Author Archives: jhochberg

Something borrowed, something blue

For the last few years I’ve had a research project about Spanish word origins on the back burner. This summer I’ve resurrected the project, and it is simmering nicely: I have now finished the first major stage.

The focus of the project is Spanish borrowings, or loanwords: words in Spanish that originated in other languages. The project applies to Spanish the methodology from Martin Haspelmath and Uri Tadmor’s World Loanword Database (WOLD) project. Beginning in 2004, Haspelmath and Tadmor organized a team of linguists to collect data on loanwords in forty-one languages around the world. In 2009 they published their results in a book, Loanwords in the World’s Languages: A Comparative Handbook (De Gruyter), and the contributing linguists shared their data on the WOLD website.

My goals in this project are:

  1. To compare Spanish to the forty-one languages in the WOLD project, in terms of (i) its percentage of loanwords, and (ii) these words’ characteristics, such as their part of speech.
  2. To quantify the relative contributions of different source languages to Spanish vocabulary. I already did this for my first book, using a random sampling of five hundred words from a standard Spanish etymological dictionary. But that sample may have skewed toward more recherché vocabulary.
  3. To address various issues involved in etymological research, in Spanish and in general.

More about the WOLD project

In order to obtain comparable results across the WOLD languages, all participating linguists started with the same list of 1460 core meanings: ‘house,’ ‘mother,’ ‘go,’ and so on. Each linguist identified ‘their’ language’s words for these meanings, then traced the origins of those words using a standardized set of guidelines. I have now completed the first of these two steps for Spanish. It raised all sorts of interesting issues, which I will discuss in my next blog post.

One goal of the WOLD project was to compare the frequency of borrowing in different languages. In other words, of the core meanings, how many were expressed in each language by loanwords? As shown in the table below, borrowing rates ranged from 1.2% for Mandarin Chinese to 62.7% for Selice Romani. Yaron Matras’s review of the WOLD Handbook in the journal Language points out that these two languages are spoken in diametrically different environments. Speakers of Mandarin “show little or no bilingualism”; the language has “a status as a majority language, a powerful standard, and a sociopolitically dominant population.” In contrast, Selice Romani is associated with “universal multilingualism, a minority language status, the absence of a written standard, and sociopolitical marginalization.”

Romanian, the only Romance language in the project, fell into the “high borrowers” category (25.9% to 45.6%), as did English. My previous research (see above) placed Spanish in the “very high borrowers” category, with roughly one-third “native” vocabulary (from Vulgar Latin), one-third later borrowings from Latin, and one-third words from other languages. It will be interested to see whether this holds up for a WOLD-based lexicon.

Borrowing typeLanguages (in increasing order of % loanwords)
“Low borrowers”
(1.2 – 9.7%)
Mandarin Chinese, Old High German, Manange, Ket
“Average borrowers”
(10.7 – 22.4%)
Otomi, Seychelles Creole, Gawwada, Hug, Oroqen, Hawaiian, Kali’na, Iraqw, Q’eqchi’, Wichí, Zinacantán Tzotzil, Malagasy, Dutch, Kanuri, White Hmong, Mapudungun, Hausa, Lower Sorbian
“High borrowers”
(25.9 – 45.6%)
Takia, Thai, Yaqui, Swahili, Vietnamese, Sakha, Archi, Imbabura Quechua, Kildin Saami, Bezhta, Indonesian, Japanese, Ceq Wong, Sarmaccan, English, Romanian, Gurindji
“Very high borrowers”
(51.7 – 62.7%)
Tarifyt Berber, Selice Romani

Another goal of the WOLD project was to learn more about borrowing in general. The research confirmed several generally accepted principles about borrowings:

  • Function words were borrowed less than content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs). Overall, 12% of function words were borrowed, compared to 25% of content words.
  • Nouns were more likely to be borrowed (31%) than other types of content words (14-15%).
  • Borrowing was most common for cultural vocabulary, such as religion, clothing, housing, law, social and political relations, agriculture, food, and warfare; and least common for personal vocabulary, such as sense perception, spatial relations, body parts, and kinship.


