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