Tag Archives: Spanish

Slippery relative clauses

[See also this related post from last year.]

I happen to love the Spanish subjunctive. I love how expressive this mood can be. I love how the present and past subjunctives incorporate all the irregulars of the present and preterite indicative. And I love the two forms of the imperfect subjunctive.

IMHO the question of when to use the indicative versus the subjunctive is TONS easier than the question of when to use the preterite versus the imperfect. I tell my students that once they learn the rules, they will be okay.

Of course, my students don’t necessarily buy into my enthusiasm…But I keep trying. This year I’m experimenting with a new approach whereby I characterize indicative contexts generally as fuerte ‘strong’ and subjunctive contexts generally as débil ‘weak.’ This is actually a student-friendly version of the linguistic terminology of assertions versus non-assertions that I picked up when researching Question 87 of my book (“How can the subjunctive be used for actual events?”).

Of course I also teach my students specific uses of the subjunctive, often including the WEIRDO acronym. (Maybe one day I will try Lightspeed Spanish’s WOOPA acronym also or instead.) But I believe that it is helpful to give students an overall concept as well as the specific cases.

A PowerPoint I put together to teach the use of the indicative and subjunctive in relative (or “adjective”) clauses exemplifies this dual approach (see introductory slide below).  On the one hand, the real and hipotético descriptors reference the specific rule for relative clauses. On the other hand, the strong and weak guys hanging out next to the happy student who has a good Spanish teacher (explica), versus the sad student who’s still looking (explique), reference the fuerte and débil contexts. If you click on the image you will access the whole PowerPoint via Google Drive. (Normally I embed PowerPoints via SlideShare, but it isn’t working properly tonight.)

In class, I handed each pair of students a list of the eleven numbered sentences from the PowerPoint. (See below, where I’ve underlined the correct answers.) As I showed each slide, the student pairs tried to figure out whether the situation fit the indicative or the subjunctive. Then I called on one pair to report and explain their decision. The students really seemed to enjoy the activity, and mostly came up with the correct answers.

¿Indicativo (real) o subjuntivo (hipotético)?

  1. Estoy buscando a un profesor que enseña/enseñe portugués.
  2. Necesito un helado que se hace/haga sin azúcar
  3. ¿Conoces un restaurante que tiene/tenga comida barata?
  4. ¿Conoces a una chica de Egipto que vive/viva en mi colegio mayor?
  5. Quiero leer un libro que se llama/llame Tool of War.
  6. Necesito un helado que se vende/venda en mi vecindario
  7. Quiero trabajar con una persona que tiene/tenga mucha experiencia.
  8. Estoy buscando a un profesor que enseña/enseñe portugués.
  9. Estoy buscando un libro que me enseña/enseñe a reparar mi bicicleta.
  10. Quiero leer un libro que me explica/explique la gramática.
  11. Quiero trabajar con una persona que tiene/tenga mucha experiencia.

Single subject subjunctives

Last week, several students in my intermediate Spanish class crashed and burned on what looked to me like a routine homework assignment. The topic was the subjunctive in contexts of doubt and possibility, and the format was constructing sentences “Chinese menu” style, with one element from each column.

I wasn’t wild about this activity. I would have liked to have seen more variety of subjects instead of just yo…yo…yo. Also, the activity included only one unambiguous indicative context (creo que). At the same time, it reinforced a clunky simplification that our textbook makes in introducing this topic. While in real life quizá(s) and tal vez can be followed by either the indicative or the subjunctive — this is, indeed, one of my favorite demonstrations of the power of the subjunctive — the textbook presents them as always triggering the subjunctive. I’d rather postpone quizá(s) and tal vez until students are ready to handle, and even enjoy, this flexibility.

These misgivings aside, I was surprised by the fact that many of my best students kept the indicative (podré, me tomaré, encontraré, etc.) in all of their sentences. A class discussion revealed why: they were following the rule of thumb, drilled into them in high school classes, that the subjunctive is only found in sentences with a change of subject signaled by que.

I could see where my students were coming from. In teaching the subjunctive one naturally emphasizes the difference between sentences like (1) and (2) below:

  1. Quiero salir. ‘I want to leave.’
  2. Quiero que tú salgas. ‘I want you to leave.’

Whereas English uses the infinitive ‘to leave’ in both sentences, Spanish uses the infinitive only if the two clauses have the same subject. Sentences like the second one above, which has two different subjects (yo ‘I’ and tú  ‘you’) separated by que, require the subjunctive.

