Category Archives: The written language

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.


Click the bidirectional diagonal arrow to view in fullscreen mode.

Más allá de [beyond] car/gar/zar

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

Todos conocemos (o debemos conocer) los cambios ortográficos que sufren los verbos que terminan en ‑car, ‑gar, y ‑zar. Por ejemplo escribimos saquéjugué, y almorcé en vez de conservar los letras originales (cg, y z). Para el cambio de cqu y el de gqu hay un buen motivo: conservar el sonido original (/k/ o /g/). Para el cambio de zsolo hay el motivo conservador de no usar la letra z antes de e. Es por eso que el español pidió prestado la palabra italiana zero como cero.

El español tiene un montón de otros tales cambios ortográficos. Recientemente reuní una lista de ellos. Aquí están en toda su gloria. No incluí los cambios de ‑car, ‑gar, y ‑zar por ser demasiado conocidos.

cambios ortográficos

Es importante tener en cuenta que estos cambios solo afectan la ortografía, no la pronunciación. Ni se deben considerar irregularidades, porque son predecibles. Es decir que cualquier palabra con tal ortografía sufriría el mismo cambio.


All of us are (or should be) aware of the spelling changes that afflict verbs that end in ‑car, ‑gar, and ‑zar. For example, we write saquéjugué, y almorcé instead of keeping the original consonants (cg, y z). There’s a solid motive for the changes of c to qu and of g to qu: to keep the original sound (/k/ or /g/). The only reason for the change of z to z is the spelling rule that prohibits z before e (this is why Spanish borrowed the Italian word (zero as cero).

Spanish has an impressive quantity of other such spelling changes. I recently made a list of all of them to share with you in their orthographic glory. I didn’t include the ‑car, ‑gar, and ‑zar changes themselves because they’re too well known.

cambios ortográficos en

It’s important to keep in mind that these changes only affect spelling, not pronunciation. Nor should they be considered irregularities, because they’re predictable. That is, any word spelled like these would undergo the same changes.



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.

All about Spanish accents

¡Los acentos importan! — the subject is Panamanian politician Ricardo Martinelli. The accent on él is from rule 3 below, and the accent on cambió is from rule 2.

People are always asking me about Spanish accent marks. I don’t think this is because accents are intrinsically difficult, but rather that most explanations fail to put together some related issues. It’s a not-seeing-the-forest-for-the-trees situation.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, what unites all uses of Spanish accent marks is that they serve to highlight unusual stress: stress on an unusual vowel, syllable, or word.

  1. A written accent can break the normal rules for which vowel to stress within in a vowel sequence. Spanish normally stresses the second of two vowels, as in fuE·go “fire” or diA·blo “devil” (this is actually a slight simplification). A written accent signals a deviation from this pattern, as in con·ti·nÚ·e “continue” or co·mÍ·a·mos “we were eating”. Notice that changing the stress pattern also creates an additional syllable. What power!
  2. A written accent can break the normal rules for which syllable to stress within a word. Spanish normally stresses the last syllable of a word that ends in a consonant, and the next-to-last syllable of a word that ends in a vowel. Think mu.jEr vs. hOm.bre. With a written accent mark you can break this pattern: lÁ.piz ends in a consonant, and hin.dÚ and te.lÉ both end in a vowel. A final s or n doesn’t “count” because it’s usually a grammatical marker: there’s no stress difference between hA.blahA.blas, and hA.blan, or between and
  3. A written accent marks the member of an otherwise identical word pair that usually carries more stress within a sentence, and can even stand alone. This is most obvious for question words. Compare the stress on accented versus unaccented quien and como in ¿Quién se llama Juan? and ¿Cómo nada un pez? versus Tu amigo, quien se llama Juan, nada como un pez. The accented varieties can stand alone: ¿Quién? ¿Cómo?

Once you know these fundamental rules, mysteries vanish. Why does más have an accent? To distinguish it from the obscure word mas, which means “but”; note that the accented version can stand on its own (¡Más!). Why do some words gain an accent in the plural, some lose an accent, and some keep an accent? These cases all have to do with final n or s:

  • Words that gain an accent change from regular to irregular in the plural. Singular jO·ven has regular stress (next-to-last syllable, word ends in n) but plural jÓ·ve·nes is irregular (third-to-last syllable).
  • Words that lose an accent change from irregular to regular in the plural. Singular ja·mÓn has irregular stress (final syllable, word ends in n) but plural ja·mO·nes is regular (next-to-last syllable, word ends in s).
  • Words that keep an accent have irregular stress in both the singular and the plural. For ca·fÉ and ca·fÉs, regular stress would be on the a; for fÁ·cil and fÁ·ci·lesregular stress would be on the i.

