What English Owes to Spanish


English is a language that boasts a flexibility to absorb vocabulary and from its neighbors, a fact that many English-speakers brag about and one that many English learners loath.  Likewise, many purists, observant speakers and the Real Academia Española have rightfully complained that English seems to be invading Spanish at breakneck speed. Indeed, there may be a difference between the use of words because of laziness, pretentiousness, or a combination of both, and the slow, utilitarian evolution of a word with mysterious origins in usage. But that is a debate for another day.

While it may not be as inherently open to change as English, Spanish is a diverse language in itself, which has borrowed from many other tongues with which it has come into direct contact. Whether from the older influences of Latin, Greek, Old French or neighboring Portuguese, or from Arabic, or from indigenous languages like Nahuatl, Quechua  and Taíno, Spanish has both absorbed foreign words and expressions and loaned a fair share to English.

This great reference book, from the American Heritage Dictionaries series, is a cursory list of the most popular words that you many never have suspected had a Spanish origin.  Avocado comes from the Spanish, which was in turn borrowed from the language of the Aztecs: Nahuatl. To the Aztecs, ahuacatl means “testicle,” and now you will probably never look at an avocado in the same way. You´re welcome. The Spanish had a hard time pronouncing the common Nahuatl -tl suffix for plurals, so the word evolved to aguacate, and then to avocado in English (for the same pronunciation reasons). This process of language change—simplification or modification of pronunciation to adjust to the native tongue—is very common. Tomato comes from the Nahuatl as well, and followed the same path from Nahuatl to English: tomatl > tomate > tomato, and it comes to us through hundreds of years of colonialism, exploration, violence and cultural melding.

There are many words that present day residents of the southwest of the United States—Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico—already know and use in everyday language that are obvious derivations, or simple transfers, from Spanish. Examples include: adobe, alfalfa (which is a derivation of the Arabic fasfasa), caldera, canyon, caramel, chili, cigar, cilantro, cockroach (which has a fascinating history of folk etymology, in which the changes of pronunciation were based on mistaken theories of its definition), marijuana, piñata, salsa and sombrero.  But most mistakenly attribute these words solely to exposure to Mexican culture; the majority of words derived from Spanish in fact hold longer, more complex histories.

The word embargo comes directly from the Spanish, which literally translates to “seizure of goods.”  During the late 1500s, Spain and England grew increasingly hostile to each other, particularly at sea, and Queen Elizabeth often seized gold and valuables from Spanish Armada ships.  Through the breakdown in trade between the countries, the word embargo became increasingly used in the language of the English, particularly in maritime vernacular.

Merino comes from a special breed of sheep, once treasured and constrained exclusively to Spain.  The fine wool from the merino sheep was once the engine that drove the Spanish economy, particularly leading up the Age of Discovery. Nowadays, merino refers to any product made of high-quality wool.

Potato comes from the Spanish, too, and it typifies a common quirk in English borrowings from Spanish. Potato comes to us through a complex history of Quechua (the language of the Incans), Spanish and English, and involves influences from patata, batata, boniato and papa. English speakers often replace a final a with an o when they borrow words from the Spanish.

Other strong words like stampede, renegade, patio, mesa, hurricane and guitar also come from the Spanish, and each word has its own interesting story.

Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries is a small, but essential reference for those interested in this particular etymology of English.

Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries

Houghton Mifflin Company

pp., 258


The Slow Making of a Language

imageOtto Jespersen (1860-1943) was a Danish linguist, and one of the strongest authorities on the English language.  His Growth and Structure of the English Language is a little volume packed full of practical findings about the history of English, yet one gets the feeling that it only scratches the surface of the study, at times even summary and terse.

He demonstrates in some detail the obvious influence of the Normans and the French language on English, so blatant an influence that the reader is left with the impression that our language would be unrecognizable without it.  The obvious contrast between the vernacular of the higher classes (the Normans) and the everyday language of the humbler rural worker (those occupied by the conquest) is interesting enough, but what is striking is the mystery of how the language of the French was spread to those who undoubtedly found it irrelevant to their lives, and how it influences how we speak today.  Vocabulary, verbs and official names not only relating to but directly describing the law, fashion, cuisine, war and military, skilled labor, art and descriptions of leisure activities come from the French in vast quantities. And it was not a matter of one culture merely borrowing terms from another, the Normans introduced these aspects of culture into a native population that lacked them, whatever the level of intention.

The Danes also gave English some of its most important function words, and they influenced modern day English in a different way that is no less fascinating.  English owes less to the Norse tongues than to French in quantity, but possibly more in functionality.  For example, we received the words get, they, them, the, that, this, as well as the suffixes -by, -thorp, -beck, -dale, and -thwaite.  And they really were received, received from an invading force who introduced both a concepts and the words to describe them.

From p. 123:

“It should be noted…that when once a certian pronunciation or signification has been firmly established in a language, the word fulfills its purpose in spite of ever so many might-have-beens, and that, at any rate, correctness in one language should not be measured by the yard of another language.”  

An essential reference for any English speaker with an interest in why we say the words we say.

And I haven’t even finished the Latin and Greek chapters yet…

The Decline of Violence

imageOf course, every generation is convinced that the world is going to hell, that it was better in the past.  More and more, I am convinced that this is little more than a dismissal of the complexities of the modern world, and I usually take the moaning about the degradation of morals, the disrespect of the youth of today…etc.,  with a grain of salt. In my opinion this is just a form of sentimentalism and nostalgia.  Also, because of the nature of our modern media, we see violence that happens everyday, in places all around the world, and we are less shocked all the time. Some of us are becoming panicked about our jadedness, and we respond in a wide variety of ways–some good for progress, most bad.

I have a feeling, from what I’ve seen and read in my adult life, though, that humanity is growing and evolving away from the widespread violence that has been taken for granted in the near and distant past.  But still, a mere feeling that something is right cannot be defended in any credible way.

I admit I began Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” with a bit of confirmation bias because of this feeling.  To look for simple reaffirmation of one’s opinions is irresponsible, but it is another thing to gather proof and information to support a position. Pinker is a scientist who has packed his book with hundreds of citations, graphs, quotes, studies, numbers and overall credibility to put forward in support to his suggestion that violence has declined, overall, in modern history.

From women’s essential part in the civilization of the American West, to daily life in Medieval Europe, from child sacrifice to animal rights, with extensive discussions on modern war and tribalism, and with themes such as rape, child abuse, riot behavior, slavery and war, Pinker shows the sum of today’s incidents of violence is a fraction of what it was in the distant past, and less than in the near past. But it is much more complex than that statement, and it would do us well to figure out those complexities.

From the Steven Pinker website:

“Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.
With the panache and intellectual zeal that have made his earlier books international bestsellers and literary classics, Pinker will force you to rethink your deepest beliefs about progress, modernity, and human nature. This gripping book is sure to be among the most debated of the century so far.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity    by Steven Pinker

New York, NY: Viking.