Category Archives: Vocabulary

The top 10 surprising ways that Spanish isn’t special

¡Próspero Año Nuevo!

My previous post presented the Top 10 reasons why Spanish is special. This post presents its opposite: the Top 10 reasons why Spanish isn’t special. Like the previous Top 10 list, it includes examples from Spanish grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation.

This Top 10 list was constructed with native speakers of English in mind. It describes core aspects of Spanish that may seem peculiar, but turn out to be normal when considered in a broader linguistic context. Some of these are truly surprising! The inscrutable ‘personal a, for example, turns out to be a prime example of a linguistic phenomenon known as Differential Object Marking, while the use of positive expressions like en absoluto (‘absolutely’) with a negative meaning (‘absolutely not’), illustrates a well-known historical process called Jespersen’s Cycle.

To me, the two lists are equally interesting. I love both the special features of Spanish and its reflection of broader cross-linguistic tendencies. I hope you do, too.


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.

Does “andurriales” have an English equivalent?

In my current research I’m revisiting the topic of pluralia tantum: words that are normally used in their plural form, even when no plural meaning is intended. Two good examples in Spanish are vacaciones ‘vacation’ and tardes in Buenas tardes ‘Good afternoon’.  In particular, I’ve been plowing through the list of pluralia tantum in the Real Academia’s Nueva Gramática de la lengua española (a lot of scholarly bang for your buck at $14.75). There I came across andurriales, which means parajes extraviados o fuera de camino ‘isolated or out-of-the-way places’.

I love the fact that there is, I think, no exact equivalent for this word in English. (Let me know if you think of one!) Andurriales doesn’t have boondocks’s negative connotation. In fact, this thoughtful exploration of the word on a Spanish vocabulary blog, La llave del mundo “The key to the world”, expands the definition poetiically as follows: esos paseos fuera de las rutas señaladas, que sugieren un paraje remoto, poco transitado, apartado, ignoto y cautivador… ‘those unmarked routes that suggest a remote, unknown, rarely visited, and captivating place.’

To my delight, the Llave bloggers illustrated the word with a passage from El séptimo velo, Juan Manuel de Prada’s prize-winning novel, which I wrote about a few times more than a year ago (most recently here). El séptimo velo is, as I described then, packed to the gills with recondite vocabulary, so it’s appropriate that andurriales should show up in it. The specific passage cited is from the dramatic description of the heroine’s family’s escape, over the Pyrenees, from Civil War-torn Spain: Sacando fuerzas de flaqueza, Estrada se internó por andurriales sólo frecuentados por las cabras, porteando a una Catalina exánime “Tapping his last reserves of strength, Estrada sought out andurriales barely used even by goats, carrying the exhausted Catalina.”

Every pair of languages undoubtedly has bountiful examples of such untranslatable vocabulary. Here’s a pretty good list for Spanish versus English. I take issue, though, with pena ajena ‘shame on someone else’s behalf’ (since it’s a phrase, not a word) and estrenar, since English has debut, and I wish they’d included anoche ‘last night’ along with anteayer ‘the day before yesterday’ (it was interesting, though, to learn the variant antier). The word tuerto ‘one-eyed’ is part of a larger set of words for disabilities that I discussed here.

My favorite example of an English word that doesn’t translate directly into Spanish is borrow, whose awkward Spanish equivalent is the phrasal pedir prestado ‘to ask for as a loan’. It’s remarkable that Spanish lacks a word for this everyday action.

Here is a longer list of words from a variety of languages that don’t translate well into English — but perhaps should.

A RAE map for Spanish dialects

I just stumbled across a fun feature on the Real Academia’s website: an interactive map that lets you find country-specific dictionary entries:

As an example, if you mouse-hover over Cuba, you will see that the country has 1892 acepciones, or lexical entries, in the dictionary. Clicking on the country brings you to a list of these entries. Some words on the list are used only in Cuba, such as abakuá, meaning a member of a men-only secret society. Others are general Spanish words with uses specific to Cuba. For example, in Cuba abanico ‘fan’ can refer to a wooden device that signals to a train conductor the correct branch of a track fork to take.