Even native speakers make accent mark mistakes, so please — don’t stress! 😉

¿Es fonética la ortografía española? – Is Spanish spelling phonetic?

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

La sencillez de la ortografía española es una razón por la cual la mayoría de los estudiantes estadounidenses eligen estudiar este idioma en vez de uno cuya ortografía sea más complicada, como el francés, por no hablar del chino ni del árabe.

Pero — ¿cuán fonética es la ortografía española?

Cuando decimos que un sistema de ortografía es “fonético”, de verdad queremos decir dos cosas al mismo tiempo: que cada palabra se pronuncia como se escribe, y que cada palabra se escribe como se pronuncia. El español es completamente fonético en cuanto al primero, y mayormente fonético en cuanto al segundo.

Cada palabra española se pronuncia como se escribe. En inglés tenemos palabras como read por las cuales nos hace falta tener en cuenta el contexto para destacar entre las pronunciaciones red y reed. Tales casos no existen en español.

Cada vocal española se escribe como se pronuncia. El español tiene cinco vocales que se escriben con sendas letras correspondientes.

Cada acento escrito español sigue las reglasNunca hay que adivinar si una palabra debe llevar un acento escrito (qué o que, examen vs. exámenes, etc.). Si sabes las reglas de la acentuación, no cabrá duda.

Unas consonantes tienen dos escrituras posibles. Es por esas consonantes que no podemos decir que la ortografía española sea completamente fonética. Irónicamente, en general la escritura de estas consonantes causa más problemas para los nativos, quienes aprenden la pronunciación antes de la escritura, que para los estudiantes del español como segundo idioma, quienes suelen conocer la forma escrita de una palabra al mismo tiempo (o antes de) que la oyen por primera vez.

  • Las letras bv se pronuncian de la misma manera. Hay que aprender de memoria que bueno no se escribe vueno y que avión no se escribe abión.
  • El sonido /x/ se escribe con gj. Hay que aprender que jefe no se escribe gefe, ni gemelojemelo.
  • La letra h no se pronuncia. Hay que aprender que honra no se escribe onra, ni abrirhabrir.
  • Para nosotros que vivimos en latinoamérica, la z y la c (antes de ie) se pronuncian como s. Tenemos que aprender que zapato no se escribe sapato; ni saberzaber; ni cinesine; y ni , cé. Los españoles tienen una ventaja aquí porque su c se pronuncian como el th inglés.
  • Igualmente, para los latinoamericanos la letra x y las letras cc se pronuncian de la misma manera. Tenemos que aprender que conexión no se escribe conección, ni correccióncorrexión.
  • En la mayoría del mundo hispanohablante la letra y y el dígrafo ll se pronuncian de la misma manera. Hay que aprender que llave no se escribe yave, ni El YunqueEl Llunque.

¿Una llorosa en El Yunque, o una yorosa en El Llunque?

Además de estas pocas molestias gozamos de un sistema regular, y, a mi parecer, lindísimo.


The simplicity of Spanish spelling is one reason why the majority of American students choose to study Spanish instead of a language with more complicated spelling, like French, not to mention Chinese or Arabic.

But — how phonetic is Spanish spelling?

When we say that a spelling system is “phonetic”, we really mean two things at the same time: that each word is pronounced the way it’s written, and written the way it’s pronounced. Spanish is completely phonetic in the first regard, and mostly in the second.

The spelling of every Spanish word completely determines its pronunciation. In English we have to look at a word’s context to determine, for example, whether read is pronounced like red or like reed. There are no such cases in Spanish.

Every Spanish vowel is written the way it’s pronounced. Each of the five vowels of Spanish is spelled with its corresponding letter. [Check out the tricky/elegant adjective sendas in the Spanish version of this bullet!!!] 

Spanish accents follow the rules. You should never have to guess whether a Spanish word has an accent mark (qué or queexamen vs. exámenes, etc.). If you know the rules for using accents, there’s no room for doubt.

