Category Archives: Uncategorized

New words for old

I enjoyed this article, in the magazine Perfil, about words that have recently been admitted to the Real Academia Española’s official dictionary. The RAE had previously prohibited them because they were “incorrect” in some sense: vulgar, archaic, or borrowings that encroached on existing Spanish vocabulary.

What most interests me about these words is their linguistic variety.

  • My favorite word on the list, vagamundo ‘vagabond,’ is a modification of standard Spanish vagabundo, which descends from Latin vagabundus ‘strolling about.’ It is a perfect example of ‘folk etymology,’ a process by which speakers reshape a word to reflect a plausible (though incorrect) theory of its origin. A classic example in English is female, a reshaping of Middle English femelle that implies a (fictional) relationship to the word male. The reformulated vagamundo implies that the word combined vagar ‘to roam’ and mundo ‘world’; i.e., someone who roams the world. This reformulation is so tempting that it appeared in written Spanish as early as the fifteenth century, not long after vagabundo itself (1387). In addition, the ‘vulgar’ verb vagamundear ‘to roam (as a vagabond)’ preceded its proper sibling, vagabundear, by more than a century.
  • Another personal favorite, murciégalo ‘bat’, appears to be a metathesis (transposition) of standard Spanish murciélago — but in fact, the metathesis went the other way around! Murciégalo is the original form of the word, a compounding of the (now archaic) mur ‘rat’ and ciego ‘blind.’ It has mostly been supplanted by the modern murciélago, but the RAE considers it common enough to have earned a spot in the dictionary. In either form, this is my go-to example of a palabra panvocálica, i.e. a word that contains all five Spanish vowels.
  • Speaking of metathesis, crocodilo is a transposed version of the standard Spanish cocodrilo, perhaps under the influence of English crocodile. What makes this example interesting is that the original Latin word, based on Greek, was crocodilus. So the word underwent a first metathesis in the transition to Spanish, which is now reversed in the word’s alternative version.
  • Güisqui ‘whisky’ and cederrón ‘CD-ROM’ are borrowings from English. I love their Spanish spellings.
  • Bacón ‘bacon’ is a more problematic (though now accepted) borrowing because Spanish already has a perfectly good word for ‘bacon’: the venerable tocino, first attested in 1061.
  • Asín ‘so,’ from así, and toballa ‘towel’, from toalla, both exemplify epenthesis, or the insertion of a sound. The RAE speculates that the -n added to así is related to the -n “in other particles”: meaning, I assume, en ‘in/on’ and con ‘with.’ Perhaps the added b in toballa was inspired by the word tobillo ‘ankle.’
  • Almóndiga is a common variation of albóndiga ‘meatball,’ a popular Spanish tapa. Like many other Spanish words that begin with -alalbóndiga is a word of Arabic origin. Perhaps the b changed to an m under the influence of other common almo– words such as almohada ‘pillow’, almoneda ‘auction’, and almorzar ‘to eat lunch’ (not an Arabic word).

 

 

Fruit, trees, and gender

Having recuperated from three weeks’ intensive travel in Spain, and a long weekend with the grandbabes, I’m back to working full time on my new book. It’s coming along nicely, albeit slowly.

As part of a book section on gender I had a close look at the question of the gender of words for fruit and trees. Many readers are undoubtedly aware of the frequent gender pattern of “feminine fruit, masculine tree” exemplified by manzana ‘apple’ and manzano ‘apple tree’. I did a somewhat exhaustive survey of fruit and tree vocabulary to see how regular this pattern is. Linguee was my best friend in this quest.

It turns out that for feminine fruit names, the pattern holds strong. As you can see in the table below, most feminine fruits do have a corresponding masculine tree name, though a few have less frequent alternatives as well (shown in italics). The one major exception is morera ‘mulberry’, whose tree is the same word, morera. Spanish obviously needs a morero tree.