To my disappointment there are no acepciones for the United States, even though we have our own branch of the Academia, and more Spanish speakers than Spain. In contrast, the Philippines have 88 entries even though Spanish is no longer spoken there. Not fair!


¿Qué tal?

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

La pregunta informal ¿Qué tal? significa ¿Cómo estás? Una lectora me escribió con una pregunta interesante sobre ella:

Me llamo Jenny y soy maestra de español.  Unos estudiantes me preguntaron de dónde viene la frase «¿Qué tal?»  Sé que es la forma corta de «¿Qué tal estás?» y que “tal” tiene muchos usos en el idioma pero, ¿Qué significa literalmente «qué tal»?  ¿De dónde viene la frase?  
¿Sabe usted algo de los orígenes de la frase?

Para investigar, primero consulté el diccionario de la Real Academia Española. Esto explica que, en general, qué tal es un sinónimo de cómo. Por ejemplo, ¿Qué tal resultó el estreno? significa ¿Cómo fue el estreno? También confirma que la expresión específica ¿Qué tal? es una versión corta de ¿Qué tál estás?, que significa ¿Cómo estás?

En cuanto a la historia de la expresión, qué viene de quid en latín y tal viene de talis. Mi diccionario latino no incluye la expresión quid talis pero Google Translate (que en general no consulto ni de lejos, pero que fue útil en este caso) la traduce como ‘qué tipo de’. Como sabemos, estar se usa para describir las condiciones; es cognado de la palabra inglesa ‘state’. En ese caso, ¿Qué tal estás? expresa ‘En qué tipo de condición estás?

Otra manera de interpretar la situación es la siguiente.Tal es vago a propósito. Unos ejemplos de esto en Collins son tal cosa ‘anything of the sort’, a tal hora ‘at such-and-such time’, fuimos al cine y tal ‘we went to the movies and stuff’. Por otro lado, qué pide la especificidad. Por lo tanto, la combinación qué tal espera extraer lo específico de lo vago: de todas las condiciónes posibles, ¿en cuál te encuentras?

Me alegraría recibir otras interpretaciones.

The casual question ¿Qué tal? means “How are you?” or “What’s up?” A reader wrote me with an interesting question about it:
My name is Jenny and I’m a Spanish teacher. Some of my students asked me where the expression ¿Qué tal? comes from. I know that it’s short for Qué tal estás? and that tal has a lot of uses in the language, but what is the literal meaning of qué tal? Where does the expression come from?

To research this question, I first consulted the Real Academia Española’s dictionary. The RAE interprets qué tal in general as a synonym of ¿Cómo? ‘How?’. For example, ¿Qué tal resultó el estreno? translates as “How was the premiere?” The RAE also confirmed that ¿Qué tal? is indeed short for ¿Qué tál estás?. This is why it’s the equivalent of ¿Cómo estás? ‘How are you?’

As for the history of the expression, qué comes from Latin quid and tal from talis. My Latin dictionary doesn’t include the expression quid talis, but Google Translate (which in general I won’t touch with a ten-foot pole) translates it as ‘what type of’. As you may know, estar is used to describe conditions (it’s a cognate of English state). Putting the pieces together, ¿Qué tal estás? means ‘In what type of condition are you?’ or, more smoothly, ‘What sort of condition are you in?’

Another way to look at ¿Qué tal? is the following. Tal, which translates as ‘such’, is deliberately vague; some helpful examples from Collins are tal cosa ‘anything of the sort’, a tal hora ‘at such-and-such time’, and fuimos al cine y tal ‘we went to the movies and stuff’. On the other hand, qué demands specificity: ¿Qué libro? ‘which book’ and the like. Therefore, the combination qué tal serves to extract the specific from the vague: out of all possible conditions, in which do you find yourself?

I welcome other interpretations.

