Monthly Archives: May 2021

All in the family: Etymologies of Spanish kinship terms

Now that the semester has ended, I’m turning my attention back to a research project on Spanish etymologies that I’ve neglected for months. I owe my readers a blog post introducing this project, but for the time being I’ll share this teaser on the etymology of kinship terms like madre and padre. These words are fun to look at because (i) all languages have a set of such words, which (ii) reflect culture, especially gender roles, and (iii) have surprisingly varied etymologies, many of which (iv) have interesting twists and turns.

All etymologies presented here are from Juan Corominas’ Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana (1961).

To begin with, five pairs of Spanish kinship terms derived their masculine variant from Latin and their feminine variant from the Spanish masculine. This is the largest class of kinship terms we will see here, which is to be expected given that in Spanish, as in most languages, the masculine gender is dominant, or ‘unmarked.’ Thus new words usually enter the language as masculine even if they end in an -a (e.g. yoga, from Sanskrit, and centinela, from Italian), and many feminine words add suffixes to masculine bases (e.g. actor/actriz, español/española).

Note that all pairs of this type except for hijo/hija feature an interesting etymological twist or turn.


Etymology of masculine term
(In all cases, the Spanish feminine term is derived from the Spanish masculine by changing final -o to ‑a.)
hijo/hija ‘son/daughter’Latin filius ‘son’
hermano/hermana ‘brother/sister’Latin germanus ‘of the same parents,’ from frater germanus ‘true brother, i.e. of the same parents’
primo/prima ‘cousin’Latin primus ‘first,’ from consobrinus primus ‘first cousin’
sobrino/sobrina ‘nephew, niece’Latin sobrinus ‘first cousin once removed,  second cousin, etc.’, replacing Latin nepos ‘nephew, grandson’ (as in English nepotism)
cuñado/cuñada ‘brother/sister-in-law’Latin cognatus ‘blood relative’ (con + natus ‘born with’) > ‘any type of relative’ > ‘in-law’ > ‘brother-in-law’

Three pairs of kinship terms developed in the opposite direction from those above: their feminine variants came directly from Latin, and then served as the source of their masculine variants. You might be able to guess that two of these these are terms for grandparents and in-laws. After all, many grandmothers play a large supporting role in their grandchildren’s lives (more so than most grandfathers do) and mothers-in-law loom large in legend and marital strife (more so than fathers-in-law do, unless creepy).


Etymology of feminine term
(In all cases, the Spanish masculine term is derived from the Spanish feminine by changing final -a to ‑o.)
Latin aviola, the diminutive form of avia ‘grandmother’ (like Spanish abuelita)
[Note: abuelo replaced the expected descendent of Latin avus ‘grandfather’]
Vulgar Latin socra ‘mother-in-law’, which “feminized” the masculine-sounding ending of Classical Latin socrus
[Note: suegro replaced the expected descendent of Latin socer ‘father-in-law’]
nieta/nieto ‘granddaughter/son’Vulgar Latin nepta ‘granddaughter’ or ‘niece,’ which “feminized” the ending of Classical Latin neptis
[Note: nieto replaced the expected descendent of Latin nepos ‘nephew, grandson’]

A few Spanish kinship terms come from unrelated masculine and feminine Latin roots.

padre/madre ‘father, mother’padre: Latin pater ‘father’
madre: Latin mater ‘mother’
yerno/nuera ‘son/daughter-in-law’yerno: Latin gener ‘son-in-law’
nuera: Vulgar Latin nora ‘daughter-in-law’, which “feminized” the masculine-sounding ending of Classical Latin nurus

Two final pairs of Spanish kinship terms are each sui generis.

tío/tía ‘uncle/aunt’Latin thius/thia ‘uncle/aunt’, from Greek thêios/théia ‘uncle/aunt’. These are rare examples of borrowed kinship terms.
padrastro/padrastra ‘stepfather/stepmother’padrastro: Vulgar Latin padraster ‘stepfather,’ derived from pater by adding the Latin pejorative suffix -aster; it replaced Classical Latin vitricus.
madrastra: Spanish derivative of madre, with the Spanish pejorative suffix -astra (from Latin ‑aster)

Some of the twists and turns described above reflect similar developments in the history of other words.

  • Just as suegra, nuera, and nieta “feminized” the masculine-sounding endings of Latin’s socrus and nurus, and the unrevealing -is ending of neptis, so too Latin infante ‘princess’ and seniore ‘lady’ became Spanish infanta and señora. Ralph Penny calls this process “hypercharacterization,” a phenomenon also seen when masculine Latin nouns like passare ‘bird’ and cortice ‘cork’ took on the standard -o ending to become Spanish pájaro and corcho.
  • Just as abuela absorbed the diminutive ending of Latin aviola, so too mantequilla ‘butter’ and various words ending in -eja, such as oveja ‘sheep,’ oreja ‘ear,’ and abeja ‘bee,’ come from Latin diminutives.
  • Cuñado‘s semantic transformation from Latin ‘blood relative’ (i.e., not an in-law) to ‘brother-in-law’ is no more far-fetched than that of ‘milestone’ to ‘doll’ or ‘wrist,’ or that of ‘broma’ from ‘shipworm’ to ‘joke.’

