“Como cada palabra tiene un alma…” (As every word has a soul…)
—Rubén Darío

Could there be a more appropriate quotation than that one for this column about word origins? To find the soul of Spanish alma, we begin with Latin anima, which meant ‘breath, breeze, wind’ and then metaphorically ‘breath of life, vital principle, soul.’ Just as many English speakers drop the weak middle syllable of decimal and end up pronouncing the word as desmal, the Romans must have begun to pronounce anima as *anma. Then, as a way of avoiding two nasal consonants in a row, came the modern Spanish alma. Spanish also reborrowed the Latin original, spelled ánima, in a religious context to mean ‘soul.’ Psychology has appropriated Latin anima to refer to ‘a person’s inner self,’ and Jungian psychology uses anima, which is of feminine gender, to represent ‘a man’s feminine side.’

People who quote the Rubén Darío line, which appeared in the Palabras liminares of Prosas profanas y otros poemas, often omit the first word and write the freestanding “Cada palabra tiene un alma.” That’s how the quotation appears on the home page of the Modern Languages and Literatures Department of the University of Dallas, for example. Giving equal time to German and French, that home page also notes: “Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiss nichts von seiner eigenen” (Anyone who doesn’t know foreign languages knows nothing about his own) and “Apprendre une langue, c’est vivre de nouveau” (To learn a language is to live again). The German quotation is by Goethe, but I’ve been unable to find a source for the French adage, which has therefore lost a bit of its alma/soul.

©2010 Steven Schwartzman


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sonia
    Sep 30, 2010 @ 15:33:24

    I was just learning about Jung’s theory of anima and animus on Monday in my Counseling Theories course and wondered why exactly he used it!


    • wordconnections
      Sep 30, 2010 @ 15:42:46

      Good timing indeed! When I used to teach math I was often surprised at the way I would run across something in a newspaper or on television that fit right in with a math topic I was teaching or about to teach. I planned to do a follow-up article on animus and its relatives this morning but Rosalía de Castro intervened and I couldn’t say no to her. I’ll have to get back to animus, etc., in a future post.


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  5. niasunset
    Dec 15, 2011 @ 17:25:16

    “As every word has a soul…” what a beautiful words… Captured me.
    Alma and Anima…. I haven’t known their stories before… But I should say I don’t know Spanish language. Anima, especially I know because of De Anima, by Aristotle… On the other hand, I thought of this now, languages are so interesting and we all know cultures create their own languages… Actually this is experience, or to be living in this life! For example “Table” was created when they made a table… something like that. Have you heard this word in another language, “Alma”, that means apple… ? This is in Azerbaijan language. Should be another story for this. But right now when I read you, it came to my mind. Thank you Steve, it is really so nice to read your blog. I hope I don’t make wrong,especially with my language and also sharing my humble thoughts. With my love, nia


  6. Steve Schwartzman
    Dec 15, 2011 @ 17:45:29

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Nia. They’re most welcome here. I know nothing about the language of Azerbaijan—except now the word for apple— but it’s not unusual for two languages to have words that sound the same or almost the same but that are completely unrelated and mean completely different things. For example, Spanish ya means ‘already,’ German ja (which is pronounced the same as the Spanish word) means ‘yes,’ and the Russian word pronounced ya means ‘I.’


  7. niasunset
    Dec 15, 2011 @ 17:48:44

    Differences are amazing too. Thank you Steve. You are so nice. With my love, nia


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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