Monthly Archives: February 2014

The most frequent Spanish verbs are irregular

It may seem perverse that the first verbs presented in most Spanish textbooks, typically ser and tener, are irregular. In fact, ser is undoubtedly the most irregular verb in the language. Why not start with nice, friendly regular verbs like hablarcomer, and vivir, and deal with the irregulars later?

The answer, of course, is that the most frequent, can’t-live-without-’em Spanish verbs are irregular. This is not a coincidence. Over time, the natural tendency in language evolution is to reduce irregularity by imposing a language’s normal patterns on previously exceptional forms, a process called analogy. That’s how English ended up with regular past tenses like helped in place of the Middle English form holp. Only the most frequently used words are able to resist analogy and maintain their irregularity.

(Analogy can also go in the opposite direction, causing previously tame verbs to ‘go rogue’, but we’ll sidestep this inconvenient fact for simplicity’s sake.)

Actual verb frequency data are impressive. The table below shows the regular and irregular verbs among the 100 most frequent Spanish words, as cataloged in Mark Davies’s A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish: Core Vocabulary for Learners. The dozen most frequent verbs are all irregular. The most frequent regular verb (llegar ‘to arrive’) appears more than halfway down the list, and irregulars remain common throughout.

Reg irreg verbs in top 100

I’ve counted llegar and creer as regular verbs, by the way, because their spelling complications (like the u in llegué and the y in creyó) are completely predictable given the rules of Spanish pronunciation and spelling.

Because Spanish splits ‘to be’ into ser and estar, and ‘to have’ into haber and tener, the English versions of these verbs are of higher frequency. According to Mark Davies and Dee Gardner’s A Frequency Dictionary of Contemporary American English: Word Sketches, Collocates and Thematic Lists, ‘to be’ is #2 in English, and ‘to have’ #8. Another comparative goodie concerns subject pronouns. As you might expect, since Spanish usually relies on conjugation alone to say who did something, its subject pronouns are further down the frequency list than are those of English. See the comparison below.

subject pronoun frequency span eng


Overall, it’s surprising how much information one can glean from these lists. Muchas gracias, Prof. Davies.

Un libro que todos deben leer

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

Acabo de leer un libro verdaderamente sobresaliente sobre la lingüística. Se publicó en 2005 y ojalá que lo hubiera descubierto antes.

Si alguna vez se ha preguntado “¿Por qué cambian los idiomas?” or “¿Cómo se desarrollaron los primeros idiomas?”, el prof. Deutscher tiene las respuestas que Ud. ha ido buscando.

Un experto en los idiomas semíticos, Deutscher es un escritor extraordinario. Explica los conceptos sofisticados clara y animadamente.

El libro se centra en tres conceptos claves de la evolución lingüística: la economía (la tendencia a simplificar y reducir), la expresividad (la tendencia a crear nuevas formas), y la analogía (la tendencia a crear conexiones y generalizar las reglas implícitas). En los primeros capítulos, el prof. Deutscher explica estos conceptos en el contexto de los cambios actuales o pasados en una variedad de idiomas. Luego, él los aplica de una manera más teorética a las raíces posibles de los primeros idiomas.

Unos ejemplos en de los tres conceptos en español son los siguientes:

  • la economía: la pérdida de la /s/ final en muchos dialectos hispanos
  • la expresividad: la creación de la conjugación del futuro (hablaré, hablarás, hablará, etc.) del infinitivo más las formas del verbo haber (he, has, ha, etc.)
  • la analogía: la creación de las formas irregulares como produzco según el modelo de las formas hagodigo, que se desarrollaron del latín por cambios fonéticos normales.

Lea, y disfrute.


I just finished reading a truly outstanding book about linguistics. It was published in 2005 and I wish I’d discovered it earlier.

[see illustration in Spanish version above]

If you’ve even wondered “Why do languages change?” or “How did the first languages develop?”, Professor Deutscher has the answers you’ve been looking for.

