Category Archives: Nouns and pronouns

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!


Leísmo ain’t new

Look for more red ‘ink’ below to understand the “ain’t” in this post’s title.

My Spanish students often have difficulty telling the difference between direct and indirect objects. They say things like Quiero conocerle ‘I want to meet him‘ (instead of Quiero conocerlo) or, conversely, Lo di el libro ‘I gave the book to him‘ instead of Le di el libro. I inevitably have to assign students helpful activities like this one to attune their ‘ear’ to this often subtle difference.

The first of these ‘errors’ (conocerle) is ironic because for many Spanish speakers it is perfectly normal Spanish. Leísmo — the substitution of le instead of lo for masculine direct objects that are human — is a widespread Spanish pattern, especially in Spain. In fact, leísmo is a long-established object pronoun pattern, rather than a recent development (as many native speakers assume). In this regard leísmo is akin to English ain’t, which was a widely accepted expression of negation (beginning in the 1700s) before it became stigmatized. (See David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words for details.)

I’ve recently researched the history of this transformation (for leísmo, not ain’t). Leísmo certainly goes way back: consider these leísta examples from the 13th century epic poem El poema de mío Cid:

leísmo en El Cid

What truly impressed me was the official embrace of leísmo. The first edition of the Real Academia Española’s (RAE) grammar guide, published in 1771, was exclusively leísta: it required le as both a direct and an indirect object masculine pronoun (note also the endorsement of laísmo in díganla lo que quieran):

1771 RAE grammar, p. 37

1771 RAE grammar, p. 37

The first mention of lo as a direct object masculine pronoun was in the 4th edition of the RAE grammar, published in 1796. In this edition the grammarians adopted a sarcastic tone, speculating that non-leísta writers must have had a bad copy editor, or been careless, or had “sacrificed the rules of grammar to satisfy the ear”.

1796 RAE grammar, p. 73

1796 RAE grammar, p. 73

Between 1796 and the fifth edition of the RAE grammar in 1854, the Valencian linguist Vicente Salvá and the Venezuelan linguist Andrés Bello published their own, influential grammars. Salvá proposed, and Bello adopted, the compromise position that is so widespread today: le for human masculine direct object, lo otherwise. Under the influence of these In the 1854 edition the RAE changed their posture. First, they presented both sides of the leísmo argument:

1854 RAE grammar, p. 35

1854 RAE grammar, p. 35

This sentence is a doozy! I practically had to diagram it to finally understand it as: “The most intractable controversy is between those who favor the use of le as a masculine direct object pronoun, to avoid confusing such objects with the abstract ones assigned to lo, and those who find this potential confusion less of a problem than the use of le for direct and indirect masculine objects as well as feminine indirect objects.” (By “abstract” they mean pronoun uses like Lo siento, where lo doesn’t refer to a specific object.) The grammarians went on to praise, though not explicitly endorse, the Salvá/Bello compromise, an attitude maintained today:

Diccionario Pan-Hispanico de dudas, “leísmo” entry

I have to conclude with a thank-you — from the bottom of this researcher’s heart — to the RAE, and to the various libraries that have cooperated with Google, for making these original sources available on the Internet.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure to vote for in the ongoing Top 100 Language Lovers poll! (through June 14).

From te to le in ‘Idilio’

Who doesn’t love object pronouns?

This is a rhetorical question, obviously. Most people don’t care about object pronouns, Most students who have to learn them, loathe them. For a linguist, though, they’re language candy — pure creatures of grammar, with no meaning of their own.

I noticed a curious pronoun phenomenon the other day while visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The museum’s current photography exhibition “From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola” includes examples of surreal photomontages by Grete Stern published in the avant-garde Argentinian journal Idilio from 1948 to 1951. You can learn more about this series here; an example is below.

