Category Archives: Nouns and pronouns

Curiosas y curiosos

When rereading one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, which I’ve written about previously here and here, a sentence I’d missed the first time caught my eye:

El cadáver de Reme y el círculo de curiosas y curiosos, hablando en voz baja, observando aquel quebranto de la vida en forma de muerte inesperada.

‘Remy’s corpse and the circle of curious women and men, speaking in soft tones, observing that devastation in the form of unexpected death.’ (my translation)

The interesting Spanish here is curiosas y curiosos. It’s noteworthy because mixed-sex groups are usually described using the masculine gender only; the expected wording here, then, would simply be curiosos. (I occasionally tell a girl student that in Spanish, “boys have cooties”, so that a single masculine item in a group contaminates the whole group.) Sierra i Fabra is obviously circumventing this rule in order to emphasize that there were more woman than men ogling the dead body. This may sound like a minor detail, but the story is set in Barcelona in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, and this is one of many instances where Sierra i Fabra calls attention to the lack of men after years of fighting.

My English translation gets the same message across by mentioning “women and men”, where the usual expression is “men and women”, but curiosas y curiosos is an even more striking — and attention-calling — deviation from the norm.

I love to find examples, such as this one, where a grammatical feature of Spanish adds to its expressive power.

Cervantes on the beach

I’ve just returned home from a glorious visit to the Caribbean. My husband and I resolved to do nothing but relax during our stay, and for the most part we managed to honor this commitment. However, my passion for Spanish linguistics is irrepressible! Even while lazing on the beach, I couldn’t resist taking note of several linguistically interesting passages in one of the Spanish books I tossed into my suitcase: a collection of three Novelas ejemplares by Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quijote.

Cervantes published these novelas — actually, short stories — in 1613, between the two volumes of Don Quijote. El licenciado Vidriera, the first story I read, takes place in the academic and courtly communities of Salamanca and Valladolid. La gitanilla focuses on an itinerant gypsy tribe, while Rinconete y Cortadillo describes the initiation of two teenage boys into a gang of street criminals in Seville. The three stories thus offer diverse perspectives on the people and places of Golden Age Spain. 

I will be writing several blog entries about the Novelas ejemplares in the upcoming days. Here are the topics I’ll cover; I’ll add links to the individual entries as I write them:

  • the use of the noun color with feminine gender;
  • sentences that, while lacking the explicit Spanish words for ‘former’ and ‘latter’ (aquel and este), follow the Spanish convention of putting ‘latter’ before ‘former’;
  • camarada, a nice example of a noun ending in -a that can be either masculine or feminine;
  • an explicit reference to the dialectal phenomenon of ceceo;
  • two examples of gustar used in a ‘forwards’ rather than its normal ‘backwards’ fashion;
  • a case study in how to learn a new word (the innocent-sounding piedeamigo);
  • the antiquated word hestoria;
  • exciting (to me) examples of the future subjunctive “in the wild”.



A triple harvest of nouns

A reader asked me about the difference between cosechasiega, and mies. He likes to read the Bible in Spanish and sees all three words, whereas the English Bible uses the single word ‘harvest’.

Nice question! I really went to town on this one, using several resources to research the answer:

The first thing I learned is that cosecha is a much more common word than siega or mies. Here is the Google n-gram plot of the three words’ frequencies. Incidentally, it looks like folks don’t write about crops as much as they used to, ¿no?

View post on

The second thing is that all three words started as past participles. Therefore, they originally meant something that is reaped, and only later took on the meaning ‘harvest’. The original verb behind cosecha is the very common verb coger ‘to take’: the g in cogecha, an obsolete irregular participle, morphed into the modern s. The verb behind siega is segar ‘to reap’; it is a cognate of English words including dissect and section, saw, sickle, and scythe, and possibly sail — because a sail is cut from a larger piece of cloth. The verb behind mies is Latin metere ‘to reap’, a cognate of English meadow and mow.

Finally, I learned that cosecha is the only one of the three words to have ‘harvest’ as its primary meaning. Mies mostly means ‘grain’, and siega, ‘mown grain’. Getting back to my reader’s original question about the Spanish Bible, perhaps these differences explain which word is used when. Check back and let me know!