My interest in the WOLD methodology dates from 2018, when I was starting to work on my second book, Bringing Linguistics into the Spanish Language Classroom. The book is organized around five themes, or “essential questions,” including “How is Spanish different from other languages?” and “How is Spanish similar to other languages?” I thought it would be interesting to compare Spanish to the WOLD languages so that I could say either “Spanish has borrowed more words than most other languages” or “Spanish has borrowed a typical amount of words.” (I was confident that Spanish would be a “low borrower.”)

I originally imagined that I could research this topic in a couple of weeks, but soon ran into methodological issues such as:

  • Should word pairs like hijo and hija (‘son/daughter’) be counted as two separate words, even though they are just masculine and feminine forms of the same word?
  • WOLD linguists could identify multiple words for a single meaning. How far should this be taken for Spanish? How does one draw the line between synonyms and dialectal variants?
  • When looking up word origins, the WOLD guidelines count a word as borrowed if it entered the language at any point in the language’s history. This would include, for instance, words borrowed into Classical or Vulgar Latin, such as gato ‘cat.’ (Vulgar Latin cattus is believed to be Afro-Asiatic in origin, and replaced the original Latin feles.) This guideline rubbed me the wrong way. Shouldn’t Spanish begin with Vulgar Latin?

After three months of a futile quick-and-dirty run at these issues, I decided to put the project on my back burner and eventually do a more thorough job that would hopefully yield publishable results. So…here we are.

La esclava blanca

For years I’ve intended to watch a telenovela, or Spanish-language soap opera. Like many people who learned Spanish as a second language, I find that listening is my weakest skill. I figured that sitting through hours of Spanish dialogue would help me.

A few months ago I finally took the plunge and watched La esclava blanca (‘The White Slave’) on Netflix. It was so much fun that I ended up binge-watching all sixty-two episodes.* This was bad for my physical health except for those episodes I watched while exercising. It also wasn’t as good for my listening skills as I had hoped, since I watched it with Spanish subtitles. Now that I know the plot perhaps I should rewatch it without subtitles…but I’d rather move on to a different series.

There was much to admire in La esclava blanca. The cast was terrific, especially the villain, who was played by a handsome Spanish actor with the improbable but delightful name Miguel de Miguel. His character was vile yet undeniably charming. The star-crossed lovers at the center of the plot were brave and bold. Over the course of the series the side characters became more compelling and interesting as they grew and changed, often in surprising ways. Finally, the story’s setting, in Colombia toward the end of that country’s slavery era, was engrossing. The show made it abundantly clear that slavery was a poison in Colombian society, harming not only the enslaved Blacks (obviously) but also their legal owners. As the show progressed, and the slave owners became more and more desperate to protect their way of life, they descended deeper and deeper into pure evil. The ultimate fate of Miguel de Miguel’s character illustrates this path most graphically. You’ll have to watch the show to find out more. Really, his last scene is a doozy.

The one thing that bothered me about the series is that the white heroine and the mixed-race hero, rather than the enslaved people of pure African descent, drove the movement toward liberation. This is an example of what is known as the “white savior” trope in which a white person leads or rescues a minority. Other examples are the movie Glory, which stars Matthew Broderick as the white commander of a Black regiment on the Union side in the Civil War, and Avatar, in which only a brave white human (an ex-Marine played by Sam Worthington) can rescue the blue Na’vi humanoids and their homeland on a verdant moon.

My complaint is not original. A Google search for “esclava blanca white savior” will find many other critiques along these lines.

So while I truly enjoyed this telenovela, the “white savior” issue stops me from recommending it with full enthusiasm.

Of course, I found much of linguistic interest in the series. I don’t know to what extent the features noted below are specific to Colombian Spanish.