Grete SternI didn’t care for Stern’s photomontages, but I got a kick out of their linguistic context. They illustrated a regular Idilio column on Freudian psychoanalysis whose original title was El psicoanálisis te ayudará ‘Psychoanalysis will help you’. After a few issues this changed to El psicoanálisis le ayudarále also means ‘you’, but is more formal than te.

te ayudaráAn early column, showing the original title (with te)

le ayudaráAn later column, showing the revised title (with le)

The choice of te versus le depends on context — who is speaking (or writing), and who is listening (or reading). In this case, le was a more correct choice because the column itself struck a formal tone. Consider the banner-style first sentence below the te title: Queremos ayudarle a conocerse a misma, a fortalecer su alma, a resolver sus problemas, a responder a sus dudas, a vencer sus complejos, y a superarse ‘We want to help you to know yourself, to strengthen your soul, to resolve your problems, to address your doubts, to defeat your complexes, and to improve yourself’. This sentence presents a raft of formal markers: the object pronoun le ‘you’, the formal reflexives se and sí misma ‘yourself’, and the formal possessives su and sus ‘your’. The next sentence includes the formal subject pronoun usted and corresponding formal verb forms such as conteste and siente.

The real puzzle, then, is why informal te ever appeared in the original title. The most likely explanation is an editorial snafu: surely some higher-up decided on the title, but the writer proceeded to adopt a formal voice anyway, forcing a change in title once someone noticed the discrepancy.

Kudos to MoMA for mounting  a show of both photographic and linguistic interest!

If you enjoyed this post, make sure to vote for in the ongoing Top 100 Language Lovers poll! (through June 14).

Fun with CORDE

I woke up this morning determined to nail down citable examples of something I’d read online and in Ralph Penny’s A History of the Spanish Language: that words like drama, enigma, and tema, which are masculine in modern Spanish, were often treated as feminine in earlier forms of the language. These -ma masculine were borrowed from Greek via Latin; they were neuter in gender in both ancient languages.

My starting point was Ralph Penny’s mention of:

UntitledThis BlogoLengua post listed some relevant -ma words:


However, the RAE’s first dictionary did not back up BlogoLengua’s examples. The words were either not in the dictionary (apotegma, fantasma, sofiama) or defined as masculine (clima, dogma, drama, enigma, primsa) or as ambiguous in gender (aroma, cisma).

I had better luck using another RAE tool: its marvelous CORDE, or Corpus Diacrónico del Español, which provides instant search access to Spanish texts “desde los inicios del idioma hasta el año 1975”, i.e. from the dawn of the language until 1975. One can customize a search by time interval, author, and other variables. Here is the search I did for enigma, using the time limit suggested in the BlogoLengua post:enigma

This search found 219 examples. I found it most helpful to look at them in “concordance” mode, which shows each example in a one-line context:


Columns further to the right (cropped out here for display purposes) include the author, title, and country of each work cited, its theme (novel, legal document, etc.) and publication data.

On this list you can see a mixture of masculine and feminine uses of enigma. On the second result page I found my favorite example, from none other than Cervantes, the author of Don Quijote. Clicking on the word enigma in that example brought me to the full citation, from p. 399 of his first novel (pub. 1585), La Galatea:


What could be a better example of early feminine usage of -ma masculines than la enigma de Galatea? That one is going straight into my book.

Using CORDE I was able to verify most of the other words listed in BlogoLengua. Examples ranged from the title of a 16th century work by Juan Rufo (Las seiscientas apotegmas) to a line from a poem by Lope de Vega about the climate of the New World (¿Es la clima ardiente o fría?) and a reference in a 15th century medical text to las dogmas evangelicas.

Thank you, RAE, for a truly enjoyable and productive intellectual morning.

Un nuevo recurso – A new resource

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Actualmente estoy investigando los múltiples orígenes de las palabras españolas que son masculinas aunque terminan con -a. En el proceso descubrí el sitio web BlogoLenga. Tiene el sumario más útil sobre este tema que he encontrado, incluso el de la nueva Gramática de la Real Academia. Es una lástima que su autor no diga nada de su identidad.


No dudo que mis lectores encontrarán algo de interés en el blog. ¡Que disfruten!


Right now I’m looking into the many origins of Spanish nouns that are masculine even though they end in -a. In the process I came across the website BlogoLenga, which has the best summary I’ve seen of this topic, including the one in the Real Academia’s new Gramática. It’s a pity that the blog’s author has little to say about his (or her) identity.

I’m sure that my Spanish-speaking readers will find something of interest in the blog. Enjoy!