The joy of diminutives

I just checked, and was surprised to see that this is my first blog post about Spanish diminutives (unless you count a passing reference in my all-time second-most-viewed post on Spanish nicknames). Diminutives are word endings, such as -ito and -illo, that make a ‘little’ version of the word they are attached to. For example, a cucharita is a little spoon (cuchara) and a cigarrillo ‘cigarette’ is literally a small cigar (cigarro). Diminutives often convey affection rather than size. Pobrecito is equivalent to ‘poor thing’, and mamacita, while it has no true English equivalent, is similar to ‘dear mother’.

Spanish speakers use diminutives deliberately and even with relish, often piling them on as in chiquitillo ‘little boy’, which adds both -ito and -illo to chico ‘boy’. In this way, diminutives are different from inflectional endings, such as plural -s and -n, which speakers use without thinking. The same is true for other affective endings, such as -azo and -ón, which both mean ‘large’ and often bear an insulting tinge.

One of my favorite examples of Spanish diminutives in action comes from (where else?) Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” book series, my current Spanish literary obsession. In Seis días de diciembre, the fifth book in the series, Mascarell has lunch with a customs official, Martín Centells, at Centells’s favorite restaurant near the port of Barcelona. As a regular patron, Centells receives the best treatment from Quique, the chef/owner. Quique uses diminutives to describe the specialties of the day with loving pride:

¿Qué tienes hoy, Quique?
Una sopita de pescado de las buenas. Y de segundo sardinitas pero de las que anoche estaban en el mar tan tranquilas que las ha pescado mi suegro.

— What do you have today, Quique?
— A terrific fish soup, and as a second course, sardines that were relaxing in the ocean until my father-in-law caught them last night.

Interestingly, Sierra i Fabra maintains the diminutive when describing how Quique serves the food (Ya traía las sardinitas), but drops it when Mascarell and Centells eat: Probó la sopa ‘He tasted the soup’, atacando la primera sardina ‘attacking the first sardine’.

Darn it, now I’m hungry.

Tú and usted in the Spanish Civil War

I just finished reading Spain in our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. This is the second book I’ve read by Adam Hochschild; the first is King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. I strongly recommend both of them. Spain in our Hearts masterfully blends a military history of the Spanish Civil War with the personal stories of Americans who were involved in the war as soldiers, medics, writers, and advocates. The main focus is on Americans who supported the Republican (anti-Franco) cause, but a handful on the other side are profiled as well. Hochschild also describes how internal political conflicts in the United States, Soviet Russia, and other countries shaped their role in the war.

In addition to its historical insights, Spain in our Hearts includes an interesting linguistic anecdote, about the use of the informal versus formal usted (both meaning ‘you’). An ambulance driver en route to a field hospital, realizing that he might have chosen the wrong road, hailed a group of men “sitting by a fire 200 yards away, whose uniforms he could not see in the dark. When the answer came back, ‘¿Qué quieres tú?‘ he relaxed, knowing they were Republicans. ‘If I had been answered ‘Usted‘ instead of ‘Tú,’ I should have been speaking to fascists.” This anecdote especially intrigues me because it contradicts the claim, in an essay by the Spanish sociologist and language commentator Amando de Miguel, that the widespread use of  in Spain began as “una ilusión igualitarista que se impuso en la última guerra civil, en los dos bandos“, i.e. on both sides in the war. I’d be happy to hear from readers who might know something about this question. Was  a sign of a Republican, or was its use more widespread?

Spain in our Hearts came into my hands at just the right moment. As a relatively new book with rave reviews, it is in heavy demand at my local library. I added my name to my library’s wait list months ago. By the time I got to the top of the list, and was able to check out the book, my interest in the Spanish Civil War had been primed by a bundle of other factors. I had read El tiempo entre costuras, which takes place during the war, and in the early years of Franco’s regime, and three books from Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Inspector Mascarell series), which take place just before and after Franco’s conquest of Barcelona. (My blog posts referring to these books can be found here and here.) On my recent trip to Spain I spent time in Burgos, which served as Franco’s headquarters during the war, and in Madrid and Barcelona, two cities that were besieged. Seeing the turnoff for Teruel on the road from Burgos to Girona reminded me of how little I knew about the crucial battle there — the site of the tú/usted anecdote, incidentally. Now that I’ve read the book, I’ll have to go back to Spain yet again, and see these places through fresh eyes. I might even try a commercial Civil War tour of Barcelona, Madrid, or battlefields.


The gender of sugar (azúcar)

I drank a lot of coffee when I was recently in Spain, partly because of jet lag and partly because the coffee was so good. As in the U.S., it was always served with a small paper container of sugar. Who ever reads these containers? I do — when I’m in Spain — and was rewarded with a linguistic gem: one sugar packet I opened was labeled azucar morena (see picture). This was truly surprising, not because of the missing accent mark on azúcar, but because morena is a feminine adjective, and azúcar is masculine.

