Tag Archives: irregular verbs

Why ser and ir are so irregular

The purpose of this post is to share two of my favorite slides from the PowerPoint I prepared for my recent talk at the NECTFL conference. The slides summarize the history of the two most irregular Spanish verbs, ser ‘to be’ and ir ‘to go’. It turns out that each of these verbs is a historical merger of three distinct verbs. Ser merged the Latin verbs sedere ‘to sit’ and esse ‘to be’, which itself combined Proto-Indo-European verbs meaning ‘to be’ and ‘to become’. Ir merged the Latin verbs ire ‘to go’, vadere ‘to go, walk’ (a cognate of English ‘to wade’), and esse ‘to be’. As you can see from the slides, each root is responsible for a subset of each verb’s modern forms.

Capture

The history of “ser” (‘to be’). The asterisks indicate reconstructed (hypothesized) Proto-Indo-European roots.

temp

The history of “ir” (‘to go’). My favorite detail here is that the singular command ‘ve’ and the plural command ‘id’ come from different Latin roots.

This type of historical process, in which one verb does a “hostile takeover” of part of another verb’s conjugation, is common enough to have its own name: suppletion. You can see suppletion in the English verb ‘to go’, whose past tense form went comes from the semantically related verb ‘to wend’. The various cases of suppletion in the histories of ser and ir are likewise plausible:

  • for sedereesse: ‘to sit’ is connected to ‘to be’ because it expresses location
  • for *hes*buh: ‘be’ and ‘become’ are obviously related
  • for irevadere: ‘walking’ is a kind of ‘going’
  • for ireesse: if you ‘are’ somewhere, it follows that you ‘went’ there. For example, you can say “I’ve never been to Barcelona” instead of “I’ve never gone to Barcelona”.

I will have to save these charts for the second edition of my book!

The top 10 Spanish verb mysteries unraveled

The wait is over — here is my “listicle” (slide presentation) that unravels the top 10 mysteries of Spanish verbs. Why is hay always singular? Why are there so many more irregulars in the preterite past tense than the imperfect? Why do positive and negative commands have different pronoun rules? The answers lie in the history of Spanish.

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.

Summer summary for spanishlinguist.us

While I’m not much of a “beach person” — I don’t like the heat! — the last few weeks I’ve been craving a beach day. It really wouldn’t feel like summer without going at least once. So on Saturday, a girlfriend and I visited lovely, peaceful Hammonasset State Park in Madison, CT. It hit the spot.

Hammonasset Beach State Park, CT

Just before leaving for the beach I received the long-anticipated “”Welcome to the fall semester” email from the Spanish language coordinators at Fordham University (this is where I teach). All of a sudden the first day of classes (Wednesday!) feels real. I’m sure my future students are going through the same mental process. I will be teaching two sections of second-semester Spanish, and getting to know a new textbook, Gente.

These end-of-the-season events have inspired me to review the summer’s activity on spanishlinguist.us. I’ve published 27 posts since the beginning of June, roughly 3 a week. My main focus (9 posts) has been on verbs, which are, or course, a Big Deal in Spanish. These include:

Five posts have concerned vocabulary: Spanish slang, Spanish last names (women’s issues and patronymics)  special vocabulary for disabilities, and new Spanish vocabulary from the economic crisis.

Five other posts have concerned the process of learning. Topics included mismatches between Spanish and English vocabulary (verging into grammar), the pedagogical value of reading popular fiction (including a terrific reading list), what I forgot when I didn’t speak Spanish for a few years, and the philosophy that “language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly.”

Four posts address Spanish spelling: accent marks, phonetic spelling (or not), x vs j, and x vs. cc.

Three posts address contemporary language issues: the minority languages of Spain, the high degree of metalinguistic awareness of normal Spanish speakers, and the political [in?]correctness of the language name Spanish.

This leaves two miscellaneous posts, on voseo and the surprising history of the word yand“.

Four of the above posts were part of Spanish Friday: here, here, here, and here.

During the summer the blog has been enriched by comments from readers from around the world. I really appreciate this and encourage you to keep writing. Please feel free to suggest new topics you’d like this blog to address, or enhancements — I’ve added an RSS feed but still haven’t invested any time in Twitter or Facebook. I much prefer to “just write”, but if any bells and whistles would make a difference I will invest the time. I just added a snazzy new background (made with Wordle) and hope it renders well on your screen.

To subscribe by email, use the form on the right.

It’s been a great summer, and I’m looking forward to continuing into the new academic year.

The sadistic Spanish subjunctive

I can remember the exact moment when Spanish utterly and permanently captivated me. I was fifteen years old and in my fourth year as a Spanish student. Our class had wrapped up the basic tenses and the present subjunctive, and was ready to launch into the imperfect subjunctive. Our teacher explained to us that this tense was based on the pretérito and incorporated all of its irregulars.

