Category Archives: Sounds

Enjoying Andalusian Spanish

Since my travel companion during my recent trip to Andalucía doesn’t speak Spanish, I inevitably spoke mostly English while there. (I’m making up for this by speaking tons of Spanish while grading AP tests in Cincinnati.) Nevertheless, I had as many Spanish conversations with strangers as I possibly could, and also kept my ears open to expose myself, as much as possible, to Andalusian Spanish.

I’ve long been academically familiar with Andalusian Spanish, of course, meaning that I knew about its features from reading about them. And I knew that most of these features are shared with Latin American Spanish because, as demonstrated by Peter Boyd-Bowman, the Spaniards who immigrated to Latin America during the colonial period were disproportionately Andalusian. However, it was exciting to hear this kind of Spanish spoken around me in its home territory.

The Andalusian feature that means the most to me personally is the tendency to weaken or drop -s sounds at the ends of words and syllables. “Personally”, because my first linguistic research, as a Harvard undergraduate, was on this same phenomenon in Puerto Rican Spanish, and its possible consequences for subject pronoun usage in Puerto Rican Spanish. This research eventually led to an article published in Language, the prestigious flagship publication of the Linguistic Society of America, which as you can imagine was a healthy way to start my career. So every mimo (instead of mismo), gracia (instead of gracias), and so on sounded like a friendly blast from my past. 

One hazard of dropping your s‘s frequently is that you can forget which words actually have them, and start to make mistakes in your spelling. A case in point is this poem, by María de los Ángeles Martínez González. which we saw set into a wall along a street in Cádiz. The words escuches and madres were cast in ceramic without their final s‘s, which you can see in this online version of the poem. This linguistic point aside, the poem is heart-breaking.

Another common Andalusian feature is the weakening and deletion of the d sound between two vowels. This is actually a downstream version of the historical process of “lenition” that, centuries ago, turned Latin t‘s into Spanish d‘s, and likewise Latin k and p sounds into Spanish g‘s and b‘s (vita > vida, focum > fuegolupus > lobo).

While on the same stroll through Cádiz I did a double-take when I saw what looked like another dialect-influenced spelling mistake on a historical marker memorializing a famous flamenco artist who was both a singer and a dancer: in standard Spanish, both a cantador and a bailador. Here, these two words were spelled without their dcantaor and bailaor. After seeing the same spellings elsewhere I learned that they are, in fact, the legitimate terms for a flamenco singer and dancer. You can see the corresponding Real Academia dictionary entries here and here. So in this case lenition has gone legit.

Two final accentual anecdotes. First, struck by the non-Andalusian accent of one tchotchke seller I was chatting with in Granada, I asked if she was from out of town. She explained that she deliberately neutralized her accent when talking with non-Andalusians. Would you believe there’s a linguistic term for this? It’s called “linguistic accommodation”. Second, when I overheard a family group speaking in what I first thought was Italian and then realized was Spanish, I correctly inferred that they were from Argentina. Spanishlinguist scores! Actually, Argentinian Spanish is a softball dialect to identify…but still fun, especially when you hear it so far afield.

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

Mind your y’s and o’s

After all these years, I’m still refining my knowledge of Spanish. Just this week I learned a subtle detail about an obscure but genuine rule of Spanish: the occasional change of y and o (‘and’ and ‘or’) to e and uY and o are pronounced ee and oh, and this change happens when one of these words comes before a word that begins with the same sound. So, for example, we say bonita e inteligente ‘pretty and smart’ and siete u ocho ‘seven or eight’ to keep the vowels from merging into each other at the boundary of y and inteligente, and likewise of o and ocho.

We have a similar phenomenon in English, where a changes to an before words that begin with a vowel, so that we say, for example, an apple and an elephant as opposed to a pear and a zebra. Just as in the Spanish case, this prevents the vowel of the word a from running into the first vowel of the following word. The linguistic term for such a change is dissimilation.