The most frequent Spanish verbs are irregular

It may seem perverse that the first verbs presented in most Spanish textbooks, typically ser and tener, are irregular. In fact, ser is undoubtedly the most irregular verb in the language. Why not start with nice, friendly regular verbs like hablarcomer, and vivir, and deal with the irregulars later?

The answer, of course, is that the most frequent, can’t-live-without-’em Spanish verbs are irregular. This is not a coincidence. Over time, the natural tendency in language evolution is to reduce irregularity by imposing a language’s normal patterns on previously exceptional forms, a process called analogy. That’s how English ended up with regular past tenses like helped in place of the Middle English form holp. Only the most frequently used words are able to resist analogy and maintain their irregularity.

(Analogy can also go in the opposite direction, causing previously tame verbs to ‘go rogue’, but we’ll sidestep this inconvenient fact for simplicity’s sake.)

Actual verb frequency data are impressive. The table below shows the regular and irregular verbs among the 100 most frequent Spanish words, as cataloged in Mark Davies’s A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish: Core Vocabulary for Learners. The dozen most frequent verbs are all irregular. The most frequent regular verb (llegar ‘to arrive’) appears more than halfway down the list, and irregulars remain common throughout.

Reg irreg verbs in top 100

I’ve counted llegar and creer as regular verbs, by the way, because their spelling complications (like the u in llegué and the y in creyó) are completely predictable given the rules of Spanish pronunciation and spelling.

Because Spanish splits ‘to be’ into ser and estar, and ‘to have’ into haber and tener, the English versions of these verbs are of higher frequency. According to Mark Davies and Dee Gardner’s A Frequency Dictionary of Contemporary American English: Word Sketches, Collocates and Thematic Lists, ‘to be’ is #2 in English, and ‘to have’ #8. Another comparative goodie concerns subject pronouns. As you might expect, since Spanish usually relies on conjugation alone to say who did something, its subject pronouns are further down the frequency list than are those of English. See the comparison below.

subject pronoun frequency span eng


Overall, it’s surprising how much information one can glean from these lists. Muchas gracias, Prof. Davies.

Another day, another Spanish idiom

Yesterday I came across an interesting article on El País about the founding of the Real Academia Española, one of my favorite institutions. The article relates, with a lamentable lack of detail, how a group of eight Spaniards began meeting in 1713 to create the first Spanish dictionary. Three other colleagues soon joined the project, it received royal sanction the following year, and the rest is (linguistic) history. Missing from the article are the founders’ identities (besides the Marqués de Villena) and backgrounds (more nobility? writers? scholars?). Still, it’s an inspiring tale.

As usual, I read the article with an eye out for unfamiliar vocabulary. All I encountered was a novel (to me) expression: the author compares the RAE’s founding to cuatro gatos [que] se lanzaban al abismo (“four cats who jumped into an abyss”). Lanzarse al abismo was clearly a metaphor for starting a venture into the unknown. Cuatro gatos, on the other hand, seemed purely idiomatic.

Thanks to an appeal to the friendly folks on the Spanish-English vocabulary forum, and a Google search that yielded similar results, I learned that cuatro colloquially refers to a small quantity (in English we’d say “a handful”) and gato can be slang for “person”. ( itself gives a slang interpretation of gato as “person from Madrid”, but the usage seems to be more general.) So the mystery sentence boiled down to “a small group of people started an uncertain venture”.

I love the parallel between this use of gato and the English slang meaning of cat as “a cool person”. The choice of cuatro to stand for “a handful” is also pleasing. As a rule of thumb, I think of three as “a few” and five as “several”; four is right in between. From a literary perspective it was also rather bold to mix literal numbers (8 and 11 founding members) with the metaphorical number 4.

