Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Empujar and Push

The Spanish empujar (“to push”) has the same common ancestor as the English for the same, push: the Latin pulsare.

Pulsare meant, in Latin, “to beat”. A push is a sort of beat, in both senses: a punch and, a punch happening over and over again!

From the same root we also get the English, to pulse, of course. As does… impulse. Yes, an impulse is indeed a strong punch!

The sound here is a variation of the sh-to-j pattern, where variations of the s/x/sh/soft-g sound in Latin turned into the “j” in Spanish (via the Arabic influence) but remained the same as it transformed from Latin into educated English. Hence the “sh” sound in “push”!

Jefe – Chief

Chief jefe spanish english

Chief, and the Spanish for the same, Jefe, both come from the same root: the French chef, which means the same.

But this is odd as they sound so different! How are they related?

It’s not obvious, but it’s easy once you understand the pattern: The Latin sound “sh” and very similar sounds (such as the “ch” and “sy”) almost always became a “j” in Spanish. Like syrup and jarabe. Not obvious!

Alumbrar and Illuminate

The Spanish Alumbrar means “to light up” in English — and, indeed, it is literally the same as to illuminate.

The Latin m-n sound almost always became a m-b-r as Latin turned into Spanish. Compare hominem with hombre, for example.

We see the same pattern here. Both alumbrar and illuminate come from the Latin luminare, meaning the same, “to light up” — from which we also get the English luminary.

Thus, the l-m-n in the original corresponds to the ll-m-n in the English illuminate and the l-m-b-r in the Spanish alumbrar.

Caro and Whore, Cher

Today’s is a good one!

The Spanish caro (simply, “expensive”) has a fun provenance: from the ancient (pre-Latin) Proto-Indo-European root karo– that meant… whore. Yes, the ancient word karo turned into the almost-as-ancient Latin word carus meaning “expensive,” from which we get the modern Spanish word caro, still meaning “expensive.”

So the prostitutes of the ancient world, apparently, weren’t cheap!

Interestingly, we can even see a linguistic connection between the words. The k- sound in Proto-Indo-European stayed the same sound as it evolved into Latin and then Spanish (although usually written with a c-); but as Proto-Indo-European evolved simultaneously into ancient German and then into English, that k- sound became the silent or almost-silent h- or wh-. Think when and cuando, for example. So, we can see therefore that the c-r of caro maps to the wh-r of whore.

The funniest part, however, is that the ancient Latin carus, for expensive, as Latin evolved into French, turned into the French… cher, for “dear”: in the sense of, “My dear friend!”. The exact opposite of a whore! Thus, in French, prostitute became expensive which became that which is dear to you!

Eje and Axle

The Spanish eje for “axle” comes from the Latin for the same, axis. The English axle comes from the same common ancestor as the Latin axis, the proto-indo-european root *aks– also meaning the same.

The Spanish eje is easy to understand if we remember that most of the x/sh/ch sounds in Latin and the ancient languages became the throat-clearing -j- sound in Spanish. Thus, the e-j of eje maps to the a-x of axle pretty clearly.

It’s interesting how such a simple word has remained mostly unchanged for tens of thousands of years. Perhaps, the axle is one of the most fundamental discoveries in human history. It is, after all, what led to the wheel, which led to… civilization.

Rehusar – Refuse

The Spanish rehusar — literally, “refuse” — sounds odd to English ears: it’s the same word, but the -f- became an -h-. Huh?

This is explained via the pattern of Latin words that began with an f- tending to turn into an h- in Spanish and only in Spanish. See famine/hambre, and huir/fugitive for example.

Refuse and Rehusar follow the same pattern. Both come from the Latin refundere — from which we also get the English, refund. They are all ways of giving back.

This f-to-h pattern usually happens with the first letter of the word. But here it is the first letter of the second syllable — because the re- is of course the standard prefix so it didn’t affect the sound pattern change.

Lleno – Plenty

Llenar — Spanish meaning “to fill” — comes from the Latin plenus, meaning “full”.

This, therefore, connects it to the English for the same, from the same root: Plenty. Not to mention, the less common English word plenary.

These words sound so different yet they’re so similar. Here’s how: Latin words that began with pl- usually turned into ll- when Latin evolved into Spanish. But as these words moved into English via French, they remained unchanged.

This explains not just llenar/plenty but explains a bunch of other words, including llama/flame.

Jeringa – Syringe

Jeringa, Spanish for Syringe, sounds like it has nothing in common with its English counter-part. But they are literally the same word.

The Latin sh- sound often evolved into the j- sound in Spanish — originally retaining the sh- sound but eventually, under Arabic’s influence, transforming to the throat-clearing sound we know and love.

This explains how both jeringa and syringe derive from the same root: the Latin siringa, itself from the Greek syringa. The sy- sound is a variation of the sh- sound and therefore the sy-r-n-g of syringe maps to the j-r-n-g of jeringa.

Humo and Fumes

If he is fuming, he is smoking — literally. And it is, subtly, the same word in Spanish.

“To fume” comes from the Latin root fumus (“smoke”) from which we also get the common Spanish word for “smoke”, humo. But they don’t sound alike, so how are they related?

The Spanish humo is a great example of the pattern of the Initial F turning into an H in Spanish, alone among the languages of the world. Many Latin words that began with an F that came to us in English through the Latinate F form, became the equivalent word but with an H- in Spanish. Take hermano and filial, for example. Or fact and hecho.

Other English words from the same root fumus include fumigation (ahhhh!) and the less common fetid. Fetid is a dirty, Shakespearean word, after all.

Jerez – Sherry

Sherry jerez spanish englishThe Latin sounds for “sh” — and similar variations, like “ch” and “ss” — became a “j” sound in Spanish.

Thus, the English sherry is nearly identical to the Spanish jerez!

These sh/j sounds were often spelled with a “x” in old Spanish; and sherry itself is named after the town it first came from, Xeres, which is near Cordova.

what is the etymological way to learn spanish?

Nerds love to pattern-match, to find commonalities among everything. Our approach to learning languages revolves (the same -volve- that is in “volver”, to “return”) around connecting the Spanish words to the related English words via their common etymologies – to find the linguistic patterns, because these patterns become easy triggers to remember what words mean. Want to know more? Email us and ask:

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