Tag Archives: Spanish

Report on ANLE event with Francisco Moreno Fernández

On Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending the induction of Francisco Moreno Fernández, the Executive Director of the Instituto Cervantes at Harvard University, as the newest member of the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española (ANLE).  Moreno Fernández’s specialty is sociolinguistics, and he is currently focusing on Spanish in the United States.

The main point of Moreno Fernández’s inaugural lecture was that United States Spanish has two manifestations. The first is “Spanglish”, the casual form of speech characterized by frequent code-switching, or alternation, between Spanish and English. The second, used in more formal contexts, is an American* version of Spanish (español estadounidense) that has borrowed hundreds of English words, in many cases crowding out their normal Spanish counterparts.

My favorite part of the talk was the data that Moreno Fernández showed on the degree of penetration of specific English borrowings in different parts of the United States. He walked us through three examples: registración, which has mostly replaced inscripciónflu, which is threatening gripe, and dil (a Spanish spelling of deal), which hasn’t obtained much of a foothold.

As in the previous ANLE induction I attended, it was a pleasure to immerse myself in the beautiful Spanish of all the evening’s speakers: not just Moreno Fernández but the scholars who introduced him, formally responded to his talk, and officially inducted him. Coincidentally, two of these presenters were native speakers not of Spanish, but of other Romance languages (Italian and Romanian). As a non-native speaker myself, I was heartened to see them accepted as full colleagues and participating in the Spanish academy system.

[Later edit: Here is ANLE’s press release about the event.]

*Since I’m writing in English I’ve used the word American here to mean ‘of the United States’. This usage is problematic from a Hispanic perspective, since América, of course, includes all of North, South, and Central America, not just the United States. When speaking Spanish I would therefore never say americano to mean ‘American’ in the more limited sense, but always estadounidense. It would be helpful to have a more neutral English word like “United Statesian”. Wikipedia has an interesting discussion on this topic here.

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.


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


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 joy of diminutives

I just checked, and was surprised to see that this is my first blog post about Spanish diminutives (unless you count a passing reference in my all-time second-most-viewed post on Spanish nicknames). Diminutives are word endings, such as -ito and -illo, that make a ‘little’ version of the word they are attached to. For example, a cucharita is a little spoon (cuchara) and a cigarrillo ‘cigarette’ is literally a small cigar (cigarro). Diminutives often convey affection rather than size. Pobrecito is equivalent to ‘poor thing’, and mamacita, while it has no true English equivalent, is similar to ‘dear mother’.

Spanish speakers use diminutives deliberately and even with relish, often piling them on as in chiquitillo ‘little boy’, which adds both -ito and -illo to chico ‘boy’. In this way, diminutives are different from inflectional endings, such as plural -s and -n, which speakers use without thinking. The same is true for other affective endings, such as -azo and -ón, which both mean ‘large’ and often bear an insulting tinge.

One of my favorite examples of Spanish diminutives in action comes from (where else?) Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” book series, my current Spanish literary obsession. In Seis días de diciembre, the fifth book in the series, Mascarell has lunch with a customs official, Martín Centells, at Centells’s favorite restaurant near the port of Barcelona. As a regular patron, Centells receives the best treatment from Quique, the chef/owner. Quique uses diminutives to describe the specialties of the day with loving pride:

¿Qué tienes hoy, Quique?
Una sopita de pescado de las buenas. Y de segundo sardinitas pero de las que anoche estaban en el mar tan tranquilas que las ha pescado mi suegro.

— What do you have today, Quique?
— A terrific fish soup, and as a second course, sardines that were relaxing in the ocean until my father-in-law caught them last night.

Interestingly, Sierra i Fabra maintains the diminutive when describing how Quique serves the food (Ya traía las sardinitas), but drops it when Mascarell and Centells eat: Probó la sopa ‘He tasted the soup’, atacando la primera sardina ‘attacking the first sardine’.

Darn it, now I’m hungry.