Still, it’s hard to shake off the image of a cat playing a lemming…



A final post on El séptimo velo

After a hiatus of several weeks, I recently took advantage of a cross-Atlantic flight to finally finish Juan Manuel de Prada’s novel El séptimo velo. It has been a tough but exciting slog. I’d recommend the book to an ambitious non-native speaker, or to a native speaker interested in a variety of topics: World War II (especially the German occupation of Paris), mental illness, circuses, or love.

In an earlier post I dissected a single metaphor used in El séptimo veloMore recently I went into a potentially embarrassing level of detail about the book’s challenging vocabulary. It was heartening to hear back from native speakers that some of the words that stumped me were unfamiliar to them as well, or at least struck them as antiguocultorural/rústico, or literario. Several other words that I didn’t know are, in fact, reasonably common, and definitely belong on my “need to know” list. One never stops learning.

Given my linguistic fascination with El séptimo velo, I was intrigued to read a blistering online review of it by Sergio Parra (in Papel en blanco) that took particular issue with the novel’s language. While Parra acknowledges that some of de Prada’s prose “shows stylistic mastery”, he describes the book as, variously:

  • mucha letra y poca historia (“many words but little to say”)
  • 650 páginas que habrían podido resumirse en 200 (“650 pages that should be 200”)
  • que incurre en …el exceso de metáforas, en el exceso de frases preciosistas trufadas de subordinadas…(“over-indulging in metaphors and gaudy sentences crammed with subordinate clauses”)
  • pesada, lenta, morosa, meándrica, superflua, barroca (“heavy, slow, morose, meandering, superfluous, and baroque”)

Personally, I enjoyed de Prada’s almost joyfully complicated prose. A prime example is a 3 1/2-page-long tour-de-force paragraph toward the end of the novel (pp. 583-6 of the Planeta edition). In alternating sentences, it simultaneously narrates both (i) a passionate bout of lovemaking between two main characters, and (ii) a weeks-long chain of events involving the French Resistance, triggered by one of the lovers’ revealing a secret to the other at the beginning of the scene. For me, it worked.

De Prada uses one of the novel’s secondary characters to gently mock his own writing style. His description of the psychologist/hypnotist Portabella is worth quoting at length (p. 518):

Portabella was a virtuoso of conversation, or, more specifically, of monologue. He talked as if speech were as necessary to him as breathing or eating; he spoke, moreover, with extreme precision, using an extensive vocabulary and constructing sentences with satisfaction and accuracy, as befits someone who for professional purposes is familiar with the spell-binding power of language [a reference to hypnotism or to writing]. He never used a common word if an erudite alternative was available; he never used a vague word if he could find a more exact one. It wasn’t a torrent that flowed from his lips, since there was nothing hurried or confused about his speech, but rather a wide river flowing down a valley. It flowed with a tranquil, yet constant force that carried away all everything that opposed its progress.

It’s even better in Spanish! Check it out if you can.

Festive Spanish plurals

I’ve always loved explaining to my students that the Spanish word for vacation, vacaciones, is almost always plural. “Spanish people love vacations so much that they never take just one!” This is one of those fun linguistic facts that appear to be culturally indicative regardless of their actual history.

In fact, if you look up the abbreviation U. m. en pl. (“Usado o usada más en plural”) in the Real Academia’s own documentation you will see that vacaciones is one of 664 normally plural words in Spanish, and they aren’t a particularly fun group. They include accesorias (added-on wings of a building), alineamientos (“alignments”), and alpes (a tall mountain, obviously derived from the Alps). You can see that I didn’t get beyond the a‘s…

I don’t know how vacaciones developed its standard plural usage. It isn’t universal in Romance. The French and Portuguese words are also plural (les vacances and férias, which obviously uses a different Latin root). But Italians and Romanians take singular vacations (vacanza, vacanţă), which implies that the plural usage is a Western Romance innovation.

Regardless of the history and linguistic context of vacaciones, I was delighted when I happened to look up the etymology of fiesta today and saw that it comes from the Latin plural festa (the singular is festum). Of course the etymology has no relevance for how people think of the word today, even if they know its origin. But it’s a delightful coincidence nevertheless. You have to love a language where vacations and parties are intrinsically plural!