I would describe the y/o rule as “basic advanced Spanish”, meaning that anyone who wants a good command of the language will eventually learn it. I always get a kick out of teaching it: students are surprised to learn that these basic words, which they may have been using for years, have two different forms. That’s when I bring in the a pear/an apple example from English and really blow their minds.

The detail that I just learned has to do with words that begin with hie-, such as hierro ‘iron’. The letter h is silent in Spanish, so that normally the ye rule applies before words that begin with hi-, as in aguja e hilo ‘needle and thread’. However, in words like hierro the i takes on a consonantal y sound — that is, the word is pronounced yero — so there is no need for the ye change. A good example is the phrase madera y hierro ‘wood and iron’.

Here’s the rule as explained in the Real Academia Española’s Ortografía:

“La y copulativa mantiene su forma cuando la palabra que sigue a la conjunción comienza por un diptongo de /i/ + vocal, ya que en esos casos la /i/ del diptongo no es plenamente vocálica, sino que se acerca, en la pronunciación espontánea, al fonema consonántico /y/. Al no confluir ya dos fonemas vocálicos iguales, la y copulativa no necesita transformarse en e: madera y hierro [madéra i yérro], agua y hielo [água i yélo], alfa y iota [álfa i yóta].”

By the way, no Spanish words begin with ie-, just as none begin with ue-. At the beginning of a word the ie sequence is always spelled hie- or ye- (as in yeso ‘plaster’), and the ue sequence, hue- as in huevo ‘egg’. A fun fact for your Tuesday!

Many thanks to reader and friend Daniel Nappo for bringing this topic to my attention.

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”.



Politics and linguistics in “Dos días de mayo”

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I am a huge fan of Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” detective novels. I’ve just finished the fourth in this series, Dos días de mayo, and found it a real page turner, and moving as well. If you love Spanish and enjoy a good read, please give it a try.

The Mascarell novels take place in Barcelona, in the waning days of the Spanish Republic and the early years of the Franco dictatorship, and their plots are very much linked to this setting. Without venturing into spoiler territory, Dos días is anchored to a specific real event, Franco’s visit to Barcelona in on June 1, 1949. In one passage, Inspector Mascarell, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, is aggrieved to see how beautiful Barcelona looks the day of the visit. His bitter reflections relate the city’s current abject position to a historical event, the Siege of Barcelona, which in 1714 definitively yoked Catalonia to the Spanish crown:

Salió al exterior y le golpeó el sol de la tarde. Otro bonito día de primavera, como si el tiempo se aliara con Franco para recibirle en la hermosa Barcelona que había puesto a sus pies.
La hermosa Barcelona.
A las putas también las engalanaban para que el cliente pagara más y se quedara satisfecho.
Se sintió culpable por ese pensamiento.
Su Barcelona.
— También caímos en 1714 y nos levantamos.  –Suspiró.

A rough translation:

He left the building and was dazzled by the afternoon sun. Another beautiful spring day, as if the weather were allied with Franco to welcome him to beautiful Barcelona, which he had brought to its knees.
Beautiful Barcelona.
Whores also get dolled up so that a client will pay more and be more satisfied.
He felt guilty for this thought.
His Barcelona.
“We also fell in 1714, and we got up again,” he sighed.

Given the strong Catalan identity expressed in the novels, it’s safe to assume that many of the conversations included in the book would have taken place (in “real life”) in Catalan, although the books themselves are written in Castilian Spanish. The books make occasional reference to differences between Catalan and Castilian. In one such passage, Sierra describes a policeman’s Castilian accent:

— ¿Miguel Mascarell? — Lo pronunció con marcado acento castellano, con la ‘g’ bien diferenciada y la ‘ll’ convertida en ‘l’, como si no supieran declamar ‘cuello’, ‘botella’, o ‘lluvia’ y en su lugar también dijeran ‘cuelo’, ‘botela’ o ‘luvia’.

— ¿Miguel Mascarell? — He pronounced it with a marked Castilian accent, with a sharp ‘g’ and the ‘ll’ converted in ‘l’, as if he couldn’t say ‘cuello’, ‘botella’, or ‘lluvia’ and in their place said ‘cuelo’, ‘botela’ or ‘luvia’.