Spanish is normal, English is weird

“Spanish is normal, English is weird” is a frequent theme in my classroom. Students coming from a monolingual English background are quick to assume the contrary: that where Spanish and English differ, Spanish is the oddball. I consider it part of my responsibility to shake up their world view a little, playing Copernicus to their Aristotle.

Below I detail six examples of this principle: three from pronunciation, one from spelling, and two from grammar. Readers are invited to contribute others.


  • English versus Spanish /r/. As described earlier on this blog, Spanish has two types of /r/: the rolling trill of carro and the short flap of caro. According to a cross-linguistic survey by Berkeley professor Ian Maddieson, both of these are are more common in the languages of the world than the gliding /r/ of English.
  • English versus Spanish vowels. Spanish has five vowel sounds, corresponding to the five vowel letters aeiou. In contrast, English has 12 distinct vowel sounds – those heard in beet, bit, bait, bet, bat, bot, bought, boat, book, boot, butt, and the unstressed first syllable of baton. As described in an earlier post, a five or six-vowel system is the most common type worldwide. The most vowel sounds found in any language is 14, making English quite the outlier.
  • English versus Spanish syllable structure. English has an impressive ability to combine individual consonant sounds into groups. The single syllable of strengths, my favorite example, begins with three consonants (/s/, /t/, and /r/) and ends with four (/ŋ/, /k/, /θ/, and /s/). Spanish is more restrictive. It allows at most two consonants before or after a vowel, and these are strictly limited (thereby hangs a future post…). Here again English is an outlier: most languages allow only limited consonant combinations, as in Spanish.

Writing: capitalization. English capitalizes more words than Spanish: not just proper nouns, but also the pronoun I, days of the week, months of the year, and various other categories. Here English is truly an oddball: it is the world’s second most exuberant user of capital letters, behind only German.


  • Singular and plural “you”. My oh my, how Spanish students struggle with singular  and usted versus plural vosotros and ustedes. I routinely encounter students who have been studying Spanish for three or four years and are still convinced that ustedes (“you all”) means “they”. This is partly because the verb forms for ustedes are identical to those for ellos/ellas (“they”), but mostly, and more profoundly, because English lacks a plural “you” (leaving aside the dialectal form y’all). In this regard Spanish is, again, normal. David Ingram’s classic (1978) survey “Typology and Universals of Personal Pronouns” found that 67 of 71 languages reviewed had both singular and plural “you”.
  • Noun-adjective order. Spanish speakers say casa blanca instead of white house, and so on for most pairings of a noun and its modifying adjective. The Spanish word order is found in over half the languages of the world. It has always struck me as the logical order in terms of sentence processing: that way, one starts with the basic concept (“house”), and then “decorates” it with details of color and the like.



My least favorite Spanish word

In an earlier post I wrote about two of my favorite Spanish words: esdrújulo and azulejo. I love esdrújulo because it reminds me of my academic research on Spanish stress and because of its role in an amusing family anecdote. I love azulejo because it starred in one of my happiest Spanish memories, when my high school Spanish came flooding back to me in Madrid after a few years off to learn French.

I also have a least favorite Spanish word: víctima, which means victim. My problem with the word is that it’s always feminine. A woman is una víctima and a man is una víctima, too. This really bothers me as a woman. Why should all victims be feminine?

As a linguist, I have more perspective. Víctima is feminine by historical accident, not by misogynist design: it comes from the feminine Latin noun victima, meaning a person or animal killed as a sacrifice. Nor is it the only Spanish noun whose gender is unaffected by that of the person it refers to. Bebéángel, and personaje are always masculine, and the word persona itself is always feminine. (So is gente, though it doesn’t refer to an individual person.) This is a small group of words, but all well-established in the language.

Moreover, I know that there’s nothing intrinsic about noun gender, once we get beyond words like madre and padre. There’s nothing masculine about a libro and estante (book and bookshelf), or feminine about a mesa and silla (table and chair). For that matter, Spanish words referring to many aspects of the female experience are masculine, including embarazo and parto (pregnancy and childbirth), útero (obvious), and pecho (breast). This is the kind of mismatch that inspires beginning Spanish students to change el vestido “the dress” to la vestida, always a chuckle-worthy mistake. I’m sure we could come up with a similar list of feminine vocabulary related to the male experience.

