Monthly Archives: February 2015

Apertura Abertura Obertura

While looking at Spanish “doublets” like forma ‘form’ and horma ‘cobbler’s shoe form’ (both from Latin forma), or delicado ‘delicate’ and delgado ‘thin’ (both from delicatus), I was struck by the fact that Spanish almost always imposes a difference of meaning on words derived from a single Latin source. The only exception I know of is the synonyms flama ‘flame’ and llama ‘flame’, both from Latin flama.

Another pair that comes close to synonymy , though not all the way, is apertura vs. abertura, which both mean ‘opening’. I was moved to post about these words when I looked up the subtle differences between their meanings. Abertura, the older word (derived from abrir ‘to open’), refers to the act of opening, a physical opening or hole, a mountain pass, or candor (‘openness’). The newer apertura (from Latin apertura) refers to a show’s opening, an opening mechanism, or a chess opening. Either word can be used to refer to a camera aperture.

Abertura versus apertura

This intimidating list of meanings makes me wonder how good a second language learner you’d have to be to get this right, and also whether native speakers ever confuse the two words. Any of you care to weigh in?

For good measure, Spanish also has obertura, meaning ‘overture’ in the musical sense (i.e. the opening to an opera or other long work), a borrowing from French. Personally, that’s about all the openness I can take.

Doublets: The chicken or the egg?

My current research and writing topic is doublets: word pairs from a single Latin root. These typically pair an older word that has been passed down orally from Vulgar Latin with a newer Latin borrowing dating from the 13th century or later. The older word shows the wear and tear of time in its form and meaning, while the newer word remains closer to the shared Latin root. Some examples are shown below.

Some Spanish doublets

Pairs like these raise an interesting chicken-or-egg question. Did the older words shift in meaning, thus creating gaps that made the new borrowings necessary, or did the pressure of the new borrowings push the older words into new semantic territory? My usual gods are silent on the subject. Ralph Penny merely notes that “the popular form [is] associated with changed meaning] (p. 40); Steven Dworkin likewise refers to “semantically differentiated sets”. There is a 1989 monograph on doublets by Belén Gutierrez that I need to track down and plow through, but I have no idea whether he addresses the chronology question.

I’d put my money on the egg — that is, the latter of the two possibilities I outlined just above. Focusing on the forma/horma example, it strikes me as unlikely that Spanish would develop a gap for a concept as basic as ‘form’. It’s more likely that forma was brought in as a cultivated word, as was common starting in the late 13th century, and that the two forms co-existed for some time, but in different registers (e.g. formal and informal speech), much as older llama ‘flame’ and newer flama still do today, until horma was pushed out into its current specialized territory.

But the only way to know is to analyze actual documentary evidence, for example from CORDE, and look for shifts in meaning over time. This would make a great dissertation if nobody has ever done it!

For more posts on this blog about doublets, please use the search field.


A tale of two shrimp

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

Primero, les pido perdón. Últimamente he escrito poco para este blog porque estoy trabajando tiempo completo en mi libro, ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish. Supongo que es bueno que sea así: Bloomsbury Press lo espera para octubre.

Pero tuve que compartir con Uds. una perla de sabiduría que acabo de adquirir sobre la etimología de jamóngamba, and camarón.


Resulta que, como muchas palabras españolas para los comestibles, jamón nos viene del francés. La palabra francesa jambón viene de su palabra jambe ‘pierna’, que a su vez viene de gamba en el latín vulgar. Y aquí las cosas se ponen interesantes, porque ¡gamba en latín no tiene nada que ver con gamba en español! Más bien, gambacamarón vienen de la palabra latina con el mismo significado, cammarusCamarón es su descendiente nativo, y gamba es un préstamo del catalán.

Es chévere, ¿no?


First, an apology: I haven’t been posting lately because I’ve been working full time on my book. I guess that’s a good thing: it’s due to Bloomsbury Press in October.

But I had to share a fun tidbit I just ran across, concerning the etymologies of jamóngamba, and camarón. These mean ‘ham’, ‘shrimp’, and ‘shrimp’.

It turns out that jamón is, like many Spanish food words, borrowed from French. French jambón ‘ham’ comes from the French word for leg, jambe, which in turn comes from Vulgar Latin gamba. Here the going gets fun — because Latin gamba ‘leg’ has nothing to do with Spanish gamba! Rather, gamba and its synonym camarón are both derived from the Latin word for ‘shrimp’, cammarus. Camarón is its native Spanish descendant, and gamba as a borrowing from Catalan.

How fun is that!


El género desenfrenado — Gender gone wild

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

Últimamente he vuelto mi atención de los pluralia tantum al género gramatical (otra vez), y he investigado un poco la historia del género en otros idiomas relacionados al español. Ya sabía que el latín tenía tres géneros (masculino, feminino, y neutro), que heredó este sistema del proto-indo-europeo, que el francés y el italiano (como el español) solo tienen el masculino y el femenino), y que el alemán todavía tiene el neutro. He aprendido que:

  • Todos los lenguajes romanos perdieron el género neutro. Esto implica que ya habría ido fallando en el latín vulgar.
  • El alemán no es el único idioma indo-europeo moderno en preservar el neutro. Otros incluyen el gujarati (un idioma de India), el griego, y el ruso.
  • El inglés no es el único idioma indo-europeo moderno en haber perdido completamente el género gramatical. Otros incluyen el armenio y el bengalí.
  • El resultado romance (con el masculino y el femenino, pero sin el neutro) es el más común. Otros idiomas en esta ala incluyen el albanés, el hindi, los idiomas célticos, y los idiomas bálticos (el letón y el lituano).
  • El polaco y el serbio (los dos eslavos) han sorprendentemente aumentado sus sistemas de género de tres a cinco géneros por medio de dividir el masculino en tres géneros distintos: objetos inanimados, seres humanos, y otras entidades animadas. Para una geek lingüística como yo, ¡esto es una de las cosas más interesantes que he aprendido en los últimos meses! Se puede enterar más de ello en Wikipedia (busca la expresión “five genders”) o, para una fuente más respetable, en las páginas 425-6 de Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, por Benjamin Fortson IV. Recomiendo este libro de todas maneras.


I’ve recently turned my attention from pluralia tantum back to noun gender, and did some research on the history of gender in languages related to Spanish. I already knew that Latin had three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), that it inherited this system from Proto-Indo-European, that French and Italian (like Spanish) only have masculine and feminine, and that German has neuter. Here’s what I’ve learned in the last few days.

  • All Romance languages lost the neuter gender. This implies that it must already have been on its way out in Vulgar Latin.
  • German isn’t the only modern Indo-European language to preserve the neuter gender. Others include Gujarati, Greek, and Russian.
  • English isn’t the only modern Indo-European language to have completely lost gender. Others include Armenian and Bengali.
  • The Romance outcome (masculine and feminine in, neuter out) is the most common. Other languages in this camp are Albanian, Hindi, the modern Celtic languages, and the Baltic languages (Latvian and Lithuanian).
  • Polish and Sorbian (these are both Slavic languages) have actually jumped from three genders to five by splitting masculine into three categories: inanimate, human, and other animate. For a language geek like me, this is one of the most coolest things I’ve learned in the last several months! You can read about it on Wikipedia (search for the phrase “five genders”) or, for a more reputable source, on pp. 425-6 in Benjamin Fortson IV’s Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, which I strongly recommend in any case.