Author Archives: jhochberg

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 estudiase. 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!

57 words with eñe

I’ve had the wonderful Spanish ñ on my mind lately (see e.g. here), and today decided to make a list of reasonably common Spanish words that use this characteristic letter. This started as a plain list of 57 words. Then I added translations. Then I couldn’t resist going back in time: I knew that the ñ sound had several different origins, but was curious to see how this worked out statistically.

The results are below, in tabular form so you can play with the words yourself if you like. The table is sorted by Type, meaning the type of the word’s origin; within each type, words are listed in alphabetical order. The types themselves are ordered by frequency.

  • The most common origin is therefore the first one you see in the table: a Latin ne or ni. When followed by another vowel, the e or i turned into a y sound, which in turn had a transformative effect on the n.  (The y sound had a similar effect on other consonants, not just n, and the resulting changes are referred to as palatalization.)
  • The next most common origin is a Latin double nn; this is the source of the tilde (~) itself.
    Pleasingly, the suffix -eño has a dual origin, with one derivational path of the ne/ni type (seen in words like isleño) and another of the nn type (seen in pequeño).
  • The third group is a Latin gn or ng sequence. I knew that some ñ‘s came from gn, but the ng words were a surprise.
  • Next are words borrowed from other languages. Here we find words that begin with an ñ, from languages as disparate as Quechua, Dutch, and Italian.
  • The mn group could really be collapsed under nn, because these words passed through an nn stage before emerging with an ñ.
  • Some words on the list were internally derived from other Spanish words. For example, caña ‘reed’ gave rise to both cañón and cañada.
  • Finally, one word (rebaño) is of unknown origin — too bad I missed it when writing this recent post — and one (cariño) has a known origin that doesn’t seem likely to produce an ñ.
Word Translation Origin Type
1.           araña spider Lat. aranea ne/ni
2.           baño bathroom Lat. balneum ne/ni
3.           campaña field, campaign Lat. campania ne/ni
4.           compañero companion Lat. compania ne/ni
5.           emponzoñar to poison Lat. potiniare ne/ni
6.           España/español Spain/Spanish Lat. Hispania ne/ni
7.           huraño shy Lat. foraneus ne/ni
8.           isleño islander -eño suffix from Lat. ‑ineus ne/ni
9.           jalapeño type of pepper Jalapa (Mex. prov.) plus -eño ne/ni
10.       migraña migraine Lat. hermicrania ne/ni
11.       montaña mountain Lat. montanea ne/ni
12.       ordeñar to milk Lat. ordiniare ne/ni
13.       piña pinecone, pineapple Lat. pinea ne/ni
14.       saña rage Lat. insania ne/ni
15.       señor, señora, señorita Mr., Mrs., Miss Lat. senior ne/ni
16.       viña vine Lat. vinea ne/ni
17.       añil indigo Ar. an-nil nn
18.       año year Lat. annus nn
19.       caña reed Lat. canna nn
20.       engañar to fool Lat. ingannare nn
21.       guiño wink Lat. cinnus nn
22.       muñeca wrist, doll Lat. bonnicca nn
23.       niño boy Lat. ninnus nn
24.       ñoño dull Lat. nonnu nn
25.       paño cloth Lat. pannus nn
26.       peña rock, crag Lat. pinna nn
27.       pequeño small -èño suffix from Lat. ‑innu nn
28.       enseñar to teach Lat. insignare gn/ng
29.       estaño tin Lat. stagnum gn/ng
30.       heñir to knead Lat. fingere gn/ng
31.       leña firewood Lat. ligna gn/ng
32.       puño fist Lat. pugnus gn/ng
33.       reñir scold Lat. ringi gn/ng
34.       señal signal Lat. signa gn/ng
35.       tamaño size Lat. tam magnus ‘so big!’ gn/ng
36.       teñir to dye Lat. tingere gn/ng
37.       uña nail Lat. ungula gn/ng
38.       bruñir polish Occ. brunir borr
39.       buñuelo fritter Cat. bony borr
40.       champaña champagne Fr. champagne borr
41.       chuño potato starch Quech. ch’uñu borr
42.       gañán farmhand Fr. gaaignant borr
43.       ñandú rhea Guar. ñandú borr
44.       ñoqui gnocchi Ital. gnocchi borr
45.       ñu gnu Dutch gnoe borr
46.       tacaño stingy Ital. taccagno borr
47.       vicuña Quech. uikuña borr
48.       daño harm Lat. damnum mn
49.       doña lady Lat. domina mn
50.       dueño master Lat. dominus mn
51.       otoño autumn Lat. autumnus mn
52.       sueño dream Lat. somnus mn
53.       apañar to fix from paño (below) der
54.       cañada ravine from caña der
55.       cañón cannon, canyon from caña der
56.       cariño affection Lat. carere
57.       rebaño flock unknown

Viggo Mortensen, “el argentino”

I have Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s Capitán Alatriste books on my mind these days because El Ministerio del Tiempo, the Spanish TV show I’m currently enjoying on Netflix, has a running joke about a time-traveler from the 1500s (played by Nacho Fresneda) who resembles Pérez-Reverte’s swashbuckling hero.

The Alatriste doppelganger specifically reminded me of an amusing conversation I had a few years ago with Lorena, a friendly Mexican woman who used to have a coffee kiosk near my train station. I frequently picked up a cup of coffee there and, naturally, would also enjoy a chat in Spanish.

One morning I happened to have the first volume of the Alatriste series with me when I picked up my coffee. I showed it to Lorena and she instantly recognized the handsome man on the cover. “Es el argentino,” she said.

