Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

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!

Jabón – Soap

Soap and the Spanish for the same, jabón, sound like they have nothing in common. But sounds can be deceiving.

Both come from the same root: the Latin sebum, meaning “grease”.

How can such different words be so related? Easy: the Latin s- sound and its variations (sh-, ch- and sy- for example) usually became, under the Arabic influence, a j- sound in Spanish but remained more intact in English.

Thus, the s-p of soap maps almost exactly to the j-b of jabón. The “p” and “b” are often easily interchanged as well.

Less fun is also noting that, from the same Latin root, meaning “grease” we also get seborrhea (a medical condition of having too much grease on your skin).

Sanguche and Sandwich

The Spanish for sandwich is sánguche — just the English word, as it is pronounced in Spanish. That one is easy!

However, what is noteworthy is that the -w- becomes a -g-. At first, that seems odd. But then, we remember the -w- to -g- transformation: that in a lot of Germanic words, when they’re brought into Spanish, the -w- sound becomes a -g- sound. Think war/guerra, for a great example.

Suddenly, the weird letter change makes sense!

Daño and Condemn, Damn

Daño, Spanish for “damage”, comes from the Latin for the same: damnum. From the same root we get both the English condemn and damn. But what happened to that missing ‘m’?

Interestingly, the Latin m-n sound tended to turn into a ñ sound in Spanish. This explains how autumn became otoño, for example.

We can still see this pattern preserved in the perfect mapping of d-ñ in daño to the d-mn of damn, and the same with condemn.

From the same root we also get the English indemnity, as well as damage itself, although the final -n was lost because damage entered English via French.

We can see the parallel between daño, condemn, damage, and damnum — but how did it come to mean the formerly-vulgar, damn? Think of damn in the old sense of, sentencing someone for a crime they did: you are condemned to hell. A whole slew of English insults come from this same concept, including the word hell itself!

Leche – Lactose

Ah, one of our all-time favorite patterns and examples: leche, the common Spanish word meaning, “milk.”

Leche is a first cousin of the English lactose via a very interesting pattern: the -ct- to -ch- pattern.

Both come from the same Latin root, lactatio (literally, “suckling.”) The -ct- in that root remained unchanged as it entered English (because it entered via the sophisticated French) but that sound almost always turned into a -ch- sound as Latin evolved into Spanish. Thus the l-ct maps to the l-ch almost exactly.

Many other awesome words follow the same pattern: think octagon/ocho, for example. Some more coming up soon (or see the pattern page linked below).

Huir and Fugitive

Fugitive huir

The Spanish “Huir” comes from the same Latin root as “fugitive”, “fugitivus”, meaning, “to flee”.

Pattern: Latin words that began with an ‘F’ tended to lose that initial ‘F’ sound and became silent (yet represented in writing with an ‘H’) as vulgar Latin turned into Spanish.

Hijo – Filial, Affiliate

The Spanish for “son”, hijo, doesn’t sound like anything in English. But it is a close cousin of the English synonym for brotherliness: filial.

Both come from the Latin for “son,” filius. The transformation to Spanish came about through two interesting patterns: the initial f- in Latin usually turned into an h- in Spanish (such as, hacer and fact, or hablar and fable). The other pattern is less common: the -li- sound turned into a -j- sound – it’s just a less common sound! Thus the f-li maps to h-j almost exactly.

From the Latin filius, we get a few other English words, including: affiliate: an affiliate is, in a way, a child you rear!

From the same root we also get the English fetus, fecund and even feminine. These come, via the Latin filius, from the Proto-Indo-European root *dʰeh₁y-li-os, meaning, “sucker” — in the literal sense of, “one who sucks.” Children, indeed, are defined by their sucking their mothers; so your hijo is literally, “the one who sucks.” And, some might argue, even affiliates themselves usually do suck!

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