Nevertheless, it is overwhelmingly the case, with the few exceptions mentioned above, that Spanish words for people “swing” either masculine or feminine, depending on whom they refer to. These include several other nouns that, like víctima, end in -a, like dentista, turista, and atleta. Thus Rafael Nadal es un atleta espléndido (masc.) and Arantxa Arantxa Sánchez Vicari is una atleta espléndida (fem.) “People” nouns ending in -e swing as well: thus el or la agente, estudiante, cantante, and so on  Most nouns that apply to people, of course, have distinct masculine and feminine forms, like profesor and profesora or médico and médica.


Un tenista espléndido y una tenista espléndida.

Even a criminal can be un or una!!!

According to the Collins dictionary, though not the Real Academia, there’s been some progress toward gender flexibility in the baby department. Collins defines bebé as either masculine and feminine, and reports a specifically feminine variant beba (no accent) in Argentina. With this example as an inspiration, and in the spirit of feminist linguistic revolt, I hereby resolve to use un víctima in my own Spanish when referring to a male victim. Won’t you join me?

UN víctima masculinO


The geography of voseo

When I was relatively new to Spanish, one of my teachers explained to our class that voseo was a special feature of Argentinian Spanish. Voseo is the use of vos, with its associated verb forms, instead of standard Spanish tú, as an informal pronoun meaning “you”. So “you speak” is vos hablás instead of tú hablas, “you are” is vos sos instead of tú eres, and so on.

Years later I learned that voseo isn’t limited to Argentina, nor to its neighboring countries in South America. It’s found in several countries in South America, and also in parts of Central America, including El Salvador. (I seem to be running into a lot of vos-using salvadoreños lately, both at home and out of town.) Below is a map showing where vos is used in Latin America.

Reproduced by Creative Commons license. Medium (or dark) blue indicates spoken (and written) voseo.  Light blue indicates tu/vos alternation. Grey indicates tú only.

By the way, this is my second-favorite voseo map. My favorite is on p. 156 of Christopher Pountain’s Exploring the Spanish Language; do a “Search inside this book” with the phrase “distribution of voseo” to find it. It’s under copyright so I can’t reproduce it here.

As you can see in either map, the distribution of voseo doesn’t tidily follow country borders, or even continental borders. The controlling factor is, rather, historical. As I explained in my very first post on this blog, travel between Spain and Latin American was restricted during the colonial period because of rampant piracy on the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, settlements close to the two colonial capitals of Mexico City and Lima, or to the major ports of call en route such as Veracruz and Portobelo, had much more exposure to the latest linguistic developments from Spain than those in the “boondocks”.

For your convenience, here is the map of colonial trade routes I included in that first post.

Colonial trade patterns

Adapted from Sagredo 2007 under the GNU Free Documentation License

Voseo is a perfect illustration of this phenomenon. At the beginning of the Colonial period,  and vos were both current in Spain. Eventually, of course,  won, but only those parts of Latin American that were in regular contact with Spain followed its lead. That’s why, if you compare the two maps, the all- areas (grey on the voseo map) roughly correspond to the colonial trade routes (red on the second map). Argentina was about as boondock-y as you could get since it could only be reached by crossing the Andes, by foot and/or by mule, from Lima. That’s why its voseo is the strongest in the continent.

¿Vos entendés?

Platicando sobre pronombres en el parque

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Al comienzo del mes tuve el gran placer de visitar a mi hija en California. Durante la visita jugué con mi nietecito Óscar, preparé y congelé comida como una cocinera maníaca, y, claro, hablé español. No con mi hija, quien por lástima escogió estudiar francés hace años, sino con varias abuelas, madres y niñeras que conocí en el parque adonde llevaba a Óscar todos los días. (También hablé un poco de alemán pero muy mal.)

Muchas de mis nuevas conocidas eran salvadoreñas y tuve varias conversaciones interesantes con ellas sobre el voseo en El Salvador. Una niñera me explicó con muchos detalles con quiénes se usan vos, y usted, las situaciones y las implicaciones sociológicas.

