vocabulary forum.
  • I figured out several meanings thanks to English cognates and my existing Spanish vocabulary. For example, English amble and ambulatory gave me deambuló, and Spanish hormiga “ant” gave me hormiguear “to swarm”.
  • Context made estraperlo and traquateo absolutely clear. Onomatopoeia also helped with the latter.

Séptimo velo

Unas similitudes casuales entre el español y el hebreo

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

En honor de la temporada actual de los días festivos judíos (Rosh Hashana y Yom Kippur), decidí señalar unas similitudes entre el español y el hebreo. Estas similitudes son completamente casuales. Es decir que los dos idiomas no están nada relacionados. El español es un idioma románico, de la familia indo-europea, y el hebreo es semítico, de la familia afroasiática. Ni han tenido los dos idiomas bastante contacto geográfico como para influenciarse. Al contrario, estas similitudes son una muestra de tendencias lingüísticas generales.

  • El español y el hebreo tienen sustantivos masculinos y femeninos.
  • En los dos idiomas, los adjetivos y artículos tienen que concordar con el género y número del sustantivo que describen.
  • En los dos idiomas, los adjetivos siguen los sustantivos.
  • Los dos idiomas tienen el sonido gutural que en español se escribe con jg (antes de /e/ e /i/).
  • Los dos idiomas tienen cinco vocales: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, y /u/.
  • Los dos idiomas tienen tres tiempos verbales: pasado, presente, y futuro.
  • Los dos idiomas tienen distintas clases de verbos en cuanto a la conjugación: las categorías -ar-er, e -ir del español, y los siete binyanim del hebreo.
  • Las conjugaciones del pasado y del futuro de los dos idiomas reflejan tres personas (primera persona, segunda persona, tercera persona) y dos números (singular y plural).
  • En los dos idiomas los complementos directos se señalen con un marcador distinto: el a personal en español y et en hebreo, aunque aquello se limita a complementos directos humanos.


In honor of the current Jewish High Holiday season, I decided to point out some similarities between Spanish and Hebrew. These similarities are completely coincidental because the two languages aren’t at all related. Spanish is a Romance language from the Indo-European family, and Hebrew is a Semitic language from the Afro-Asiatic family. Nor have the languages had enough geographical contact to influence each other by borrowing. Rather, these similarities are evidence of general linguistic tendencies.

  • Spanish and Hebrew have masculine and feminine nouns.
  • In both languages, adjectives and articles must agree in number and gender with the nouns they modify.
  • In both languages, adjectives follow nouns.
  • Both languages have the guttural /x/ sound (written with a j or g in Spanish).
  • Both have five vowel sounds: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/.
  • Both have past, present, and future verb tenses.
  • Both have distinct verbal conjugation classes: -ar-er, and -ir verbs in Spanish, and the seven binyanim in Hebrew.
  • Past and future conjugations in the two languages reflect three persons (first, second, and third person) and two numbers (singular and plural).
  • Both languages have a direct object marker: the a personal in Spanish and et in Hebrew, although the former is limited to human direct objects.

Top 10 reasons why I’m a fan of the Spanish Real Academia

I’ve been a fan of the Real Academia Española, or RAE, the Spanish language Academy, for years. The Academy, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a scholarly organization of professors, writers, journalists, and translators. Every Spanish-speaking country has its own Academy. Together, the various Academies form the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española. The RAE is the Academy of Spain itself, founded in 1713. However, the term RAE is often used to refer to the overall Asociación, both for convenience and because the RAE retains a lead role: for example, hosting the Asociación‘s on-line dictionary.

Here are the top 10 reasons why I’m a fan of the Academia system. This slideshow is full of links; please let me know if any fail for you.

My least favorite Spanish word

In an earlier post I wrote about two of my favorite Spanish words: esdrújulo and azulejo. I love esdrújulo because it reminds me of my academic research on Spanish stress and because of its role in an amusing family anecdote. I love azulejo because it starred in one of my happiest Spanish memories, when my high school Spanish came flooding back to me in Madrid after a few years off to learn French.

I also have a least favorite Spanish word: víctima, which means victim. My problem with the word is that it’s always feminine. A woman is una víctima and a man is una víctima, too. This really bothers me as a woman. Why should all victims be feminine?

As a linguist, I have more perspective. Víctima is feminine by historical accident, not by misogynist design: it comes from the feminine Latin noun victima, meaning a person or animal killed as a sacrifice. Nor is it the only Spanish noun whose gender is unaffected by that of the person it refers to. Bebéángel, and personaje are always masculine, and the word persona itself is always feminine. (So is gente, though it doesn’t refer to an individual person.) This is a small group of words, but all well-established in the language.

Moreover, I know that there’s nothing intrinsic about noun gender, once we get beyond words like madre and padre. There’s nothing masculine about a libro and estante (book and bookshelf), or feminine about a mesa and silla (table and chair). For that matter, Spanish words referring to many aspects of the female experience are masculine, including embarazo and parto (pregnancy and childbirth), útero (obvious), and pecho (breast). This is the kind of mismatch that inspires beginning Spanish students to change el vestido “the dress” to la vestida, always a chuckle-worthy mistake. I’m sure we could come up with a similar list of feminine vocabulary related to the male experience.

Nevertheless, it is overwhelmingly the case, with the few exceptions mentioned above, that Spanish words for people “swing” either masculine or feminine, depending on whom they refer to. These include several other nouns that, like víctima, end in -a, like dentista, turista, and atleta. Thus Rafael Nadal es un atleta espléndido (masc.) and Arantxa Arantxa Sánchez Vicari is una atleta espléndida (fem.) “People” nouns ending in -e swing as well: thus el or la agente, estudiante, cantante, and so on  Most nouns that apply to people, of course, have distinct masculine and feminine forms, like profesor and profesora or médico and médica.


Un tenista espléndido y una tenista espléndida.

Even a criminal can be un or una!!!

According to the Collins dictionary, though not the Real Academia, there’s been some progress toward gender flexibility in the baby department. Collins defines bebé as either masculine and feminine, and reports a specifically feminine variant beba (no accent) in Argentina. With this example as an inspiration, and in the spirit of feminist linguistic revolt, I hereby resolve to use un víctima in my own Spanish when referring to a male victim. Won’t you join me?

UN víctima masculinO