Category Archives: The written language

When linguistic terms collide

After publishing my recent post about Spanish commands and accent marks, which featured a short PowerPoint on this topic, I posted the same PowerPoint on the /r/Spanish subreddit and also on a few Facebook groups for Spanish teachers. I got unexpected pushback in those media about Anglicisms in the PowerPoint: Spanish words that I used with an English meaning. Specifically, I used the word estrés to refer to phonological (spoken) stress, i.e. a word’s most prominent syllable, and the word acento to refer to the written accent mark. Both these uses reflect English usage rather than standard Spanish.

Strictly speaking:

  • In Spanish estrés refers to physical or psychological stress. The correct translation of phonological stress (in the English sense) is acento, as in El acento recae en la penúltima sílaba ‘Stress falls on the next-to-last syllable.’ One can also refer to the sílaba tónica (the ‘stressed syllable’), as in La sílaba tónica es la penúltima ‘The stressed syllable is the next-to-last one.’
  • The normal Spanish term for the written accent mark is tilde, which in English refers specifically to the ~ that turns an n into an ñ.

This table summarizes the above:

MeaningStandard Spanish termAnglicized term
phonological stressacento
sílaba tónica
written accent marktildeacento

I used the Anglicized terms because the related topics of phonological stress and written accent marks are already very challenging on their own. First, the rules that govern phonological stress in Spanish, and which underlie the language’s use of written accent marks, are simple to a linguist but not to a layman. For instance, although the primary use of accent marks is to indicate exceptions to the basic stress rules of Spanish, such as caFÉ or teLÉfono, where one would expect penultimate stress (as in HAbla) since the words in a vowel, this pattern fails if a word ends in an -n or -s, as in HAblan or HAblas. It also doesn’t explain the written accent in words like ¿Qué? ‘What?’ and más ‘more.’ Second, even if students understand these rules, they are not used to paying attention to phonological stress: they are generally unaware, for instance, that English features word pairs such as proJECT (verb) and PROject (noun). So mastering this topic requires picking up an ‘ear’ for an aspect of language that one has blissfully ignored for years or even decades.

I should add that native speakers of Spanish also have difficulty with accent marks, just as native speakers of English have difficulty with apostrophes.

Fordham’s curriculum doesn’t allow time to teach a full lesson on accent marks, so instead I present the topic in short bursts, as needed. For example, my second-semester students recently learned command forms such ¡Duerme! ‘Sleep!’, ¡Duérmete! ‘Fall asleep!’, ¡Sé! ‘Be!’ and ¡Ve! ‘Go!’ This topic inevitably raises the question of which commands have accent marks and which don’t — and why. The PowerPoint in my earlier post answers this question accurately and quickly. It does so in part because it uses the anglicized terms estrés and acento instead of the proper Spanish counterparts. Having to explain the Spanish meanings of acento and tilde would gum up the works. So in this case I believe that the ends justify the means. I suspect that many Spanish teachers do the same.

Two other factors besides pragmatics justify my use of the Anglicized terms. The first is that both and, both of which are reputable resources, give ‘accent mark’ (or ‘stress mark’) as one meaning of the word acento (although estrés never means phonological stress). The second is that Spanish has a long history of adding Anglicized meanings to existing vocabulary. Some examples are estrella meaning ‘celebrity’ (like English star), modelo meaning ‘fashion model,’ and blanco meaning ‘blank space to fill in.’ While purists may frown on such usages, I like to point out that Simón Bolívar, the great South American revolutionary hero, used papel ‘paper’ in the English sense of ‘newspaper’, and americano ‘American’ to mean someone from the United States, rather than the American continents more generally—a usage that is anathema to many contemporary Hispanics.

If Bolívar could get away with papel and americano, surely the gods of Spanish will forgive my use of estrés and acento in the service of pedagogy?

Accent marks in Spanish are like apostrophes in English

Lately I’ve been struck by some parallels between accent marks in Spanish and apostrophes in English.

First, accent marks can distinguish otherwise identical word pairs such as Hable ‘Speak!’ and Hablé ‘I spoke’, or  ‘you’ and tu ‘your’. This is analogous to it’s versus its in English.

Second, they can help you pronounce a word correctly. For example, teléfono is pronounced on the third-to-last syllable (le), not the next-to-last as you would expect for a word that ends in a vowel (like cucaracha). Likewise, the apostrophe in English I’ll changes its pronunciation vis-a-vis ill.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, correct use of accent marks is a sign of an educated Spanish speaker. Even speakers who don’t bother to type accent marks in emails and text messages need to include them in more formal texts, such as school assignments and business letters. Omitting an accent mark is as offensive to many readers as is, for example, confusing they’re and their in English.

How to type accent marks (etc.) in Spanish

This topic has nothing to do with linguistics, but “How do I type accent marks?” is such a frequent question that I figured it was worth a blog post. Also, I just revisited this topic when preparing a handout for my students.