A rule of thumb, however, is different from an actual rule. Expressions of doubt require que and the subjunctive even when there is no change of subject: for example, Dudo que tenga un hijo el año que viene ‘I doubt I’ll have a kid next year’, to use one of the “Chinese menu” options. While the ‘rule of thumb’ suggests the use of the infinitive instead, the resulting sentence Dudo tener un hijo el año que viene sounds less natural than the subjunctive version.

My students’ difficulty on this topic reflects the overall danger of relying on rules of thumb, including mnemonics, in teaching and learning. I’ve seen the same problem crop up in students’ reluctance to use the preterite to talk about weather (e.g. Ayer llovió ‘It rained yesterday), because somewhere along the line they learned to always use the imperfect. For more on this general pedagogical topic, please see this post from 2013.

Finally, I must include a shout-out to this discussion, which I found helpful in answering my students’ questions about this topic, and which more or less inspired this post.

Stressing about “porque”

I thought there was nothing left for me to learn about Spanish stress, a topic that encompasses both pronunciation — which syllable in a word is given the greatest acoustic prominence — and writing — the use of accent marks to indicate irregular stress (inter alia). After all, I wrote my dissertation about how children learn the relevant pronunciation rules, then spun off two papers on this topic (here and here). More recently I devoted one question in my book to spoken stress, and one to accent marks. And accent marks are always a favorite topic for me to teach, both to students and to native speakers, who are uniformly delighted to learn how systematic this part of Spanish orthography is. My top recommendation for an online summary, with some nifty exercises, is here.

So it was surprising when a conversation with a student made me question, in a small way, my understanding of this topic. I had been going over the stress rules with this student, including the basic rule that words that end in a vowel are stressed on the next-to-last syllable. (Think HEcho, partiCIpa, todopodeROso, and desafortunadaMENte.) She then asked if porque ‘because’ was an exception to this rule.

This question threw me for a loop. Porque is related both to the interrogative ¿por qué? ‘why?’ and the noun porqué, which also means ‘why’, as in el porqué de una decisión ‘the why of a decision’. These two words/phrases both stress the qué, and the student assumed that porque did as well. When I said porque out loud, at first I thought I stressed the que. But the more I repeated the word, the less certain I became of my own stress placement — a kind of Heisenberg effect.

Fortunately, we live in a time that is rich in language resources. I was able to pull up wordreference’s listing for porque, which includes recordings of Mexican, Spanish, and Argentinian pronunciations. These pronunciations are divided: the Mexican pronunciation stresses the que, but the other two clearly stress the por. I then checked on Forvo, a crowd-sourced pronunciation dictionary. Again, the Mexican pronunciations stress the que, and the others — from Spain, the DR, and Argentina — stress the por. However, some examples provided of porque in context — for example, this one, recorded by a speaker from Spain — are more Mexican-style.

So the correct answer to my student’s question seems to be that in general, porque follows the rules of Spanish stress, but not in Mexico, and not always in Spain, either.

Punky Spanish spelling

When I was researching Spanish text messaging for Question #55 in my book, I was intrigued by the frequent substitution of the letter k for qu and c. This pattern is especially curious because the letter k isn’t native to Spanish. It normally appears only in borrowings such as kilómetro.

A friendly redditor explained this texting phenomenon as follows:

Not sure about other countries, but in Spain, substituting the “k” traditionally conveyed certain social/cultural/political leanings. It goes back to the early post-Franco years and was initially a punk way to hack the language (see Kaka de Luxe, Rock Radikal Vasco, etc.). Basque also has had an influence.

That’s a lot of power for a simple letter of the alphabet.

Given this background, I was excited to see many uses of k in business names and graffiti when I was in Spain in May. Here are some pictures, with my captions as color commentary.

Here the “cool” spelling of “katedral” contrasts with the normal spelling of “cafetería”.

In this graffiti calling for a street protest, the “k” of “kalle” is a natural fit with the gender-neutral “x” of “todxs”.

The accent mark is missing, too.

Here the street-smart “k” is coupled with another deliberate misspelling, of “z” for “c”. The full conventional spelling would be “rinconcito”.

OK, this graffiti has nothing to do with “k”. But I couldn’t resist including it because it was so striking to see a pro-Franco slogan in the year 2018, a full 43 years after the dictator’s death. Note also that the the tilde in “España” is present.

Double consonants in Spanish

[An observant reader pointed out that this post includes double vowels as well as double consonants. I really should have entitled the post “Double letters in Spanish” — but now it is, methinks, too late! I had consonants on the mind because the trigger for this post was coming across the word sabbat.]

