Monthly Archives: January 2014

Spanish is normal, English is weird

“Spanish is normal, English is weird” is a frequent theme in my classroom. Students coming from a monolingual English background are quick to assume the contrary: that where Spanish and English differ, Spanish is the oddball. I consider it part of my responsibility to shake up their world view a little, playing Copernicus to their Aristotle.

Below I detail six examples of this principle: three from pronunciation, one from spelling, and two from grammar. Readers are invited to contribute others.


  • English versus Spanish /r/. As described earlier on this blog, Spanish has two types of /r/: the rolling trill of carro and the short flap of caro. According to a cross-linguistic survey by Berkeley professor Ian Maddieson, both of these are are more common in the languages of the world than the gliding /r/ of English.
  • English versus Spanish vowels. Spanish has five vowel sounds, corresponding to the five vowel letters aeiou. In contrast, English has 12 distinct vowel sounds – those heard in beet, bit, bait, bet, bat, bot, bought, boat, book, boot, butt, and the unstressed first syllable of baton. As described in an earlier post, a five or six-vowel system is the most common type worldwide. The most vowel sounds found in any language is 14, making English quite the outlier.
  • English versus Spanish syllable structure. English has an impressive ability to combine individual consonant sounds into groups. The single syllable of strengths, my favorite example, begins with three consonants (/s/, /t/, and /r/) and ends with four (/ŋ/, /k/, /θ/, and /s/). Spanish is more restrictive. It allows at most two consonants before or after a vowel, and these are strictly limited (thereby hangs a future post…). Here again English is an outlier: most languages allow only limited consonant combinations, as in Spanish.

Writing: capitalization. English capitalizes more words than Spanish: not just proper nouns, but also the pronoun I, days of the week, months of the year, and various other categories. Here English is truly an oddball: it is the world’s second most exuberant user of capital letters, behind only German.


  • Singular and plural “you”. My oh my, how Spanish students struggle with singular  and usted versus plural vosotros and ustedes. I routinely encounter students who have been studying Spanish for three or four years and are still convinced that ustedes (“you all”) means “they”. This is partly because the verb forms for ustedes are identical to those for ellos/ellas (“they”), but mostly, and more profoundly, because English lacks a plural “you” (leaving aside the dialectal form y’all). In this regard Spanish is, again, normal. David Ingram’s classic (1978) survey “Typology and Universals of Personal Pronouns” found that 67 of 71 languages reviewed had both singular and plural “you”.
  • Noun-adjective order. Spanish speakers say casa blanca instead of white house, and so on for most pairings of a noun and its modifying adjective. The Spanish word order is found in over half the languages of the world. It has always struck me as the logical order in terms of sentence processing: that way, one starts with the basic concept (“house”), and then “decorates” it with details of color and the like.



What makes Spanish unique

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

¿Cómo es único el español?

He ido pensando recientemente en los pocos aspectos únicos que conozco del español, los aspectos que diferencian el español de los otros idiomas del mundo. Si algún lector puede sugerir otros aspectos únicos, o eliminar alguno de los míos, claro que estaré contenta de revisar mi pequeña lista. Ignoro el vocabulario porque cada idioma tiene un vocabulario único.

El primer elemento único que conozco del español es ortográfico: las marcas invertidas. La Real Académica inventó la ¿ y la ¡ en el año 1754, una mejora dramática a su propuesta previa (de 1741) de usar las marcas normales (? y !) al comienzo y al final de preguntas y exclamaciones. Según mi conocimiento, ningún otro idioma ha adoptado estas marcas. No sé por qué no; a mí me parecen muy útiles.

El segundo elemento es de gramática: la existencia de dos paradigmas flexionales paralelos. Este fenómeno se encuentra en el imperfecto del subjuntivo, que se puede conjugar o con ‑ra-ras, etc. o con -se-ses, etc. (Dos ejemplos son hablara / hablasecomiéramos / comiésemos.) Según mis investigaciones, el español es el único idioma con tal redundancia. Los otros ejemplos de redundancia gramatical que conozco en otros idiomas se limitan a vocabulario y formas específicos. Un ejemplo es las dos (o tres) conjugaciones del verbo francés asseoir en el presente, el imperfecto, y unos (no todos) otros tiempos verbales, y las dos terminaciones plurales genitivas -den-tten para ciertas palabras finlandesas.

El tercer elemento único es cultural: el español tiene el órgano lingüístico académico más activo e internacional del mundo. La Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española, (ASALE) la organización cuyo miembro más famoso es la Real Academia Española, es increíblemente activa en cuanto a publicaciones y reuniones, y también resolutamente internacional en su estructura y sus publicaciones. De los pocos otros órganos académicos existentes de idiomas internacionales, el mejor conocido, la Académie Française, solo representa Francia, el órgano alemán solo se preocupa por la ortografía, y las instituciones del árabe y del portugués son poco activas.

Finalmente, el español es el idioma internacional más hablado. El chino tiene más hablantes, claro, pero el español es más internacional, como idioma oficial de países en cuatro continentes: Norteamérica, Sudamérica, África y Europa.

Además de estos aspectos, sospecho que el sistema pronominal español es únicamente complejo. De los otros idiomas que conozco, ninguno tiene reglas tan complicadas de posición (¿antes o después del verbo?) ni de combinación (el fenómeno de le –> se). Pero sería un gran trabajo investigativo confirmar esto.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the few aspects of Spanish that I believe to be unique: those not found in any other language. If a reader can suggest others, or disprove one that I propose, I would be happy to modify my short list.

The first unique element of Spanish has to do with spelling: the upside-down punctuation marks. The Spanish language academy invented ¿ and ¡ in 1754, a dramatic improvment over its previous proposal (in 1741) to use the normal punctuation marks ? and ! at the beginning and end of questions and exclamations. As far as I know, no other language has adopted these symbols. I don’t know why; they seem pretty useful to me.

The second unique element is grammatical: the existence of two alternative inflectional paradigms. This phenomenon is seen in the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, which can be conjugated with forms ending in -ra-ras, etc. or with -se-ses, etc. (Two examples are hablara / hablase and comiéramos / comiésemos.) According to my research, Spanish is the only language with such a drastic redundancy in its grammar. Other examples of grammatical redundancy are restricted to specific vocabulary and/or forms. One example is the two (or even three!) possible conjugations of the French verb asseoir in certain verb tenses; another is the two possible genetive plural endings -den and -tten for certain Finnish nouns.

The third unique element is cultural: Spanish has the most active and international academic language organization in the world. The Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española, (ASALE), whose most famous member is Spain’s Real Academia Española, is amazingly active in terms of publications and conferences, and is also resolutely international in its structure and publications. Of the few existing academic groups for other international languages, the best known, the Académie Française, only represents France, the German organization only focuses on spelling, and the Arab and Portuguese institutions are, as far as I can tell from their web pages, relatively inactive.

Finally, Spanish is the international language with the greatest number of speakers. Chinese has more speakers, of course, but Spanish, unlike Chinese, is an official language in four continents: North and South America, Africa, and Europe.

Besides these four aspects, I suspect that the Spanish pronominal system is also unique for its complexity. Of the other languages I know, none has more complicated rules for pronoun positioning (before or after the verb) and interaction (the nasty le –> se business). But it would take a serious effort to research this question properly.