The origins of Spanish -ar, -er, and -ir verbs

I never would have thought to look into the origins of the Spanish verb classes if I hadn’t studied Hebrew. While Spanish has three verb classes (-ar, -er, and -ir), Hebrew has seven, called binyanim. Each is conjugated differently, as in Spanish, but each binyan additionally imparts meaning. For example, the three-consonant Hebrew root k-t-v, which refers to writing, appears in all seven binyanim. As shown in the table below, based on this helpful summary, each binyan reflects a different aspect of writing.


There are no patterns like this in modern Spanish; that is, you can’t infer anything about a verb’s meaning from its conjugation class. Differences like reflexive and passive are expressed through pronouns and auxiliary verbs, i.e. se escriben (“they write to each other”) and está escrito (“It is written”). But I’ve often wondered whether, if one goes back far enough, one can find any semantic logic behind which verbs are in which class.

Cornell’s Michael Weiss discusses exactly this topic in chapter 36 of his terrifyingly authoritative Outline of the Historical and Comparative Grammar of Latin. It turns out that there were clear connections between certain semantic categories and the conjugation classes of Latin, although this patterning was in no way as tidy or as far-reaching as in Hebrew. Some highlights are below.

Latin’s -āre verb class, which evolved into the -ar class of Spanish, was used:

  1. to turn nouns and adjectives into verbs. Some examples are curare “to care” from cura “care”, navigare “sail” from navex “sailor”, and novare “to renew” from novus “new”.
  2. for repeated or frequent actions. Some examples are dictare “recite” from dicere “say” and factitare “to practice” from facere “to do, make”.
  3. for intensives (with a prefix). One example is ocupare  “to seize” from capere “to take”.

Latin’s -ēre class, which evolved into the -er class of Spanish, was used:

  1. for causatives, such as monere “warn” from men “think” (i.e. to cause someone to think) and docere “to teach” from dek “accept” (i.e. to cause someone to accept).
  2. for verbs that describe states, e.g. calere “to be hot”, frigere “to be cold”, pendere “to be hanging”.

Latin’s -ĕre class, which merged into the -er class of Spanish, included a group of change-of-state verbs, e.g. calescere “get hot” (from calere) and tacescere “become quiet” (from tacere “to be quiet”).

Latin’s -īre class, which evolved into the -ir class of Spanish, was used:

  1. to turn nouns into verbs, as in finire “to finish” from finis “end” and servire “to serve, be a slave” from servus “slave”. I don’t know what, if anything, distinguished these from the verbs-from-nouns in the -are class.
  2. for desires, e.g. esurire “to be hungry” from esse “to eat”, parturire “to be in labor” from parere “to give birth”.

This partial patterning reminds me of gender. There’s nothing inherently masculine about most masculine nouns in Spanish, nor inherently feminine about most feminines. Yet one can see in such common words as el padre and la madre the meaningful basis of the original category difference. It’s refreshing to find that there’s likewise some logic, however fragmentary and forgotten, to the seemingly arbitrary verb classes of Spanish.

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