(You can also go to a much larger glossary.)

Anglicized — given an English-sounding form. For example, in addition to French pâté English has the Anglicized patty.

Anglo-Norman — the form of northern French spoken in England after the Normans won the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and took control of England. English adopted many words from Anglo-Norman, a few of which are example, gist, repeal, and denizen.

assimilate — to change to be like another sound. The word assimilate itself is an example: it developed from Latin ad + similāre, with the d changing to match the following s. Contrast dissimilate.

augmentative — the opposite of diminutive [q.v.]. The augmentative form of a basic word designates a larger or more intense version of whatever the basic word means. Spanish sala is ‘a room,’ so a salón is ‘a large room.’ Spanish cartón ‘cardboard’ is heavier and thicker than a carta ‘card.’

Baltic — a branch of Indo-European consisting of Latvian and Lithuanian.

Celtic — one of the branches of Indo-European. Two millennia ago, speakers of Celtic languages covered a large part of Europe, but the Celtic family has declined dramatically; the few remaining speakers are found primarily in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Gaulic, the ancient Celtic language spoken in parts of what is now France, contributed words to Latin and the Romance languages.

cognate — descended from a common ancestor (etymologically ‘born together’). For example, Spanish madre and English mother are cognates because both developed from the Indo-European root *māter. Changes in sound and meaning can render cognates unrecognizable, as in Spanish fuera and English door.

comparative — a degree of an adjective that indicates ‘more.’ The comparative of Spanish bueno is mejor, and of English good is better.

compound — a word consisting of two or more semantic elements. Many of the compounds featured in this book were created by attaching a prefix to a basic verb. For example, from duc- ‘to lead’ we have inducir/induce, conducir/conduce, reducir/reduce, seducir/seduce, etc.

diminutive — a form of a word that conveys a sense of smallness or endearment. Latin often turned a word into a diminutive by adding –cul-; from apis ‘bee’ came apicula ‘a little bee.’ In this case, it’s the diminutive rather than the basic word that has developed to the Spanish word for ‘bee,’ abeja. Modern Spanish most commonly forms diminutives by adding -it- or -cit-: hijo > hijito, madre > madrecita. English often uses -y or -ie: thing > thingy; Susan > Susie.

dissimilate — the opposite of assimilate [q.v.]. Late Latin immediātus is now Spanish inmediato, where the first m has been changed to make it different from the second one.

doublet — in a given language, each of two words that evolved from a common original but that followed different paths of development. In the Romance languages, it’s common that one member of a pair of doublets evolved by natural phonetic development, while the other was later borrowed directly from the Latin original. Two examples in Spanish are rezar and recitar, colgar and colocar. English fragile was taken from Latin, while frail comes from the natural French development of the original. (Sometimes both members of a pair of doublets develop within the same language, as when English acute gave rise to the shortened cute, which is now an independent word that few native speakers sense is connected in any way to acute.) English, which has borrowed so heavily from other languages, has ended up with more doublets than Spanish, but each language has plenty of them. See also triplet.

etymology (etimología in Spanish) — the study of word origins. The term was based on Greek etumon ‘true,’ though linguists and lexicographers (makers of dictionaries) most often maintain the position that the “true” meaning of a word is the one that speakers of the language currently give it. That didn’t stop the literate Henry T. Finck from writing, tongue in cheek, in 1895: “The word adoration is derived from kissing. It means literally to apply to the mouth. Therefore girls should be aware of philologists who may ask them with seemingly harmless intent, ‘May I adore you?’”

false segmentation — a process in which people hear a phrase and break it into words incorrectly. For example, Spanish el umbral used to be el lumbral; people heard the first l of lumbral as part of the definite article, and the new word umbral came into existence. In recent English, some people have heard an other (normally written another) as a nother; the result is that nother is now an independent (though informal) word; it’s most often used in a statement like “That’s a whole nother thing.” English apron used to be napron; by false segmentation, English speakers heard a napron as an apron.

folk etymology (etimología popular in Spanish) — a process in which the speakers of a language who encounter a term that is unfamiliar or whose origins aren’t clear incorrectly alter or interpret the term based on a similarity to or association with an existing word. When English speakers encountered Spanish cucaracha, which designates a type of small animal, they converted the first part of the word into cock ‘rooster’ and the second into roach ‘a type of freshwater fish,’ even though neither of those animals is an insect. Old Spanish berrojo ‘a bolt, latch’ didn’t resemble any common words having to do with latching or closing, so Spanish speakers changed the word to cerrojo under the influence of cerrar ‘to close.’