In this passage Sierra shows himself to be more of a novelist than a linguist. Apparently he doesn’t know that a language’s phonology (pronunciation rules) determines not only its inventory of different sounds, such as l and ll, but also how they may be used within a word, an aspect of phonology called “phonotactics”. Castilian Spanish certainly has the ll sound but only uses it at the beginning of a word, or between vowels, whereas in Catalan it also permits it at the ends of words. You can’t blame the poor policeman!

The top 10 surprising ways that Spanish isn’t special

¡Próspero Año Nuevo!

My previous post presented the Top 10 reasons why Spanish is special. This post presents its opposite: the Top 10 reasons why Spanish isn’t special. Like the previous Top 10 list, it includes examples from Spanish grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation.

This Top 10 list was constructed with native speakers of English in mind. It describes core aspects of Spanish that may seem peculiar, but turn out to be normal when considered in a broader linguistic context. Some of these are truly surprising! The inscrutable ‘personal a, for example, turns out to be a prime example of a linguistic phenomenon known as Differential Object Marking, while the use of positive expressions like en absoluto (‘absolutely’) with a negative meaning (‘absolutely not’), illustrates a well-known historical process called Jespersen’s Cycle.

To me, the two lists are equally interesting. I love both the special features of Spanish and its reflection of broader cross-linguistic tendencies. I hope you do, too.


The top 10 reasons why Spanish is special

Today’s post is the first of several I plan to make in the next few weeks to summarize the broad linguistic themes that emerged as I wrote my book. It is a follow-up on a post I did some months ago, “What makes Spanish unique”. This post is somewhat more general, and, I hope, more fun because it’s a slideshow.


Click the bidirectional diagonal arrow to view in fullscreen mode.

Separated at birth — and by speech therapy!

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

Hace más de dos años escribí sobre los adultos hispanohablantes que no pueden marcar las erres. Desde entonces no he podido encontrar ningún dato publicado sobre la frecuencia de este problema, ni ningún recuento publicado fuera del Internet. Esta sequía terminó esta mañana cuando leí el artículo “The Mixed-Up Brothers of Bogotá” (Los hermanos confundidos de Bogotá) en el New York Times Magazine. La historia es fascinante aun para la gente normal que no esté obsesionada con el rotaciscmo adulto. Dos parejas de gemelos mellizos colombianos con veinte y pico años (Jorge y Carlos, William y Wilber) descubren que fueron cambiados al nacer y que en realidad son dos parejas de gemelos idénticos (Jorge y William, Carlos y Wilber). William y Wilber se criaron en el campo, y Jorge y Carlos en Bogotá, haciéndoles a los cuatro hombres una prueba ideal de la importancia de la naturaleza y la crianza.

El rotacismo entra en la historia cuando Carlos y Wilber se conocen por primera vez: “Wilber empezó a hablar, pero Carlos lo tenía difícil entenderlo. En vez de marcar sus erres, Wilber habló con las /d/ duras. ¡El trastorno de habla! Carlos lo tenía de niño pero lo había superado gracias a la logopedia.”

Por supuesto, la historia de Carlos y Wilber sugiere que el rotacismo, como el tartamudeo, tiene orígenes genéticos. Pero el trastorno es bastante común entre los niños que harían falta muchos datos más para demostrar una tal conexión. ¿Acaso conoce alguien algún estudio sobre los gemelos y los trastornos de habla españoles? No he podido encontrar ninguno.

A propósito, las palabras mellizo y gemelo son otro ejemplo del fenómeno de los dobletes: parejas de palabras con el mismo origen latino. Las dos palabras vienen de la raíz latina gemellicius ‘gemelo’. Como es normal en tales parejas, la palabra más antigua (mellizo) ha cambiado en forma y significado, mientras que la palabra más reciente (gemelo) es más conservadora.