  • First and foremost, I am convinced that I heard some instances of words whose initial h was aspirated rather than silent. Two I wrote down, both in episode 33, were Qué va, hombre (shortly after 17:00) and Hola, Jesús (after 36:30). I’ve searched but haven’t found this described anywhere as a feature of Colombian Spanish.
  • As with the n-word in English, the white and Black characters in La esclava blanca use negro/negra differently. For the whites it is an insulting noun, often followed by the adjective asqueroso ‘disgusting.’ For the Blacks it is affect-free, like man or bro in English.
  • Speaking of man, the Black characters also use hombre when talking with pals. (I don’t remember whether the white characters do this too.) At 29:20 in episode 57, Julián even calls his girlfriend hombre, which amused me.
  • The actors frequently drop the word a in sentences like Miguel va a comer ‘Miguel is going to eat,’ saying instead Miguel va comer. This makes perfect sense: the adjacent a vowels in va and a have simply blended. A is retained with other verb forms, as in Miguel y Elena van a comer.
  • At 13:20 in episode 59 a character says Usted verá que no es lejos. I noticed other uses of ser instead of estar to describe location.
  • At 43:45 in episode 61 I learned a new verb, engatusar, meaning ‘to con, deceive.’ According to Juan Corominas it has an unusual etymology that blends three roots: encantusar ‘to deceive with witchcraft,’ engatar (from gato) ‘to deceive with affection,’ and engaratusar ‘to deceive with praise.’
  • Finally, while I have yet to realize my ambition of visiting a voseísta country like Colombia (i.e. one whose speakers use the pronoun vos instead of (or along with) ), I really enjoy hearing voseo! In La esclava blanca I especially relished commands followed by pronouns, since these are identical to their equivalents except for the stressed syllable. Some examples are perdoname (instead of perdóname) and tranquilizate (instead of tranquilízate), whose te threw me for a loop until I checked the conjugation.

As always, I welcome comments. I would especially appreciate hearing from anyone who is familiar with Colombian Spanish.


*When I started watching the show I had no idea that it was so long. At first I figured that it would be fairly short because an important wedding was scheduled to take place in a few days. When the wedding kept being postponed I checked and saw that I still had dozens of episodes to go. By then it was too late to stop watching: I was thoroughly hooked.

Bad Spanish – Guilty conscience edition

I feel sheepish about writing this blog post — hence the “guilty conscience” — since the perpetrator this time around is a most worthy organization: SOMOS Community Care, a network of community-based health medical providers in New York City who serve Medicaid recipients, many of whom are Spanish speakers.

I saw this promotion for SOMOS on a window on the north side of East 42nd street in Manhattan, just down the block from Grand Central Station:

The error is the unneeded accent mark on the last word of this promotion, which should have been just plain ti. People often put an accent mark on ti because the similar word (as in para mí) has one. But that mark distinguishes the pronoun ‘me’ from the possessive adjective mi ‘my.’ It’s akin to the accent marks on ‘yes’ (versus unaccented si ‘if’), ‘you’ (vs. tu ‘your’), más ‘more’ (vs. mas ‘but’), and a number of other word pairs. in contrast, Spanish only has one word ti, so there’s no need for an accent mark.

I am totally at a loss to understand the top line of this promotion: The inside’s. I don’t even know if it’s part of the SOMOS promotion. But it reminds me of an adage I’ve come up with: accent mark mistakes in Spanish are like apostrophe marks in English. They’re ubiquitous, and make a bad impression.

SOMOS’s app, MiSOMOS, includes a terrific set of “Dr. Del Barrio” videos that explain annual checkups, diabetes, prostate cancer, and other important topics. The text in the sample video I watched (“Ver a tu doctor”) also has a few accent mark mistakes, as does the text below the video. I suggest that the good people at SOMOS enlist a Spanish teacher, or someone else familiar with this aspect of Spanish spelling, to review their content. I’d be happy to volunteer.

