Tag Archives: etymology

Linguistics projects for the foreign language classroom

In a workshop I recently gave in Atlantic City, I distributed the following list of possible linguistics-based projects for the foreign language classroom. They are adaptable for a variety of languages and levels of instruction. To download a PDF version, click here.

This list is a subset of the projects included in the companion website for my book¿Por qué? 101 Questions about Spanish. Here I divided them into the four categories of “Language history,” “The target language in the world,” “Language learning,” and “Language use”.

If you make use of this list, as an instructor or a student, please write back and let me know how the project(s) turned out.

Language history

  • Examine a few pages written in an older form of the target language. What are obvious ways that the language has changed?
  • Look up the origins of the words in either (i) a sample of text from the target language, or (ii) a specific vocabulary domain, such as clothing or animals. Where do the words come from, and what does this teach about the history of your language?
  • Research and create an infographic about a phase in the history of your language, such as the Golden Age of Spain or the Napoleonic period in France. What were the linguistic landmarks of these periods?
  • Research vocabulary borrowings into English from the target language. What do they tell you about how the two cultures have interacted?
  • Research the etymology of a dozen place names (names of cities, towns, etc.) in a country that speaks your target language. What does it this exercise teach you about the language’s history? Summarize your findings on a map or other infographic.

The target language in the world

  • Use Ethnologue (an on-line database about world languages) to gather data on where the target language is spoken and what other languages are spoken in those countries. Present as an infographic or a slideshow.
  • Profile a language academy such as the Académie française or the United States branch of the Real Academia Española. Who are the members? What are their activities and/or publications? What would you ask if you could interview them?
  • Research and present information about a language controversy, such as Catalan versus Castilian in Catalonia, or the historical tussle between French and Alsatian in Alsace.
  • What information does the most recent USA census provide about speakers of your target language in our country?

Language learning

  • Try to predict which features of English are most hardest to learn for speakers of other languages. Interview an ESL teacher to test your predictions.
  • Try a few lessons in the target language from Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, or other language learning software. How does the software try to teach the language? How is this different from classroom learning?

Language use

  • How might you reform the spelling of your target language to make it easier? Argue for your changes and transform a sample page using your proposed changes.
  • Pick your favorite language rule: ser vs. estar, passé composé vs. imparfait, and so on. Analyze actual text (perhaps a newspaper article) to see if the rules taught in class explain the actual usage.
  • Learn how to speak “Pig Latin” in the target language (e.g. Spanish jerigonza). A speed contest may be in order! What do you have to think about as you speak in order to accomplish this?
  • Find, watch, and compare instructional videos on some difficult aspect of pronouncing your language (like rolling your r’s). Make your own instructional video.

A new online Spanish etymological dictionary

Today’s post is about a new online resource for the Spanish language lover: the Online Etymological Dictionary of Spanish, or OEDoS. A screen clip of the welcome screen is below. The website was inspired by Douglas Harper’s very useful online etymological dictionary of English. It went live in July, and has its own Facebook page. The primary resource consulted to create the entries has been Corominas’s Diccionario crítico etimológico de la lengua castellana. (This is the six-volume standard, whose shorter version is one of the “top 10 books” on my bookshelf.)


I contacted the OEDoS Team to find out more about their methodology. Via a friendly return email I learned that the dictionary began with the 2000 most frequently used words of Spanish, with others added because of etymological importance, user requests, and other reasons. My OEDoS contact’s (Patrick Welsh) explanation of how the OEDoS handles etymological disagreements was quite interesting:

As regards conflicting etymologies, we the OEDoS team recognize a dual responsibility of both accuracy and readability. We aim to capture disagreement between linguists whenever possible. In the interest of our time constraints and resources, this is not always possible. Sometimes this breeds disagreement on our side as well. For example, the etymology of hacer (http://spanishetym.com/term/hacer) sparked significant disagreement on historical accentuation and lexical borrowing; this caused the publication of the entry to be delayed for some time. We note the incisive criticism of Penny and others in the 1980s toward Meyer-Leubke, as well as very recent scholarship on Latin’s reflexes in Romance. Ultimately, we decided Meyer-Leubke’s comments were strong enough to overcome our initial wariness. Brief mention of two modern publications were included in the entry as well. Sometimes the entry you see in the dictionary is a snapshot of disagreement: not only between historical linguists at their university desks but between us as well


I hope that you will all visit this website and spread the word about the project.

The strange history of muñeca

A stray comment on /r/Spanish got me thinking about muñeca, the word that, bizarrely, means both ‘doll’ and ‘wrist’. The ‘doll’ meaning is primary. It’s the one listed first in dictionaries, and if you do a Google image search on muñeca, you see more dolls than wrists. It’s the first meaning that I learned, since ‘wrist’ is one of the less important body parts. When I eventually learned the second meaning, I was surprised that one word could have two such completely unrelated interpretations.

I’ve just looked up the history of muñeca in my can’t-live-without-it etymological dictionary by Joan Corominas. It turns out that the word’s original meaning was neither ‘doll’ nor ‘wrist’, but something entirely different: ‘milestone’, in the physical sense of a road marker.

Muñeca ‘milestone’ turns into both ‘wrist’ and ‘doll’.

How did this bizarre transformation take place? According to Corominas, the key was the interpretation of a milestone marker as something that sticks up out of the ground: a bump, or using fancier English, a protuberance. The word was then extended to ‘wrist’ because the wrist bone protrudes from the arm. The road to ‘doll’ began with the extension of muñeca to a bumpy bundle of rags, and from there to a rag doll, and then other dolls.

Muñeca‘s original meaning of ‘milestone’ has been lost from everyday discourse, but is still included in the Real Academia’s dictionary — but only after ‘doll’, ‘wrist’, and other meanings related to ‘doll’, such as ‘cadaver’ and ‘bimbo’.

Incidentally, the earlier history of muñeca is obscure. It is not Latin, but seems to come from a pre-Roman language, possibly Celtic.

Fun with Proto-Indo-European roots

Recently I’ve been playing with John Slocum’s terrific Indo-European Lexicon website and wishing I’d discovered it earlier. In case you didn’t know, Spanish and the other Romance languages are part of the Indo-European language family. Other branches of this enormous family include Germanic, Greek, Celtic, Slavic, and Indo-Iranian. Spanish is therefore related to language as diverse as Gaelic and Gujarati; to Sanskrit, Serbian, and Swedish; to Pashto, Persian, and Polish; and to Hindi and Hittite.

Dr. Slocum’s Lexicon lets you trace vocabulary roots up and down the Indo-European family tree. For example, let’s say you’re curious about the origin of the Spanish word pan “bread”. If you click on the Language Index you can then scroll down to Spanish. (For a shortcut, you can access the Spanish page here.) This page lists almost 500 Spanish words whose Indo-European roots are included in the Lexicon. Pan is traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root pā-. Click on that root and you’ll move up the tree, to an entire page devoted to pā-. This page provides a definition and a list of the root’s descendants in all ten branches of the Indo-European family.

It turns out that pan is related to several sets of English words. I knew about some of them, but not all.

  • food and fodder
  • company, companion
  • forage, foray, foster
  • pantry, pannier
  • pastor, pasture, repast, pastern, pester
  • antipasto (but not “pasta”, go figure)
  • pabulum

For other words, though not pan, tracing a root back down the tree can show you surprising connections within Spanish. For example, llama “flame” and blanco “white” share the same Indo-European root, as do armisticio, arrestar, asistir, costar, estado, and estar.

Why are you still reading? Run along and play!