If I had a dime for every time I crossed out an extra l from a student’s spelling of inteligente…well, I’d have a lot of dimes. Same for an extra l in mochila (undoubtedly influenced by English words like Godzilla and gorilla), or an extra s in profesora. Add in a few nickel penalties for students who pronounce leer like (King) Lear, and I could treat myself to lots of Starbucks.

These spelling and pronunciation errors are both triggered by a significant difference between Spanish and English spelling: in Spanish, almost every letter is pronounced. (Notable exceptions include the silent h (as in hola) and the u seen in quiquegui, and gue sequences, as in quisoquesoguiso, and guerra.) This means that inteligente and mochila only need one l to represent the spoken /l/ sound, profesora only needs one s, and the two e‘s of leer must be pronounced individually. Double oo‘s exist also, as in cooperación, and again both vowels are pronounced.

This rule also explains why Spanish spelling preserves the double nn in words like perenneconnotar, and innato. According to the Real Academia Española (RAE) these words are pronounced with a long n. While some native speakers I’ve checked with say that they pronounce nn words as if they had a single n, you can certainly hear long pronunciations: for example, here.

My (2010) edition of the RAE’s Ortografía de la lengua española also refers to double bb‘s. I had never heard of this combination until I opened the book to check up on the nn words. Moreover, the RAE’s three examples — subbéticosubbloque, and subboreal (see below) — are so obscure that they aren’t even listed in the RAE dictionary! (This tickles my funny bone.) So I’m not going to lose any sleep over them.

Also in keeping with this rule, Spanish simplifies most double letters in loanwords; the Ortografía gives the examples of driblar (from dribble), chófer (from chauffeur), and zigurat, inter alia.

Most remarkable, therefore, are the double letters that Spanish tolerates in certain loan words. Except as indicated, the following words with double letters (most from this Span¡ishDict comment) are in the RAE dictionary:

  • sabbat ‘Sabbath’
  • affaire
  • sheriff
  • reggae
  • gamma
  • zoo
  • hippie (note adjectival form jipi)
  • dossier
  • gauss
  • motocross
  • topless (spelled with ss in WordReference.com but with single s in the RAE dictionary)
  • vendetta
  • watt
  • jacuzzi
  • jazz
  • mozzarella
  • paparazzi
  • pizza
  • puzzle (spelled with zz in WordReference.com but with single z in the RAE dictionary)

We all know that Spanish spelling is phonetic, but these exceptions make it a little less so.


57 words with eñe

I’ve had the wonderful Spanish ñ on my mind lately (see e.g. here), and today decided to make a list of reasonably common Spanish words that use this characteristic letter. This started as a plain list of 57 words. Then I added translations. Then I couldn’t resist going back in time: I knew that the ñ sound had several different origins, but was curious to see how this worked out statistically.

The results are below, in tabular form so you can play with the words yourself if you like. The table is sorted by Type, meaning the type of the word’s origin; within each type, words are listed in alphabetical order. The types themselves are ordered by frequency.