Enough with the (in)transitive verbs already

No sooner had I published my previous blog post, on the unexpectedly transitive Spanish verbs desayunar, almorzar, and cenar, when I had a headlong collision with an unexpectedly intransitive verb: comprar ‘to buy.’ I’ve been using this basic verb for ages, but always as a transitive verb, i.e. with a direct object, as in:

  • Voy a comprar un libro. (the direct object is el libro)
  • He comprado demasiadas papas. (the direct object is demasiadas papas ‘too many potatoes’)
  • Compro mucha comida en Trader Joe’s. (the direct object is mucha comida ‘a lot of food’)

Spanish has a related intransitive expression ir de compras ‘to go shopping.’ But I never imagined that the verb comprar itself can be intransitive until one of my colleagues put the following sentence on a test we were writing together. I’ve changed it a little in case one of our students is reading this blog.

  • No hay nada de sal en la cocina. Tenemos que comprar.
    ‘There is no salt in the kitchen. We have to buy.’

For this native English speaker at least, the intransitive comprar sounded woefully naked. I expected some object to accompany the verb, as in La tenemos que comprar ‘We have to buy it,’ Tenemos que comprarla (same translation), or Tenemos que comprar más ‘We have to buy more.’

However, after asking with other Spanish speakers, it is clear that Tenemos que comprar is fine by itself. I also checked the verb’s entry in the Real Academia Española dictionary, and indeed the third definition is intransitive:

  • intr. Realizar una compra, especialmente si se hace de forma habitual. Compramos en tiendas del barrio.

although this sounds synonymous with ir de compras ‘to go shopping’ rather than shopping for a specific item.

My fellow test-writer also said that you could only say Tenemos que comprar más if you still had some salt and wanted to supplement it. Other speakers whom I consulted were divided on this nuance.

This comprar surprise, and my recent reckoning with desayunar and its transitive friends, have reminded me forcibly that I will never be a native speaker. To bolster my wounded self-esteem I keep reminding myself that my Spanish is actually really good and my English is even better! Plus I speak decent French, know a fair amount of Hebrew, and a little German. Really, I can hold my head high as a linguist, and should enjoy the subtle surprises that Spanish still holds for me rather than taking them personally. Most of the time, I do.

“Desayunar” can be a transitive verb

Boy, does this sound like a boring topic for a blog post!

Au contraire, the Spanish verb desayunar ‘to eat breakfast,’ and likewise almorzar and cenar ‘to eat dinner/lunch,’ beautifully illustrates how subtle differences between languages can be problematic for a learner — or a teacher.

Spanish uses simple verbs like desayunar to talk about eating a meal, whereas English uses multi-word expressions like to eat breakfast or to have lunch. In linguistic terminology, we say that these meanings are “lexicalized” in Spanish whereas the equivalent English expressions are “periphrastic.” Spanish and English verbs can go the other way, too. For example, English has lexicalized the concept ‘drop’ as drop (duh), whereas Spanish uses the periphrastic expression dejar caer ‘to let fall.’

For the most part, the lexicalized Spanish meal verbs and their pheriphastic English counterparts work the same way. You can use them to say who eats a meal, where they eat, when they eat, and even how and why they eat, as in the following examples.

  • Mi padre desayuna ‘My father eats breakfast’
  • Almuerzo en la cafetería ‘I eat lunch in the cafeteria’
  • Los españoles cenan muy tarde ‘Spaniards eat dinner late’
  • Desayunas demasiado rápido porque tienes prisa ‘You eat breakfast too quickly because you are in a hurry’

However, Spanish and English differ in how they say what someone eats. Spanish meal verbs can have a food noun as a direct object, as in:

  • Mi padre desayuna huevos [eggs].
  • Almuerzo comida muy mala [bad food] en la cafetería.