Después pensé en lo improbable que sería tener una tal conversación sobre el inglés. No solo de mi parte (la verdad es que no me interesa mucho mi propio idioma), sino porque creo que a los hispanohablantes les importa más su idioma que a los angloparlantes. El vocabulario inglés (“coke” versus “soda” versus “pop”) sí discutiríamos, pero ¿la gramática? ¿LOS PRONOMBRES? ¡Ni posibilidad!

Pero en español, sí. El idioma es una parte fundamental de la identidad hispana y apasiona a la gente normal, no solo a los lingüistas. Esto les da un elemento de emoción a mis investigaciones sobre el español y a mi enseñanza que les faltaría en inglés.


At the beginning of the month I had the great pleasure of visiting my daughter in California. During the visit I played with my little grandson Oscar, I prepared and froze food like a mad chef, and, of course, I spoke Spanish. Not with my daughter, who unfortunately chose to study French years ago, but with various grandmothers, mothers, and babysitters whom I met in the park where I took Oscar every day. (I also spoke a little German, but very badly.)

Many of my new acquaintances were from El Salvador and I had various interesting conversations with them about voseo (the informal word for “you”) in their country. One babysitter explained to me with great detail when it is appropriate to use vos, and usted, and their various sociological implications.

Afterwards, I thought of how unlikely it would be to have a similar conversation about English. Not just because of my own inclinations (I’m not that into my own language), but because I believe that Spanish speakers care more about their language than English speakers do. One might talk about English vocabulary (e.g. “coke” vs. “Soda” vs. “pop”), but — grammar? PRONOUNS? No way!

But in Spanish, yes. Language is a fundamental part of Hispanic identity that sparks passion in normal people, not just linguists. This imparts an element of emotion to my research and my teaching that would be lacking in English.

Why Spanish invented usted

In a previous post I wrote about the Spanish “invention” of the formal pronoun usted, the polite way to say “you” when talking to a stranger, a teacher, a police officer, etc. To recap: in the 1500s the polite pronoun vos had lost its formal connotation and was in the process of disappearing. The new coinage usted, derived from the polite expression vuestra merced “your mercy”, replaced it.

Why bother? English lost the informal/formal distinction between thou and you back in the 17th century, and we get along fine with a single “you” pronoun. Why not Spanish?

The simplest, yet most intriguing, explanation is that by maintaining an informal vs. polite distinction, Spanish was falling in line with a regional trend. As shown in this lovely map from the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS) Online, the two-way politeness distinction became the norm all over Europe (yellow circles) as languages achieved their modern form. English turns out to be one of the few exceptions on the continent.

polite pronouns europeThis “keeping up with the Joneses” uniformity (or should I say, with the Müllers, Smirnovs, Rossis, and Martins?) is especially impressive because the languages of Europe aren’t even all related. Most are Indo-European, but others are Finno-Ugric, Altaic, and Basque. Also, the languages used different techniques to create their polite pronouns. Some drew on plural (y’all-type) pronouns (Turkish siz, French vous); some, like Spanish, on formulaic expressions (Romanian dumneata from “your lordship”); and still others on third-person pronouns (e.g. German Sie, from “they”, and Italian Lei, from “she”).

Politeness in second person pronouns is thus an excellent example of what linguists call an “areal” feature: one that arises, as if by conspiracy, in geographical clusters of languages regardless of their genetic relationship. You can see other clusters in the map above, and also in the Americas, whose native languages are mostly politeness-free (here’s the relevant WALS map):

polite pronouns americas

As with any large-scale trend, whether in language, food, or clothing, it’s hard to reconstruct the details of how this particular feature spread across Europe. I’ve seen one account that cites Spanish as a trend-setter, and another that focuses on the key role played by Latin, while referencing other authors who assign the lead to French. It’s also possible that no one language served as an inspiration, but rather that budding polite pronoun usage in each language reinforced the same tendency in the others. But Spanish was definitely a player in this zeitgeist — and still is today.

[Update from 12 August 2013: The author of the article linked to through “one account” above has provided me with a citation for her assertion about German modeling its pronoun usage on Spanish. It comes from C. J. Wells, German: A Linguistic History to 1945.  Clarendon: Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985, p. 274-5.]