Or is it?

Although I had learned azúcar as a masculine noun, and had always seen it treated as such, It turns out that azúcar is one of a handful of Spanish nouns that are ambiguous in gender, meaning that either morena or moreno is legitimate. You can see this for yourself on or in the Real Academia Española dictionary.

I was familiar with this phenomenon from the examples of radioesperma ‘sperm’, and reúma  ‘rheumatism’. The latter two were borrowed from Greek as feminines because of their final -a, but have drifted toward masculine usage because the -ma masculine, most often seen in words of Greek origin, is associated with intellectual words such as temapoema, and apotegma.

In its Nueva gramática de la lengua española, the Real Academia points out that words of ambiguous gender are relatively rare. Besides azúcar, they list:

  • mar ‘sea’ (I believe that the feminine usage is confined to set expressions like pelillos a la mar ‘let bygones be bygones’)
  • agravante ‘aggravating circumstance’
  • armazón ‘shell, frame’ (as of a building)
  • azumbre ‘liquid measure, corresponding to 2 liters’
  • interrogante ‘question’
  • maratón ‘marathon’
  • prez ‘honor’
  • pringue ‘grease, drippings’
  • ánade ‘duck’

Now that I’ve written this post, I can finally throw out the sugar packets I brought home from Spain: a sweet reminder (jajaja) of how travel can open up new linguistic horizons.

Leísmo and verb subject properties

Earlier this month I wrote a blog post comparing the contexts of leísta and non-leísta pronoun usage in Jordi Sierra’s Cuatro días en enero. At least in the first few chapters of this book, masculine human direct objects of physical verbs tended to be expressed with lo and los, and objects of other verbs (mostly verbs of cognition) with le and les. Here is the verb table from that post.Since then, I’ve dusted off my virtual pile of leísmo readings to check for anything written about the relationship between verb choice and leísmo. This literature search came up almost dry: research on the semantics and leísmo uniformly refers to the semantic properties of nouns rather than verbs. One property that comes up frequently in the literature is whether an direct object expresses discrete, or countable, items (like cars) or non-countable materials (like sugar). Another, discussed in a 1974 paper by Erica García and Ricardo Otheguy, is relative strength, or activity. García and Otheguy suggest that le is chosen when a verb’s direct object is “stronger”, or more active. For example, they give the example of María le llora ‘Mary complains to him’, whose object “him” (a living person) is more active than the corpse in María lo llora ‘Mary mourns him’. This reminded me of Jon Aske’s comment on my original post, that “leísmo is used to add a nuance to the sentence, primarily having to do with human objects that are highly involved in the action or that something is being done for them, as opposed to to them.”

However, García and Otheguy also relate the le/lo choice to the properties of subjects, suggesting that le is chosen when a verb’s subject is “weaker”, or less active. For example, they contrast:

  1. No hagas ruido, niño, que le molesta a su padre ‘Don’t make noise, child, because it annoys your father’
  2. No hagas ruido, niño, que lo molesta a su padre ‘Don’t make noise, child, because you’ll annoy your father’.

As is typical in gustar-type sentences, the subject of sentence #1 (“noise”) is not an active participant. In contrast, the subject in sentence #2 (the child himself) is only too active!

This distinction might help to explain the division between le and lo verbs in the table above. Someone who eludes, finds, kills or unites (verbs from the second column of the table) is surely a stronger, or more active, subject than someone who merely sees, asks, or needs (first column). This might be a fruitful topic for a Spanish linguistics dissertation, if anyone is looking…


Jordi Sierra’s off-and-on leísmo

When I could distract my brain from the engrossing plot of Jordi Sierra I Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, and pay attention to Sierra’s language, I was struck by his off-and-on leísmo. For readers who are unfamiliar with this term, leísmo refers to the use of the masculine indirect object pronoun le ‘to him’ instead of the masculine direct object pronoun lo ‘him’, as in the first row of Table A, below. Leísmo, a centuries-old speech pattern, is most common in Spain. Most Spanish textbooks in the United States therefore teach the non-leísta pattern shown in the second column. Note that leísmo normally only applies to human direct objects.

Table A

Sierra’s object pronoun usage is fascinating because he isn’t strictly leísta or non-leísta, but alternates between the two styles of pronoun usage. An example is the following sentence, at the beginning of Chapter 2, which uses one les and two los.