This tickled my funny bone since she was referring to Viggo Mortensen, who played Alatriste in a movie based on the series, and who is actually Danish-American. Mortensen lived in Argentina when he was a young boy, returning with his American mother to the United States at age 11. It’s impressive that he’s held onto his Spanish…and his Argentinian accent.

Coincidentally, my son Aaron just sent me this clip of Viggo Mortensen speaking six languages, including Spanish:

If you look on YouTube you will find similar videos of him speaking other numbers of languages. Wouldn’t it be great if all Americans were multilingual?

Even more coincidentally, I recently rewatched Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, starring Mortensen as Aragon. He was perfect for the role — and in a few scenes, speaks Elvish.

Tildes in logos

Lately I’ve been on a mini-quest for tildes in logos. By “tilde”, I mean the curvy mini-N that forms the top part of the distinctive Spanish letter ñ. (Just to be confusing, in Spanish itself, tilde also refers to diacritical marks in general, including those seen in words like café.)

Here are some of my findings, in no particular order:

A weekly Spanish publication distributed with the Friday edition of the newspaper “El Mundo”. Available online at


A Spanish blog having to do with the language of sports.

The international organization devoted to Spanish education and culture.

A subreddit for educational talk about Spanish-language matters.

This bizarre use of the tilde gets the message across for this Spanish hotel chain.

Even more bizarre is the s+tilde in this logo for Cantabria-based Link Seafood Sources.

I think “CNN en español” hit it out of the park with this one.

I see a tilde here in the curves on the left-hand side of the logo. Do you?



¡El Ministerio del Tiempo has arrived!

For months I’ve been hearing about El Ministerio del Tiempo, a popular science-fiction TV show from Spain. It has just come out on Netflix in the USA, and I’m in the middle of the first episode. It’s awesome!

Image result for ministerio del tiempo

The show is about a secret Spanish government agency that controls a set of portals to Spain’s past. As best as I understand it so far, their mission is to stop nefarious time travelers from changing history. In the first episode they recruit new agents from the 1500s, 1800s, and the present (shown left to right in the picture). The show features a star turn by Diego Velázquez and multiple shout-outs to Arturo Pérez-Reverte‘s Capitán Alatriste.

As a linguist I am of course enjoying the older Spanish spoken in the 1500s scenes. And so far the plot and characters seem to be lots of fun.

Try it yourself!

An Academia for Ladino!

Regular readers of this blog already know that I’m a big fan of the Spanish language academy system, consisting of the Real Academia Española (RAE) and its 22 sister institutions, and collectively known as the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española (ASALE).

I now have a new reason to love the Academia: the institution now expects to add a new sister academy, based in Israel, that is devoted to Ladino. Also known as Judeo-Spanish, or judeoespañol, Ladino is the language of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and their descendants. Once spoken by hundreds of thousands of Jews around the Mediterranean, especially in Turkey, the language is now in danger of extinction. Unlike Yiddish, its German-based counterpart, which is still spoken as a first language by Hasidic communities in Israel and the United States, Ladino lacks fresh native speakers, and its older speakers are dying out.

A language academy for Ladino wouldn’t save the language, but it would help to conserve, study, and honor it.

According to an article in El Cultural, the RAE/ASALE has approved the formation of the Academy and has passed the bureaucratic baton to the State of Israel. Once Israel recognizes the Academy, it can then formally apply for membership in ASALE. It is hoped that this will take place by the next ASALE convention in 2019.

Very exciting!



I didn’t wake up this morning expecting to write a blog post about sangría. But while preparing a handout with instructions for student compositions, I realized that I didn’t know how to say indentation in Spanish. And when I looked it up in Word Reference (my favorite dictionary resource), to my surprise I learned that the correct Spanish word is sangría.

¿Sangría? As in sangría? This definitely called for some further investigation.

Image result for sangria

Again consulting Word Reference, it turns out that sangría has three basic uses. First, there is the refreshing summer drink made from wine, fruit, and other ingredients. Second, there are a few meanings clearly derived from the word sangre ‘blood’. These include ‘bloodletting’, ‘bleeding’, and ‘phlebotomy’; ‘the inside of the elbow’ (where blood is drawn) — this is an unnamed body part in English, what fun!; and, more figuratively, ‘drain’ or ‘loss-maker’. Third, there is the typographical meaning this post started with: ‘indentation’. Likewise, sangrar means both ‘to bleed’ and ‘to indent’.

Leaving aside the indentation meaning for a moment, the question naturally arises: does the beverage sangría get its name from its red color? While the English-oriented Etymology Online website claims that it does, the higher authority of Joan Corominas dismisses this possibility. He explains that sangría was not used with this meaning in Spanish until 1832, and that

It is unlikely that this is a figurative use of sangría ‘bleeding’, mostly because the English sangaree was already seen in 1736 (and Portuguese sangría, 1813); from English it soon passed to Minorcan in the form sèngri — which proves that the word was not used then in either Castilian or Catalan — and in American Spanish it is relatively unpopular. It probably comes from India, from a word derived from Sanskrit çarkarā ‘sugar’, which became sakkarā in Pali, çakkar in Hindi, and šakr in Urdu (perhaps a feminine sakkarī or *sankarī applied to sugared wine).

Corominas doesn’t address the typographical meaning of sangría, However, it occurred to me that bleed has a typographical meaning in English as well, where (to quote Wikipedia) “bleed is printing that goes beyond the edge of where the sheet will be trimmed. In other words, the bleed is the area to be trimmed off.”

I can easily see the origin of the English meaning, since the ink bleeds, or extends, beyond the intended trimming boundary. The Spanish typographical sangría is more opaque to me, since an indentation is a reduction rather than an extension. Maybe it comes, instead, from the ‘inside of an elbow’ meaning, since an indentation is like the bend of an elbow?