Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Herir and Interfere

Herir (Spanish for, “to round”; most commonly heard in the form, “herido”, a wound) is a surprising cousin of… interfere. How so?

Interfere comes to us from the French entre– (“between”) and ferir (“to hit”). Interfering with something is really just hitting it right in the middle of it, breaking it up! Ferir comes from the Latin, for the same, Ferire.

Curiously, Ferire evolved into Spanish Herir — the Initial “F” turning into an “H”. It turns out, this is a common pattern as Latin evolved into Spanish — but in no other language! Just look at Filial and Hijo, or File and Hilo, or Fig and Higo.

Thus, the h-r of herir maps to the (int)-f-r of interfere.

Pulga and Flea

It is both surprising and funny that in Spanish, a Flea Market is translated to be, literally, exactly the same: Mercado de Pulgas.

But it is even more surprising (although probably less funny) that flea and its Spanish translation, pulga, are close cousins – despite the different sounds.

Both derive from the Indo-European *plou. To understand this transformation, we should remember that the Indo-European p- sounds stayed the same in Latin (and thus Spanish) but became an f- sound in German (and thus English).

Therefore, the f-l of flea maps exactly to the p-l of pulga!

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.

Dejar – Relax

The “sh” sound — often represented in writing as an “x” — transformed in all different ways to the “j” letter (and the accompanying mouth-clearing sound, influenced by Arabic) as late Latin turned into Spanish. See lots of examples: sherry/jerez, for example.

Here’s another: the common Spanish word, dejar, meaning, “to leave to the side” or “to put down” or to “put away” or to just “let go.”

Dejare comes from the Latin laxare, meaning, “to loosen”. From this same root, we get a few English words — which did not go through the x-to-j transformation Spanish did including:

  • Lax —  which basically means to loosen up, so it is similar conceptually!
  • Laxative — this loosens up the remains of your food inside your body so you can excrete, to be euphemistic.
  • Relax — this is a loosening of your muscles, body, and mind. According to this same pattern, we also know that relax in Spanish is, relajar.

See more examples of this same pattern including lejos and leash here.

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.

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.

Llama – Flame

Latin words that began with the fl- tended to become ll- in Spanish. This is consistent with the pattern in many other hard-constant-plus-L words, like pl- and cl-.

Excellent example: the Latin for “flame” is flamma. This evolved into the different-but-similar Spanish for the same: llama.

Who would’ve thunk?

Predecir – Predict, Diction

An easy way to remember the Spanish decir (to say) is through the word predict.

Predict is, literally, pre – decir — to say beforehand. Pre means “before” and the dict- maps almost exactly to the Spanish decir.

How come the decir needs an extra -t in it to be predict? Because the Latin predecire took the grammatical form of predicatus and this form grew into English (via the French influence). A prediction in Spanish, after all, is predicho!

Thus, it is a cousin of many English words such as diction and dictionary.

Ocho and Octagon

The Latin for “eight” is Octo, from which we get the English Octagon.

Since most Latin words with a -ct- sound, like Octo, had the -ct- turn into a -ch- as the language evolved into Spanish, it is no surprise that eight in Spanish is ocho.

This same pattern manifests itself in noche/nocturnal, leche/lactose, and is one of our favorite patterns here at ForNerds!

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!

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:

patterns to help us learn spanish:

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For Nerds Learning Spanish via Etymologies