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


What would you expect from an alien?

img_1312Reviewing Olgierd Wolczek’s Man and Others Out There (1983), Wisława Szymborska relishes cosmic solitude. In her Nonrequired Reading (2002), she welcomes the idea of our being alone in the universe, while granting that it is also highly likely.  She writes,

“I like being a freak of nature on our one and only, extraordinary Earth.  Furthermore, I ‘m not waiting for any UFOs, and I’ll believe in them only when one comes up and pokes me in the ribs.  Besides, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to expect from them. They may just be planning an inspection of bristletails, caddie flies, and trematodes. The conviction that if they were so inclined they would lend a hand with everything strikes me as hopelessly banal.”

I wonder when we will stop having to watch alien films in which the alien invaders are just slightly deformed versions of ourselves, playing out scenarios of how we would approach an alien that behaves like us and looks like us. (Science writer Philip Ball’s short video from The Atlantic is a good place to clarify and gestate this idea). The new Denis Villeneuve film “Arrival,” derived from Ted Chiang’s “The Stories of Your Life,” at least approaches the subject in an interesting way that makes sense from our sentient point of view and with realistic expectations of both the limitations and unimaginable variations of the evolutionary processes of life. It allows the possibility that we may not know at all what to expect.

img_1206Language, it has been proposed, wires that way that the mind works.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis so far has only been tested with different languages here on earth, but in Chiang’s story, an alien spaceship arrives suddenly and a linguist must figure out how to communicate with them. Szymborska’s banality of an alien coming to help us out (or perform other human-like endeavors such as genocide or experimentation) in our proto-human naïveté is the bread and butter of Hollywood science fiction, and it begins to raise its intellect-numbing head in “Arrival.”  But Chiang’s linguistic approach saves it.

Amy Adams’s protagonist Louise Banks walks the fine line between too much expository dialogue and not enough. But it works, partly because of the irony of a linguist having to explain to a physicist (her impromptu colleague Ian Donnelly) the stuff of realities that one would think he’d already have known.

The aliens’ written language has little or nothing to do with their spoken language.  The aliens produce sounds that are impossible for humans to imitate. They are more advanced that we are, but in other ways, perhaps not.  Their communication is non-linear, whole paragraphs and phrases can be written and read instantaneously, which leads Banks, who begins to learn their language, to realize that they perceive time in a different way than we do, which in turn leads to her own significance in the film and a profoundly satisfying twist. As Chiang writes in “Stories of Your Life,” the aliens can perceive future and past in the same way, but participate in the conversation anyway, as if to actualize their ideas.  In the same way we say “You’re under arrest,” or “I christen this vessel,” the words put the ideas into action.

“For the [the aliens], all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, [the aliens] already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”


Chiang’s short story is chock-full of interesting parallels from theoretical physics and linguistics, the kind of parallels that make the audience think.  Contrary to its intentions, with its lack of ideas and phobia of meaningful contemplation, Hollywood usually just reinforces the suspicion that we are in fact alone in the universe.  The book and film do play a bit with our ignorance in contrast to the superiority of an alien species, but they reject the banality of the anthropoid “take me to your leader” kind of alien. Instead, opening the minds of the layman to the fundamentals of communication and language, as well as to the laws of physical reality itself (physics), we once again feel that maybe we are on to something.

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…