Category Archives: Sounds

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.



Spanish boot verbs, sound change, and analogy

Lately I’ve been looking into the origins of the Spanish irregular verbs oh-so-affectionately called “boot” verbs. They are more properly called “stem-changing verbs” because their final stem vowel changes from e to ie (e.g. negar/niego), from o to ue (e.g. poder/puedo), or from e to i (e.g. medir/mido). It’s exciting to discover that this verb class is a perfect example of the two classic forces in language change: sound change and analogy. As any basic linguistics textbook will tell you, sound change affects all words with a given sound, and analogy then messes things up.

Two sound changes are responsible for the “boot” verbs: the change of Latin short  /ĕ/ and /ŏ/ to the diphthongs (vowel sequences) /ie/ and /ue/ in stressed syllables, and the raising of /e/ to /i/ before the sound /j/, which is pronounced like English y. The first change is more common because it affected -ar-er, and -ir verbs. It’s the change behind the form of much Spanish vocabulary, including such common words as fiesta and puerta, from Latin festa and porta (see this previous post). And because it’s confined to stressed syllables, it’s the source of the classic “boot” pattern, where the diphthong occurs in the singular and the 3rd person plural (pUEdo, pUEdes, pUEde, pUEden) but not in the nosotros and vosotros forms, where stress falls on the verb ending (podEmos, podÉIs).

Analogy messed up this tidy result by turning some regular verbs into boot verbs and some boot verbs into regulars. The former is akin to the emergence of dove as an alternative to dived, by analogy to drove and other irregular “strong” English verbs. The most common verb that “went boot” is pensar, which shouldn’t have a stem change because its /e/ comes from a Latin long vowel. Some examples of former boot verbs that are now regular are prestar (formerly priesto, priestas, etc.) and diezmar (the original infinitive was dezmar).

The raising of /e/ to /i/ before /j/ only happened in a few verb forms, but analogy took it the rest of the way. The /j/ that triggered this change occurred in Latin -īre verb endings; this is why all Spanish verbs in this boot class are -ir verbs. For example, the – ending of Latin mētiō “I measure” came to be pronounced /jo/ in Vulgar Latin, triggering the change of /met/ to /mit/. This vowel change then spread, by analogy, throughout the full “boot”, and the /j/ was eventually lost(The /t/ also turned into a /d/, obviously.)

Spanish was actually supposed to have four types of boot verbs, because /j/ affected /o/ as well as /e/, raising it to /u/ in a number of -ir verbs. However, in these cases analogy truly ran rampant and /u/ completely took over the verb, changing Latin mollire, for example, to Spanish mullir “to hoe”. No modern forms of this verb reflect the original /o/. The same thing happened to subir. Its Latin source was sŭbīre; without the /j/ the short /ŭ/ of the stem would have turned into an /o/, i.e. sobir.

For more, see pp. 156-161 In the 1991 edition of Ralph Penny’s marvelous A History of the Spanish Language (unfortunately, not the edition pictured below, which has eliminated some detail.)

I wrote again about boot verbs a few days later, in this post.

Spanish vowels vs. English vowels

Spanish and English each have five vowel letters, but the resemblance stops there.

English uses the five letters aeiou to make 12 distinct vowel sounds — those heard in beet, bit, bait, bet, bat, bot, bought, boat, book, boot, butt, and the second (unstressed) syllable of chocolate. Of course, some of these vowels merge in some dialects of English, like the vowels of cot and caughtpin and pen, or Marymerry, and marry. [I feel quite smug about having all 12 English vowels in my own pronunciation.]

Spanish, however, has only five vowel sounds, one per vowel letter, as heard in para “for,” pera “pear,” pira “pyre,” pora “leek,” and pura “pure.” (These roughly correspond to the five vowels of bot, bait, beet, boat, and boot.)  In fact, a few words in Spanish manage to use all five vowels. My favorite examples in this group are abuelito “grandfather” and murciélago “bat.” You can find some more here.

[Can any one provide other contexts (besides pVra) that fit all five Spanish vowels? Or other words that use all five (besides the ones in the link)? Edit: see Daniel’s comment!]

When Spanish and English differ, Spanish usually turns out to be normal, and English weird. (My favorite examples are noun gender, capitalization, and multiple words for “you”.) This is again the case when it comes to vowels. Here’s some cross-linguistic data on vowel inventories, borrowed from the marvelous World Atlas of Linguistic Structures Online, to back this up:

  • Small vowel inventory (2-4 vowels): 93 languages
  • Average vowel inventory (5-6 vowels): 288 languages
  • Large vowel inventory (7-14 vowels): 183 languages [German wins!]

With 12 vowels, English is indeed an outlier.

In fact, if we were to take a closer look at which 5 vowels Spanish uses, it would become even clearer exactly how normal Spanish is. But that’s a matter for another post.


Pity the Spanish speaker who can’t roll his r’s

In two excruciating posts (here and here), Madrid blogger Andrés Adrover Kvamsdal described his months-long quest to master his native language’s trilled r sound, a journey that involved surgery followed by months of daily speech therapy. It’s clear from the responses to these posts that Sr. Adrover isn’t alone.

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