Feminine fruit Masculine tree -ero árbol de ____ same word
naranja ‘orange’ naranjo
oliva/aceituna ‘olive’ olivo/aceituno
lúcuma lúcumo
frambuesa frambueso
banana banano platanero
manzana ‘apple’ manzano árbol de manzanas
cereza ‘cherry’ cerezo
pera ‘pear’ peral
ciruela ‘plum’ ciruelo
morera ‘mulberry’ morera

Not all fruits are feminine, however, and the treatment of masculine fruits is much more varied. The tree of the higo is actually the feminine higuera, thus a major counterexample to the regular pattern shown above. Other fruits rely on the -ero suffix for their tree name, a sometimes ungainly solution (albaricoquero, anyone?). Some fruits have no dedicated tree name, and rely on the periphrastic árbol de construction (also listed as a backup for higueramelocotonero, and albaricoquero). The treatment of aguacate ‘avocado’ varies depending on where you look. According to WordReference and the Real Academia aguacate, like morera, does double duty as a tree and a fruit, with the “tree” meaning primary. WordReference also lists aguacatero as an alternative for ‘avocado tree’, but the Real Academia defines it merely as ‘pertaining to the avocado’ — nothing arboreal there. In the meantime, Linguee defines aguacate as a fruit, not a tree, and gives aguacatero as its only translation for ‘avocado tree.’

Masculine fruit Feminine tree -ero árbol de same word
higo higuera árbol de higo
melocotón, durazno melocotonero árbol de durazno
albaricoque albaricoquero árbol de albaricoque
aguacate aguacatero   aguacate
membrillo árbol de membrillo
mango árbol de mango

If I were the goddess of Spanish I would clean up this situation by changing the gender of some of the masculine fruits so they could have nice masculine tree names. Perhaps the next generation of Spanish speakers will get this job done.

Words that Spanish doesn’t have

¡Feliz Año Nuevo!

This past semester, while teaching, and spending time with my new granddaughter (see below), I’ve been making incremental progress on my second book. As you might be able to tell from the description on that page, this project involves less research than ¿Por qué?, though more creativity. Nevertheless, right now I’m in the middle of a substantial research arc for the new book. It involves etymology (word origins), and is particularly satisfying because it redoes, in a more principled fashion, an analysis I did for Question #38 of ¿Por qué?: “Where does Spanish vocabulary come from?”

For that analysis, I looked up the etymologies of 500 Spanish words randomly chosen from a standard Spanish etymological dictionary. I found that roughly one-third of them were “native”, i.e. they descended from Vulgar Latin, one-third were later borrowings from Latin, and one-third were borrowed from other languages. But I wondered whether the dictionary’s selection of words might have biased my results toward borrowings.

Since then, I’ve learned about the World Loanword Database (WOLD) project, in which linguists researched the origins of roughly 1500 words, corresponding to an agreed-upon set of core meanings, in 41 different languages from around the world. Martin Haspelmath, one of the co-editors of the WOLD project (with Uri Tadmor), also co-edited the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS), which I found invaluable while writing ¿Por qué? That makes him one of my favorite linguists.

The data for each of these languages are available on the WOLD website, and the results were published in a very expensive book. (Maybe if such books were cheaper, more people would buy them. Ahem.) The #1 borrower was Selice Romani (a variety of Romani), with 73% loanwords, and the #41 borrower was Mandarin Chinese, at 1.2%.

Because WOLD aimed for broad coverage of the world’s languages, it included only one Romance language: Romanian. I decided to apply the WOLD methodology to Spanish myself so that I could compare Spanish to other languages in terms of its borrowing patterns. The 1500 WOLD meanings are divided into different semantic categories, such as clothing and cognition, so I’ll be able to make this comparison within each of these categories as well as overall.

Honestly, you have to be a total nerd to perform this kind of analysis voluntarily, and a little crazy to do it twice. The 500-word analysis took roughly forever, and tripling this volume is, of course, taking even longer, especially since this time around I’ve had to choose the best Spanish word (or words) to fit each WOLD meaning, whereas in my first analysis, the 500 Spanish words were already in Spanish! I’m hoping that my results will be interesting enough to write up as a journal article, perhaps for Hispania.

I don’t have final results yet: right now, I’m double-checking the etymologies. However, the borrowing rate appears to be much lower than in my first analysis: roughly, 1/3 borrowings versus 2/3. This puts Spanish safely in WOLD’s category of “high borrowers,” roughly on a par with Japanese (35%) though lower than English (41%) and Romanian (42%).

In advance of definitive results, the point of this blog post is to share with you some of the interesting aspects of Spanish vocabulary — or, precisely, non-vocabulary, or meanings NOT expressed in Spanish — that I’ve come across while selecting the Spanish words for the WOLD meanings.

