Category Archives: Sounds

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.

Continue reading

An /r/ is an /r/ is an /r/

If you speak Spanish, then you probably already know that it has two r sounds: the trill of carro “cart, car” and the light flap or tap of caro “expensive”. In both sounds, the tip of the tongue makes light contact with the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth. In the trill, the tongue vibrates–at an average speed of 25 vibrations per second!–as air passes forcefully though the mouth. The flap is similar to the American English pronunciation of d as in rider. In fact, I’ve taught native Spanish speakers who misspell it as d.

You can see animations of both r types here; click on “vibrantes”.

Although both the trill and the flap seem exotic to English speakers, they are much more common world-wide than the gliding English r. This is one of the many cases where something that appears unusual about Spanish turns out to be something unusual about English. (Perhaps commenters will suggest more examples?) It’s also fairly common for languages to have two or more sounds.

What fascinates linguists about r, in Spanish and elsewhere, is the simple fact that it has so many variations. Every other sound is defined by where and how it’s pronounced. But r can be articulated either in the front of the mouth (as in Spanish), in the back (Hebrew, French, German), or in between (English). The tongue’s movement in making the sound also varies, including trills, flap, and glides. This heterogeneity makes a most curious critter!

For this reason, linguists generally define r—and only r—as a group of sounds that play a recognizable role in language regardless of their specific articulation. For example, any version of r can act as a buffer between a vowel and another consonant, as in both the Spanish and English versions of the phrase truco de cartas “card trick.” Members of the r group are also interconnected in language evolution, borrowing, and learning. Thus the front-of-the-mouth of Latin real evolved into the back-of-the-mouth trill of French reel, which was borrowed into English as the mid-mouth glide of real, which interferes when English-speaking students try to pronounce the front-of-the-mouth trill of Spanish real. An r is an r is an r.