This struck me as laugh-out-loud funny. We had already learned that the present subjunctive inherited all the idiosyncrasies of the normal present tense, including the ones that only show up in the yo form (the -zco and -go types). But the preterit is even thornier. It seemed bizarre beyond belief that the subjunctive should adopt the most problematic elements of both these tenses.

As a student, it amused me to imagine that a twisted “Spanish committee” (perhaps a branch of the Spanish Inquisition?) had designed the subjunctive. (My little PowerPoint below depicts this scenario.) As a teacher, I now like to tell my students that the present subjunctive is God’s way of getting them to review the irregular verbs that they’d studied weeks, months, or even years ago. I figure that teaching at a Jesuit university authorizes me to invoke God in the classroom.

In fact, the many irregulars of the subjunctive are neither a cosmic joke, an evil machination, nor an act of God. They’re simply a coincidence. The present and imperfect subjunctive happened to follow the same evolutionary paths as several distinct categories of irregular verbs in the present and pretérito indicative.

Consider the examples of irregular verbs shown in the table below, color-coded for your convenience.

irregular subjunctive

The “boot” verbs, in yellow, are irregular in the present tense because of a language-wide process that changed stressed /o/ to /ue/ and stressed /e/ to /ie/. The corresponding present subjunctives have the same vowels and the same stress pattern, and therefore the same irregularity.

The -ir “sole” verbs, in blue, are irregular in the present and the pretérito because of another general process: the raising of /e/ to /i/ and /o/ to /u/ before /j/ (the sound of English y). All Latin -ire present subjunctive endings, and the “sole” (3rd person) endings of the imperfect subjunctive, contained (or still contain) /j/, triggering the vowel change.

The -zco and -go irregulars of the present tense, in green, evolved because the o ending of the yo form insulated it from changes that affected the other present tense forms and the infinitive. The subjunctive endings for these verbs begin with a, which had the same insulating property.

Finally, the drastic stem-changing pretéritos, in magenta, descend from Latin’s “strong perfect” past tense forms. The imperfect subjunctive is based on Latin’s pluperfect tense, which had the same irregularities.

This leaves “only” the six additional irregulars of the present tense subjunctive. Their diverse origins are summarized below.

6 irregular present subjunctives

As always, if you want to learn more, the best source is Ralph Penny’s A History of the Spanish Language. But beware — nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Enfatizando los verbos

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

Este verano he escrito mucho sobre los verbos españoles: sobre el presente (aquí, aquí, aquí, aquí, y aquí), el subjuntivo, y el pretérito. Este énfasis ha sido en parte porque actualmente estoy investigando los verbos por un libro que estoy escribiendo sobre el español (todavía busco una editorial, si tienes una conexión…). Pero más fundamentalmente ha sido por la importancia que tienen los verbos dentro del español.

Hablo, en parte y como siempre, del punto de vista pedagógico. A veces me parece que paso la mayoría del tiempo en la clase ayudándoles a mis estudiantes a comprender, aprender de memoria, y practicar nuestros varios tiempos verbales. Pero este énfasis recibe apoyo cuantitativo de nuestros textos. Por ejemplo, en mi libro de gramática favorito (The Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice), más de la mitad del libro trata sobre los verbos. En Amazon se venden al menos 36 libros específicamente sobre los verbos españoles, incluso libros especializados como The Spanish Subjunctive Up Close y Spanish Past-Tense Verbs Up Close(Tengo que confesar que no sé si esto es igual o más de lo típico en libros sobre otros idiomas.)

A veces todos nosotros nos sentimos aplastados por los verbos.

A veces todos todos nos sentimos aplastados por los verbos.

De todas formas, los verbos les importan a nuestros libros, a nuestras clases, a nuestros estudiantes, a nuestro idioma. Por eso deben importarles también a nuestras comunicaciones sobre el español, como este blog, y puedes anticipar más aportes de mi parte en el futuro.

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This summer I’ve written tons about Spanish verbs: the present (herehereherehere, y here), the subjunctive, and the preterit. This emphasis has partly been because I’ve been researching verbs for a book I’m writing about Spanish (I’m still looking for a publisher, if you have a connection…). But more fundamentally, it’s been because of the importance of verbs within Spanish.

I’m partly speaking, as always, from a pedagogical point of view. Sometimes it seems like I spend most of my classroom time helping students to understand, memorize, and practice our many verb tenses. But books about Spanish certainly provide quantitative support to this emphasis. For example, more than half the pages of my favorite grammar book (The Ultimate Spanish Review and Practice) are devoted to verbs. Amazon sells at least 36 books specifically about Spanish verbs, including specialized books like The Spanish Subjunctive Up Close and Spanish Past-Tense Verbs Up Close(I confess that I don’t know how this compares to grammar books for other languages.)