  • The most common origin is therefore the first one you see in the table: a Latin ne or ni. When followed by another vowel, the e or i turned into a y sound, which in turn had a transformative effect on the n.  (The y sound had a similar effect on other consonants, not just n, and the resulting changes are referred to as palatalization.)
  • The next most common origin is a Latin double nn; this is the source of the tilde (~) itself.
    Pleasingly, the suffix -eño has a dual origin, with one derivational path of the ne/ni type (seen in words like isleño) and another of the nn type (seen in pequeño).
  • The third group is a Latin gn or ng sequence. I knew that some ñ‘s came from gn, but the ng words were a surprise.
  • Next are words borrowed from other languages. Here we find words that begin with an ñ, from languages as disparate as Quechua, Dutch, and Italian.
  • The mn group could really be collapsed under nn, because these words passed through an nn stage before emerging with an ñ.
  • Some words on the list were internally derived from other Spanish words. For example, caña ‘reed’ gave rise to both cañón and cañada.
  • Finally, one word (rebaño) is of unknown origin — too bad I missed it when writing this recent post — and one (cariño) has a known origin that doesn’t seem likely to produce an ñ.
Word Translation Origin Type
1.           araña spider Lat. aranea ne/ni
2.           baño bathroom Lat. balneum ne/ni
3.           campaña field, campaign Lat. campania ne/ni
4.           compañero companion Lat. compania ne/ni
5.           emponzoñar to poison Lat. potiniare ne/ni
6.           España/español Spain/Spanish Lat. Hispania ne/ni
7.           huraño shy Lat. foraneus ne/ni
8.           isleño islander -eño suffix from Lat. ‑ineus ne/ni
9.           jalapeño type of pepper Jalapa (Mex. prov.) plus -eño ne/ni
10.       migraña migraine Lat. hermicrania ne/ni
11.       montaña mountain Lat. montanea ne/ni
12.       ordeñar to milk Lat. ordiniare ne/ni
13.       piña pinecone, pineapple Lat. pinea ne/ni
14.       saña rage Lat. insania ne/ni
15.       señor, señora, señorita Mr., Mrs., Miss Lat. senior ne/ni
16.       viña vine Lat. vinea ne/ni
17.       añil indigo Ar. an-nil nn
18.       año year Lat. annus nn
19.       caña reed Lat. canna nn
20.       engañar to fool Lat. ingannare nn
21.       guiño wink Lat. cinnus nn
22.       muñeca wrist, doll Lat. bonnicca nn
23.       niño boy Lat. ninnus nn
24.       ñoño dull Lat. nonnu nn
25.       paño cloth Lat. pannus nn
26.       peña rock, crag Lat. pinna nn
27.       pequeño small -èño suffix from Lat. ‑innu nn
28.       enseñar to teach Lat. insignare gn/ng
29.       estaño tin Lat. stagnum gn/ng
30.       heñir to knead Lat. fingere gn/ng
31.       leña firewood Lat. ligna gn/ng
32.       puño fist Lat. pugnus gn/ng
33.       reñir scold Lat. ringi gn/ng
34.       señal signal Lat. signa gn/ng
35.       tamaño size Lat. tam magnus ‘so big!’ gn/ng
36.       teñir to dye Lat. tingere gn/ng
37.       uña nail Lat. ungula gn/ng
38.       bruñir polish Occ. brunir borr
39.       buñuelo fritter Cat. bony borr
40.       champaña champagne Fr. champagne borr
41.       chuño potato starch Quech. ch’uñu borr
42.       gañán farmhand Fr. gaaignant borr
43.       ñandú rhea Guar. ñandú borr
44.       ñoqui gnocchi Ital. gnocchi borr
45.       ñu gnu Dutch gnoe borr
46.       tacaño stingy Ital. taccagno borr
47.       vicuña Quech. uikuña borr
48.       daño harm Lat. damnum mn
49.       doña lady Lat. domina mn
50.       dueño master Lat. dominus mn
51.       otoño autumn Lat. autumnus mn
52.       sueño dream Lat. somnus mn
53.       apañar to fix from paño (below) der
54.       cañada ravine from caña der
55.       cañón cannon, canyon from caña der
56.       cariño affection Lat. carere
57.       rebaño flock unknown

Irregular irregulars

Note: this post is intended for Spanish verb fiends only! Others read at your peril!

The Spanish verb system is riddled with irregular verbs, but at least they fall into discernible patterns. For example, verbs that end in -ir and have a stem change in the present tense are also irregular in the preterite, imperfect subjunctive, and gerund. These fall into three groups:

  • o/ue/u
    * Example: dormir ‘to sleep’, duermo ‘I sleep’, durmió ‘he slept’, durmiendo ‘sleeping’
  • e/ie/i
    * Example: sentir ‘to feel’, siento ‘I feel’, sintió ‘he felt’, sintiendo ‘feeling’
  • e/i/i
    * Example: servir ‘to serve’, sirvo ‘I serve’, sirvió ‘he served’, sirviendo ‘serving’

The silver lining to this cloud of complexity is that it is, at least, predictable. As implied above, there are no exceptions to this pattern, i.e. -ir verbs with a stem change in the present tense that are regular in the preterite and the gerund.

Or are there?

To my horror, and great interest, I learned just today of two exceptions: cernir ‘to sift’ and hendir ‘to slit open’. Despite their present-tense stem changes (ciernohiendo, and so on) they are regular in the preterite (cernió, cernieronhendió, hendieron), imperfect subjunctive (cerniera, hendiera, etc.), and gerund (cerniendo, hendiendo). You can see the full conjugations here and here.

Discernir and concernir share the same irregularity as cernir, as you might expect. (This is why I made sure to use the English cognate discernible at the beginning of this post. 😉 )

Not surprisingly, the Real Academia’s Diccionario panhispánico de dudas contains warnings against forms such as hindióhindieron, and cirniendo.

