Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Mancha and Immaculate

  • in CT to CH

The Spanish mancha (“spot” or “stain”) comes from the Latin word for the same, macula.

From the Latin macula, we get the English… immaculate — which literally means (knowing the negation prefix of im-) “without a stain.” So the immaculate conception truly was perfect!

How this sound changed was interesting: often Latin words with a ct- or cl- or other hard letters after a c- sound turn into a suave ch in Spanish. For a distant example, see duct and ducha, or nocturnal and noche. (The ct- is much more common than the cl-, but they’re cousins!) Thus, we can see the m-ch of mancha mapping to the (im-)m-cl of immaculate.

Pudrir and Foul

The Spanish pudrir, “to rot,” has a surprising connection to the English, foul, a word meaning the same but sadly very underused these days — although still when quoting Macbeth: fair is foul and foul is fair!

Both come from the same Indo-European root *pu, meaning, “to rot.”

But the English one sounds so different because, in the Germanic branch of Indo-European, the p- sound turned into the f- sound. But not in the Latin branch.

Thus, the initial f+vowel of foul maps to the initial p+vowel of pudrir.

From the same root are more fun words including defile, putrid, and pus. What wonderful imagery!

Padre and Father

Father padre spanish english

Father is one of the most basic words in every language and a traceable pattern throughout the Indo-European languages.

The original PIE sound “p-” changed in all the Germanic languages to “f-“. This is referred to as “Grimm’s Law”, from the fairy-tale fabulist who first noted this pattern.

In the Latin languages such as Spanish, the original “p-” sound was preserved. Thus, the Spanish padre’s p-d-r root maps to the English father’s f-th-r root.

Pegar and Pituitary and Fat

The Spanish pegar (“to paste”) comes from the Latin pix, meaning “tar.” That makes sense: “paste” looks like just a more diluated “tar.”

But pix itself comes from the Proto-Indo-European root pei(e), which meant, fat — think of animal fat, for example. It makes sense that this word evolved into a word meaning “tar”: that’s a bit what animal fat looks like.

From this same root pei(e), we get a few notable English words:

  • Fat — Fat itself comes from this root! This is through the PIE p- sound transforming into the f- sound as it evolved into German and English. Think about father/padre, for example.
  • Pituitary — The same root came back in, via an educated Latin, to mean, the pituitary gland. Why? Because the ancients believed that this slimy gland is what produced mucous/snot — the smile of the nose. A bit like tar, isn’t it? We can see the P- root preserved here, too.

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.

Tamaño and Magnificent

Tamaño (Spanish for “size,” in the size of, “what is your pants size?”) comes from the Latin tammagno, that is, “so – great” (“great” in the size of “big”). Tam is the Latin for “so” or “very” from which we get the Spanish tan.

To even measure is thus to imply that… you are big! So great! If you’re small, after all, you don’t even need to measure it!

Magno (Latin for “great” or “big”) gives us the English… magnificent. But, curiously, the –gn– turns into the ñ as Latin evolved into Spanish. Thus tanmagno became tamaño. We see this gn to ñ pattern in many words, such as cognate / cuñado.

Cinco – Five

The relation between “five” in Spanish (cinco) and English is one of the more surprising relationships: they are indeed direct second cousins!

Both come from the same Proto-Indo-European root, *penkwe, meaning the same, five. (The greek for five also comes from the same: think about pentagon, for example).

The interesting part is this: the p- sound in Proto-Indo-European evolved into the Germanic and then English f- sound. Think about father and padre, for example or foot and pie. Five and cinco follow this pattern too, but in a more subtle way.

The Proto-Indo-European for the same, *penkwe, evolved into the Latin word for “five”: quinque. The qu- was pronounced in a hard way like a k- and then, as Latin evolved into Spanish, the k- was softened into the soft c- in cinco. So p- to k- to c-. You can see it through the similar sounds.

Indeed, the pattern is most obvious in the repetition of the sounds in both words cin-co as the c/k sound twice, at the start of each syllable. And the fi-ve as the f- sound (and its closely related, usually identical and often interchangeable sound of v-) at the start of each of its syllables as well.

Caja – Case, Cash, Capsule

The Spanish caja (“box”) comes from the Latin capsa for the same.

This gives us a surprising connection to some English words that, on the surface, sound very different than caja:

  • Case — In the sense of, well, a box.
  • Capsule — Still retains the -ps- of the original Latin.
  • Cash — Originally meant “money box”. Funny how the name of the container turned into the name of the thing itself.

The Latin turned into the Spanish through an interesting pattern: the -sh- sound in Latin consistently turned into the -j- sound in Spanish (at first retaining the original pronunciation, but then under the influence of Arabic, grew to the throat-clearing sound). With caja, we have a slight variation of the pattern, where the -ps- sound turned into the -j- sound. Thus, the c-ps maps exactly to c-j.

Gales and Wales

Wales, that ancient province of Great Britain from which all the Jones emerge and which conjures up images of Tolkien, is known as Gales in Spanish.

Why? Because the Germanic w- words consistently became g- words when they entered late Latin and Spanish. Take war and guerra, for example. Or William and Guillermo.

Thus, the w-l-s of Wales maps exactly to the g-l-s of Gales.

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!

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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