The frigid weather that descended on many parts of the United States this week has reached Austin, Texas, the place that I’m writing to you from. For the last few days the temperature hasn’t been above freezing, which is an unusual occurrence so far south in the country, and this morning the ground and the rooftops even have a thin covering of snow. All this cold may be making some people’s teeth chatter, and the thought of chattering teeth reminds me of a song of World War I vintage called “K-K-K-Katy.” Its most familiar part—familiar to people of a certain age, at least—is this chorus:

K-K-K-Katy, beautiful Katy,
You’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore;
When the m-m-m-moon shines,
Over the cowshed,
I’’ll be waiting at the k-k-k-kitchen door.

(Only now, in researching this, did I learn that the songwriter was one Geoffrey O’Hara, and that the piece was billed alliteratively as “the sensational stammering song success sung by the soldiers and sailors.” Hyping a song, we see, is nothing new.)

No doubt by now you’re wondering how I’m going to tie all this to Spanish. Here’s how: the title “K-K-K-Katie,” which was already a stretch from chattering teeth, somehow caused the Spanish words de de de dónde to pop into my fervid brain. That phrase may seem to have de in it three times, or four if you count the de at the end, but there are actually (which in this blog means etymologically) five occurrences of de. As part of an explanation, let me first grant that de de de donde isn’t a real Spanish phrase, but you’ll agree that the familiar de dónde is; it’s three syllables long, and each syllable is or includes includes a de. To make sense of the “includes” part of that claim, we have to go back to Latin, where the preposition de already had many of the meanings that survive in its identical Spanish descendant: ‘from, away from, down from, out of, about.’ The Latin compound unde meant ‘from where,’ or actually, following the word order that colloquial English allows, ‘where from.’ (For example, consider this simple dialog: “Her plane is arriving tonight.” — “Where from?” Or look at the ending of the first sentence in this posting.)

Latin unde ‘from where’ evolved to Old Spanish onde. But the de was at the end of onde, and that’s not the normal place for a Spanish preposition (which is why Spanish calls this part of speech a preposición and not a posposición). Because of the postposed rather than preposed de, Old Spanish reinforced onde with a second (and historically redundant) de at the beginning. The resulting de onde has fused to modern donde, a word that, despite having de in it twice, still amazingly managed to lose the original sense of ‘from’ and ended up meaning only ‘where.’ It now takes the three de’s inherent in the phrase de dónde ‘from where’ for Spanish to express the idea of motion away from a place.

Another curiosity is that the one a in Spanish adónde outweighs the word’s two etymological de’s, and the sense of motion toward a place prevails over that of motion from a place, giving adónde the meaning ‘where to.’ (But to confuse matters, sometimes the force of the a is also lost, and the interrogative adónde just means dónde.) The prepositions a and de both occur in the adverbial phrase de adónde, which the Diccionario de la Real Academia tells us is used in some countries to express doubt that something can be done. It gives the example “Dicen que aumentarán los sueldos, ¡de adónde!” “They say that salaries will go up, but how is that possible?”

“All very interesting,” you say, “but this column is called Spanish-English Word Connections. The English-language song ‘K-K-K-Katy’ is a clever way of getting to all the de‘s in de dónde, but can Spanish de be linked to any native English word?” To which I say that it may, and to which you reasonably reply “¡De adónde!” Via The American Heritage® Dictionary, that’s how (or where). That dictionary’s wonderful appendix notes that Latin de, and therefore Spanish de, might be a direct descendant of the Indo-European *de- that served as a base for various demonstrative prepositions and adverbs. One of those prepositions was native English to, which, as one last curiosity, just happens to mean the opposite of Spanish de.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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