Tag Archives: Latin

Spanish vs. Catalan vocabulary

It’s dangerously tempting to think of Catalan as a “melting pot” of Spanish, French, and Italian. Tempting, because Catalan has aspects of all three languages, and is spoken in their geographical midpoint (see map below). Dangerous, because the “melting pot” metaphor implies that the other three languages came together to form Catalan. In fact, all four are the product of slightly different versions of Vulgar Latin.

As long as we don’t fall for the “melting pot” fallacy, it’s fun to pick out the similarities between Catalan and its sister Romance languages. For example, Catalan has a letter ç, like French (e.g. Cat. abraçada “hug”), a /ts/ sound, like Italian (e.g. Cat. potser “maybe”), and two verbs for “to be”, like Spanish (Cat. esser and estar).

The most interesting differences between Catalan and Spanish have to do with vocabulary. Many Catalan and Spanish words come from two different Latin sources, such as Catalan voler “to want” (from Lat. volo, the source of French vouloir and Italian volere) versus Spanish querer (from Lat. quaerĕre), or Catalan nebot “nephew” (from Lat. nepote, the source of French neveu and Italian nipote) versus Spanish sobrino (from Lat. sobrīnus). As Ralph Penny explains in his awesome A History of the Spanish Language, the Spanish words usually reflect the older, more classical, variety of Latin that was spoken when Rome first conquered the Iberian Peninsula (between 200 and 17 BCE, relatively early in Roman history), while the Catalan words are more innovative. Because Catalonia is closer to Rome than the rest of the Peninsula, it kept up better with ongoing changes in Latin vocabulary.

Other vocabulary differences reflect the geographical realities of the post-Roman world. When Rome fell, the Visigoths invaded the Iberian peninsula from the north. Later (711 C.E.), the Moors invaded from the south. Germanic vocabulary therefore affected Catalan more than it did Spanish (e.g. guarir vs. sanar for “heal”, lleig vs. feo for “ugly”) while the Arabic impact was greater for Spanish than for Catalan (e.g. coixí vs. almohada for “pillow”, llogar vs. alquilar for “rent”). The two influences met in the middle for the word “blue”: Catalan’s Germanic blau and Spanish’s Arabic azul both displaced Latin caeruleus, the source of the the sophisticated English color term cerulean.

Follow the link below to download a table with a more substantial listing of vocabulary differences, including etymologies and French and/or Italian cognates.

Spanish vs. Catalan Vocabulary

Usted is a second-generation polite pronoun

I wish I had been able to think of a catchier title for this post. But if you think that pronouns are intrinsically interesting (I do! I do!), the idea of multiple generations of polite pronouns should be irresistible.

Spanish speakers and Spanish students all know about and usted, the two ways to say “you” in Spanish. is for equals (friends, family) and inferiors (babies, pets), while usted is for superiors (teachers, policemen, bosses).  comes straight from Latin, whereas usted was derived in the 1500s from the respectful phrase vuestra merced, or “your mercy.” I always picture its coinage as looking something like this:

vuestra merced

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Spanish “was” = “went”

When you stop to think about it, it’s rather amazing that two of the most common Spanish verbs, ser “to be” and ir “to go,” are identical in the past tense. Fui can mean either “I was” or “I went,” fuiste can mean either “you were” or “you went,” and so on. Those of us who have spoken Spanish for years take this fact for granted, but it’s rather a shock when new students encounter it for the first time. They always wonder how Spanish speakers deal with this ambiguity: “How can they tell which one is which?” As a linguist I’m also interested in the historical side of the question: since the purpose of language is to convey meaning, how did such an ambiguous situation evolve?

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Whence the Spanish tilde

El CidIn a previous post, I explained that Latin’s long nn turned into the ñ sound of Spanish, which resembles the ni in onion. For example, Latin annus “year” became Spanish año. This development is also the source of the letter ñ itselfThe squiggly tilde ~ over the n started as a shorthand form of the letter n, so that ñ stood for a double n, i.e. n over n. Once the symbol was established, it came to be used for instances of the ñ sound that had other origins, including:

  • n before i or e (Hispania > España, aranea > araña “spider”)
  • n after g (signalis > señal “sign”)
  • mn (damnum > daño “harm”)

The ñ was already in use by medieval times. In fact, you can see it in the earliest known example of written Spanish, a 14th-century transcription (in Spain’s Biblioteca Nacional) of the oral epic poem El Cid. In the excerpt above, from the first page of the poem, there’s a visible tilde in the word señor, the third word in the last line.

Why Spanish has two r sounds

In a previous post, I described the two r sounds of Spanish — the trill of carro and the flap of caro — and why linguists think r is interesting. How did Spanish end up with these two different flavors of r?

The spelling of carro and caro us a strong hint: Latin had both long and short r, along with long and short versions of other consonants. The difference between Latin carrus and carus wasn’t how the r sounds were made, but how long they were held. Spanish did away with the length difference but compensated by introducing the trill/flap difference.

This is consistent with a larger pattern: except for long mm versus short m, which simply merged, Spanish found a substitute for all of Latin’s consonant length contrasts. My favorite other example is Latin’s long nn, which turned into Spanish ñas in año “year” (from Latin annus).

Any changes to long consonants generally also applied to short consonants at the beginning of a word. This explains why words beginning with r (like real) are trilled, even though they had a short in Latin and are still spelled with a single r.