Some consonants have two possible spellings. These consonants are the reason why we can’t say that Spanish spelling isn’t completely phonetic. Ironically, these spelling issues are more of a headache for native speakers than for students of Spanish as a second language, who usually learn the written form of a word at the same time (or before) they hear it pronounced.

  • The letters b and v are pronounced the same. One must memorize that bueno isn’t spelled vueno and that avión isn’t spelled abión.
  • The sound /x/ can be spelled g or j. One must memorize that jefe isn’t spelled gefe, nor gemelojemelo.
  • The letter h is silent. One must memorize that honra isn’t spelled onra, nor abrirhabrir.
  • For those of us who live in Latin America, the letters z and c (the latter before i and e) are pronounced just like s. We have to memorize that zapato isn’t spelled sapato; nor saberzaber; nor cinesine; nor . Spaniards have an advantage here because their z and c are pronounced with a th.
  • By the same token, Latin Americans pronounce the letter x and the combination cc identically. We have to memorize that conexión isn’t spelled conección, nor correccióncorrexión.
  • In most of the Spanish-speaking world, y and ll are pronounced the same. One must memorize that llave isn’t written yave, nor El YunqueEl Llunque.

Barring these few exceptions we can take pleasure in a spelling system that is regular and, to my eyes, lovely.


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.

Conexión and corrección

I love the Spanish spelling of conexión. The x is somehow very elegant. But I’ve occasionally wondered why the word isn’t spelled conección, with a cc as in corrección. I looked into this question recently and the answer is very simple. In fact, there are two simple answers.

First, the spelling difference reflects the proper Castilian Spanish pronunciation of x versus cc. The letter x between two vowels (conexión, examen, etc.) is pronounced ks. The letter sequence cc as in corrección is pronounced kth, since th is the Castilian pronunciation of c before i. Two spellings, two pronunciations, fair and square.

Second, the spelling difference respects etymology. Spanish words ending in –xión had an x in Latin, too: conexión comes from connexĭōn(is), reflexión from reflexĭōn(is), and so on. Spanish words ending in –cción had a ct in Latin: corrección from correctĭōn(is)acción from actĭōn(is)inyección from iniectĭōn(is), and so on.

The cc words, by the way, greatly outnumber the x words. The latter include only the following (based on various google searches — I need a reverse Spanish dictionary!):

  • anexión
  • complexión
  • conexión etc. (desconexión, inconexión, interconexión, reconexión)
  • crucifixión, transfixión
  • flexión etc. (reflexión, inflexión, irreflexión, genuflexión)
  • fluxión

It’s interesting that English — especially American English — has moved many of the x words into the cc group, which we spell with the original ct (e.g. connection). In fact, the British “look” of the x is probably what makes Spanish conexión appear elegant to my American eyes. We’ve likewise adapted the various words derived from flexion (reflection, genuflection, and inflection), though not, mysteriously, the word flexion itself. Complexion and crucifixion are probably the most commonly used xion holdouts in American English.

So, this post is one for your X-files!





El contraste b/v — Spanish words with b or v

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

En español las letras b y v tienen la misma pronunciación, una situación que les molesta a hispanohablantes y a estudiantes de español. Es difícil argumentar a favor de la retención de las dos letras distintas porque hay pocas palabras para las cuales les importa la diferencia. Conozco los siguientes “pares mínimos” (un término que normalmente se aplica a los sonidos, no a la escritura):

  • baca vs. vaca
  • bacilo vs. vacilo
  • bate vs. vate
  • bello vs. vello
  • botar vs. votar

¿Conocen Uds. otros?


In Spanish, the letters b and v have the same pronunciation, a situation that causes problems for both Spanish speakers and Spanish students. It’s hard to argue in favor of keeping both letters in the alphabet because there are few words where the difference matters. I’m aware of the following “minimal pairs” (a term usually used for differences in pronunciation, not spelling):

  • baca “automobile roof-rack” vs. vaca “cow”
  • bacilo “bacillus” vs. vacilo “I vacillate”
  • bate “[baseball] bat, he/she/you beats” vs. vate “bard, poet”
  • bello “beautiful” vs. vello “down, fuzz”
  • botar “to throw” vs. votar “to vote”

Do you know any others?