Published on January 1, 2016
1. www.spanishlinguist.us Top 10 surprising ways that Spanish isn’t special These core aspects of Spanish, which may seem peculiar to a native speaker of English, turn out to be surprisingly normal when considered in a broader linguistic context.
2. www.spanishlinguist.us 1. Spanish nouns are either masculine or feminine el vestido el toro la corbatala vaca Masculine Feminine
3. www.spanishlinguist.us • Spanish gender has biological gender at its core (el toro, la vaca), but is also applied to all sexless objects (el vestido, la corbata). • Most languages related to Spanish, such as German and Russian (though not modern English), have similar systems; so do Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew. • Gender is only one way that languages divide nouns into classes. This suggests a general human need to impose a conceptual structure on the enormous variety of entities in the world. Swahili languages like Bantu divide nouns into humans, animals, body parts, plants, places, abstract concepts, and so on. Chinese (and some other languages) classify nouns by shape.
4. www.spanishlinguist.us 2. Spanish requires the “personal a” before direct objects that are human and specific Visito a mis amigos. (‘I visit my friends.’) Visito España.
5. www.spanishlinguist.us • The personal a is an example of what linguists call Differential Object Marking (DOM): adding a grammatical marker to atypical direct objects. • People -- especially specific people -- are more likely to be subjects of verbs than objects. DOM marks exceptions to this generalization. • Over three hundred languages worldwide, including Hebrew, Turkish, Korean, and Malayalam, also have DOM. • The personal a is helpful in Spanish because word order is relatively flexible, so that a person mentioned after a verb might otherwise be mistaken for its subject.
6. www.spanishlinguist.us 3. In Spanish, adjectives usually follow nouns un gato negro un libro abierto una comida rápida
7. www.spanishlinguist.us • The ordering of adjectives after nouns parallels other Spanish word orderings: main verbs after auxiliaries (he hablado), prepositional objects after prepositions (para Luisa), objects after verbs (comen frijoles), and so on. • In all these cases, the first element defines the phrase type, and the later elements supply the details. Linguists therefore describe Spanish as a consistently “head-initial” language. • Languages can either be head-initial (like Spanish), head-final (like Hungarian), or mixed (like German). All three types are well-represented worldwide.
8. www.spanishlinguist.us 4. Spanish doesn’t capitalize days of the week, language names, and many other noun types
9. www.spanishlinguist.us • Like Spanish, most languages that use capital letters restrict them to names of people, places, and organizations, as well as sentence beginnings. Only English and German capitalize more aggressively. • Most of the world’s writing systems don’t even have distinct capital and lower-case letters. The Roman alphabet (used in Latin, Spanish, English, etc.) is a notable exception, along with the Cyrillic (Russian), Greek, and Armenian alphabets. • Capital letters in the Roman alphabet were orginally developed for chiseling, and lower-case letters for handwriting. They were first combined in the Middle Ages.
10. www.spanishlinguist.us 5. Spanish has only five vowels – a, e, i, o, u – in pronunciation as well as spelling You can hear all five vowels in words like murciélago ‘bat’ and educación ‘education’. Two sets of words that show off the five-way contrast are: • paso, peso, piso, poso, puso • para, pera, pira, pora, pura
11. www.spanishlinguist.us • Around the world, five- and six-vowel systems are the most common. (English, with its twelve vowel sounds*, is an outlier.) • Most compact vowel systems, like that of Spanish, are based on the so-called “cardinal vowels”, a-e-i-o-u. • This set of vowels is optimal from the point of view of both articulation and acoustics. The vowels exploit the tongue’s full range of motion (high and low, front and back)… …and are maximally distinct for the listener. * As in beet, bit, bait, bet, bat, bot, bought, boat, book, boot, but, and baton
12. www.spanishlinguist.us 6. Spanish has two types of r El carro no es caro ‘The car isn’t expensive’ Trilled r Flapped r (sounds like the d in rider) In both r sounds, the tip of the tongue is just behind the front teeth. Only the tongue movement is different.
13. www.spanishlinguist.us • Both varieties of Spanish r are common in the world’s languages. (The English r, in contrast, is a genuine oddball.) • It’s not unusual for languages to have two r sounds. • Most languages with two r’s, like Spanish, pair consonants with the same tongue position but a contrasting tongue action.
