Category Archives: The written language

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.


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! 😉