Category Archives: Uncategorized

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:

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) (

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


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.




3 December, 2013

You can now follow me on Twitter — just use the “follow” button on the right side of the blog’s front page (between the email subscription box and the RSS feed button).

Summer summary for

While I’m not much of a “beach person” — I don’t like the heat! — the last few weeks I’ve been craving a beach day. It really wouldn’t feel like summer without going at least once. So on Saturday, a girlfriend and I visited lovely, peaceful Hammonasset State Park in Madison, CT. It hit the spot.

Hammonasset Beach State Park, CT

Just before leaving for the beach I received the long-anticipated “”Welcome to the fall semester” email from the Spanish language coordinators at Fordham University (this is where I teach). All of a sudden the first day of classes (Wednesday!) feels real. I’m sure my future students are going through the same mental process. I will be teaching two sections of second-semester Spanish, and getting to know a new textbook, Gente.

These end-of-the-season events have inspired me to review the summer’s activity on I’ve published 27 posts since the beginning of June, roughly 3 a week. My main focus (9 posts) has been on verbs, which are, or course, a Big Deal in Spanish. These include:

Five posts have concerned vocabulary: Spanish slang, Spanish last names (women’s issues and patronymics)  special vocabulary for disabilities, and new Spanish vocabulary from the economic crisis.

Five other posts have concerned the process of learning. Topics included mismatches between Spanish and English vocabulary (verging into grammar), the pedagogical value of reading popular fiction (including a terrific reading list), what I forgot when I didn’t speak Spanish for a few years, and the philosophy that “language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly.”

Four posts address Spanish spelling: accent marks, phonetic spelling (or not), x vs j, and x vs. cc.

Three posts address contemporary language issues: the minority languages of Spain, the high degree of metalinguistic awareness of normal Spanish speakers, and the political [in?]correctness of the language name Spanish.

This leaves two miscellaneous posts, on voseo and the surprising history of the word yand“.

Four of the above posts were part of Spanish Friday: here, here, here, and here.

During the summer the blog has been enriched by comments from readers from around the world. I really appreciate this and encourage you to keep writing. Please feel free to suggest new topics you’d like this blog to address, or enhancements — I’ve added an RSS feed but still haven’t invested any time in Twitter or Facebook. I much prefer to “just write”, but if any bells and whistles would make a difference I will invest the time. I just added a snazzy new background (made with Wordle) and hope it renders well on your screen.

To subscribe by email, use the form on the right.

It’s been a great summer, and I’m looking forward to continuing into the new academic year.

Quixote y Quijote

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Comentando sobre mi aporte de ayer sobre las palabras escritas con xión y cción, Susan me pidió que explicara la diferencia entre xj, y específicamente el caso de Quixote versus Quijote.

Encontré la respuesta fácilmente en mi ejemplar confiable de la Ortografía de la Real Academia. Una sección corta del libro ( aborda el tema. Aquí la abrevio y parafraseo:

Hasta principios del siglo XIX, el sonido de j o g (antes de e o i) podía ser también representado con x. Así, eran normales grafías con x como embaxador, exemplo, mexilla, etc. En 1815, la Real Academia decidió eliminar el uso de la x con este valor fónico. Sin embargo, quedan algunos restos del antiguo valor de la x en ciertos topónimos y antropónimos como México, Oaxaca, Texas, el nombre de pila Ximena y los apellidos Ximénez y Mexía…En el caso de México y sus derivados, las grafías con j eran usuales hasta no hace mucho en España, donde se han impuesto también las grafías con x, que resultan preferibles por ser las usadas en el propio país y, mayoritariamente, en el resto de Hispanoamérica.

En el caso de Quijote/Quixote, la ortografía moderna oficial usa la j. La representación con la x es antigua, notablemente en la primera edición:


In a comment on yesterday’s post about words ending in xión and cción, Susan asked me to explain the difference between x and j, especially as regards the case of Quixote vs. Quijote.