An expert on Semitic languages, Prof. Deutscher is an extraordinary writer. He explains sophisticated concepts in a clear and lively fashion.

The book focuses on three key concepts in linguistic evolution: economy (the tendency to simplify and reduce language), expressiveness (the tendency to create new forms), and analogy (the tendency to create connections and generalize implicit rules). In the first chapters, Prof. Deutscher explains these concepts in the context of ongoing or historical change in a variety of languages. He then applies them in a more theoretical manner to the possible roots of humankind’s first languages.

Some examples in Spanish of the three concepts are the following:

  • economy: the loss of final /s/ in many Spanish dialects
  • expressiveness: the creation of the future tense conjugation (hablaré, hablarás, hablará, etc.) on the basis of the infinitive and the present tense of the verb haber (he, has, ha, etc.)
  • analogy: the creation of irregular forms like produzco on the model of hago y digo, which developed from Latin via normal phonological change.

Read and enjoy!

Fun with Proto-Indo-European roots

Recently I’ve been playing with John Slocum’s terrific Indo-European Lexicon website and wishing I’d discovered it earlier. In case you didn’t know, Spanish and the other Romance languages are part of the Indo-European language family. Other branches of this enormous family include Germanic, Greek, Celtic, Slavic, and Indo-Iranian. Spanish is therefore related to language as diverse as Gaelic and Gujarati; to Sanskrit, Serbian, and Swedish; to Pashto, Persian, and Polish; and to Hindi and Hittite.

Dr. Slocum’s Lexicon lets you trace vocabulary roots up and down the Indo-European family tree. For example, let’s say you’re curious about the origin of the Spanish word pan “bread”. If you click on the Language Index you can then scroll down to Spanish. (For a shortcut, you can access the Spanish page here.) This page lists almost 500 Spanish words whose Indo-European roots are included in the Lexicon. Pan is traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root pā-. Click on that root and you’ll move up the tree, to an entire page devoted to pā-. This page provides a definition and a list of the root’s descendants in all ten branches of the Indo-European family.

It turns out that pan is related to several sets of English words. I knew about some of them, but not all.

  • food and fodder
  • company, companion
  • forage, foray, foster
  • pantry, pannier
  • pastor, pasture, repast, pastern, pester
  • antipasto (but not “pasta”, go figure)
  • pabulum

For other words, though not pan, tracing a root back down the tree can show you surprising connections within Spanish. For example, llama “flame” and blanco “white” share the same Indo-European root, as do armisticio, arrestar, asistir, costar, estado, and estar.

Why are you still reading? Run along and play!


Spanish verb pairs that differ only in conjugation class

While researching the origin of the three conjugation classes of Spanish — ar, er, and ir — I recently turned to the lovely folks at the Spanish-English vocabulary forum to help me think of pairs of Spanish verbs that differ only in their conjugation class. The only two I had thought of were sentar/sentir and crear/creer.

These pairs are a nice reminder that the conjugation classes, by themselves, are void of meaning. Please see my original post (link above) for an example of a language (Hebrew) where the same verb root can appear in more than one conjugation class, with each class adding a predictable nuance to the verb root’s core meaning.

Here is my full list, which I will continue to edit as I learn of more. Note that there are no triplets on the list, and that all the pairs contrast -ar with either -er or -ir. This may be a coincidence, but the fact that -er and -ir verbs have almost identical conjugations (the only difference is in the nosotros and vosotros present indicative) would make triplets or an -er/-ir contrast hard to learn and to maintain.

Please let me know if can think of any more.

  • asentar/asentir
  • crear/creer
  • fundar/fundir
  • mentar/mentir
  • molar/moler
  • morar/morir
  • parar/parir
  • podar/poder
  • rendar/rendir (render is also in the RAE, but only as an antiquated form of rendir).
  • salar/salir
  • sentar/sentir
  • solar/soler
  • sumar/sumir
  • tejar/tejer
  • vivar/vivir