More than two years ago I wrote about native Spanish-speaking adults who can’t roll their r’s. Since then I have searched in vain for data on the frequency of this problem, or even any published (i.e. non-Internet) anecdotal accounts. This drought ended this morning, when I read the New York Times Magazine story “The Mixed-Up Brothers of Bogotá“. The story is gripping even for normal folks who aren’t obsessed with adult rhotacism (problems with r) . Two pairs of twenty-something fraternal twins in Columbia (Jorge and Carlos, William and Wilber) discover that they were switched at birth and are actually two pairs of identical twins (Jorge & William, Carlos & Wilber). William and Wilber were raised in a rural environment and Jorge and Carlos in Bogotá, making the four young men an ideal test case for nature versus nurture.

Rhotacism enters the story when Carlos and Wilber meet for the first time: “Wilber started speaking, but Carlos was having a hard time catching what he was saying. Instead of rolling his R’s, Wilber spoke with hard D’s. The speech impediment! Carlos had one as a child but overcame it with speech therapy.”

The experience of Carlos and Wilber obviously suggests that rhotacism, like stuttering, has genetic origins. However, it is common enough among young children that it would take much more data to prove such a connection. Anyone know anything about twin studies on Spanish language speech defects? I haven’t been able to find anything.

Incidentally, while writing the Spanish version of this post I learned for the first time the word mellizo, meaning ‘fraternal twin’. It turns out that it has the same Latin root, gemellicius, as the Spanish word for twin, gemelo, making this word pair a nice example of a doublet. As is normal with doublets, the older word (mellizo) has changed in form and meaning, while the more recent word (gemelo) is more conservative.

Linguistic gems from recent reading

Ages ago I discovered the joys of reading Spanish novels for fun. It helps to keep up my fluency and build my vocabulary, while adding bits of cultural knowledge. Of course, I always keep my linguistics hat on in case I find anything particularly interesting. This post describes two such findings.

The first is from La carta esférica, a novel about a sailor who joins a mysterious woman on a treasure hunt for a sunken ship carrying a priceless cargo of Jesuit emeralds. It’s by one of my favorite Spanish authors, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, best known for the Capitán Alatriste series. Besides its pleasantly page-turning plot, this novel features the best example I’ve ever seen of the stylistic exploitation of the two different versions of the Spanish imperfect subjunctive. Here, the narrator alternates between -ra and -se subjunctives as he waits for the mysterious lady of the emeralds to stop him from walking out. This alternation adds an extra back-and-forth rhythm to the parallel structure of the successive que clauses.

Todo el rato, hasta que cerró [la puerta] detrás de sí, estuvo esperando que fuese hasta él y lo agarrara por el brazo, que lo obligase a mirarla a los ojos, que contara cualquier cosa para retenerlo.

“The whole time, until the door closed behind him, he hoped that she would go to him, take him by the arm, make him look her in the eye, and say anything to keep him there.

Right now I’m reading Magali García Ramis’s memoir of growing up in Puerto Rico, Felices Días Tío Sergio. I first learned about García Ramis when she was inducted into the Academia Puertorriqueña de la Lengua Española (basically, the Puerto Rican branch of the Real Academia Española). In a previous post I described her inaugural lecture, on the Puerto Rican /r/. I bought a copy of Felices Días back then but only recently got around to reading it. It is absolutely delightful, written in simple Spanish that would make it a good first novel for a student to read.

The passage that caught my linguistic eye has to do with another cardinal aspect of Puerto Rican pronunciation, the aspiration of final -s. Here the protagonist, a young girl, is asking her mother to make cat-shaped cookies for the funeral in absentia of their lost cat, Daruel. It’s an interesting passage from a sociolinguistic perspective because it shows the two speakers’ awareness that this is a stigmatized feature. In the first line, Ramis uses the letter j to show the aspirated /h/ pronunciation of the /s/ of los.

— ¿Ah Mami? ¿Ah, nos laj haces? [Mom, will you make them for us?]
– Nos lassss hacesss – corrigió Mami [Will you make them for us? – Mom corrected]
– Bueno, nosss lass hacesss ¿Sí? [OK, will you make them for us?]

I love the exaggeration of the multiple ssss and the way the daughter extends them to nos, which she seems to have pronounced correctly from the start.

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.