As a charming closing factoid, I learned that madre is related to the Spanish and English words metrópoli/metropolis, metropolitano/metropolitan, and metro (in the sense of ‘subway’), all via the Greek word metrópolis, meaning ‘mother city’ (ciudad madre).

It’s all in the family.

Accent marks in Spanish are like apostrophes in English

Lately I’ve been struck by some parallels between accent marks in Spanish and apostrophes in English.

First, accent marks can distinguish otherwise identical word pairs such as Hable ‘Speak!’ and Hablé ‘I spoke’, or  ‘you’ and tu ‘your’. This is analogous to it’s versus its in English.

Second, they can help you pronounce a word correctly. For example, teléfono is pronounced on the third-to-last syllable (le), not the next-to-last as you would expect for a word that ends in a vowel (like cucaracha). Likewise, the apostrophe in English I’ll changes its pronunciation vis-a-vis ill.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, correct use of accent marks is a sign of an educated Spanish speaker. Even speakers who don’t bother to type accent marks in emails and text messages need to include them in more formal texts, such as school assignments and business letters. Omitting an accent mark is as offensive to many readers as is, for example, confusing they’re and their in English.

End-of-semester thoughts on teaching Spanish online

Today is the last day of my teaching semester. My students will take their (online) final exam this afternoon and I should have their grades in by dinner.

Teaching Spanish online has been interesting, but it isn’t an experience I’d care to repeat, for several reasons.

The first is that despite being friendly and outgoing, I am fundamentally not much of a “people person.” This is in part because I am face-blind, but I expect it’s a more deeply-wired characteristic. For example, I struggle to keep track of my friends’ offspring — their kids’ names, ages, and so on — and have to store this information in my Google Contacts and/or rely on my husband to remind me of it before a get-together. I could never be a politician.

This deficit means that getting to know my students is a major hurdle that I face every semester. Multiple students with the same name, or multiple girls with the same hairstyle, are particularly challenging.

Teaching online plays into this weakness because the students appear as squares on my Zoom screen, with their names conveniently displayed so I don’t have to make the effort to learn them. They are abstracted away from their actual selves. Moreover, the routine activities that usually help me learn my students’ names and faces, such as taking attendance (in person) and handing back corrected papers, no longer exist. The result is that even now, at the end of the semester, there are a handful of students that I feel I don’t know at all.

A second reason is that, from my own experience attending online meetings, I know that just because a Zoom participant is focused on the screen, this doesn’t mean that they are actually paying attention. They could be reading the newspaper, playing a game, or chatting with a friend online. (I have been guilty of all of these distractions myself during meetings.) Sometimes when I call on a student it is clear from their response that although their face was on my Zoom screen, their brain had been somewhere else. Not good.

A third reason is that even when students are paying attention, it’s hard to get a brisk oral rhythm going. During my live classes students are always answering my questions, repeating or otherwise reacting to other students’ answers, asking questions of other students, and so on. A brisk pace really helps with this type of learning, and is hard to achieve in an online class. There is always a lag.

A fourth reason is that many ingredients in my usual bag of tricks are useless when teaching online. Some examples are conjugation (and other) drills that student pairs randomize with dice (1 = yo, 2 = , and so on); one-page ‘booklets’ with questions on the outside and answers inside, which students use while working in “teacher-student” pairs; and little slips of paper with questions (or prompts) that students use in quiz-quiz-switch fashion as they circulate and converse with each other.

As still another reason, all my students’ work this semester has been in electronic form, and I prefer to grade on paper. I usually write a lot of free-form comments that are difficult to replicate on a screen. I have ended up highlighting different parts of an essay in color and then writing notes below in the same color. This takes a long time. Also, when I grade tests I prefer to grade one question at a time rather than one test at a time. Blackboard (our online teaching system) has a mechanism for doing this, but it is awkward to use so I always end up grading one test at a time. Finally, if I want to change some aspect of my grading in retrospect I have to go back and find the tests affected. This is much easier with a stack of printed exams.

Even though our students all commit to doing their own work, as opposed to using Google Translate or other systems, I am less confident under these circumstances that I am getting a true picture of their actual Spanish abilities.

I even missed my commute! Taking the train to Fordham guarantees me almost an hour of walking in total, some peaceful minutes in the train, the beauty of Fordham’s campus, and a myriad of small social interactions. Humans are social creatures, and it’s good to be out and about.

For all these reasons, I am looking forward to teaching in a real classroom again this fall.

Flash sale on ¿Por qué?

Blackwell’s, a British bookseller, is randomly selling new paperback copies of ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish for only $14.62, including shipping to the U.S. This is a great deal as the list price is $32.96. I have verified with Blackwell’s that these are in fact new books, not secondhand.

So if you have been thinking of buying a copy for yourself, or already have a copy but want to give one to your favorite Spanish teacher or hispanophile, now is the time.