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Rules are made to be broken — “siempre” edition

Back in 2013 I wrote about the drawbacks of teaching students formulaic rules instead of general principles for certain aspects of Spanish grammar and vocabulary. The prime example I gave was the two versions of the Spanish past tense: the preterite, or simple past, and the imperfect. I teach my students the general principle that the preterite is used to narrate the bare bones of ‘what happened’ in a sequence of events, and that the imperfect adds color to this sequence. You can see this distinction, for example, in the following sentence, where I’ve underlined preterites and colored imperfects red. (In class I work through a fairy tale on a whiteboard, using different-colored markers.)

Llovía cuando entré, me senté, y dije “Buenos días” a mi amiga, quién se llamaba Juanita y llevaba un vestido espléndido.

‘It was raining when I entered, sat down, and said “Good morning” to my friend, who was called Juanita and wore a splendid dress‘.

Nevertheless, certain rules are extremely useful in deciding which past tense to use. For example, mientras ‘while’ always triggers the imperfect, and the mention of a specific time or time interval, like a las tres or durante cinco días, usually triggers the preterite.

The adverb siempre ‘always’, like mientras, has long been on my mental list of reliable imperfect triggers, and it is one that I teach to my students. I was therefore surprised when a participant in Reddit’s /s/Spanish subreddit recently mentioned that siempre can occur with the preterite, too. In the spirit of “If you build it, they will come”, within 24 hours I’d come across several instances of this in the Spanish novel I’m currently reading, Alberto Fuguet’s Las películas de mi vida.

tempI’ve listed some examples below; the ones that are most striking to me combine a siempre preterite with an imperfect or two elsewhere in the same sentence.

  • Pero mi abuelo sintió siempre que hacía menos de lo que podía hacer. ‘But my grandfather always felt that he accomplished less than he was capable of.’
  • Mi abuelo siempre sintió que lo miraban en menos. ‘My grandfather always that they looked down on him.’
  • Siempre supe que eras brillante. ‘I always knew you were brilliant.’
  • Siempre me llamó la atención que [el aeropuerto] no tuviera un nombre. ‘It always struck me that the airport didn’t have a name.’
  • Los Zanetti y los Soler siempre fueron inmigrantes. ‘The Zanettis and Solers were always immigrants.’

I’m sure one could write an article about the use of the two past tenses with siempre in this novel alone. You could also broaden the field of inquiry to other authors, from around the Spanish-speaking world, as well as to actual speech — and then you’d have yourself a nice dissertation! But at a rough glance, the siempre preterites are used to give the author’s overall assessment of how something was in the past, whether it was his grandfather’s feelings, his opinion of a friend’s intelligence, an airport’s name, of his families’ assimilation. They remind me of something a Spanish teacher once told me: that fue (‘it was’ in preterite) is used to give an overall ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ assessment. The imperfects in these sentence would then serve to flesh out the factors behind these assessments.

What do you think?

A linguistic tour of northern Spain

In a few weeks I’ll be heading to northern Spain with a friend for a 16-day trip. We organized our itinerary around language-oriented destinations that I learned about while researching my book, and also from their inclusion in the Camino de la lengua castellana (here and here). These are sites relevant to the history of (Castilian) Spanish, beginning with Roman and pre-Roman ruins. Therefore, we won’t be visiting the Basque Country and Galicia, though we will be spending some time in Catalonia.

Our trip will begin in Madrid and circle clockwise, ending in Barcelona. Below is a map and also an outline of where we’ll go and what we’ll see. (I’ve left off the usual tourist sites, such as the Prado, which I always revisit when in Spain.) I’d be interested in hearing any other ideas that you have. And, Dear Reader, if you live in Spain, or will be visiting in June, perhaps we could even get together IRL (In Real Life).

I plan to be blogging regularly while on the road.

