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Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Cuerno and Horns

Cuerno horns spanish english

The Spanish for “horn”, cuerno (and its variations, like the ever-present cornudo), and the English horn are both originally the same word in the ancient languages.

Huh?

One of the most interesting sound shifts is the Indo-European “k-” sound remained the same into Latin and then Spanish (the Latin cornu for the same) but became an almost-silent “h-” in the Germanic languages.

Thus the c-r-n in Spanish parallels exactly the h-r-n in English.

There are lots of awesome and subtle examples of this pattern, such as Corazon/Heart.

Hembra and Feminine

The Spanish hembra, for “female” (usually in regard to animals) sounds nothing like the English feminine. But it turns out that they are etymologically identical.

Both come from the Latin for female, feminina. Hembra sounds so different because the f-m-n root is changed to h-mbr via two different patterns:

  • The f-to-h pattern, where words beginning in the Latin f- change to an h- in Spanish, such as filial and hijo, or hacer and fact — changing the initial h- of feminina to h-.
  • The m-n to -mbr- pattern, where Latin words with the m-n together usually changed to an -mbr- in Spanish, like illuminate and alumbrar — changing the m-n of feminina to the -mbr- of hembra.

These two, taken together, show a clear mapping of f-m-n to h-mbr.

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!

Camisa – Heaven

The Spanish for “shirt”, Camisa, is a distant cousin of the English Heaven. How?

Both come from the same common ancestor, the Proto-Indo-European root *kem, meaning, “to cover.” This root evolved, via German, to the English heaven (that which covers us above) and it evolved, via Latin (and even the French chemise), to the Spanish camisa (that which covers our torso!).

But they sound so different. How can that be?

The answer is that the Indo-European sound k- transformed over time into the German and then English h- sound — which remaining the same (albeit with a c- spelling) in Latin and then Spanish. Thus the c- of camisa maps to the h- of heaven.

Other examples of this pattern include cornudo/horn and horse/correr.

Cabeza and Head

The Indo-European root kaput, meaning “head”, led to words for the head in almost every western language, with no change.

The kaput turned into the almost-identical caput in Latin; and then that evolved, through very minor changes, to the almost-the-same cabeza in Spanish. The main sound shift is the p to b, but those are very clearly aligned signs that often swap.

Kaput, however, evolved into the German kopf — which then became the English head. How so?

The Germanic sound “k-“, as German evolved into English, generally became the “h-” sound in English. Take century/hundred or horn/cornudo or, my favorite, hemp/cannabis as other examples.

Thus, the c-b(-z) of cabeza maps to the h-d of head. In the English pattern of short, powerful words, the final sound was lost as well, to give us the simple, straightforward head.

Correr – Horse

The Spanish correr, “to run” seems completely unrelated to the English horse. Looks can be deceiving.

Correr comes from the Latin for the same, currere. Currere, in turn, comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *kurs, which also means, “to run” — just like horse does! Both have the same common ancestor.

The weird thing is: how did the PIE *kurs turn into horse, they sound so different.

The explanation is that, in the Germanic languages like English, the k- sound turned into the h- sound. But in Spanish, the original k- sound remained, although usually written with a c-.

This explains many parallel words that have c- and h- sounds that map to each other between Spanish and English, like heart/corazon and head/cabeza.

Cuerno and Cornucopia

We’ve previously discussed cuerno (Spanish for horn) and its related Spanish words–and here’s another: cornucopia, which literally means… the “horn of plenty.” We see the h-r-n map to the c-r-n again here!

Cannabis – Hemp

Today is time for what is perhaps my all-time favorite example of how sound patterns change over time. Here we go, no more delays:

The Proto-Indo-European sound k- changed into the h- sound into German (then English) — but it remained the k- sound (often spelled with c-) into Latin then Spanish. Thus we get many great parallels we’ve discussed before, such as head/cabeza. Another example of the same pattern:

The English hemp, for everyone’s favorite weed to smoke. The Spanish for the same, which we also say in English, is cannabis.

Now look closely: if we remember that the h- in the Germanic/English words maps to the c- in Latinate/Spanish words, then it becomes very clear that the h-m-p of hemp maps the c-n-b of cannabis. The m/n and p/b cross and change very easily between each other, so those sound changes are much more obvious.

Who would’ve thunk!

Corazón and Heart

So, this is one of my personal all-time favorite etymologies. Just sayin’.

The Spanish for “heart,” corazón, and the English heart itself, both come from the same original root.

Huh? How? But they’re so different!

Both come from the Proto-Indo-European *kerd-, meaning the same. The key to understanding this one is remembering the pattern of k- sounds from PIE tending to remain the same in Latin, but changing to the h- sound as it evolved into German and then English. Take, for example, hundred/century, for example.

Thus, the h-r-t of heart maps to the c-r-z of corazón.

From the same root is… courage. yup, that c-r is the same c-r. So courage is indeed something that comes from the heart.

Ciento and Hundred

Today’s link is another gem: despite sounding completely different, “hundred” and ciento are actually the same word. Here’s how.

The ancient Proto-Indo-European root *kmtom meant a hundred. As PIE evolved into Latin, the word stayed basically the same phonetically, turning into centum, and stayed the same (but with a soft-c pronunciation) into the Spanish, ciento.

But as PIE evolved into German, the k-/c- sounds evolved into h- sounds. Think about heart/corazon and hemp/cannabis, for example. 100 followed the same pattern, with the initial k-/c- sound turning into the h-.

Thus, the c-n-t of ciento maps exactly to the h-n-d of hundred. The t/d were interchanged but that’s a very common, similar, and more obvious pattern.

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

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