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Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Hierro and Ferrari

Hierro ferrari english spanish

Hierro is just Spanish for “iron”.

Here’s where it gets interesting: the Latin words beginning with f- generally turned into the silent h- in Spanish but not in the other Romantic languages, and thus hierro (from the Latin ferrum) is related to:

  • Ferrocarril — Spanish for railroad. It maps almost perfectly to the English: ferro for ferrum, “iron”; and carril for road, way, or path (think of the common Spanish word for path or way, carrera).
  • Ferrari — the luxury sports car from Italy, is named after their founding family’s last name. And that last name, in Italian, originally meant… iron-worker.

Huir and Fugitive

Fugitive huir

The Spanish “Huir” comes from the same Latin root as “fugitive”, “fugitivus”, meaning, “to flee”.

Pattern: Latin words that began with an ‘F’ tended to lose that initial ‘F’ sound and became silent (yet represented in writing with an ‘H’) as vulgar Latin turned into Spanish.

Hijo – Filial, Affiliate

The Spanish for “son”, hijo, doesn’t sound like anything in English. But it is a close cousin of the English synonym for brotherliness: filial.

Both come from the Latin for “son,” filius. The transformation to Spanish came about through two interesting patterns: the initial f- in Latin usually turned into an h- in Spanish (such as, hacer and fact, or hablar and fable). The other pattern is less common: the -li- sound turned into a -j- sound – it’s just a less common sound! Thus the f-li maps to h-j almost exactly.

From the Latin filius, we get a few other English words, including: affiliate: an affiliate is, in a way, a child you rear!

From the same root we also get the English fetus, fecund and even feminine. These come, via the Latin filius, from the Proto-Indo-European root *dʰeh₁y-li-os, meaning, “sucker” — in the literal sense of, “one who sucks.” Children, indeed, are defined by their sucking their mothers; so your hijo is literally, “the one who sucks.” And, some might argue, even affiliates themselves usually do suck!

Higado – Fig

“Fig” comes from the Latin “Ficus” — obvious enough!

But, curiously, the Spanish word is “Higado”. Huh?

This is just a simple example of the Initial F to H pattern. In lots of Latin words, the first F became an H when Latin evolved into Spanish. Think fact/hecho or hablar/fable.

An easy way to figure out what an H- word in Spanish is: change the initial H to an F and see what English word sounds similar.

Hablar and Ineffable

The Spanish hablar (“to talk”) comes from the Latin fabulare, as we’ve previously discussed. The initial F- turned into an H- happens only in Spanish (think fig vs higo.)

From the same root, however, also comes the English ineffable, that SAT word meaning “unable to be described in words.” So, ineffable literally means “without” (in-) and “speaking” (fabulare).

We see the h-b-l of hablar map to the (in-)f-b-l of ineffable quite clearly!

Huso and Fuse

The Spanish huso (“spindle” — what Cinderella uses to weave!) comes from the Latin for the same: fusus.

The transition is clear when we remember that the initial F in Latin usually turned into an “h” in Spanish: fig vs higo, for example. Or herir vs interfere, for another.

From the same Latin root fusus, we also get the English… fuse. Why? Well, look at the shape: an old-school spindle looks like a big fuse!

Thus, we can see the f-s of fuse map clearly to the h-s of huso.

Hervir and Fervor

Fervor is really just an intense passion heating up. Thus we shouldn’t be surprised that it comes from the Latin root fervere (“to boil”), from which we get the Spanish for the same (“to boil”), hervir.

The seemingly unrelated words are connected through the common transformation of Latin words beginning with an f- into an h- in Spanish, such as fig and higo, and fable and hablar.

Thus, the f-r-v of fervor maps to the h-r-v of hervir.

Hambre – Famine

Famine hunger spanish english

The Spanish hambre, for “hunger”, makes sense if you know two different patterns.

Firstly, the initial f-to-h pattern: words that began with an f- then a vowel in Latin tended to have the f- turned into an h- when Spanish evolved into Latin. Huir and Fugitive is another example of that pattern.

Secondly, the mn-to-mbr pattern: when the letters in Latin “m” and “n” appear together, often separated by a vowel, they usually became “mbr” as a unit in Spanish.

Thus the f-m-n of famine maps directly to the h-m-b-r of hambre.

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.

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.

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:
morgan@westegg.com

patterns to help us learn spanish:

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