  • Madrid
  • Salamanca
    • En route from Madrid we will stop at the Castro de Ulaca, a hilltop Celtic ruin.  [I later posted about this visit here]
    • We won’t have time to visit Ávila but can at least admire the walls before we turn off for Ulaca.
    • Although Salamanca doesn’t have any specifically linguistic sites, it is a gorgeous city with Spain’s oldest university. [I later posted about this visit here]
  • Valladolid
    • We’ll stop here en route to Burgos to see the Universidad de Valladolid and another Cervantes museum, in the house where Cervantes lived when Don Quijote was published.  [I later posted about this visit here]
    • I’m also hoping to connect with an academic pen-pal of mine, a faculty member at the university who researches Spanish slips of the tongue. She furnished the epigraph for the relevant section in my book: Muchas tardes, buenas gracias.
  • Burgos: home town of El Cid and the cradle of the Castilian language, this is a city I’ve longed to see for years. [I posted about our visit to Burgos here and here]
    • The spectacular cathedral is built on the site of the 1080 Council of Burgos, a church meeting at which clergy and royalty discussed the problem of enforcing the use of Latin in the mass. This is an early milestone indicating that Spanish Romance had diverged dramatically from Latin.
    • The city is filled with El Cid connections, from our hotel (El Mesón del Cid) to the Plaza del Mío Cid with its iconic statue, to El Cid’s purported sword Tizona, on display in the Museo de Burgos.
    • Besides the Museo de Burgos we’ll also visit the Museo de la Evolución Humana for its relevance to the peninsula’s prehistory. (didn’t happen)
    • A day trip to the monastery at Santo Domingo de Silos, where the Glosas silenses were written, may be possible if we have time. (didn’t happen)
  • Monasterios de Yuso y Suso [I later posted about this visit here]
    • This will be a pit stop en route to Girona.
    • It is where the Glosas Emilianenses were found — the first examples of written Castilian.
  • Girona
    • Girona has some well-regarded museums, including one devoted to local Jewish history, and an archaeological museum.
  • Costa Brava
    • Our home base here will be the seaside village of L’Estartit. I predict some beach time in addition to language tourism!
    • One day trip will be to Ullastret, which has excellent pre-Roman (“Iberian”) ruins and a branch of the Catalonian Museum of Archaeology. I illustrated a lead plaque from Ullastret in my book and am looking forward to seeing it in person. [I later posted about this visit here]
    • Another day trip will be to Empúries, the site of the first Roman settlement in the Iberian Peninsula — in other words, the place where Latin came to Spain. [I later posted about this visit here]
  • Barcelona

Spanishlinguist turns 100,000!

I started this blog just over three years ago, with a post on March 16, 2013 on the accidental role of piracy in establishing Latin American dialect geography. Since then, my readership has climbed fairly steadily, from 1000+ page views per month in 2013 to 3000+ or even 4000+ today. The blog hit the landmark of 100,000 total page views a few days ago. Of course, a “page view” can mean that someone stumbled across my blog and quickly bailed…but still, it’s a nice number.

The blog’s ten most popular posts are listed below, each with its total page views. I had completely forgotten about the “surprising cognates” post (#10 on the list), and got a kick out of rereading it.

The top 5 Spanish-speaking countries More stats 11,452
Pepe and Paco — 2 mysterious Spanish nicknames More stats 7,017
Spanish vowels vs. English vowels More stats 3,861
Pity the Spanish speaker who can’t roll his r’s More stats 3,394
Spanish vs. Catalan vocabulary More stats 2,851
The lopsided mutual intelligibility of Spanish and Portuguese More stats 2,632
Spanish clothing project More stats 1,861
Speaking Spanish in New Mexico — NOT! More stats 1,780
Quixote y Quijote More stats 1,461
Some surprising Spanish-English cognates More stats 1,097

Thank you for reading my blog — and an extra-big gracias to those of you who have written to share your own thoughts and ideas. I hope to earn your continued attention in the future.

My book is now available for pre-order!

My book about Spanish linguistics, ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish, is now available for pre-order from

For more information, here is a flyer that includes an outline with a list of the 101 questions.

From the back cover:

¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish is for anyone who wants to understand how Spanish really works. Standard textbooks and grammars describe the “what” of Spanish – its vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and pronunciation – but ¿Por qué? explains the “why”.

Judy Hochberg draws on linguistic principles, Hispanic culture, and language history to answer questions such as:

  • Why are so many Spanish verbs irregular? • Why does Spanish have different ways to say “you”? • Why is h silent? • Why doesn’t Spanish use apostrophes? • Why does Castilian Spanish have the th sound?

Packed with information, guidance, and links to further research, ¿Por qué? is an accessible study guide that is suitable for Spanish students, instructors, native speakers, and the general reader. It is a valuable supplementary text for serious student of Spanish at all levels, from beginning to advanced. ¿Por qué? also covers topics usually left to specialized books, including the evolution of Spanish, how children and adults learn Spanish, and the status of languages that co-exist with Spanish, from Catalan to Spanish sign language to the indigenous languages of Latin America.

Judy Hochberg has a PhD in linguistics from Stanford University, and teaches Spanish at Fordham University, New York.

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.

Respeto vs. respecto: an exceptional pair

One of my more recent posts had to do with doublets: word pairs descended from a single root, such as Spanish limpio ‘clean’ and límpido ‘clear, limpid’, both from Latin limpidus ‘clear’. As described in that post, the older member of a doublet typically shows the wear and tear of time in its sounds and its meaning. For example, limpio, which predates límpido by around 800 years (!!!), took on a new meaning as it lost a syllable and changed its final vowel.

An interesting exception to this pattern is the Spanish word pair respeto and respecto, both from Latin respectusRespeto is older, as you can tell from the simplification of /ct/ to /t/. Respeto and respecto capture different aspects of the English word respectRespeto is a kind of admiration or consideration, as in Benito Juarez’s famous dictum Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz ‘Among individuals and among countries, peace amounts to respect for your neighbor’s rights’. Respecto is limited to abstract uses like con respecto a ‘with respect to’ and a este respecto ‘in this respect’.