In other words, these verbs can be transitive. However, the English expressions already have a direct object: breakfast in My father eats breakfast, lunch in I have lunch in the cafeteria, and so on. For this reason, when saying in English what someone eats at a meal, you can’t just add the food to the usual periphrastic verb phrase, as in:

  • *My dad eats lunch bad food.

Instead you must say something like

  • My dad eats bad food for lunch.

which substitutes bad food as a direct object in place of lunch, which then becomes part of the adverbial phrase for lunch.

The fact that Spanish meal verbs like desayunar can be transitive, but their periphrastic English counterparts cannot, is the kind of subtle linguistic difference that challenges both students and teachers of Spanish. A native English speaker can learn the Spanish verbs desayunar, almorzar, and cenar and use them happily for years, but then freak out when they hear a sentence like Nunca almuerzo sopa, or try to understand and answer a question like ¿Qué cenas? These are genuinely difficult for a native English speaker to process. At the same time, a native Spanish-speaking teacher will most likely not realize that this aspect of Spanish is difficult for their English-speaking students.

I have been on both sides of this conundrum. I had been speaking Spanish for decades before I ever heard a transitive use of these meal verbs. In my own speaking I would use English-style syntax in statements like Como huevos en el desayuno ‘I eat eggs for breakfast’ or in questions like ¿Qué comes en el almuerzo? ‘What do you eat for lunch?’ I only became aware of the transitive uses of these verbs when teaching Spanish alongside native speakers who included them in class materials and even tests. While my first reaction was to shelter my students from these odd-sounding statements and questions, I then realized that it’s my responsibility as a teacher to point them out to my students as an interesting difference from English, and to practice the transitive uses with my students until they feel more or less natural, or at least until the students can interpret them correctly.

I enjoy teaching Spanish partly because I enjoy working with college students, partly because I love Spanish, and mostly because I believe everyone should strive be bilingual. Discovering new aspects of the language and its differences from English is intellectual icing on the pedagogical cake. A similar example for me was the Spanish preposition en, which can mean ‘in,’ ‘on,’ and ‘at.’ I was never aware of the broad semantic scope of this preposition until I had to correct students who said things like *Estoy a la playa ‘I am to the beach’ instead of Estoy en la playa ‘I am at the beach.’

As an etymological coda, the three Spanish meal verbs are the product of two different evolutionary paths: a kind of chicken/egg situation, with nouns as the chickens and verbs as the eggs (or the other way around). According to my trusty Spanish etymological dictionary, almorzar and cenar are derived from the nouns almuerzo ‘lunch’ and cena ‘dinner,’ whereas desayunar is derived from the verb ayunar ‘to fast.’ Its corresponding noun (desayuno) was coined from the verb desayunar more than two hundred years later.

The war in Ukraine and the Spanish Civil War

Today I taught a lesson that compared the current war in Ukraine to the Spanish Civil War. The lesson was built around a wonderful video from the good folks at Dreaming Spanish. (Be forewarned that the first few seconds are glitchy.) My PowerPoint for the lesson is available here.

Before starting the video, we talked about the war in Ukraine: how were the students following the situation, did they have Ukrainian friends, and the characteristics of the two sides in the war. We also previewed vocabulary that would appear in the video.

During the video, I hit the pause button often to check for comprehension, to highlight similarities between the two wars, and to enrich the presentation with further information regarding Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and Picasso’s Guernica.

The bottom line was that both conflicts involve a spirited democracy, fighting with a force that includes professional soldiers and ordinary citizens, against a better-armed autocracy (in the Spanish case, a future autocracy) that does not hesitate to take civilian lives. Unlike the Spanish Republicans, the Ukrainians are united behind a charismatic leader and have extensive international support.

The final part of the class focused on Spanish Civil War posters. I had prepared a Google Slides presentation with a number of posters from both the Republican and Nationalist sides. I had shared this presentation with my students ahead of time and had asked them to bring their laptops. Working in pairs, students chose one of the posters, did some quick research on it (mostly, looking up unfamiliar words), and then presented ‘their’ poster to the class.

