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Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Horno – Furnace

The Spanish horno, for “oven,” sounds unrelated to any English counterpart.

But it is in fact a close cousin of furnace. Both come from the Latin formus, meaning “warn”.

How did such dissimilar words end up such close cousins?

Because most Latin words that began with an f- followed by a vowel ended up evolving in Spanish (alone among the romantic languages) into an h-. Thus the h-r-n of horno maps almost exactly to the f-r-n of furnace. In both cases, the original -m- evolved into an -n- in the root. But that is a very common transition too, with both sounds being very similar.

Sospechoso – Suspect

Suspect and the Spanish equivalent, sospechoso, are easy to identify and obviously the same word, both from the same Latin root, suspectus.

That’s not the interesting part. Rather, as Latin evolved into Spanish, the Latin sound -ct- turned into the Spanish -ch- sound. Think lactose/leche or octagon/ocho.

And suspect falls exactly into this pattern: the English s-s-p-ct maps exactly to the Spanish s-s-p-ch.

Lejos and Leash

We recently discussed the relationship between dejar and relax, both from the same Latin root, laxare, from the Latin laxus. Other modern words come from these same roots, let’s see…

In Spanish, another interesting word from the same root is lejos, meaning, “far.” This underwent the same sh to j transition documented in the other post. That which is far away, after all, is what we can be relaxed about, what it’s easy to be loose about.

Some additional English words that come from this same root include:

  • Lease — think about it this way, English speakers say “to let”, that is, to let people do something with your property, to be relaxed and distant about it.
  • Lush — the lush man is someone who is relaxed about his diligent drinking.
  • Leash — a leash is precisely what you use to try to not let anything get relaxed!

Fondo, Hondo and Profound

From the Latin fundus (“bottom”), we get the Spanish fondo (“background”) and hondo (“deep”) — as well as the English profound. After all, when someone says something profound, well, that’s deep.

The mapping of the Spanish f-n-d (or h-n-d) to the English (pro)-f-n-d is straightforward. However, it’s curious that, in hondo, the initial F transformed from Latin into Spanish to an initial H. This is a common pattern, unique to Spanish, that we see in many Latin words as they transformed into Spanish, such as hijo and filial, refuse and rehusar, and higado and fig.

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.

Llenar and Expletive

Llenar comes from the Latin plere (“to fill”), as we’ve previously discussed. But here’s another English word that comes from the same Latin root: expletive, yes, that euphemism for vulgar words!

Expletive literally means to “fill” with the expansive ex– prefix which, taken together, means, “to fill out your words.” An expletive is literally filling a conversation with words when you don’t know what else to say!

Flojo and Flush, Fluent

The Spanish flojo means “slack, loose” — but it is a very common word in Spanish, often used to mean “relaxed” in a negative way, in senses like, “They cut themselves some slack.”

Flojo comes from the Latin fluxus, meaning the same as the Spanish. From fluxus, we get a bunch of English words, including: fluent, fluid, fluctuate and even (via fluent) affluent and influence. We also get the more fun flush and the most obvious flux (as in, “to be in flux.”) All of these can be understood in the sense that, that which is loose flows — and all of these words flow in one way or another: liquids are fluid, you speak fluently, flushing water flows, money flows if you are affluent, etc.

The -x- in the original Latin tended to disappear in English (hence leaving the vowels before and after, as in fluent or fluid) or became a -sh- sound. This is an example of the common pattern of the -sh- sounds mapping to the throat-clearing -j- in Spanish, with the fl-sh of flush mapping to the fl-j of flojo.

Embajada and Embassy

Embassy (and Ambassador) and its Spanish equivalent, Embajada (and Embajador), both come from the same ancestor, the Old French Ambactos.

What is most interesting about these two is that it is an example of the pattern where the -j- sound in Spanish maps to the -sh- sound (and its cousins, like -ss- and -ch-) in English. Remember syrup and jarabe, chess and ajedrez, sherry and jerez, and push and empujar for a few examples.

Thus, the m-b-j of emabajada maps to the m-b-ss of embassy.

Llave – Clef

Key llave spanish english

The Latin words that began with “cl” changed, pretty consistently, to “ll” as Latin changed into Spanish.

Today’s example of this: the Latin word for “key” was clavis. This became the modern Spanish word for “key”, llave.

There are, however, a few interesting other descendants of clavis, and thus distant relatives of llave. They include:

  • the Spanish clavo, meaning, “nail”. It’s a more educated word, coming to Spanish via Latin scholars later on, so it didn’t lose the natural cl- sound the way the traditional words did.
  • English words like clef and enclave. Yes, in music you talk about the “key” and the “clef” and they come from the same word originally!

Hermoso and Form

The Spanish for “beautiful”, hermosa, seems unrelated to the English for the same. Or is it?

Hermosa comes from the Latin for “beautiful” formosus.

We can see this pattern because it is an example of the Initial F to H pattern, where many Latin words that began with F- turned into H- in Spanish.

Ahhh, that makes sense: Formosa, in Argentina really means, “Beautiful”, and this also explains the Portuguese for beautiful (also formosa) as well: Portuguese never lost that initial F.

The Latin formosus itself comes from the root forma, meaning, well, “form”. So, beauty, itself, is just your pure form. At least in Spanish.

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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