Todos los soldados más o menos útiles estaban siendo sacados del lugar con urgencia, tal vez para llevarles a combatir, tal vez para trasladarlos a la última resistencia, Valencia, tal vez para conducirlos a Francia.

‘All the soldiers who were more or less fit were being taken away urgently, perhaps to carry them to combat, perhaps to move them to Valencia, the last city of the resistance, perhaps to take them to France.

The same approximate ratio of two instances of lo (or los) for each one of le (or les) holds more broadly in Cuatro días de enero, as can be seen in Table B, which contains all examples of masculine human direct objects in the book’s first two chapters.

Table B: Masculine human direct object pronouns in Cuatro días de enero, caps. 1-2

A serious look at leísmo in Sierra’s writing would of course have to analyze much more text, ideally pulling it from a variety of his books. It would have to take into account Sierra’s Catalonian origins: Sierra is from Barcelona, and writes in both Castilian Spanish and in Catalán. Perhaps his bilingualism plays a role in his pronoun usage? And to a linguist, an analysis of leísmo in spoken Spanish will always be fundamentally more interesting than one based on written Spanish.

Nevertheless, an interesting pattern immediately emerges from the data in Table B: Sierra’s use of leísta and non-leísta pronouns appears to be governed by semantics rather than syntax. Sierra uses the two types of pronouns in the same syntactic contexts: in both single and double pronoun structures (e.g. Se les necesitabaSe los llevaron), in reference to both singular and plural people, and both before and after verbs. However, as shown in Table C (based on the examples in Table B), most of the verbs used with lo and los express physical actions, while most of those used with le and les express cognition. These are tendencies rather than absolutes: llevar (used with le) and entender (used with lo) are obvious exceptions.

Table C: Verbs with le and les vs. lo and los in Cuatro días de enero, caps. 1-2
(based on Table B)

This pattern is doubly logical. The object of a physical action — the person who is killed, accompanied, trapped, and so on — is closer to the canonical idea of a direct object than one who is seen, believed, needed, and so on. In addition, the use of le and les is already associated with non-physical verbs of the gustar type: someone who is pleased (me gusta), surprised (te sorprende), bothered (le molesta), and the like. The next task on my to-do list is to hit the literature to review what has already been written on this topic.

Incidentally, in Siete días de julio, the sequel to Cuatro días de enero, I noted an example of le being used to refer to a non-human direct object: Su…llamémosle trabajo no era precisamente agradable ‘Her…let’s call it work…wasn’t exactly pleasant.’ According to Inés Fernández Ordóñez (a leading leísmo scholar), the use of le with llamar is quite common in much of Spain. There are no such examples in the first two chapters of Cuatro días.

[See follow-up post here.]

Triple pronoun positions in Spanish

I recently ran into a sentence with one conjugated verb and two infinitives.


But seriously…it was a sentence like Quiero poder hablarlo ‘I want to be able to speak it’, where ‘it’ referred to, perhaps, the Spanish language. I don’t remember whether this sentence came up in a student’s paper or was just something I was working out in my head. At any rate, I was curious to find out how many possible positions there were for the lo pronoun in this sentence.

As all of you know if you’ve tangled with Spanish grammar, an object pronoun like lo can come either before a conjugated verb or after an infinitive. (These are the main two rules, though there are others.) So in a sentence with two verbs, of which the first is conjugated, the pronoun can either precede the first (Lo quiero hablar) or follow the second (Quiero hablarlo). Both are equally valid, and Spanish speakers freely alternate between them.

I wondered: in a sentence with one conjugated verb and two infinitives, are there three possible pronoun positions?

  1. Lo quiero poder hablar
  2. Quiero poderlo hablar
  3. Quiero poder hablarlo

I posed this question on two of my favorite forums, /r/Spanish and WordReference, and the answer was a resounding : all three positions are legitimate.

How cool is that?

Acronyms in English vs. Spanish

I got hung up on a matter of terminology while revising a section about Spanish nicknames in my book: are nicknames like Mabel for María Ísabel acronyms? Not according to the English definition: “an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word.” However, the RAE’s Ortografía, my source for the Mabel example, states that it is an acronym (p. 628). When I looked up the RAE’s own definition of acronyms, copied below, I saw that the first meaning matches the English definition: an acrónimo is a sigla, or initialism. The second meaning, though, is broader: “A word formed by the union of elements from two or more words, made up of the beginning of the first and the end of the last, or, frequently, other combinations.”

Live and learn!