Frankish — the Germanic language spoken by the Franks, the tribe that once lived in a part of the land now named after them, France. French acquired many Germanic words from Frankish.

frequentative — a new verb that is coined from an existing one in order to indicate frequent or habitual occurrence of whatever the existing verb indicates. The frequentative of English sniff is sniffle, for example. In Latin, a frequentative verb was usually formed from a past participle: from cantus, the past participle of canere ‘to sing,’ came the frequentative verb cantāre that has become Spanish cantar. Many Spanish and English words have been taken from Latin frequentative forms.

Galician — the language spoken in Galicia, the part of Spain that “overhangs” Portugal. Galician is usually considered a dialect of Portuguese.

Gascon — a Romance language spoken in Gascony, in southwestern France.

homophone — from Greek homos ‘same’ and phōnē ‘sound’; homophones are two or more words of different meanings and origins that end up being pronounced the same. An English example is council and counsel; a Spanish example is a and ha. Homophones can even have the same spelling, as in English bear ‘a type of mammal’ and bear ‘to tolerate,’ and Spanish vino ‘came’ and vino ‘wine.’

hybrid — a word whose components come from different languages. In English during, for example, the first element is from Latin but the ending is native English. Scholars once objected to the created word homosexual not because of what it meant, but because the homo- came from Greek and the -sexual from Latin.

Indo-European — also called Primitive Indo-European, this is the unwritten ancient language that gave rise to almost all of the languages of modern Europe. Most of the words treated in this book are ultimately of Indo-European origin. Because Indo-European wasn’t written down we have no direct record of it, but historical linguists have compared the languages that descended from it and have done their best to reconstruct Indo-European roots. Because those roots are hypothetical, they appear here with an asterisk in front of them.

infinitive — a form of a verb not marked for tense, person, or number. Latin infinitives usually ended in -āre, -ēre, -ere, or -īre (and sometimes the final -e could be ī). It’s easy to see how the Latin infinitive endings are mirrored in Spanish -ar, -er, and -ir. Greek and Old English infinitives generally ended in -n. In Middle English the infinitive endings began to drop away (as did many other types of endings), and they disappeared entirely in modern English. As a result, to indicate an infinitive English has resorted to adding the word to: to write, to sing, to be, etc.

labial — describes a sound made with the lips, for example b, p, m, w.

Late Latin — Latin after the Classical era, from the 200s through the 600s.

Latinized — a word put into Latin form. For example, the medieval German name Hludwig, composed of hlud ‘fame’ and wīg ‘warrior,’ was Latinized as Ludovicus, the predecessor of Luís/Louis.

metathesis — literally ‘a putting beyond,’ this is a phenomenon in which one or more sounds get moved around in a word. The positions of the g and l in Old Spanish murciégalo have been reversed in modern Spanish murciélago. Most English speakers now pronounce comfortable as if it were cumfturble.

Middle [Name of Language] — Historical linguists have divided the histories of many European languages into old, middle, and modern stages, even though the dividing lines are somewhat arbitrary. Middle English, from about 1100 to about 1500, is the period in which the originally heavily Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons was massively infused with words (and even grammatical structures) from French and Latin. Middle French is the stage of the language from about the 1300s to the 1500s. Middle Dutch went from around 1150 to around 1500, and Middle Low German from around 1250 to around 1500. With Spanish, some linguists prefer a two-part split into old and modern periods, but others allow for a Middle Spanish from around 1450 to around 1650.

nasalized — having added a nasal sound. Most often the added nasal is an n, like the one that Spanish added in mensaje; English message reflects the word’s n-less origin. Curiously, though, English got into the nasalizing game by adding an n in messenger, where Spanish mensajero preserves the original n-less ending.

New Latin — a Latin word made up by scientists in the Renaissance or more recently. An example is cerumen ‘earwax’ from Latin cēra ‘wax.’

Occitan — a Romance language spoken primarily in the south of France. Occitan is similar to Catalan. Some people use Occitan synonymously with Provençal.

