On my other blog this past August I got a comment in French that likened a wasps’ nest I’d photographed to a soucoupe volante, or flying saucer. And that, I thought, makes me an extraterrestrial, but when I went to write that as a reply to the comment, I had to pause to think exactly how French spells its version of the word for ‘extraterrestrial.’ That led me to notice that extraterrestre is the spelling not only in French but also in Spanish, Galician, Portuguese, Catalan, and Italian (with all of them having a plural in -es except for Italian, whose plural is extraterrestri). I also realized that English, in addition to the standard extraterrestrial, has developed a non-standard version without the last r, an omission that linguists would label dissimilation; in other words, after two instances of a t followed (directly or closely) by an r in the word, some English speakers say enough already and refuse to pronounce another one. A Google search that I did brought up about 40% as many hits for extraterrestial as for the standard extraterrestrial.

Etymologically speaking, extraterrestre/extraterrestrial is made up of the Latin elements extra ‘outside’ and terra ‘earth.’ In a different direction we have Mediterráneo/Mediterranean, which is the name of a sea in the middle (medi-) of the combined land masses of Europe and Africa. (The Romans, by the way, with the haughtiness of empire, called the Mediterranean mare nostrum, or ‘our sea.’) Another relative, this time internal, is enterrar/inter, which designates the action of putting a dead body into the earth. While enterrar is a down-to-earth (i.e commonplace) word in Spanish, the borrowed-from-Latin inter is a fancy one in English. Either way, the place a body ends up being buried can be called subterráneo/subterranean, which refers to something that takes place beneath the surface of the earth.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Maria F.
    Nov 30, 2013 @ 10:35:27

    What’s interesting is how English uses it also, and how you explain it as a ‘dissimilation’. I personally often struggle with my choice of blogging in English, when my native language is Spanish. Yet, I spent many of my formative years in the U.S., that I thought it would be the best choice. I, however, have not discarded the idea of writing the blog in Spanish; but Puerto Rico is an American territory, and even though it’s not in any way bilingual (it’s strictly Spanish), it naturally radiates toward North American culture, which according to renowned political theorists has created severe cultural identity crisis. The Spanish in P.R. is both barbaric and vulgar, whereas in Central and South America you don’t encounter any of our linguistic barbarisms because of their national sovereignty.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Nov 30, 2013 @ 16:11:17

      “By “barbaric and vulgar” I take it you mean heavily influenced by/mixed with English, a phenomenon due in part to the frequent moving back and forth of people between Puerto Rico and the United States, especially New York City. For example, the common Spanish word in New York City for ‘heating system in an apartment’ is estín, a pronunciation of English steam. I can see where identity crises would arise and keep arising.

      The dissimilation I spoke of refers only to the non-standard English form extraterrestial, where the last r has gotten dropped extraterrestrial.


      • Maria F.
        Nov 30, 2013 @ 17:38:15

        Yes, maybe ‘barbaric’ is not the word, but something like ‘estín’ is an ‘anglicism’, just as ‘parkeo’ is used for ‘parking’. There are lots of these: ‘typear’ for ‘typing’, ‘jogear’ for ‘jogging’, or ‘shopin’ for ‘shopping’. These anglicisms are used everyday here, and some even write them, yes, believe it or not. Scholars here believe it’s due to a political identity crisis; but whether the use of ‘anglicisms’ predict any particular situation in a sociological sense is widely debated here. More interesting are the ‘neologisms’ in English that have evolved, for example the word ‘Kleenex’ is a neologism which is now in the dictionary. Excuse me for the digression on the theme.


  2. Jim in IA
    Nov 30, 2013 @ 11:05:28

    This post is an appropriate one in conjunction with the visit of comet ISON to the Sun on Thursday. ISON is of extraterrestrial origin.


  3. shoreacres
    Nov 30, 2013 @ 21:18:42

    I’m sitting here laughing, trying to make myself say “extraterrestial”, and I just can’t do it without really thinking about it and slowing down each syllable. I had no idea there was a variant that dropped that last “r”.

    On the other hand, I’ve just discovered my own conflation of “interment” and “internment”. They’re two quite different words, of course. But I think I’ve been pronouncing “interment” as though it has that extra “n”. Interesting.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Nov 30, 2013 @ 21:56:52

      Almost all of what we do in our native language is automatic, so it surprises us, even well along in life, when we realize that something we’ve always said isn’t correct, or is at least non-standard. Of course realizing it gives us a chance to say “Better late than never.”

      In the English verb inter, the ter is from Latin terra ‘earth,’whereas in intern, the ter is part of Latin internus, from Latin inter. It’s not hard to see why someone could get confused, especially when the in is the same in in both cases.


  4. kathryningrid
    Dec 01, 2013 @ 23:34:19

    Ah, el entierro. Shades (no pun intended) of Neruda!

    So misspellings and mispronunciations are gaining ground on the real stuff? Que malo! (Or whatever’s the proper expression, pardon-me-very-much.) I’m glad to be in the company of an educated extraterrestrial who knows better!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Dec 02, 2013 @ 08:02:13

      I found articles online about the dictator Pinochet not letting Neruda have a public burial, and then I found the text of Neruda’s poem “El Entierro en el Este.” I first became aware of Neruda in 1965 through my introductory Portuguese course when one of the other students, who like almost everyone there had taken plenty of Spanish, introduced me to various Spanish-language writers.

      Yes, misspellings and other deformations are common. One of the earliest I remember becoming aware of was mischevious for mischievous.


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