My trusty copy of the Real Academia’s Ortografía provided an instant answer. A short section of the book ( addresses the topic. Here’s a rough translation/condensation:

Until the beginning of the 19th century, the sound of j or g (before e/i) could also be represented with x. So, it was normal to see spellings like embaxador, exemplo, mexilla, etc. that are written with a j today. In 1815, the Real Academia decided to eliminate this use of x…Nevertheless, some traces remain of the former use of x in certain place names like México, Oaxaca, or Texas, and people-names (“antropónimas”) like the first name Ximena and last names Ximénez or Mexía…In the case of ‘México’ and its derived forms, spellings with j were common until recently in Spain, where… the x spellings have since prevailed because they’re the ones used in their own country and, for the most part, in the rest of Latin America.

In the case of Quijote/Quixote, the “official” spelling is j. The version with x is old-fashioned, and was used notably in the first edition, pictured above.

A lovely thought about language learning

I subscribe to a lively mailing list for language teachers, FLTEACH. In a recent message, a professional translator recommended Kató Lomb’s classic book Polyglot: How I Learn LanguagesIt’s a fun read, and interesting for its emphasis on the important of reading (for pleasure or work) for language learners at all levels.

My favorite passage from the book, which motivated this post, is the following. I’ve highlighted my “most favorite” bit in red.

      We should learn languages because language is the only thing worth knowing even poorlyIf someone knows how to play the violin only a little, he will find that the painful minutes he causes are not in proportion to the possible joy he gains from his playing. The amateur chemist spares himself ridicule only as long as he doesn’t aspire for professional laurels. The man somewhat skilled in medicine will not go far, and if he tries to trade on his knowledge without certification, he will be locked up as a quack doctor.
Solely in the world of languages is the amateur of value. Well-intentioned sentences full of mistakes can still build bridges between people. Asking in broken Italian which train we are supposed to board at the Venice railway station is far from useless. Indeed, it is better to do that than to remain uncertain and silent and end up back in Budapest rather than in Milan.

Lomb’s observation that “language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly” is amazingly astute. It goes hand-in-hand with what every language teacher knows: it’s important to make mistakes while learning a language, and even more so, to not be afraid of making them. This is why I often tell my students “Me gusta el español malo”. As a language learner, I don’t mind sounding like an idiot when I attempt to communicate in German or another language that I barely know.

Depending on one’s personality it can be hard to be fearless — but one must always try!


How Latin vowels became Spanish

A good subtitle for this post would be “How to get from 10 to 5 without dividing by 2.”

Latin had ten vowels: long and short aeio, and u. The long vowels were literally “long”: they were held about twice as long as their short counterparts. Classical texts didn’t indicate vowel length, but Latin textbooks, dictionaries, and the like use a macron (as in ū or ē) for long vowels, and sometimes also a breve (as in ŭ or ĕ) for short vowels.

As discussed in an earlier post, Spanish has only five vowels: just plain a, e, i, o, and u. Wouldn’t it have been tidy if each each long and short pair in Latin had collapsed into a single Spanish vowel? In fact, the three Latin pairs ē/ĕ, ō/ŏ, and ā/ă did just this, becoming Spanish eo, and a. But Latin and u split apart, with their short members absorbed into Spanish e and o, respectively.

These changes are a lot easier to grasp in table form (click for a better view):

Latin and Spanish vowels

This table overlooks a crucial detail: in stressed syllables, Latin’s short ŏ and ĕ became the Spanish diphthongs (two-vowel sequences) ue and ie. This may sound like a mere, dry, or even boring technicality. But in fact, these diphthongs are a big part of the sound of Spanish. Appearing in tons of core vocabulary words, like puerta and fiesta (from Latin pŏrta and fĕsta), they distinguish Spanish from its Romance cousins: compare French porte and fête, and Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan porta and festa. The Latin short/long difference also explains Spanish “boot” verbs, whose root vowel diphthongizes when stressed, e.g. nIEgo vs. negAmos, or pUEdo vs. podEmos. These verbs had a short vowel in Latin: negar comes from Latin negāre, and poder from Vulgar Latin potēre. Verbs with stable vowels, like deber and poner, had a long vowel in Latin (dēbēre and pōnere).

This is why you can’t tell from an infinitive which verbs have the “boot” pattern: the crucial vowel difference has been lost. To make matters worse, over time some verbs have drifted, either taking on the boot pattern even though they had a long vowel in Latin (e.g. pensar, from pēnsāre), or becoming regular even though they had a short vowel (e.g. sorber, from sorbēre). The moral of the story: Look it up!