Some of these missing meanings, as you might expect in a project that deliberately spans the globe, are culturally specific. For example, kinship terms in some languages are more sex-specific than in Spanish (or English). Your tío ‘uncle’ is a tío whether he’s your father’s brother or your mother’s, but some languages have separate terms for these relationships. Similarly, your yerno ‘son-in-law’ is a yerno whether you are a man or a woman, but some languages encode this difference. Looking beyond kinship terms, WOLD meanings include such culturally-specific words as ‘manioc bread’, ‘grass skirt’, ‘men’s house’, ‘digging stick’, ‘net bag’, ‘fish poison’, and ‘fish trap.’ Of course one can figure out ways to convey such meanings in Spanish, but it would be stretching things to call them standard Spanish phrasal expressions on a par with, say, oso hormiguero ‘anteater’ or dejar caer ‘to drop.’

Three other categories of ‘missing meanings’ are of particular interest to me.

  • A few WOLD meanings express grammatical categories that Spanish lacks: a neuter pronoun meaning heshe, or it, separate versions of we that distinguish ‘you and I’ from ‘they and I,’ and distinct negatives that appear before nouns versus elsewhere, like English no versus not.
  • Some WOLD meanings seem to be randomly missing in Spanish. Maybe it’s because I’m not a native speaker, or my dictionary skills aren’t as good as I thought they were, but I don’t think there’s a standard way to express “the forked branch” (WOLD meaning 8.74), or “for a long time” (WOLD 14.332) in Spanish. You can certainly say ir a casa, but do those three words add up to a “standard phrasal expression”, as discussed above, for ‘to go or return home’ (WOLD 10.58)? (Note that volver a casa and regresar a casa are equally plausible.) Likewise, Spanish has a standard idiomatic phrase to express carrying something on your back (WOLD 10.613), (llevar a cuestas), but not carrying ‘in hand’ (WOLD 10.612), ‘on head’ (WOLD 10.614), or ‘under the arm’ (10.615). And why does Spanish, like English, lack a general term for a ‘child-in-law’ (WOLD 2.6411), forcing the awkward expression yerno o nuera (‘son- or daughter-in-law’)?
  • Finally, Spanish collapses many lexical distinctions found in other languages, as implied by their inclusion in the list of WOLD meanings. I was already aware of many of these, such as ‘in’ and ‘on’ (both en), ‘do’ and ‘make’ (hacer), ‘say’ and ‘tell’ (decir), and ‘afternoon’ and ‘evening’ (tarde). As I worked through the WOLD list I became aware of many others, including ‘cut’ and ‘chop’ (cortar), ‘fault’ and ‘blame’ (culpa), ‘bend’ and ‘fold’ (doblar), ‘paddle’ and ‘oar’ (remo), ‘spade’ and ‘shovel’ (pala). ‘livestock’ and ‘cattle’ (ganado), and ‘mud’ and ‘clay’ (barro). Other such collapsed distinctions are shared by English, such as needle/aguja for both sewing and pine needles, day/día for ‘not night’ and ’24 hours’, believe/creer for ‘trust’ and ‘opine’, and weave/tejer for both fabric and baskets (or hair).

I look forward to sharing the results of my analysis when I’m done. In the meantime, I hope you find the above of interest.

Just saw this kind review from last year

Tim Guilford, an educational consultant in the UK, published this kind review of ¿Por qué? in a UK teaching blog. It came out last year but I just saw it.

The text is below:

¿Por qué? – 101 Questions about Spanish is a great read. Working around 101 questions and the answers to them, this punchy format really adds to the book’s appeal.

The range of questions is varied and each section is a nice length for a read on a daily commute or to dip into for a few minutes during a break or before bed.

After every little foray into Judy Hochberg’s book, I came away having learnt something new about the language that I have loved and taught for most of my career. (Slightly embarrassingly too, but in the spirit of honesty, I have to admit that each read also gave me a slightly smug feeling of potential academic one-upmanship, should such questions ever crop up in conversation!)

Judy Hochberg’s explanations are clear and you sense her enthusiasm for her subject. And, yes, these are just the sort of questions students of Spanish ask, every day. Here is an appetiser:

Question: ‘Why do Spaniards use the ‘th’ sound?’

Answer: In a nutshell, in the fifteenth century two consonants ‘ts’ and ‘dz’ kind of got married and the off-spring was ‘th’.