For both Windows and Mac users I recommend a so-called “dead key” approach in which you press one key to set up an accent mark and a second key to actually type it. There are other techniques available for both platforms, but dead keys are the fastest.

On a Windows computer you first have to activate the “U.S. International keyboard” that is part of the Windows operating system, though most users are unaware of it. You only have to do this once. On a Windows 10 computer:

  1. Type “language” in the search bar at the bottom left of the screen.
  2. Click on “language settings” which should be the top item returned.
  3. Under “Preferred languages” click “English (United States).” Don’t be tempted to change the language to Spanish!
  4. You should now see “Options.” Click on this.
  5. On the Language options screen that comes up, click “Add a keyboard,” then scroll and select “United States-International.”

You will now be able to toggle between “ENG” and “ENG INTL” on the taskbar, just to the left of the time and date. (On an older computer the steps to activate the US International keyboard are slightly different, and you will toggle by clicking on a keyboard icon.) When in “ENG INTL” mode,

To typeDo this
an accented vowel like é or óPress the apostrophe key (‘), then the desired vowel
ü as in pingüino or guëroUse the shift key to type a double quote (“), then u
¿Press the right-alt key (might be labeled “AlgGr”), then the slash (/), which shares a key with ?
¡Press the right-alt key (might be labeled “AlgGr”), then 1, which shares a key with !
ñUse the shift key to type a tilde ~ (to the left of the number 1), then type n
apostrophe or double quoteType the punctuation mark, then hit the space bar to “release” it

On a Mac, according to my Internet research rather than personal experience, to type:

  • an accented vowel: press Option-e, then the vowel
  • ñ: press option-n, then n
  • ¿: press option-? (including shift key)
  • ¡: press option-1
  • ü: press option-u, then u

Punky Spanish spelling

When I was researching Spanish text messaging for Question #55 in my book, I was intrigued by the frequent substitution of the letter k for qu and c. This pattern is especially curious because the letter k isn’t native to Spanish. It normally appears only in borrowings such as kilómetro.

A friendly redditor explained this texting phenomenon as follows:

Not sure about other countries, but in Spain, substituting the “k” traditionally conveyed certain social/cultural/political leanings. It goes back to the early post-Franco years and was initially a punk way to hack the language (see Kaka de Luxe, Rock Radikal Vasco, etc.). Basque also has had an influence.

That’s a lot of power for a simple letter of the alphabet.

Given this background, I was excited to see many uses of k in business names and graffiti when I was in Spain in May. Here are some pictures, with my captions as color commentary.

Here the “cool” spelling of “katedral” contrasts with the normal spelling of “cafetería”.

In this graffiti calling for a street protest, the “k” of “kalle” is a natural fit with the gender-neutral “x” of “todxs”.

The accent mark is missing, too.

Here the street-smart “k” is coupled with another deliberate misspelling, of “z” for “c”. The full conventional spelling would be “rinconcito”.

OK, this graffiti has nothing to do with “k”. But I couldn’t resist including it because it was so striking to see a pro-Franco slogan in the year 2018, a full 43 years after the dictator’s death. Note also that the the tilde in “España” is present.

Finally, a Kindle

I don’t know why it took me so long, but I finally bought a Kindle. I have been meaning to do this for ages, every since I read this blog post about how easy it is to read a foreign language book on a Kindle. The device comes pre-loaded with a Spanish-English dictionary, so all you have to do is tap on a word and its translation comes up like magic.

My new Kindle in its cute cover

I was also impressed with how easy it was for my friend Sue to “pack” two weeks’ worth of books on her Kindle when we went to Spain together.

The last straw was when my friend Laura raved about her Kindle, and how she likes to check electronic books out of the library. Our local library recently closed for renovations, and I’ve been fuming about the inconvenience of going to the temporary location, which is on the other side of town instead of a few minutes’ walk away. I’m spoiled! So the idea of being able to download a book instead of scheduling a visit had immediate appeal.

I ordered a Kindle Paperwhite ($119) — this is the version that works with the dictionary — and also a cute cover ($13.99) so I can stick the device in my (tiny) handbag and not worry about scratching it. It arrived today and I am already off to the races! I downloaded a random Spanish-language book from Amazon that is included in my Prime membership: Dormir sin lágrimas, a book about getting your baby to sleep through the night. (Thank God I don’t need to actually read it.) Clicked on a random word, and the definition popped up, as promised.

I’m looking forward to lots of good times ahead.


Double consonants in Spanish

[An observant reader pointed out that this post includes double vowels as well as double consonants. I really should have entitled the post “Double letters in Spanish” — but now it is, methinks, too late! I had consonants on the mind because the trigger for this post was coming across the word sabbat.]

If I had a dime for every time I crossed out an extra l from a student’s spelling of inteligente…well, I’d have a lot of dimes. Same for an extra l in mochila (undoubtedly influenced by English words like Godzilla and gorilla), or an extra s in profesora. Add in a few nickel penalties for students who pronounce leer like (King) Lear, and I could treat myself to lots of Starbucks.

