Tag Archives: Spanish

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?

Curiosas y curiosos

When rereading one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, which I’ve written about previously here and here, a sentence I’d missed the first time caught my eye:

El cadáver de Reme y el círculo de curiosas y curiosos, hablando en voz baja, observando aquel quebranto de la vida en forma de muerte inesperada.

‘Remy’s corpse and the circle of curious women and men, speaking in soft tones, observing that devastation in the form of unexpected death.’ (my translation)

The interesting Spanish here is curiosas y curiosos. It’s noteworthy because mixed-sex groups are usually described using the masculine gender only; the expected wording here, then, would simply be curiosos. (I occasionally tell a girl student that in Spanish, “boys have cooties”, so that a single masculine item in a group contaminates the whole group.) Sierra i Fabra is obviously circumventing this rule in order to emphasize that there were more woman than men ogling the dead body. This may sound like a minor detail, but the story is set in Barcelona in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, and this is one of many instances where Sierra i Fabra calls attention to the lack of men after years of fighting.

My English translation gets the same message across by mentioning “women and men”, where the usual expression is “men and women”, but curiosas y curiosos is an even more striking — and attention-calling — deviation from the norm.

I love to find examples, such as this one, where a grammatical feature of Spanish adds to its expressive power.

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.