Tag Archives: sound change

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!

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.]

Spanish boot verbs, sound change, and analogy

Lately I’ve been looking into the origins of the Spanish irregular verbs oh-so-affectionately called “boot” verbs. They are more properly called “stem-changing verbs” because their final stem vowel changes from e to ie (e.g. negar/niego), from o to ue (e.g. poder/puedo), or from e to i (e.g. medir/mido). It’s exciting to discover that this verb class is a perfect example of the two classic forces in language change: sound change and analogy. As any basic linguistics textbook will tell you, sound change affects all words with a given sound, and analogy then messes things up.

Two sound changes are responsible for the “boot” verbs: the change of Latin short  /ĕ/ and /ŏ/ to the diphthongs (vowel sequences) /ie/ and /ue/ in stressed syllables, and the raising of /e/ to /i/ before the sound /j/, which is pronounced like English y. The first change is more common because it affected -ar-er, and -ir verbs. It’s the change behind the form of much Spanish vocabulary, including such common words as fiesta and puerta, from Latin festa and porta (see this previous post). And because it’s confined to stressed syllables, it’s the source of the classic “boot” pattern, where the diphthong occurs in the singular and the 3rd person plural (pUEdo, pUEdes, pUEde, pUEden) but not in the nosotros and vosotros forms, where stress falls on the verb ending (podEmos, podÉIs).

Analogy messed up this tidy result by turning some regular verbs into boot verbs and some boot verbs into regulars. The former is akin to the emergence of dove as an alternative to dived, by analogy to drove and other irregular “strong” English verbs. The most common verb that “went boot” is pensar, which shouldn’t have a stem change because its /e/ comes from a Latin long vowel. Some examples of former boot verbs that are now regular are prestar (formerly priesto, priestas, etc.) and diezmar (the original infinitive was dezmar).

The raising of /e/ to /i/ before /j/ only happened in a few verb forms, but analogy took it the rest of the way. The /j/ that triggered this change occurred in Latin -īre verb endings; this is why all Spanish verbs in this boot class are -ir verbs. For example, the – ending of Latin mētiō “I measure” came to be pronounced /jo/ in Vulgar Latin, triggering the change of /met/ to /mit/. This vowel change then spread, by analogy, throughout the full “boot”, and the /j/ was eventually lost(The /t/ also turned into a /d/, obviously.)

Spanish was actually supposed to have four types of boot verbs, because /j/ affected /o/ as well as /e/, raising it to /u/ in a number of -ir verbs. However, in these cases analogy truly ran rampant and /u/ completely took over the verb, changing Latin mollire, for example, to Spanish mullir “to hoe”. No modern forms of this verb reflect the original /o/. The same thing happened to subir. Its Latin source was sŭbīre; without the /j/ the short /ŭ/ of the stem would have turned into an /o/, i.e. sobir.

For more, see pp. 156-161 In the 1991 edition of Ralph Penny’s marvelous A History of the Spanish Language (unfortunately, not the edition pictured below, which has eliminated some detail.)

I wrote again about boot verbs a few days later, in this post.