Teachers: if you try this lesson, please let me know how it goes for you.

When linguistic terms collide

After publishing my recent post about Spanish commands and accent marks, which featured a short PowerPoint on this topic, I posted the same PowerPoint on the /r/Spanish subreddit and also on a few Facebook groups for Spanish teachers. I got unexpected pushback in those media about Anglicisms in the PowerPoint: Spanish words that I used with an English meaning. Specifically, I used the word estrés to refer to phonological (spoken) stress, i.e. a word’s most prominent syllable, and the word acento to refer to the written accent mark. Both these uses reflect English usage rather than standard Spanish.

Strictly speaking:

  • In Spanish estrés refers to physical or psychological stress. The correct translation of phonological stress (in the English sense) is acento, as in El acento recae en la penúltima sílaba ‘Stress falls on the next-to-last syllable.’ One can also refer to the sílaba tónica (the ‘stressed syllable’), as in La sílaba tónica es la penúltima ‘The stressed syllable is the next-to-last one.’
  • The normal Spanish term for the written accent mark is tilde, which in English refers specifically to the ~ that turns an n into an ñ.

This table summarizes the above:

MeaningStandard Spanish termAnglicized term
phonological stressacento
sílaba tónica
written accent marktildeacento

I used the Anglicized terms because the related topics of phonological stress and written accent marks are already very challenging on their own. First, the rules that govern phonological stress in Spanish, and which underlie the language’s use of written accent marks, are simple to a linguist but not to a layman. For instance, although the primary use of accent marks is to indicate exceptions to the basic stress rules of Spanish, such as caFÉ or teLÉfono, where one would expect penultimate stress (as in HAbla) since the words in a vowel, this pattern fails if a word ends in an -n or -s, as in HAblan or HAblas. It also doesn’t explain the written accent in words like ¿Qué? ‘What?’ and más ‘more.’ Second, even if students understand these rules, they are not used to paying attention to phonological stress: they are generally unaware, for instance, that English features word pairs such as proJECT (verb) and PROject (noun). So mastering this topic requires picking up an ‘ear’ for an aspect of language that one has blissfully ignored for years or even decades.

I should add that native speakers of Spanish also have difficulty with accent marks, just as native speakers of English have difficulty with apostrophes.

Fordham’s curriculum doesn’t allow time to teach a full lesson on accent marks, so instead I present the topic in short bursts, as needed. For example, my second-semester students recently learned command forms such ¡Duerme! ‘Sleep!’, ¡Duérmete! ‘Fall asleep!’, ¡Sé! ‘Be!’ and ¡Ve! ‘Go!’ This topic inevitably raises the question of which commands have accent marks and which don’t — and why. The PowerPoint in my earlier post answers this question accurately and quickly. It does so in part because it uses the anglicized terms estrés and acento instead of the proper Spanish counterparts. Having to explain the Spanish meanings of acento and tilde would gum up the works. So in this case I believe that the ends justify the means. I suspect that many Spanish teachers do the same.

Two other factors besides pragmatics justify my use of the Anglicized terms. The first is that both and, both of which are reputable resources, give ‘accent mark’ (or ‘stress mark’) as one meaning of the word acento (although estrés never means phonological stress). The second is that Spanish has a long history of adding Anglicized meanings to existing vocabulary. Some examples are estrella meaning ‘celebrity’ (like English star), modelo meaning ‘fashion model,’ and blanco meaning ‘blank space to fill in.’ While purists may frown on such usages, I like to point out that Simón Bolívar, the great South American revolutionary hero, used papel ‘paper’ in the English sense of ‘newspaper’, and americano ‘American’ to mean someone from the United States, rather than the American continents more generally—a usage that is anathema to many contemporary Hispanics.

If Bolívar could get away with papel and americano, surely the gods of Spanish will forgive my use of estrés and acento in the service of pedagogy?

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.