Peter Schickele is a scholar of classical music who for decades has let his lighter side out in the persona of P.D.Q. Bach. Schickele enjoys playing around not only with his first love, music, but with what appears to be his second, language. According to one of Schickele’s parodies, P.D.Q. Bach supposedly wrote his piece “La Prima Vera” not, following Vivaldi, to represent the season of spring, but as a tribute to his first wife; both wives, we are told, were named Vera, so the title makes clear that this piece was dedicated to the first Vera.
Although Spanish now mostly uses primero ‘first’ where Italian says primo, in both languages the word for ‘spring’ is primavera.’ Etymology, which knows nothing of P.D.Q. Bach, nevertheless confirms not only that the prima in primavera really is the prima that means ‘first,’ but also that the modern Spanish and Italian name for the season came into being as a way of distinguishing one ver from the next. The Latin noun ver meant ‘spring,’ but because the weather and the conditions of the earth are quite different at the beginning of that three-month period from those at its end, people must have felt the need to distinguish the two parts of the season. Latin speakers began to use the phrase primo vere, literally ‘in the first [of] spring,’ for the early part of the season. The two words in the phrase eventually fused, and the result in the springtime of the development of the Romance languages was primavera. Ver had been a neuter noun in Latin, but because neuter plurals typically ended in -a, speakers of Vulgar Latin often reinterpreted those neuter plurals as feminine singulars; that process of gender reassignment—how modern that sounds—most likely explains how primavera ended up feminine.
Corresponding to primavera, Spanish has the adjective primaveral ‘pertaining to or occurring in the spring.’ The Latin adjective with that meaning had been vernalis, which literary and scientific registers of Spanish and English have borrowed as vernal, which is why the equinox that occurs every March is designated the vernal equinox. English calls the new season that begins then spring because in Europe (where the Germanic languages developed from Indo-European) this is the time when plants spring forth from the previously frozen ground of winter. In a different kind of coming forth from the earth, English also uses spring to refer to water that emerges from underground. In the human realm, children who come forth into the world are their parents’ offspring.
© 2015 Steven Schwartzman