Fortunately, there is a logical explanation for these irregular irregulars: cernir and hendir are variants of the -er verbs cerner and hender, from Latin cernĕre and findĕre. In other words, they are innovative -ir verbs that still think they are -er‘s with respect to this irregular pattern. If I can attempt a wacky analogy, they’re akin to someone who dyed their hair but red still lacks the freckles that a natural redhead would have.

Just for fun, I used the Google ngram viewer to trace the history of cerner, cernir, hender, and hendir. None of these verbs is very common, but the -ir variants have definitely caught up to the older -er forms over the last two hundred years or so, and, in fact, have managed to surpass them.

(Post continues after graphic.)

If you look at a shorter time period, you can clearly see hender nose-diving to fall just behind hendir. It’s pretty cool.


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.

Mandatos (commands) summary chart

An upcoming review session with a student who is struggling with Spanish commands inspired me to make this chart. Some notes:

  • I used boldface for the subjunctive box and the lines leading into it in order to emphasize that in most cases, the command form is just the subjunctive.
  • I left out two details:
    • dropping the final s on affirmative nosotros commands before nos (e.g. quedémonos ‘let’s stay’) or se (e.g. enseñémosela ‘let’s teach them it’);
    • the irregular affirmative vosotros command idos (for ir).
  • The accent marks usually needed when a pronoun is added simply follow the regular rules for Spanish. That’s why you see one on háblame ‘talk to me’ (same stress pattern as e.g. teléfono) but not on dime ‘tell me’ (same stress pattern as cine).
  • The irregular affirmative  commands are listed in the order of the mnemonic “Vin Diesel has ten weapons, eh?”

A subtle case of the subjunctive

Today I’ll start by sharing a gorgeous example of the subjunctive/indicative contrast that I recently noticed in one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero. Then I’ll circle around and explain what makes it so gorgeous.

Lo ha matado al salir de aquí, después de estar contigo….El objetivo eras tú [Patro], por lo que sabes o puedas contar.
‘They killed him when he left after seeing you. The real target was you [Patro], for what you know or might say.

A bit of background: I like to tell my students that the subjunctive/indicative distinction is easier to master than the the preterite/imperfect distinction. The contexts, or triggers, that require the subjunctive are usually clear-cut, whereas there’s often a lot of subjectivity in deciding whether a given past tense context triggers the preterite or the imperfect. For example, Ojalá ‘God willing’ always triggers the subjunctive, whereas ayer ‘yesterday’ can be followed by either the preterite or the imperfect, depending on how the speaker perceives what happened yesterday.

For this reason, I’m intrigued by subjunctive/indicative contexts that allow more flexibility. Certain triggers are famously ambiguous. For example, tal vez and quizás, both meaning ‘maybe’, can be followed by either the subjunctive or the indicative, depending on whether you are pessimistic or optimistic:

  • Tal vez venga ‘He might come, but probably won’t’ (subjunctive)
  • Tal vez viene‘ He might come, and probably will’ (indicative)

Most Spanish grammar guides (e.g. here) cover in depth a second flexible context: so-called “adjective clauses”, or relative clauses that describe (give more information about) a noun, i.e. a person, place, or thing. A subjunctive In an adjective clause indicates that the clause describes a hypothetical person, place, or thing while an indicative indicates that the noun is real. Consider, for example, the sentence pair below, which I remember from tenth grade (!!), and which distinguishes between a hypothetical and an actual secretary:

  • Busco una secretaria que sepa escribir a máquina ‘I’m looking for a (hypothetical) secretary who can type’ (subjunctive)
  • Busco una secretaria que sabe escribir a máquina ‘I’m looking for an (actual, specific) secretary who can type’ (indicative)

Not all flexible relative clauses are adjective clauses. This brings us back to the example I started this post with, in which the relative clause functions as a noun.

Lo ha matado al salir de aquí, después de estar contigo….El objetivo eras tú, por lo que sabes o puedas contar.
‘They killed him when he left after seeing you. The real target was you, for what you know or might say.

I love this example because it contains both an indicative and a subjunctive within a single relative clause! This combination subtly mirrors the progression of the speaker’s thoughts: from the murderer’s certain motive for killing Patro — what she knew — to the murderer’s hypothetical motive — what Patro might say. As with the venga/viene and sepa/sabe examples, the subjunctive and indicative forms of the verb provide a compact and elegant way to achieve this distinction.

Frankly, having looked through my collection of grammar books and websites, I’m not sure what category the puedas subjunctive falls into. The noun clauses with the subjunctive presented in grammars typically follow classic WEIRDO triggers like Espero queEs triste que, Ojalá que, and Dudo que. Nevertheless, the puedas example strikes me as splendid Spanish. Any ideas?