There you are, you see, wasn’t that interesting? Well, I thought so.

My personal favourite is how ‘hay’ can mean both ‘there is’ and ‘there are’? (Surely all Spanish verbs need to be singular or plural?) It turns out this all had its roots in a kind of early, medieval, linguistic existentialism, as the poor old Romans lost all ability to speak Latin properly, “innit tho”. Whilst this must have been a tough time for the purists, I’m glad it happened, because Spanish was thus born and books like this could be written.

Highly recommended!

Tildes in logos

Lately I’ve been on a mini-quest for tildes in logos. By “tilde”, I mean the curvy mini-N that forms the top part of the distinctive Spanish letter ñ. (Just to be confusing, in Spanish itself, tilde also refers to diacritical marks in general, including those seen in words like café.)

Here are some of my findings, in no particular order:

A weekly Spanish publication distributed with the Friday edition of the newspaper “El Mundo”. Available online at elcultural.com.

 

A Spanish blog having to do with the language of sports.

The international organization devoted to Spanish education and culture.

A subreddit for educational talk about Spanish-language matters.

This bizarre use of the tilde gets the message across for this Spanish hotel chain.

Even more bizarre is the s+tilde in this logo for Cantabria-based Link Seafood Sources.

I think “CNN en español” hit it out of the park with this one.

I see a tilde here in the curves on the left-hand side of the logo. Do you?

 

 

Spanish language Nobel Prizes in literature

Every Spanish speaker can be rightly proud that “our” language is so international. It is an official language in twenty-one countries in North, Central, and South America, Europe, and Africa. The Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española provides oversight and stability while respecting dialectal differences.

Another measure of the success of Spanish as an international language is the fact that Spanish speakers from four continents — Europe and the three Americas — have won Nobel Prizes in Literature. The chart below summarizes this achievement. The commendations are from the “Official Website of the Nobel Prize”.

Spanish words of mystery

Spanish is surely one of the best-understood languages in the world from a linguistic perspective. Linguists have access to written Spanish texts beginning with the early 13th century Poema del mío Cid. Moreover, Spanish descends from another known language, Latin. Most of the other languages that have influenced Spanish, such as Arabic, French, and English, are themselves well understood as well.

Therefore it is surprising, and somehow refreshing, that the origins of some Spanish words remain obscure. Here are some examples, in alphabetical order. The etymological information is from Joan Corominas’s priceless Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana, which is never far from my desk.

This list is by no means exhaustive; I’ve picked words that are relatively common. My favorites are baratobrisa, burlasien, and tomar simply because they are so very common.

Word Notes
añicos ‘pieces‘ Corominas suggests a possible pre-Roman origin.
ascua ‘embers‘ I had to include this word because of my earlier post on the saying Cada cual arrima el ascua a su sardina.
bache ‘pothole‘ Of possible Basque origin. Reinforcing Corominas’s doubts is R.L. Trask’s authoritative The History of Basque, which disputes Basque origins for all Spanish words except for izquierda.
barajar ‘shuffle (cards)‘ The word’s original meaning was ‘fight’; in this sense it is shared by other Romance languages, e.g. Catalan barallar.
barato ‘cheap‘ Perhaps pre-Roman, cognate with proto-Celtic *mratos ‘trick’.
batea ‘tray, trough‘ Possibly from Arabic bâtiya.
brisa ‘breeze‘ Shared by all Western Romance languages.
burla ‘taunt, joke, trick‘ Shared by Catalan and Portuguese.
cuchitril ‘hovel, shack, hole-in-the-wall‘ Possibly from Vulgar Latin *cohortile ‘corral’, with influence from cochinera ‘swill’.
curtir ‘‘to harden, tan (skin)’‘ Shared by Portuguese. Corominas suggests a possible origin in corto ‘short’, since hides and fruits shrink as they are tanned’, or the Vulgar Latin *corretrire, meaning ‘wear away by rubbing’.
cuy ‘guinea pig‘ A character in Michael Moore’s “shockumentary” Roger & Me notoriously asked “Pets or meat?” when selling rabbits. The cuy is both: a pet in the United States, and a tasty meal in South America. In either case, its etymology is unknown. Corominas suggests two possibilities: either onomatopoeia from the animal’s squeal, or, less likely, the Basque word kui ‘rabbit’. The Real Academia Española disagrees, stating that the word is of Quechua origin.
gacha, gachas ‘‘mush, porridge, oatmeal’‘ Corominas suggests that this word, while of “origen incierto”, may come from the word cacho ‘bit, piece’, since mush can be made from bread crumbs.
gamberro ‘joker, vandal, rake‘ Perhaps from Valenciano gran verro ‘big pig’.
gancho ‘hook‘ Probably pre-Roman. This word has spread to Arabic, Turkish, and various Balkan languages as well as Catalan and Italian.
garbanzo ‘chickpea‘ Probably pre-Roman and Indo-European.
mendrugo ‘crust‘ Its secondary meaning of ‘idiot’ suggests a possible relationship with mandría ‘worthless individual’, of Italian origin.
sien ‘temple (side of forehead)‘ Perhaps of Germanic origin.
tomar ‘to take‘ It blows me away that this super-common verb, shared by Portuguese, is of “origen incierto”. Who knew?