These spelling and pronunciation errors are both triggered by a significant difference between Spanish and English spelling: in Spanish, almost every letter is pronounced. (Notable exceptions include the silent h (as in hola) and the u seen in quiquegui, and gue sequences, as in quisoquesoguiso, and guerra.) This means that inteligente and mochila only need one l to represent the spoken /l/ sound, profesora only needs one s, and the two e‘s of leer must be pronounced individually. Double oo‘s exist also, as in cooperación, and again both vowels are pronounced.

This rule also explains why Spanish spelling preserves the double nn in words like perenneconnotar, and innato. According to the Real Academia Española (RAE) these words are pronounced with a long n. While some native speakers I’ve checked with say that they pronounce nn words as if they had a single n, you can certainly hear long pronunciations: for example, here.

My (2010) edition of the RAE’s Ortografía de la lengua española also refers to double bb‘s. I had never heard of this combination until I opened the book to check up on the nn words. Moreover, the RAE’s three examples — subbéticosubbloque, and subboreal (see below) — are so obscure that they aren’t even listed in the RAE dictionary! (This tickles my funny bone.) So I’m not going to lose any sleep over them.

Also in keeping with this rule, Spanish simplifies most double letters in loanwords; the Ortografía gives the examples of driblar (from dribble), chófer (from chauffeur), and zigurat, inter alia.

Most remarkable, therefore, are the double letters that Spanish tolerates in certain loan words. Except as indicated, the following words with double letters (most from this Span¡ishDict comment) are in the RAE dictionary:

  • sabbat ‘Sabbath’
  • affaire
  • sheriff
  • reggae
  • gamma
  • zoo
  • hippie (note adjectival form jipi)
  • dossier
  • gauss
  • motocross
  • topless (spelled with ss in but with single s in the RAE dictionary)
  • vendetta
  • watt
  • jacuzzi
  • jazz
  • mozzarella
  • paparazzi
  • pizza
  • puzzle (spelled with zz in but with single z in the RAE dictionary)

We all know that Spanish spelling is phonetic, but these exceptions make it a little less so.


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


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?



Eñe as art, with a shout-out to García Márquez

Besides Spanish, my two other main passions are my family and art. I managed to combine all three during a trip to New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) this past week with my husband and in-laws. At the foot of the main escalator — a prominent position — the museum had hung a new acquisition: a giant painting of the Spanish letter ñ, or eñe, by the Peruvian painter José Carlos Martinat. The picture below shows the painting with its surrounding wall space so that you can see its scale (about 6 by 8 feet).  For a closer view, please visit the relevant page on MoMA’s website.

Ñ (José Carlos Martinet, 2013)

Ñ (José Carlos Martinet, 2013)

I reacted strongly to the painting as both a Spanish linguist and an art lover. On the one hand, the giant Ñ on the wall seemed like a banner welcoming lovers of the Spanish language to the museum. While it is shared by a number of other languages, ñ has emerged as a symbol of Spanish. My favorite anecdotal proof of ñ‘s importance dates from 1991, when the European Community recommended that Spain repeal a regulation that required all computers sold in the country to have an ñ key. Protests came from Spain’s Foreign Ministry, from the Real Academia Española, and even from Colombia’s Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez, whose defense of the ñ, published as an op-ed in El País on May 15, stated that:

It is scandalous, to say the least, that the European Economic Community has dared to propose that Spain eliminate the letter ñ of our alphabet, and even worse, only for reasons of commercial convenience. The authors of such abuse and arrogance should know that the ñ is not an archaeological relic, but the reverse: a cultural leap by one Romance language that left the others behind, expressing with only one letter a sound that in other Romance languages continues to be expressed with two. Therefore, the logical thing is not for Spain to renounce a letter that even forms part of its own name, but that the other languages of the European paradise modernize themselves by adopting the ñ.

On the other hand, as an art lover, I understood the painting as an example of “appropriated art”, a current in modern art in which “found images”, not originally intended as art, are reproduced, often with changes in color and size, as a deliberate artistic expression. The most famous example is probably Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans paintings.

In the case of Carlos Martinet’s Ñ, MoMA’s wall text explained the painting as follows:

José Carlos Martinat’s practice frequently involves appropriating images and texts from the public sphere and recontextualizing them in mixed-medium works and sculptural installations. Between 2009 and 2013, he produced the series Pintas (Impressions), in which he removed street graffiti with advertising, political slogans, or candidates’ names — in the case of this work, that of the former mayor of Lima, Luis Casteñeda. After applying a resin-based medium onto a painted wall, Martinat would peel off the imprint and its material support, creating a new and autonomous image of a single letter or word. Taken out of context and installed in a museum space, the extracted fragment is activated in new ways as a signifier of language, politics, and public space. A residual image of what was previously a word or a phrase, Ñ speaks to the erodible, changeable nature of language and speech, whose users introduce fluctuations that ultimately transform communication itself. As a distinctive letter from modern Hispanic alphabets, “ñ” is also a differential sign, one that indicates otherness in relation to the global hegemony of English.

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.


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