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Learning Spanish & Etymology Pattern-Matching for Nerds

Jarabe – Syrup

Syrup jarabe english spanish

The Spanish for syrup, jarabe, comes from the same root as the English: the Persian/Arabic sharab, which means “a drink, or wine”.

The drastically different (at least superficially) words are explained by the sh- and related (such as, sy- ) sounds changing to the Arabic-sounding j- sound in Spanish — but not English.

Thus, the j-r-b of jarabe maps to the sy-r-p of syrup.

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Valija – Valise

In some of the Spanish words, they say maleta to mean “suitcase.” But in other parts, such as Argentina, they say valija.

Valija, although it sounds different from any English word, actually is quite similar to the almost-forgotten–my grandparents still use it!– English word, that also means “suitcase” , of valise.

Although they sound different, the connection becomes clear if we remember the pattern of the sh- to j- conversion: Latin words that had a sh- sound tended to turn into the j- sound in Spanish. Think of sherry/jerez.

In this case, the French valise entered English unchanged but when the French word entered into Spanish, it was Spanish-ified with the s- sound turning into a j- sound. Thus, the v-l-s maps to the v-l-j.

Empujar and Push

The Spanish empujar (“to push”) has the same common ancestor as the English for the same, push: the Latin pulsare.

Pulsare meant, in Latin, “to beat”. A push is a sort of beat, in both senses: a punch and, a punch happening over and over again!

From the same root we also get the English, to pulse, of course. As does… impulse. Yes, an impulse is indeed a strong punch!

The sound here is a variation of the sh-to-j pattern, where variations of the s/x/sh/soft-g sound in Latin turned into the “j” in Spanish (via the Arabic influence) but remained the same as it transformed from Latin into educated English. Hence the “sh” sound in “push”!

Jefe – Chief

Chief jefe spanish english

Chief, and the Spanish for the same, Jefe, both come from the same root: the French chef, which means the same.

But this is odd as they sound so different! How are they related?

It’s not obvious, but it’s easy once you understand the pattern: The Latin sound “sh” and very similar sounds (such as the “ch” and “sy”) almost always became a “j” in Spanish. Like syrup and jarabe. Not obvious!

Eje and Axle

The Spanish eje for “axle” comes from the Latin for the same, axis. The English axle comes from the same common ancestor as the Latin axis, the proto-indo-european root *aks– also meaning the same.

The Spanish eje is easy to understand if we remember that most of the x/sh/ch sounds in Latin and the ancient languages became the throat-clearing -j- sound in Spanish. Thus, the e-j of eje maps to the a-x of axle pretty clearly.

It’s interesting how such a simple word has remained mostly unchanged for tens of thousands of years. Perhaps, the axle is one of the most fundamental discoveries in human history. It is, after all, what led to the wheel, which led to… civilization.

Jeringa – Syringe

Jeringa, Spanish for Syringe, sounds like it has nothing in common with its English counter-part. But they are literally the same word.

The Latin sh- sound often evolved into the j- sound in Spanish — originally retaining the sh- sound but eventually, under Arabic’s influence, transforming to the throat-clearing sound we know and love.

This explains how both jeringa and syringe derive from the same root: the Latin siringa, itself from the Greek syringa. The sy- sound is a variation of the sh- sound and therefore the sy-r-n-g of syringe maps to the j-r-n-g of jeringa.

Jerez – Sherry

Sherry jerez spanish englishThe Latin sounds for “sh” — and similar variations, like “ch” and “ss” — became a “j” sound in Spanish.

Thus, the English sherry is nearly identical to the Spanish jerez!

These sh/j sounds were often spelled with a “x” in old Spanish; and sherry itself is named after the town it first came from, Xeres, which is near Cordova.

Perejil and Parsley

Perejil and its English version parsley sound very different. But they are, actually, etymologically the same word.

They sound different because often the -s- and -sh- sounds in Spanish turned into the letter -j- with the Arabic throat-clearing sound as a pronunciation. Thus, the p-r-j-l of perejil maps exactly to the p-r-s-l of parsley.

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!

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.

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

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