Muletillas revisited

I remember, with excruciating clarity, my most embarrassing moment as a young mother. I was in the supermarket with my two-year-old daughter, Joanna. She always attracted a lot of attention because of her adorable face and her cherubic halo of blond curls. This made it even more humiliating when she decided that she was bored and piped up, in her clear voice that carried for aisles (if not miles), “Mom, let’s get out of this f**ing store!” That’s when I realized it was time for me to clean up my language.

What does this have to do with Spanish?

Last week my second-semester students all gave oral presentations. I had slipped, almost without realizing it, into the habit of dropping the English word so into my Spanish. And just like toddler Joanna, my students did as I did. More than half of them used so in their presentations instead of a proper Spanish hesitation word, like pues or bien. (In Spanish these are called muletillas ‘little crutches’, a term I adore.) As with the supermarket incident, the message was clear: it was time for me to clean up my Spanish.

This incident was particularly galling to me because I am well aware of the linguistic importance of sticking to the target language when using hesitation words. In fact, this was the subject of the best language lesson I ever had as a student, in a class with Harvard’s master French teacher Judy Frommer, Prof. Frommer had every student in the class read out loud a short, innocuous paragraph while attempting to stretch it out as long as possible with French muletillas, or tics de langage, such as bondoncalors, and bien. It was a lot of fun, and really drove home an important point: every time you lapse into your own language, even if just for a meaningless syllable, your brain has to do extra work to switch back into the target language.

So — I have turned over a new linguistic leaf, and am doing my best to keep my Spanish pure. I’m sure that my students will register this change, albeit not consciously, and I hope it will help them keep to Spanish themselves.

[Note: I entitled this post “Muletillas revisited” because I thought I had mentioned the topic before…but I haven’t. More’s the pity…]

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.

Trabajar por vs. trabajar para

My airplane reading for my flight home from Spain was the third book in Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” series, Cinco días de octubre. I love these books! The plots are gripping, the Spanish is lively, the links to modern Spanish history are illuminating, the Barcelona setting is vivid (Sierra’s events unfold on actual streets, parks, and whatnot), and Inspector Mascarell himself is a compelling character, from his brilliant investigative skills to his mental conversations with his dead wife.

Of course, I always have my eyes out for interesting linguistic tidbits, and I found one on p. 223 of the paperback edition. There, Mascarell reassures a nervous witness that although he is temporarily in the employ of the unscrupulous Benigno Sáez de Heredia, he isn’t Sáez’s ally. He does this by juxtaposing por and para with the verb trabajar:

Trabajo para él, accidentalmente, pero no por él, descuide.
‘I work for him, accidentally, but not for him, so relax.’

Por and para both translate as ‘for’ in English, and mastering the subtle differences between them is one of the less pleasant tasks in learning Spanish (see, for instance, the por/para handout on my Teaching page, and also this earlier post). The contrast between trabajar por and trabajar para is a standard part of this topic. However, Sierra does not exploit the contrast in the usual way.

Normally, trabajar para means ‘to work for (as an employee)’ and trabajar por means ‘to work for (as a substitute)’, as when a usual worker is sick. My por/para handout includes examples of both uses. However, in this case Sierra is using trabajar por to mean instead ‘to work for the sake of’, or ‘for the benefit of’. This is a perfectly reasonable use of por, but startling after focusing, for years (!!!), on the employee/substitute contrast.

Like other contrasts that exist in Spanish but not English, such as ser vs. estar ‘to be’ and the preterite vs. imperfect past tenses, the por/para contrast can be seen as either a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, the contrast is a genuine challenge for novice Spanish students, and even old hands: after decades of striving, I still occasionally find myself stumped as to which preposition to use. On the other hand, Sierra’s example here shows the expressive power of the por/para contrast. It accomplishes elegantly, with a single lexical choice, a difference that in English requires either dramatic emphasis on the second for (as I’ve tried to show via boldface), or a more drastic, and stiffer, rewording: perhaps ‘…but not on his behalf’. It’s always comforting to see such a useful payoff for a challenging aspect of the language.

[Other posts based on Sierra i Fabra’s books have concerned leísmo (here and here), the personal a, and the imperfect subjunctive.]

Where Latin came to Spain

When I planned my linguistic tour of northern Spain, I hoped that today’s itinerary would be the best conceivable combination of intellectual engagement and touristic pleasure. In fact, it exceeded my expectations.