At any rate, verbs matter to our books, our classes, our students, our language. Therefore, they should matter also in our communications about Spanish, like this blog, and you can expect to see more here in the future.

The Spanish pretérito is like Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with the wonderful observation that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This quote always makes me think of the Spanish pretérito (preterit) past tense. The pretérito has lots of irregulars, and they are irregular in many different ways.

Unhappy families are like the pretérito.

We’ve already seen that in the present tense, most irregulars — the boot verbs-zco and -go verbs, and ver — developed as Vulgar Latin transitioned to Spanish. The pretérito is different because most of its irregulars were already irregular in Latin. (Well, Spanish added a few for good measure…keep on reading.)

Basically, the Spanish pretérito tense derives from the Latin perfect, which was riddled with irregulars. Latin scholars refer to them as “strong” perfects, as opposed to the regular, or “weak” perfects. The strong perfects were characterized by stress on the root instead of the ending in some of the verb forms. You can still hear this difference in Spanish. For example, irregular dije and dijo are stressed on the di- root, while regular hablé and habló are stressed on the and endings. The strong perfects also lacked the normal /v/ ending of regular perfects, such as laudāvī “I praised” (from laudāre) or audīvit “he heard” (from audīre).

Caeser loved those strong perfects!

Most of today’s irregular pretéritos can be traced to three subtypes of the Latin strong perfect:

Strong perfects

As always, analogy muddied the evolutionary trail. Several common verbs that were regular in Latin picked up the u pattern of hube, supe and the like, including tener/tuve, estar/estuve, and andar/anduve. The irregular pretérito of ver (vi, viste, vio, etc.) influenced that of dar (di, diste, dio, etc.), while the pretéritos of ser “to be” and ir “to go” merged. On the other hand, many verbs with strong perfects in Latin became regular in Spanish. Some examples are temer, which belonged to Latin’s –class (Latin timuī, timuístī, etc.), escribir “to write”, in the – class (scrīpsī, scrīpsístī, etc.), and leer “to read”, in the –ī class (lēgī, lēgístī). Their modern yo pretéritos are regular temí, escribí, and leí instead of something like tume, escrise, and lije.

Finally, to make matters worse, Spanish “invented” its very own irregular pattern: the so-called “sole” verbs. These are -ir verbs with a “boot” change in the present, like servir (sirvo, sirves etc.), mentir (mientomientes, etc.), and dormir (duermoduermes, etc.). In the pretérito, the e or o of the root changes to an i or u in the él and ellos forms. This happens for the same reason I described in my boot verb post: raising an /e/ to /i/ and an /o/ to /u/ anticipates the height of the y sound (transcribed properly as /j/) that you get when you pronounce the -ió and -ieron in fluent speech.

suela

Suela verbs are only Irregular in the sole of the boot

That’s a lot of irregulars — and a lot of unhappy families, at least the night before a major test…

Those wacky -ir verbs

In a previous post I described the origin of the three main categories of Spanish “boot” verbs, shown below:

Boot verbsThe first two types of vowel change, from e ie and from o ue, affect -ar-er, and -ir verbs. The third type, with a vowel change from e iaffects only ir verbs. I also described how a fourth change for -ir verbs, from o u , was sidetracked, with the relevant verbs switching over entirely to u (e.g. mullir, from Latin mollire).

At the time I overlooked a simple yet dramatic truth: the “boot” pattern has taken over all possible -ir verbs! This amounts to a significant difference between -ir verbs and -ar/-er verbs. When you learn a new -ar or -er verb that might be a boot verb (say, the hypothetical verbs felar and foler), you need to check a dictionary to see how the verb works. Is it regular, in which case the present tense forms are (yo) felo and (yo) folo, or boot (fielo, fuelo)? For a hypothetical -ir verb like felir, this question is moot: it’s a boot verb for sure. The only remaining issue is which type it is, i.e. fielo or filo.

[Note that the total change of o u in -ir verbs means that one will never encounter a new verb like folir; it would have changed to fulir.]

To verify this generalization, have a look at the comprehensive list of -ir verbs at intro2spanish.com (a website with which I am not affiliated; I just admire their verb lists). With a single bizarre exception (abolir, see below), every verb on the list whose final stem vowel is e or o is a “boot” verb.

FYI abolir (click for conjugation) belongs to yet another weird category: it’s a so-called “defective verb”, which means that its only allowed forms are those whose verb ending begins with i. For the present tense, this means that the verb only exists in the nosotros and vosotros forms, which are both outside the “boot”.

This generalization about -ir boot verbs is hardly earth-shaking. In fact, if you’re not a Spanish grammar lover, you’re probably asleep by now (but then how can you still be reading???). To me, though, it is somehow aesthetically pleasing. These -ir boot verbs are weird in general — consider their gerunds (dUrmiendo, sugIriendo) and preterits (dUrmió, sugIrió). Shouldn’t their present tense be special, too?

