Monthly Archives: April 2018

Graphing the takeover of the -ra subjunctive

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m obsessed with the two different versions of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive. This is the verb form that you see in sentences like Quería que Miguel estudiara más ‘I wanted Michael to study more’. This -ra form is more common in general, but it’s equally acceptable to use forms with -se, in this case estudiese. The -ra and –se imperfect subjunctives are both understood around the Spanish-speaking world; their relative frequency varies according to dialect.

This aspect of Spanish is interesting for two different reasons. First of all, it’s extraordinarily unusual for a language to have such “twin” forms in the heart of their grammar. I haven’t been able to find a single other example after searching the linguistics literature for over five years. Second, neither of these forms is a direct descendant of Latin’s own imperfect subjunctive. Rather, two other existing conjugations were “repurposed” as imperfect subjunctives: the -se version in Old Spanish, and the -ra form more recently, in the time of Cervantes.

Google Books’ “Ngram Viewer” provides an easy way to see the newer -ra subjunctives overtaking the older -se forms. Google has digitized over 25 million books in English, Spanish, and other languages. Their free “Ngram Viewer” tool analyzes word frequencies in this corpus, making it easy to compare frequencies of two or more words over time.

In this post I’ve reproduced six graphs comparing -ra and -se subjunctive frequencies over the last two centuries. The first three graphs (one above, two below) show historical frequencies for the two forms of the imperfect subjunctive for the common irregulars tenerhaber, and poder. The remaining three graphs show frequencies for the three regular verbs often used to illustrate Spanish’s -ar-er, and -ir noun classes: hablarcomer, and vivir. In every case you can see the innovative -ar forms come from behind — or, less often, from parity — to overtake their -se twins. This happened earlier for the irregular verbs than the regulars; I don’t have a theory about why.

Keep in mind that written language is relatively conservative, so it’s safe to assume that -ar actually made its move somewhat earlier than shown in these graphs.



Double consonants in Spanish

[An observant reader pointed out that this post includes double vowels as well as double consonants. I really should have entitled the post “Double letters in Spanish” — but now it is, methinks, too late! I had consonants on the mind because the trigger for this post was coming across the word sabbat.]

If I had a dime for every time I crossed out an extra l from a student’s spelling of inteligente…well, I’d have a lot of dimes. Same for an extra l in mochila (undoubtedly influenced by English words like Godzilla and gorilla), or an extra s in profesora. Add in a few nickel penalties for students who pronounce leer like (King) Lear, and I could treat myself to lots of Starbucks.

These spelling and pronunciation errors are both triggered by a significant difference between Spanish and English spelling: in Spanish, almost every letter is pronounced. (Notable exceptions include the silent h (as in hola) and the u seen in quiquegui, and gue sequences, as in quisoquesoguiso, and guerra.) This means that inteligente and mochila only need one l to represent the spoken /l/ sound, profesora only needs one s, and the two e‘s of leer must be pronounced individually. Double oo‘s exist also, as in cooperación, and again both vowels are pronounced.

This rule also explains why Spanish spelling preserves the double nn in words like perenneconnotar, and innato. According to the Real Academia Española (RAE) these words are pronounced with a long n. While some native speakers I’ve checked with say that they pronounce nn words as if they had a single n, you can certainly hear long pronunciations: for example, here.

My (2010) edition of the RAE’s Ortografía de la lengua española also refers to double bb‘s. I had never heard of this combination until I opened the book to check up on the nn words. Moreover, the RAE’s three examples — subbéticosubbloque, and subboreal (see below) — are so obscure that they aren’t even listed in the RAE dictionary! (This tickles my funny bone.) So I’m not going to lose any sleep over them.

Also in keeping with this rule, Spanish simplifies most double letters in loanwords; the Ortografía gives the examples of driblar (from dribble), chófer (from chauffeur), and zigurat, inter alia.

Most remarkable, therefore, are the double letters that Spanish tolerates in certain loan words. Except as indicated, the following words with double letters (most from this Span¡ishDict comment) are in the RAE dictionary:

  • sabbat ‘Sabbath’
  • affaire
  • sheriff
  • reggae
  • gamma
  • zoo
  • hippie (note adjectival form jipi)
  • dossier
  • gauss
  • motocross
  • topless (spelled with ss in but with single s in the RAE dictionary)
  • vendetta
  • watt
  • jacuzzi
  • jazz
  • mozzarella
  • paparazzi
  • pizza
  • puzzle (spelled with zz in but with single z in the RAE dictionary)

We all know that Spanish spelling is phonetic, but these exceptions make it a little less so.


Just saw this kind review from last year

Tim Guilford, an educational consultant in the UK, published this kind review of ¿Por qué? in a UK teaching blog. It came out last year but I just saw it.

The text is below:

¿Por qué? – 101 Questions about Spanish is a great read. Working around 101 questions and the answers to them, this punchy format really adds to the book’s appeal.

The range of questions is varied and each section is a nice length for a read on a daily commute or to dip into for a few minutes during a break or before bed.

After every little foray into Judy Hochberg’s book, I came away having learnt something new about the language that I have loved and taught for most of my career. (Slightly embarrassingly too, but in the spirit of honesty, I have to admit that each read also gave me a slightly smug feeling of potential academic one-upmanship, should such questions ever crop up in conversation!)

Judy Hochberg’s explanations are clear and you sense her enthusiasm for her subject. And, yes, these are just the sort of questions students of Spanish ask, every day. Here is an appetiser:

Question: ‘Why do Spaniards use the ‘th’ sound?’

Answer: In a nutshell, in the fifteenth century two consonants ‘ts’ and ‘dz’ kind of got married and the off-spring was ‘th’.

There you are, you see, wasn’t that interesting? Well, I thought so.

My personal favourite is how ‘hay’ can mean both ‘there is’ and ‘there are’? (Surely all Spanish verbs need to be singular or plural?) It turns out this all had its roots in a kind of early, medieval, linguistic existentialism, as the poor old Romans lost all ability to speak Latin properly, “innit tho”. Whilst this must have been a tough time for the purists, I’m glad it happened, because Spanish was thus born and books like this could be written.

Highly recommended!