Categories or cases for Spanish grammar

My time and thoughts have mostly been in my classroom over the last few weeks, so this post is more teacher-y than usual. But it does, I hope, contain some interesting observations about some core grammatical issues in Spanish.

As I noted in an earlier post, Spanish teachers have to explain many differences that exist in Spanish but not in English. These vary in difficulty for the native English speaker. Simple vocabulary differences such as tocar versus jugar, which both mean “to play” (an instrument versus a sport), are the easiest. Other vocabulary differences are more complicated: for example, how por and para divvy up the various meanings of English “for”, or ser and estar the meanings of “to be”. Harder still are grammatical differences that English lacks either mostly (e.g. subjunctive versus indicative moods) or entirely (e.g. the pretérito and imperfecto aspects of the past tense).

When teaching these more challenging differences, I’m often torn between explaining them in terms of categories or cases. The former approach seeks overarching principles that distinguish the Spanish forms. The latter metaphorically throws up its hands and instead details the specific sub-uses of each form. As a linguist I much prefer the former since categorical differences often relate to core semantic concepts. In practice I always provide both frameworks and emphasize one or the other, depending on the topic at hand.

I ran head-first into this issue the first time I taught the Spanish past tense. The usual sequence in an American classroom is to teach the pretérito first, then the imperfecto, then how to use them in conjunction. For the final stage I followed the practice of a more experienced colleague and taught the students the SIMBA CHEATED mnemonic. SIMBA stands for some basic uses of the pretérito: Single actions, Interruptions, Main events, Beginnings and endings, and Arrivals or departures. CHEATED does the same for the imperfecto: describing someone or something’s Characteristics, Health, Emotion, or Age, telling Time, describing Endless activities, and giving a Date.

The net result: my students didn’t see the forest for the trees. In other words, they learned the specific cases covered by SIMBA CHEATED but failed to generalize to the overall difference between the two aspects: that the pretérito relates events, i.e. “what happened”, while the imperfecto describes the past, providing backgrounds and details.

This failure was a loss at an intellectual level, for this aspectual distinction is a perfect example of how different languages encode the world in different ways. At a practical level, the mnemonic slowed students down, since they tended to run through the entire mental checklist before using a past tense. It also proved useless when we moved on to subtler distinctions in the past tense. For example, while conocer retains its core meaning of “to know someone” in the imperfecto, in the pretérito it means “to meet” someone. This makes perfect sense — if one focuses on the overarching use of the pretérito to relate events.

I therefore now try to emphasize the broad categories of “event” and “description” as much as possible when teaching the past tense. While I do provide a reference sheet (see my teaching page) that shows some specific applications of these categories, I stay away from mnemonics and always aim to extract the basic principles from the examples that come up in class.

My approach to the indicative/subjunctive distinction still focuses mostly on categories, but veers slightly in the direction of cases (again see my teaching page). I focus on the overarching use of the indicative for reality and the subjunctive for uncertainty since this covers most uses of the two moods. However, in this case I do teach an acronym: the famous WEIRDO (Wish/Want, Emotions, Impersonal expressions, Require/Recommend, Doubt/Deny, and Ojalá). This is partly because some of the uses it covers trump the reality/uncertainty difference (e.g. emotional contexts like Me alegro de que Pablo esté aquí, where Pablo actually is here), but mostly as a handy way to remind students to practice a variety of subjunctive contexts in their written work.

My approach to por and para (teaching page again), in contrast, focuses almost entirely on cases. These two words correspond to so many different meanings of English “for” that I find it most helpful to emphasize individual uses, such as para for destinations and por for duration. However, since at a very high level para often implies directionality and por, apportionment, I also suggest the graphical metaphors of an arrow for para (X > Y) and a ratio line for por (X/Y). While I don’t expect the average student to find these useful in practice, he or she should at least be aware that the division of “for” into por and para isn’t random. There’s a method to the Spanish madness!