14. www.spanishlinguist.us 7. Syllable structure and position within a Spanish word determine which syllable is stressed Stress falls on the last syllable if a word ends in a consonant… …but on the next-to-last syllable if a word ends in a vowel feLIZ ‘happy’ HEcho ‘fact’ elemenTAL ‘elemental’ partiCIpa ‘she participates’ estereotiPAR ‘to sterotype’ todopodeROso ‘all-powerful’
15. www.spanishlinguist.us • In Spanish, one syllable within each word is pronounced with greater emphasis, or stress. This is very common in languages worldwide. • In these languages, stress placement is more often determined with respect to the end of a word (as in Spanish) than its beginning. • Most languages in which syllable structure plays a role in stress placement favor “heavy” syllables, a category that includes syllables with a final consonant (as in Spanish). • All key aspects of Spanish stress are therefore quite normal from a cross-linguistic perspective.
16. www.spanishlinguist.us 8. Spanish has two verbs, ser and estar, that mean ‘to be’ 1. La profesora es aburrida. (ser) ‘The teacher is boring.’ 2. El estudiante está en la clase. (estar) ‘The student is in class.’ 3. El estudiante está aburrido. (estar) ‘The student is bored.’
17. www.spanishlinguist.us • Ser expresses fundamental, identifying characteristics, like the teacher’s dullness in #1, while estar expresses location, as in #2, and also conditions, like the student’s boredom in #3. • Ser combines elements of the Latin verbs esse ‘to be’ and sedere ‘to sit’; estar comes from the Latin stare ‘to stand’’. • This duplication, shared to some extent by other Romance languages, also arose in the Celtic branch of the Indo-European language family. • More broadly, about two-thirds of languages world-wide have a similar division of the concept ‘to be’.
18. www.spanishlinguist.us 9. Spanish has two words, ese and aquel, that mean ‘that’ este libro ‘this book’ (close to me) ese libro ‘that book’ (farther away) aquel libro ‘that book way over there’ (farthest)
19. www.spanishlinguist.us • Most languages either have a two-way contrast between ‘this’ and ‘that’, as in English, or a three-way contrast, as in Spanish. • Some languages (like German) don’t even contrast ‘this’ and ‘that’, while some (like Hausa) have a four- or five-way contrast. • Because este, ese, and aquel can be thought of as ‘close to me’, ‘close to you’, and ‘close to someone else’, they roughly correspond to first, second, and third person: I, you, and he/she. • Words like aquel are therefore a common source of third person pronouns; Spanish él ‘he’ and ella ‘she’, in fact, come from Latin ille/illa ‘that (far away)’.
20. www.spanishlinguist.us 10. Some positive expressions in Spanish have become negative Expression Used to mean Now means en absoluto ‘absolutely’ ‘absolutely not’ en modo alguno ‘in some way’ ‘in no way’
21. www.spanishlinguist.us • These phrases have so often been paired with no that they have become negative by association. • This common pattern is called “Jespersen’s Cycle”, after the linguist who first wrote about it in 1917. • Jespersen’s cycle explains the origin of several well-established negatives in Spanish and French, among many other languages. Negative Latin origin Spanish nada ‘nothing’ res nata ‘something born’ nadie ‘nobody’ homines nati ‘people born’ jamás ‘never’ iam magis ‘any more’ French rien ‘nothing’ res ‘something’ pas ‘not’ passus ‘step’ personne ‘nobody’ persona ‘person’
22. www.spanishlinguist.us SUMMARY • 1-3: Grammatical gender and Differential Object Marking (aka the ‘personal a’) are found in many languages besides Spanish, while the ordering of adjectives after nouns is expected for a “head-initial” language like Spanish. • 4: The restrained use of capital letters in Spanish is the norm rather than the exception worldwide. Most writing systems don’t even have capitals. • 5-7: The five vowels and two r’s of Spanish are common in other languages, as are stress placement rules based on syllable structure and position. • 8-9: Like Spanish, many languages have two words for ‘to be’ and ‘that’. • 10: The ongoing creation of new Spanish negatives from positives echoes similar developments in the history of Spanish, French, and other languages.
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