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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 Amazon.com.

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.

Enjoy!

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.

Capture

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.

The Other Silent Letters of Spanish

By: Daniel Nappo (email: dnappo@utm.edu)

Orthography is the bad conscience of phonological change. The sounds of a language are never stable. They change at a glacial pace, inexorably, often splitting from other sounds, merging, or disappearing entirely. Because of this change, the rules for fixing the language to the written page invariably lag behind. Every student of Spanish knows that the letter «h» does not represent any sound at all (búho [búo]; hacer [aθér]; etc.); la hache is understood to be a letra muda (silent letter).

What many students of Spanish may not know is that there are other letras mudas in our language, although the vast majority of them are currently in the process of being eliminated orthographically by the Real Academia Española (RAE). A few of them, though, persist. These other silent letters are «c», «p», «m», and «g», when they are in the word-initial sequences «cn», «pt», «pn»,«ps», «mn», and «gn». We see examples of these silent letters in the following words of Greek or Latin origin: cnidario [niđárjo]; pterodáctilo [terođáktilo]; pneuma [néṷma]; psicología [sikoloxía]; mnemónica [nemónika]; gnosticismo [nostiθísmo]. Each of these words, and others similar to them, are entries in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (DRAE) (http://www.rae.es/recursos/diccionarios/drae).

But phonological criteria usually trump the etymological. In Spanish, it is natural that the articulation of two consonants at the beginning of a word (or syllable) feature either «r» or «l» as the second letter; anything else—for example, the words listed above—became part of the Spanish lexicon because it is a learned or semi-learned loan word from another language, usually Greek or Latin. Spanish words that begin with “psi” are called “Hellenisms” because they derive from Greek («psi» being a letter of that language). In normal contemporary usage, however, it is acceptable to write sicología instead of psicología, or sicólogo instead of psicólogo. Other examples of Greek loan words that have abandoned the initial «p» are sicosis, siquiatra, seudo, and soriasis. The words salmo and salterio are also written without the initial «p» although they were originally Latin words (psalmus; psalterius). The illness “pneumonia” has lost its initial «p» and should be written in Spanish as neumonía. How should one write “mnemonic device” in Spanish? According to the DRAE, it may be written nemotecnia or mnemotecnia.

On the other hand, he word pterodáctilo (a flying dinosaur) continues to be written with the silent initial «p» because of the semi-learned status of the word and its continued use in the specialized vocabulary of biologists and paleontologists. Like pterodáctilo, the Hellenism cnidario is still written with the initial silent «c» because of its specialized, zoological meaning (referring to a phylum of sea creatures). Gnosticismo and pneuma may be written with or without their initial consonantes mudas because of their semi-learned status and specialized meanings in philosophy. It is interesting to note, however, that pneuma refers to a philosophical concept and the variant neuma to the system of musical notation that existed before the modern system. This is one case where the absence of the initial consonant affects meaning, making the variants homonyms.

So, as one can see, there are other silent letters in Spanish apart from la hache. However, all of these examples are from learned or semi-learned words, largely restricted to scientific or similarly technical fields. When one of these terms manages to become diffused into general, spoken Spanish, the variant without the initial silent consonant becomes the standard (e.g., sicología, neumático, neumonía, seudónimo…), thus illustrating popular phonological change through amended entries of the latest DRAE.

(The contributor is an Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Tennessee at Martin.)

Malayalam is a palindrome

To be honest, this post only tangentially concerns Spanish, by virtue of references to the Indo-European family, and to the delightful word blablablá. And it’s more about language than linguistics. It’s my way of kicking back and celebrating the end of my teaching semester — already!

Although I’m the linguist of the family, my husband has his own way with words. He’s always playing with them in his head, turning them around, looking for palindromes and anagrams. Perhaps this compulsive mental rearrangement comes from years of playing competitive chess as a teenager? His favorite palindrome is wonton ↔ not now, which suggests the following madcap dialogue:

Person A: How do you say wonton backwards?
Person B: Not now!
Person A: No, I really want to know!
Person B: Not now!
and so on…

His skill most impressed me on the day, perhaps ten years ago, that a young driver rear-ended my car on a busy street in the nearby city of New Rochelle. The driver and I chatted while waiting for the police to come, and I learned that his parents were from Kerala in southern India. This meant that he spoke Malayalam at home. While I don’t remember our conversation too well, I’m pretty sure that, compulsively didactic as always, I explained to him that his family’s language, like other languages of southern India such as Tamil and Kannada, was part of the Dravidian language family. These survived when the original languages of northern India were overwhelmed by the Indo-European invasion that swept the subcontinent from the northwest thousands of years BCE. The effects of this invasion can be seen in Indian genetics as well as linguistics.

When I came home that day and announced that “I was rear-ended by a Malayalam teenager in New Rochelle”, my husband asked, without blinking an eye, if I knew that the word Malayalam is a palindrome. This is true, though only with Roman alphabet spelling. The original spelling in the Malayalam script is the asymmetrical

Malayalam

Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching two Fordham students from Malayalam-speaking families. Both were wonderful students, not only bright but gregarious, hard-working, and upbeat. When I met each of them, I of course went into my usual spiel about Indo-European versus Dravidian languages in India (blablablá, an actual, RAE-sanctioned Spanish word!, is perhaps the best way to describe this), combined with my husband’s. Both already knew that Malayalam was Dravidian, but neither had realized that their language name was a palindrome.

So, dear readers, now you know how to amaze any Malayalam-speaking acquaintance. You can tell them both the bad news — that their language is unrelated to Spanish since it’s Dravidian, not Indo-European — and the good — that its name is one for the books.

 

 

jhochberg

3 December, 2013

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