Hembra is one of those Spanish words that an English speaker isn’t initially likely to make any connection to, but knowledge of a few of the quirks that Latin underwent on its way to becoming Spanish soon renders the word recognizable as a descendant of Latin femina ‘woman.’

First, three-syllable Latin words with a strong stress on the first syllable sometimes lost their middle vowel: Latin femina would have become *femna.

Second, given two nasal consonants in a row, Spanish would have replaced the second one with a non-nasal sonant that has the same point of articulation: *femna would have become *femra.

Next, to smooth the transition from m to r, proto-Spanish speakers would have introduced a consonant to ease that transition: *femra would have become *fembra.

Independent of those changes, in many Latin words that began with an f, that initial sound gradually weakened to/h/ and then ceased to be pronounced at all, even though an h was retained in the spelling. As a result, *fembra would have become modern Spanish hembra.

French underwent a rather different development of femina that ended up producing femme (pronounced /fam/ in French). We sometimes encounter that word in the phrases femme fatale and cherchez la femme, both of which have negative connotations.

In a borrowing with neutral connotations, Spanish and English went back to Latin for the adjective femenino/feminine.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 20:32:56

    You’re right. I didn’t have the slightest clue how to begin making sense of hembra. The history’s interesting, and the number of details you’ve packed into a few paragraphs is amazing. The thought of people actually tracking all these developments is staggering.

    As for cherchez la femme — that’s a phrase not entirely negative for lovers of Walt Kelly’s “Pogo.” From a wiki page:

    “Churchill ‘Churchy’ LaFemme is a mud turtle… He enjoys composing songs and poems, often with ridiculous and abrasive lyrics and nonsense rhymes. His name is a play on the French phrase Cherchez la femme (“Look for the woman”). Perhaps the least sensible of the major players, Churchy is superstitious to a fault (for example, panicking when he discovers that Friday the 13th falls on a Wednesday that month).”

    Here’s an illustration of the little guy.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Aug 24, 2014 @ 21:47:42

      I’ve long been impressed by the many things that linguists have been able to figure out. With enough study, some of those become old hat, and the sequence that led from Latin femina to Spanish hembra doesn’t seem strange to me at all now, though I can remember a time when I knew none of it.

      I’d heard of Pogo though not of Churchy LaFemme, but I like the absurdity of finding that Friday the 13th falls on a Wednesday in a certain month. From the cartoon you linked to, it seems Walt Kelly knew enough French to parody it quite nicely.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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