Old [Name of Language] — Historical linguists have divided the histories of many European languages into old, middle, and modern stages, even though the dividing lines are somewhat arbitrary. Old English, also called Anglo-Saxon, was the heavily Germanic language that the Anglo-Saxons used in England until shortly after the Norman Conquest that began in 1066. It borrowed quite a few words from Old Norse, the related language of the Vikings who frequently raided the British Isles. A modern English speaker confronting an Old English text will understand almost none of it, because today’s language has changed so much. In contrast, a modern Spanish speaker confronting an Old Spanish text, which is usually considered one written no later than about 1550, is likely to understand a lot or even almost all of it, because Spanish has changed less than English.

opaque — refers to a component of a word that is no longer recognizable. For example, Old English named a certain type of flower with the poetic phrase day’s eye, but phonetic changes over the centuries have turned that into daisy. The flower itself may be translucent, but the word for it is opaque: even native speakers of modern English can’t recognize either component of the original compound unless they study the word’s history. A Spanish example is edecán, a respelling that obliterates the  components of French aide de camp. Contrast transparent.

past participle — a form of a verb that acts like a passive adjective. The past participle of English take is taken, and of Spanish hacer is hecho. We use the past participle to form the compound tenses of a verb: I have taken, habíamos hecho. Many Spanish and English verbs have been created from Latin past participles.

patronymic a name that indicates who someone’s father is. It used to be common to identify someone as, say, Robert, son of John or John’s son. From such usages came fixed English family names like Johnson, Jackson, Williamson, etc., which no longer indicate someone’s actual father. In Old Spanish, patronymics developed from the Latin genitive case, which often ended in -s. The result is fixed Spanish family names like Rodrigues, etymologically ‘son of Rodrigo.’ Most such names are now spelled with a -z: Rodríguez, Hernández, Gómez, Pérez, Sánchez, etc.

present participle — a form of a verb that acts like an active adjective. English present participles end in -ing: running, playing, etc. Spanish and English have turned to Latin present participles, which had stems ending in -nt, to create many adjectives: Latin sufficient- ‘satisfying’ has given us suficiente/sufficient.

Provençal — The Romance language that developed in Provence, the southeastern region of what is now France. In the Middle Ages, Provençal literature was more prestigious than that written in the north, but after the ascendancy of Paris and its language, Provençal, like other Romance languages in France, declined.

reflexive —a form of an active verb that turns the action back in the subject, as in Spanish mirarse ‘to look at oneself.’ Spanish uses the same form to indicate reciprocal action, so that se miraron can mean ‘the looked at themselves’ or ‘they looked at each other.’

Romance — based on the word Roman, Romance refers to the languages that developed from Latin as it came to be spoken in various parts of the former Roman empire. The Romance languages include Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French, Italian, Romanian, and various languages and dialects spoken by smaller numbers of people.

Semitic — a language family that includes Arabic, Hebrew, ancient Egyptian, ancient Babylonian, and other languages of northeast Africa and the Middle East.

stem — in Latin nouns, the form of a word to which most case endings were attached, as opposed to the form for the nominative singular. For example, in the Latin word for ‘acquired skill,’ the nominative singular was ars, but the stem of the noun was art-. Most English and Spanish words that come from a Latin noun are based on the stem, which is why in this instance we have arte/art, artista/artist, etc.

superlative — a degree of an adjective that indicates ‘most.’ The superlative of Spanish bueno is lo mejor, and of English good is best.

transparent — refers to a word whose components are recognizable. Spanish abrelatas, like English can opener, is clearly ‘a device that opens cans.’ Contrast opaque.

triplet — see doublet and add a third member to the set. English status, state, and estate are triplets. A language can also have quadruplets, quintuplets, etc., but the larger the group size, the rarer the instances.

Vulgar Latin — The form of Latin spoken in the latter centuries of the Roman Empire. The adjective vulgar originally meant ‘having to do with the common people,’ as in Spanish vulgo, but because such people weren’t (and still aren’t) well educated, vulgar took on the connotations ‘lacking refinement, offensive to good taste.’ Linguists have inherited Vulgar Latin as a historical term that’s not intended to be pejorative. It’s Vulgar Latin rather than Classical Latin that accounts for much of the basic vocabulary in the Romances languages. For example, Vulgar Latin changed Latin alacer ‘lively, cheerful’ to *alecre, which went on to become Spanish alegre.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Texasjune
    Oct 02, 2011 @ 13:50:10

    Fascinating! I want to read every post you have written, and follow new ones. I WILL learn Spanish (even at my age)! A Grandie is studying French for the first time this year.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Oct 02, 2011 @ 14:04:19

      I’m glad you find this fascinating, Texas June. The good thing about a blog is that all the old posts stay available, so people can browse them at their leisure. You’ll even find some French mixed in with the Spanish and English.


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If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.

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