Spanish ver veered

Ver es creer (“Seeing is believing”).

In Old Spanish — the Spanish of El Cid, spoken into the 1400s — ver and creer had more in common than this refrán. The Old Spanish version of ver was veer, and its conjugation was identical to that of creer (and likewise leer).

veer creer leer

The three verbs were similar because they had similar Latin roots: viderecredere, and legere. In all three cases, the middle consonant (d or g) dropped out, creating a double ee in all but the yo form. (The change of i to e in videre was normal, see this earlier post.)

Although I didn’t bother to include it in the table above, poseer, from Latin possidēre, fits the same pattern.

Veer became an irregular verb when its history diverged from creer and leer. As Old Spanish gave way to the modern language, the double ee of veer simplified to a single e. (The expected yo form from this point onward was vo). Later, the edes ending for vosotros changed to eis for all -er verbs. These two changes together gave rise to the modern conjugations:

veer creer leer modernVer‘s history is both unique and familiar. Unique, because it created the only verb with this specific irregularity. (I’m not counting prever, which is of course based on ver.) Familiar, because as with the much more frequent -zco and -go verbs, the more conservative yo form, ironically, became irregular as a side-effect of changes that affected other forms of the verb, including the infinitive. Veo itself would have remained just as regular as creo and leo if the other verb forms hadn’t changed.

So, dear reader: Viste. Leíste. ¿Creíste?

Irregular yo in Spanish — NOT!

Because my high school friend Peter was on the yearbook committee, he managed to have his picture published upside-down (that’s NOT him in the picture below), with the senior quote “Maybe, just maybe, everyone else is wrong”.

"Maybe, just maybe, everyone else is wrong"

“Maybe, just maybe, everyone else is wrong” 

In our family, Peter’s quote has become an anti-trend mini-meme. No Facebook account? Don’t think Seth MacFarlane is funny? Every other “car” in the parking lot is an SUV? Maybe, just maybe…

Believe it or not, I thought of Peter immediately when I looked into the origin of the two biggest Spanish verb groups with irregular yo forms in the present tense: the so-called -zco and -go verbs. (This is particularly ironic because Peter didn’t even take Spanish.) It turns out that from a historical perspective, the yo forms are actually the most REGULAR — that is, most faithful to the original Latin. In a nutshell, their -o ending insulated them from sound changes that affected /k/ before /e/ and /i/; i.e. before front vowels.

So in this case, everyone else IS wrong, or at least linguistically radical.

For -zco verbs like florecer, from Latin florescere, the relevant change was the simplification of /sk/ to /s/ (in Andalucian and Latin American Spanish) or /Θ/ (in Castilian Spanish) before /e/ or /i/. [Note: this is a drastic abbreviation of a process that involved several intermediate steps; see Ralph Penny’s A History of the Spanish Language or another good history of Spanish for details.] So the infinitive changed from florescere to florecer, the  form from floresces to floreces, and so on. Only florezco kept the /k/ cluster of the original Latin.

For -go verbs like hacer, from Latin facere, the relevant change was the fronting and softening of /k/ to /s/ or /θ/ before front vowels. So the infinitive changed from facere (with a /k/ sound) to hacer, the  form to haces, and so on. Only haco remained in the present tense as a reflection of the original Latin /k/. Later, a separate change voiced the /k/ to /g/, giving us modern hago. (This /g/ is still a lot closer to /k/ than is /s/ or /θ/.) A similar sequence of events impacted Latin dicere as it evolved into decir, giving us the (yo) digo form.

All the sound changes mentioned above were general, occurring throughout Spanish vocabulary. For example, the /sk/ simplification gave us pez (from Latin pesce), /k/ fronting gave us cielo (from Latin caelu), and /k/ voicing gave us lugar (from Latin locale). The change of /f/ to /h/ in hacer (from facere) is also seen in words like hijo (from Latin filius).

As I described in an earlier post, analogy untidies the results of sweeping sound changes like these. This was certainly the case with the -zco and -go verbs. The verb lucir and related verbs like deslucir adopted the -zco pattern, as did several verbs ending in -ducir, such as producir, even though none of these had an /sk/ cluster in Latin. Likewise, the -go pattern spread to other common verbs including venir, tener, and salir, though at the same time, some verbs originally in the -go group became regular (cocer is one). After these back-and-forths, modern Spanish ended up with almost 100 –zco verbs, and around 10 –go verbs. You can check my Teaching page for a full list of the -zco verbs.

The other irregular yo types — ver, the -oy verbs, and the two -e verbs (haber and saber) –are another story entirely; maybe I’ll post about them later.

[Update: I have now posted about ver.]