Respeto/respecto differs from the typical Spanish doublet in that neither Spanish word preserves the core meaning of its Latin progenitor. According to my go-to Latin dictionaryrespectus usually meant literally  ‘looking back at’. (It was related to the Latin verb spicere ‘to look at, see’, the source of English words from conspicuous to introspection.) The word’s secondary meaning is listed as ‘refuge, regard, consideration (for)’. The meaning ‘refuge’ has been lost entirely, while ‘regard, consideration (for)’ could apply equally to either of the two Spanish words.

Even though respecto is newer than respeto, and seems more recherché, it is actually the more common of the pair, at least in written Spanish: compare their Google ngram frequencies, as shown below.


This is a common pattern. In the doublets listed in my earlier post, newer lince, forma, fabricar, delicado, and bestia have overwhelmed their older siblings onza, horma, fraguar, delgado, and bestia, though older limpio and habla still trump límpido and fábula. Ngram them yourself and have a look!

A nomination!

I just found out that this blog has been nominated for LexioPhile’s “Top 100 Language Lovers 2015” list. Now I feel terribly guilty for completely neglecting the blog over the last several months. True, I have the best of excuses — I’ve been putting all my time into my book ¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish, which Bloomsbury Press is expecting in October, but still…

By way of apology, here are a few of the interesting things I’ve learned recently while researching my book:

  • The types of auxiliary verbs used to construct the Spanish past tense — verbs of possession (He hablado ‘I have spoken’), existence (Estaba estudiando ‘was studying’), and finishing (Acabo de salir ‘I have just left’ (literally, ‘I’ve finished leaving’)) — are the same types used in many other languages. In fact, a Proto-Indo-European verb of existence is the source of the imperfect ending of modern Spanish (-aba, -abas, and so on).
  • A lot of Spanish -ir verbs used to be -ere verbs in Latin.
  • The various forms of the Latin demonstrative ille ‘that’ (e.g. ille liber ‘that book’) are the source of some of the most common function words in Spanish: the personal pronouns él, ella, ellos, and ellas ‘he/she/they’, the definite articles el, la, los, and las ‘the’, the neuter pronoun ello, and the direct and indirect object pronouns lo/la/los/las and le/les. That’s an impressive list, ¿no?
  • The b in words like tremblarhombre, and hembra is a Spanish addition. The original Latin words were tremulāre, homine, and femina. When the underlined vowels were lost, Spanish added the b to break up the resulting consonant clusters. (In hombre and hembra, the n also changed to r).
  • Pavo ‘turkey’ used to mean ‘peacock’. When Spain conquered the New World they adapted the word to the new bird they enjoyed eating. This caused confusion — was pavo a turkey or a peacock? The word real was therefore added to pavo in its ‘peacock’ sense to create the modern pavo real — literally, a ‘royal turkey’.
  • Spanish text messaging abbreviations use the same conventions as in English. Single characters replace sound-alike parts of words (salu2 for saludos), or words shrink to their first letter (b for besos) or syllable (do for domingo) or lose their vowels (dfcl for difícil). Doubled plurals (dd for días) are reminiscent of normal abbreviations like EE. UU. for Estados Unidos.

I will try to find time over the next few weeks to write here again.

Until then, un saludo.

A unique example

The virtual ink was barely  dry on my previous post, about the expressive power of Spanish adjective syntax, when I came across another great example. This one is from Puerto Rico, in Magali García Ramis’s tender-hearted memoir, Felices días Tío Sergio. (By the way, I would recommend this book to any reader looking for a fairly straightforward read. Not too heavy on vocabulary, a strong narrative line, and only 160 pages long!)

Referring to Tío Sergio, García writes: “Él decía que nosotros éramos únicos porque éramos los únicos tres con ojos verdes en la familia.” (p. 85) [He said that we were unique because we were the only three people in the family with green eyes.] In this sentence García is playing with the two position-dependent meanings of the word único. Before a noun — or, here, the number tres, which acts as a pronoun in this context — the adjective único serves as a quantifier, meaning ‘only’. After éramos (a form of the verb ser ‘to be’) the adjective takes its basic meaning of ‘unique’. This is the same meaning you would see if the adjective appeared in its basic position immediately after the noun, as in un libro único ‘a unique book’.

This is a familiar pattern, by the way. Other adjectives show their basic meaning both after a noun and after ser (or estar, another verb meaning ‘to be’). For example, alto can refer either to physical or metaphorical height. The core meaning of physical height comes through in contexts like un árbol alto ‘a tall tree’ or el árbol es alto ‘the tree is tall’, while the metaphorical meaning requires the before-the-noun position, e.g. un alto funcionario ‘a high-placed bureaucrat’. Another example is un viejo amigo ‘an old friend’ (of long standing) vs. un amigo viejo ‘an old (elderly) friend’. Only the second meaning is possible in the sentence mi amigo es viejo. Likewise, adding muy ‘very’ or other modifiers forces the core meaning: muy alto ‘very tall’ or bastante viejo ‘quite old’ can only refer to height and age.

I guess one could describe a book as being muy único ‘very unique’ also — as in English, this would be good grammar, but bad writing.