Tag Archives: stem-changing verbs

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.


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!

The Spanish pretérito is like Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina with the wonderful observation that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This quote always makes me think of the Spanish pretérito (preterit) past tense. The pretérito has lots of irregulars, and they are irregular in many different ways.

Unhappy families are like the pretérito.

We’ve already seen that in the present tense, most irregulars — the boot verbs-zco and -go verbs, and ver — developed as Vulgar Latin transitioned to Spanish. The pretérito is different because most of its irregulars were already irregular in Latin. (Well, Spanish added a few for good measure…keep on reading.)

Basically, the Spanish pretérito tense derives from the Latin perfect, which was riddled with irregulars. Latin scholars refer to them as “strong” perfects, as opposed to the regular, or “weak” perfects. The strong perfects were characterized by stress on the root instead of the ending in some of the verb forms. You can still hear this difference in Spanish. For example, irregular dije and dijo are stressed on the di- root, while regular hablé and habló are stressed on the and endings. The strong perfects also lacked the normal /v/ ending of regular perfects, such as laudāvī “I praised” (from laudāre) or audīvit “he heard” (from audīre).

Caeser loved those strong perfects!

Most of today’s irregular pretéritos can be traced to three subtypes of the Latin strong perfect:

Strong perfects

As always, analogy muddied the evolutionary trail. Several common verbs that were regular in Latin picked up the u pattern of hube, supe and the like, including tener/tuve, estar/estuve, and andar/anduve. The irregular pretérito of ver (vi, viste, vio, etc.) influenced that of dar (di, diste, dio, etc.), while the pretéritos of ser “to be” and ir “to go” merged. On the other hand, many verbs with strong perfects in Latin became regular in Spanish. Some examples are temer, which belonged to Latin’s –class (Latin timuī, timuístī, etc.), escribir “to write”, in the – class (scrīpsī, scrīpsístī, etc.), and leer “to read”, in the –ī class (lēgī, lēgístī). Their modern yo pretéritos are regular temí, escribí, and leí instead of something like tume, escrise, and lije.

Finally, to make matters worse, Spanish “invented” its very own irregular pattern: the so-called “sole” verbs. These are -ir verbs with a “boot” change in the present, like servir (sirvo, sirves etc.), mentir (mientomientes, etc.), and dormir (duermoduermes, etc.). In the pretérito, the e or o of the root changes to an i or u in the él and ellos forms. This happens for the same reason I described in my boot verb post: raising an /e/ to /i/ and an /o/ to /u/ anticipates the height of the y sound (transcribed properly as /j/) that you get when you pronounce the -ió and -ieron in fluent speech.


Suela verbs are only Irregular in the sole of the boot

That’s a lot of irregulars — and a lot of unhappy families, at least the night before a major test…

It’s raining (Spanish irregular) verbs – Hallelujah!

If you’re a language fanatic, like me, perhaps you lie awake at night counting irregular verbs:

I’m not that far gone, but I am curious about these pesky beasts. A specific question I’ve had about irregular verbs in Spanish concerns the present tense in particular. Every textbook lists “some common verbs” of the main types, mainly “boot” verbs and -zco, but I’ve never seen an exact count, or an exhaustive list.

I think I’ve now come close thanks to the intro2spanish website (with which I am not affiliated). Below is a summary table of the number of verbs listed there from the various irregular categories, broken down by category and by conjugation class (-ar, -er, -ir). I haven’t included the miscellaneous irregulars like veo, nor the small -go class, because these are covered in every textbook.

-ar -er -ir TOTAL
e > ie 44 21 35 100
o > ue 47 22 2 (dormir, morir) 71
u > ue 1 (jugar) *** *** 1
e > i *** *** 42 42
-zco *** 90 *** 90

You can download a complete listing of the irregulars here: irregular verb list. If you can think of any others, please let me know so I can update the list and the table.

Here are some interesting patterns in the data:

  • Jugar is clearly anomalous. It derives from Latin iocāri, and should have come into Spanish as just another o > ue verb, jogar. The infinitive’s change from jogar to jugar is a mystery to Spanish historical linguists. My favorite explanation is Tom Lathrop’s purely speculative one: that the infinitive jogar might have become jugar out of “self-defense” as speakers avoided saying something so similar to joder (“to f*ck”). You can read a longer explanation in this article (in Spanish) or on p. 160 of Lathrop’s The Evolution of Spanish:

  • I had no idea there were that many -zco verbs, or that -ir verbs outnumbered -er verbs within the e > ie type. Todos los días se aprende algo.
  • If you were surprised that all e>i verbs are -ir, then you should (re)read my previous post about boot verbs. The e>i change was triggered by the /j/ sound, which only occurred in Vulgar Latin -ir verb endings. (To be picky, it actually occurred in -er endings too, but was lost in these before it had the chance to do much damage.)
  • It’s awesome that only two -ir verbs have the o > ue pattern. As explained in my previous post, the other -ir verbs that started to go down this road switched to a u instead, which spread around the whole conjugation. That’s where we get (inter alia) mullir and subir.

Sleep well!

How Latin vowels became Spanish

A good subtitle for this post would be “How to get from 10 to 5 without dividing by 2.”

Latin had ten vowels: long and short aeio, and u. The long vowels were literally “long”: they were held about twice as long as their short counterparts. Classical texts didn’t indicate vowel length, but Latin textbooks, dictionaries, and the like use a macron (as in ū or ē) for long vowels, and sometimes also a breve (as in ŭ or ĕ) for short vowels.

As discussed in an earlier post, Spanish has only five vowels: just plain a, e, i, o, and u. Wouldn’t it have been tidy if each each long and short pair in Latin had collapsed into a single Spanish vowel? In fact, the three Latin pairs ē/ĕ, ō/ŏ, and ā/ă did just this, becoming Spanish eo, and a. But Latin and u split apart, with their short members absorbed into Spanish e and o, respectively.

These changes are a lot easier to grasp in table form (click for a better view):

Latin and Spanish vowels

This table overlooks a crucial detail: in stressed syllables, Latin’s short ŏ and ĕ became the Spanish diphthongs (two-vowel sequences) ue and ie. This may sound like a mere, dry, or even boring technicality. But in fact, these diphthongs are a big part of the sound of Spanish. Appearing in tons of core vocabulary words, like puerta and fiesta (from Latin pŏrta and fĕsta), they distinguish Spanish from its Romance cousins: compare French porte and fête, and Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan porta and festa. The Latin short/long difference also explains Spanish “boot” verbs, whose root vowel diphthongizes when stressed, e.g. nIEgo vs. negAmos, or pUEdo vs. podEmos. These verbs had a short vowel in Latin: negar comes from Latin negāre, and poder from Vulgar Latin potēre. Verbs with stable vowels, like deber and poner, had a long vowel in Latin (dēbēre and pōnere).

This is why you can’t tell from an infinitive which verbs have the “boot” pattern: the crucial vowel difference has been lost. To make matters worse, over time some verbs have drifted, either taking on the boot pattern even though they had a long vowel in Latin (e.g. pensar, from pēnsāre), or becoming regular even though they had a short vowel (e.g. sorber, from sorbēre). The moral of the story: Look it up!