Monthly Archives: November 2014

Fun with CORDE

I woke up this morning determined to nail down citable examples of something I’d read online and in Ralph Penny’s A History of the Spanish Language: that words like drama, enigma, and tema, which are masculine in modern Spanish, were often treated as feminine in earlier forms of the language. These -ma masculine were borrowed from Greek via Latin; they were neuter in gender in both ancient languages.

My starting point was Ralph Penny’s mention of:

UntitledThis BlogoLengua post listed some relevant -ma words:


However, the RAE’s first dictionary did not back up BlogoLengua’s examples. The words were either not in the dictionary (apotegma, fantasma, sofiama) or defined as masculine (clima, dogma, drama, enigma, primsa) or as ambiguous in gender (aroma, cisma).

I had better luck using another RAE tool: its marvelous CORDE, or Corpus Diacrónico del Español, which provides instant search access to Spanish texts “desde los inicios del idioma hasta el año 1975”, i.e. from the dawn of the language until 1975. One can customize a search by time interval, author, and other variables. Here is the search I did for enigma, using the time limit suggested in the BlogoLengua post:enigma

This search found 219 examples. I found it most helpful to look at them in “concordance” mode, which shows each example in a one-line context:


Columns further to the right (cropped out here for display purposes) include the author, title, and country of each work cited, its theme (novel, legal document, etc.) and publication data.

On this list you can see a mixture of masculine and feminine uses of enigma. On the second result page I found my favorite example, from none other than Cervantes, the author of Don Quijote. Clicking on the word enigma in that example brought me to the full citation, from p. 399 of his first novel (pub. 1585), La Galatea:


What could be a better example of early feminine usage of -ma masculines than la enigma de Galatea? That one is going straight into my book.

Using CORDE I was able to verify most of the other words listed in BlogoLengua. Examples ranged from the title of a 16th century work by Juan Rufo (Las seiscientas apotegmas) to a line from a poem by Lope de Vega about the climate of the New World (¿Es la clima ardiente o fría?) and a reference in a 15th century medical text to las dogmas evangelicas.

Thank you, RAE, for a truly enjoyable and productive intellectual morning.

Un nuevo recurso – A new resource

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

Actualmente estoy investigando los múltiples orígenes de las palabras españolas que son masculinas aunque terminan con -a. En el proceso descubrí el sitio web BlogoLenga. Tiene el sumario más útil sobre este tema que he encontrado, incluso el de la nueva Gramática de la Real Academia. Es una lástima que su autor no diga nada de su identidad.


No dudo que mis lectores encontrarán algo de interés en el blog. ¡Que disfruten!


Right now I’m looking into the many origins of Spanish nouns that are masculine even though they end in -a. In the process I came across the website BlogoLenga, which has the best summary I’ve seen of this topic, including the one in the Real Academia’s new Gramática. It’s a pity that the blog’s author has little to say about his (or her) identity.

I’m sure that my Spanish-speaking readers will find something of interest in the blog. Enjoy!

A unique example

The virtual ink was barely  dry on my previous post, about the expressive power of Spanish adjective syntax, when I came across another great example. This one is from Puerto Rico, in Magali García Ramis’s tender-hearted memoir, Felices días Tío Sergio. (By the way, I would recommend this book to any reader looking for a fairly straightforward read. Not too heavy on vocabulary, a strong narrative line, and only 160 pages long!)

Referring to Tío Sergio, García writes: “Él decía que nosotros éramos únicos porque éramos los únicos tres con ojos verdes en la familia.” (p. 85) [He said that we were unique because we were the only three people in the family with green eyes.] In this sentence García is playing with the two position-dependent meanings of the word único. Before a noun — or, here, the number tres, which acts as a pronoun in this context — the adjective único serves as a quantifier, meaning ‘only’. After éramos (a form of the verb ser ‘to be’) the adjective takes its basic meaning of ‘unique’. This is the same meaning you would see if the adjective appeared in its basic position immediately after the noun, as in un libro único ‘a unique book’.

This is a familiar pattern, by the way. Other adjectives show their basic meaning both after a noun and after ser (or estar, another verb meaning ‘to be’). For example, alto can refer either to physical or metaphorical height. The core meaning of physical height comes through in contexts like un árbol alto ‘a tall tree’ or el árbol es alto ‘the tree is tall’, while the metaphorical meaning requires the before-the-noun position, e.g. un alto funcionario ‘a high-placed bureaucrat’. Another example is un viejo amigo ‘an old friend’ (of long standing) vs. un amigo viejo ‘an old (elderly) friend’. Only the second meaning is possible in the sentence mi amigo es viejo. Likewise, adding muy ‘very’ or other modifiers forces the core meaning: muy alto ‘very tall’ or bastante viejo ‘quite old’ can only refer to height and age.

I guess one could describe a book as being muy único ‘very unique’ also — as in English, this would be good grammar, but bad writing.