The intellectual part of our day (“we” being my friend Sue and I) was a visit to the Greco-Roman ruins at Empúries on the Costa Brava. This site made it onto our itinerary because, as referenced in this post’s title, Empúries is where Latin came to the Iberian Peninsula. The Greek ruins at the site date from the sixth century B.C.E. They memorialize a thriving settlement devoted to trade: in fact, the Greek name for the settlement, Emporion, means ‘market’. The Greeks traded actively with the native Iberian tribes, including the Indikites, whose capital city of Ullastret Sue and I visited yesterday. The Roman ruins at the site date from the beginning of the first century B.C.E.

The touristic part of the day was swimming at the fantastic beach located JUST YARDS AWAY from the ruins. How great is Spain?!?


I enjoyed the the Greek ruins at Empúries more than the Roman ruins. This was partly because I hadn’t expected them — I had assumed that the Romans overbuilt the existing Greek city, whereas in fact they co-existed (see explanation below). Also, these were the first Greek ruins I’ve ever seen, whereas I’ve seen Roman ruins elsewhere in Spain and also in France, Italy, and Israel.

The Greek ruins include houses, temples, factories for smelting metal and salting fish, an agora, or public plaza (a frequent crossword puzzle word!), and a water system. Their water cisterns were noticeably deeper than the ones we saw at Ullastret yesterday (sorry, Indikites). My two favorite Greek sights from Empúries are illustrated below. The first is a mosaic-tiled banquet hall, whose inscription translates as ‘how sweet it is to be reclined.’ The second is a statue of Asklepíeion, the Greek god of medicine. These two features struck my both for their beauty, and for personal reasons: the “reclining” mention reminded me of the fourth question of the Passover seder, while the statue of Asklepíeion reminded me of my daughter, who is a doctor. (Once you’re a mom, you see the world a little differently.)

Greek tiled banquet hall. The inscription translates as ‘how sweet it is to be reclined’.

Statue of Asklepíeion, the Greek god of medicine

Statue of Asklepíeion, the Greek god of medicine

Our main mission at Empúries, however, was to see the Roman ruins, and thus learn more about how Latin came to Spain. A wall panel at the museum at the ruins offered this helpful summary of how the Second Punic War against Carthage led to this fundamental and irrevocable change in the Iberian Peninsula and its languages:

In the year 218 B.C., the Roman army landed at the port of Emporion, an allied city, with a view to cutting off the Carthaginian rear-guard on their way to Rome. Once the war was over, the Romans wanted to control and exploit the adjoining territory, a process which initiated the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. This process, known as Romanization, included two stages. The first, of conquest and military domination, did not lead to changes in native culture and organization. The opposition of the natives to the new power resulted in the establishment, in the year 195 B.C., of a Roman military camp, on the upper part of the hill of Empúries, so that the country could be controlled and peace maintained. The second stage, which started at the beginning of the first century B.C., entailed the absorption of the various existing societies into Roman culture. New cities were created, such as Empúries itself, Gerunda [Girona] or Tarraco [Tarragona]; a major road network was developed, whose main axis was the Via Augusta; development of the land was carried out according to the Italic models based on the creation of country houses of villae and, lastly, the progressive use of Latin was promoted and new religious cults were introduced. Assistance given to the Romans by the Emporitan Greeks meant that they could enjoy a status of independence within the newly built Roman city.

The Roman ruins were much larger than the Greek section, and included a stunning private house with a different mosaic pattern in each room.

"Domus 1" at Empúries

“Domus 1” at Empúries

A pilgrimage to the Monasterio de Suso

Most pilgrims who visit the Monasterio de Suso are drawn by its religious significance. The monastery is built around, and still incorporates, the hillside cave where the Visigothic hermit San Millán retreated from the world, gathering acolytes over the decades until he died in 574 C.E. at the age of 101. His sarcophagus is still in Suso, though his remains have been transferred to the Monasterio de Yuso, the larger monastery later built at the base of the hill to support his increased following.

