Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Hombre and Ad Hominem, Hominid

Hombre, Spanish for “man”, comes from the Latin for the same, hominid. From the same root, we get the English hominid and the classic ad hominem attack.

Here’s the interesting part: the m-n sound in Latin consistently changed into the -mbr- sound in Spanish. Thus, we have parallels like nombre and nominal. And hombre maps exactly to this pattern with both ad hominem and hominid.

Nombre and Nominal

The usual Spanish word for “name”, nombre, is very closely related to the English word nominal, in an interesting way. Not only does nominally mean “relating to the name”, but there is an interesting etymological pattern between the words.

Latin words with an m-n sound usually turned the m-n into an mbr sound as Latin evolved into Spanish. Thus, we see curious patterns like hominem becoming hombre, and the words famine and hambre being closely linked.

The same pattern applies here. The Latin nominalis turned into the Spanish nombre and the English nominal — thus the n-m-n of nominal maps exactly to the n-mbr of nombre!

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.

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.

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.

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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