Un ejemplo perfecto — a perfect example

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

Mientras investigaba la posición de los adjetivos en español me encontré con un ejemplo perfecto de la manipulación expresiva de este parámetro lingüístico. Viene de la novela Circuitos Cerrados: La segunda guerra de las marcas, por Fernando Labarta Vélez. (Tengo que confesar que no la he leído.) En la siguiente oración, Labarta juega con la posición del adjetivo perfecto para hacer hincapié en los aspectos estereotípicos que se combinan para producir una mujer perfecta:

Ensimismada en su perfeccionismo obsesivo, quiso ser siempre la mujer perfecta: la perfecta estudiante, la perfecta hija, la perfecta empresaria, la perfecta compañera. (p. 59)

Aquí la posición prenominal de perfecta en relación a estudiantehijaempresaria, y compañera indica que el adjetivo se une con cada sustantivo para crear una entidad conocida, como una olorosa rosaun tímido cordero. (Casi se puede imaginar comillas en el aire alrededor de estas expresiones.) Al otro mano, la posición posnominal y normal del adjetivo en una mujer perfecta indica que el atributo de la perfección es impredecible y objetivo.

De esta manera, la flexibilidad sintáctica del español contribuye al poder expresivo del idioma.


While I was looking into the position of the adjective in Spanish I came across a perfect example of how this linguistic parameter can be manipulated for expressive purposes. The example comes from the novel Circuitos Cerrados: La segunda guerra de las marcas, by Fernando Labarta Vélez. (I must confess that I haven’t actually read the novel!). In the following sentence, Labarta plays with the position of the adjective perfecto to emphasize the stereotypical aspects that combine to produce a perfect woman:

Absorbed in her obsessive perfectionism, she always wanted to be the perfect woman: the perfect student, the perfect daughter, the perfect business woman, the perfect mate. (my translation)

The pre-nominal position of the adjective (before estudiante ‘student’, hija ‘daughter’, empresaria ‘business woman’, and compañera ‘mate’) in the Spanish version indicates that the adjective combines with the following noun to create a well-established entity, like a ‘fragrant rose’ or a ‘timid sheep’. (You can almost imagine air quotes around these phrases.) In contrast, the normal position of the adjective after the noun mujer ‘woman’ indicates that perfection is an unpredictable and objective attribute.

The greater syntactic flexibility of Spanish thus contributes to the language’s expressive power.

Do Spanish adjectives usually follow nouns?

One of the first things that every Spanish student learns about adjectives is that they follow nouns: think Casablancaperro caliente, and living la vida loca. But sooner or later, this neat picture becomes muddled as our student learns that adjectives can also precede nouns, usually with some change in meaning (see the illustration below). I was curious to know how often adjectives appear in these two locations in actual usage. Do they usually follow nouns, and if so, by what margin?

gran hombre hombre grandeFortunately, the perfect resource exists to address this question quantitatively and painlessly: Mark Davies’s hundred-million word Corpus del Español. I downloaded the freely available list of the 50,000 most common two-word sequences in the 20th century portion of this corpus, some 20 million words. I then compared the frequency of the noun-adjective and adjective-noun sequences on this list, omitting special types of adjectives that always come before nouns: possessives like mi ‘my’ and tu ‘your’, demonstratives like este ‘this’ and ese ‘that’, ordinal numbers like primero ‘first’ and segundo ‘second’, and quantifiers like mucho ‘many’ and algunos ‘some’.

In this reduced data set, noun-adjective sequences indeed outnumbered adjective-noun sequences, accounting for 60% of the data. The textbooks are right! What was particularly striking was the degree to which a few adjectives dominated the adjective-noun group. The ten adjectives that most frequently preceded nouns (grande, mayor, bueno, nuevo, próximo, cierto, alto, largo, principal, and propio) accounted for 75% of adjective-noun occurrences. Grande alone accounted for 24%. In contrast, the ten adjectives that most frequently followed nouns (político, humano, pasado, siguiente, económico, nacional, social, general, público, and internacional) accounted for only 30% of noun-adjective occurrences.

Also striking was the disjunction of the two lists. 331 distinct adjectives in the dataset occurred after nouns, and 62 before nouns, but only 20 occurred both before and after nouns. For the curious, these were actual, antiguo, bajo, corto, determinante, difícil, especial, fuerte, importante, largo, libre, mayor, pasado, principal, propio, próximo, siguiente, vecino, vital, and vivo. Note that this list includes only half of the top ten adjectives that preceded nouns (mayor, próximo, largo, principal, and propio) and only two of the top ten adjectives that followed nouns (pasado and siguiente). Grande, the adjective responsible for 24% of adjective-noun sequences, was completely lacking in the noun-adjective sequences. Presumably it would show up if one were to extend the analysis to lower-frequency word sequences.