A later post includes the mystery word rebaño ‘flock’.

 

 

Hubiera, pudiera, tuviera

Can one be obsessed with a verb tense?

My particular flame is the imperfect subjunctive. I’ve already written eleven blog posts that at least mention it, mostly because of its grammatical interest.

But the imperfect subjunctive can also be poetic. I practically started jumping up and down when I read the following passage, full of regrets, toward the end of Sofía Segovia’s Huracán. I’ve colored the imperfect subjunctives in red.

Si no le hubiera disparado, si no lo hubiera conocido, si sólo lo hubiera herido, si no hubiera cargado la 30-30, si pudiera seguir con mis amigos. Si hubiera, si pudiera, si tuviera, si hubiera. Si hubiera.

‘If I hadn’t shot him, if I hadn’t met him, if I had only wounded him, if I hadn’t loaded the 30-30, if I could continue with my friends. If I had, if I could, If I kept, if I had. If I had.

Isn’t that a beautiful bit of Spanish? Doesn’t it crush the English version? Doesn’t it sing?

This is definitely one to clip out and keep to impress your friends.


By the way, the beginning of this paragraph is clearly in the third person singular, as seen by the verb forms pudonegó, and reclamó (see screen clip below). So another great aspect of the writing here is the jarring transition from the external description of what the character is doing, to the interior view of his thoughts. We don’t realize this has happened until we get through the first series of imperfect subjunctives (since hubiera and pudiera can be either first or third person) and hit mis amigos in the next-to-last line. Very interesting choice by the author, ¿no?

Kean Mutiny

This post has to do with linguistics, not Spanish, but please do give it a try.

Thursday night I took a Greyhound bus from New York City to Atlantic City in order to lead a workshop at the annual NJEA Convention (gotta blog about that, too!). As we barreled down the Garden State Parkway I spotted a billboard for Kean University, a public university in Union Country, New Jersey. Formerly known as Newark State College, the university was renamed in 1973 in honor the illustrious Kean family, whose members have included New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, Sr., the chair of the 9/11 Commission.

The Kean family name is pronounced ‘Caine’, a fact that has apparently faded from common knowledge since Governor Kean’s time. The University has therefore embarked on a $313,000 advertising campaign to bring attention both to the university and its correct pronunciation. The billboard I saw was part of this campaign, and it was a linguistic abomination:

The // slashes indicate a phonetic transcription (spelling), but as any Linguistics 101 student could tell you, the phonetic transcription of Kean (or Cainecain, or cane) is /ken/. The transcription /cane/ represents a two-syllable word that has the vowels of latteblase, or sashay but cannot be pronounced in English, since the phonetic symbol /c/ represents a sound not found in our language. Called a “voiceless palatal stop”, it is somewhere between a /t/ and a /k/.

Kean was a major sponsor of the convention and had a large booth in its exhibit hall. Never one to pull a punch, I stopped by to complain about the billboard, and was told that the advertising campaign was meant to be humorous. Call me a goody-goody, but I don’t think that phonetic transcription is funny. To me it is an utterly serious tool for research in an important discipline.

So — grrr.

Despacito redux

“The Jackal”, the Italian comedy team that posted the video of the three comedians dissing Despacito in a car — yet unable to resist singing along with it — has now put out a sequel. It features a cameo with Luis Fonsi himself. It is, again, very funny. But make sure to watch the earlier video first; I linked to it in this post.