Our peregrination, though, was linguistic (“we” being I and my friend Sue, who’s joined me on a linguistic tour of northern Spain). Suso originally included a “scriptorium” — a room devoted to the copying of manuscripts. Here, some unknown scribe made annotations, in an early form of Spanish (and also in Basque) in the margin of a Latin text. These annotations, known as the Glosas Emilianenses, are among the earliest examples of written Spanish. The volume containing the glosas is now in the Real Academia de la Historia in Madrid. The scriptorium no longer exists.

A sampling from the Glosas Emilianenses, from a presentation by Magda Liliana Barrero Vàsquez

Just getting to the Monasterio de Suso was an adventure. My GPS blanked out briefly as we approached a key intersection, then directed us along a series of bumpy local roads through the vineyards of La Rioja for about fifteen minutes. It was a beautiful detour and we ended up safely at the Monasterio de Yuso, where we boarded the bus to Suso with a few dozen German tourists. Our guide was an elderly gentleman who has obviously been giving the same tour for years. He pointed out the monastery’s key features:

  • the cave where San Millán fasted and secluded himself
  • San Millán’s now-empty sarcophagus
  • a shelf containing bones from donors to the Monastery, housed there as a condition of their donations
  • the doorway that used to lead to the scriptorium
  • a series of archways that encapsulated Suso’s history: one Visigothic, some Moorish-style, and some Gothic (see picture below)
Arches at Suso: Visigothic (left), Moorish (middle), Gothic (right)

Arches at Suso: Visigothic (left), Moorish (middle), Gothic (right)

Back down at Yuso, we were tempted to stop for a snack at the “Mesón Las Glosas” but had to push on to Girona.



Passing the centuries in Burgos

My friend Sue and I are now in the second week of our linguistic tour of northern Spain. Yesterday we hiked up to the fortress overlooking the city of Burgos and its Arlanzón River, and thus back in time to the early centuries of the Reconquista (details here). Today’s two excursions, to the Catedral de Burgos and the Monasterio de las Huelgas, carried us forward several centuries, through the era of El Cid, the political consolidation of most of Spain, and the successful pursuit of the Reconquista.

The Cathedral is built on a site of great linguistic interest: in 1080, the Council of Burgos took place in an earlier church at the same site. As described in this previous post, the purpose of the Council was to enforce the use of the Latin Mass in place of the vernacular that had sprung up in Spain. While touring the Cathedral today, I learned that just one year later, in 1081, the city of Burgos became the official seat (sede) for the province’s bishopric, or diocese. Clearly the Council had increased the city’s prestige: language matters! The first Cathedral of Burgos was built over the next fifteen years.

Informative sign from Catedral de Burgos, showing establishment of Burgos as religious seat one year after the Council of Burgos.

Another informative sign, dating the original Cathedral to within fifteen years of the Council of Burgos.

Today’s Cathedral is of further linguistic interest because it houses the tomb of El Cid, the Reconquista hero of the epic poem that is the first known work of Spanish literature. The tomb’s inscription includes the Latin version of El Cid’s name (Rodrigo > Rodericus) and that of his wife, buried with him (Jimena > Eximena). Above the cross you can also see a key line from the poem: a todos alcanza honra por el que en buen hora nació: very roughly, ‘everyone gained in honor because this good man lived’.

Tomb of El Cid and his wife Jimena in the Catedral de Burgos

Our second touristic destination of the day, Burgos’s Monasterio de las Huelgas, fast-forwarded us less than a century to the year 1187. The Monastery was founded by Queen Leonor, the British-born wife of Alfonso VIII of Castilla, and serves as a pantheon, or royal burial place, for this couple and their descendants. By Alfonso’s reign the Reconquista was going full blast, carrying the Castilian language with it. The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, a turning point in the Reconquista,  took place in 1212; a spectacular door hanging from the tent of Alfonso’s Moorish opponent, Muhámmad al-Násir, hangs in the Monastery’s Museo de Ricas Telas Medievales. It is a harbinger of the eventual fall of Granada at the hands of Alfonso and Leonor’s descendants, Ferdinand and Isabella, and thus the final victory of Castilian Spanish.

Pendón de Las Navas de Tolosa