Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Verbs of asking in English and Spanish, Part 1

[This entry is an excerpt from, "Verbs of asking in English and Spanish," Chapter 24 of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

Source: Sheet music cover, 1917 (public domain)


The difference between the Spanish verbs pedir ‘to ask for a thing or action (a request)’ and preguntar ‘to ask for information (a question)’ takes a while for English-speaking learners of Spanish to master, since in English there is only one verb, to ask, that expresses both meanings. We can refer to these two meanings of ask as (1) the ‘request’ sense and (2) the ‘question’ sense, after two English synonyms for the two senses of the verb to ask. We can see sample sentences with this verb below and their Spanish equivalents:


He asked me what I wanted.

Me preguntó qué quería.
He asked me something.

Me preguntó algo.
He asked me for money.

Me pidió dinero.
He asked me to come.

Me pidió que viniera.
He asked for his son to come.

Pidió que viniera su hijo.
He asked me for the time.

Me pidió la hora.
He asked me the time

Me preguntó la hora.

The fact that the same verb to ask is used for these two senses doesn’t mean that there is possible ambiguity, for the two senses are used in different contexts. Thus, for instance, the request sense of ask is always followed by the preposition for followed by a noun, as in #3, #5, and #6 above, or by an infinitival clause, as in #4 above.

The ‘question’ sense of the verb ask, on the other hand, is typically followed by a noun or some embedded question starting with whether, if, what, when, etc., as in #1. Occasionally, it is followed by a noun, as in She asked the time, but that is just an idiomatic way of saying She asked what time it was. So it is not as if English speakers cannot tell the difference between the two types of actions or as if a sentence with ask could ever be ambiguous as to which of the two senses was meant. One could say that to ask is polysemous, if we compare it to the Spanish alternatives, but one could also say that to ask is vague as to what it is that is being requested: information or action.

Again, Spanish preguntar is used basically to request information and pedir is used to request (ask for) things or actions. A question, such as the yes-no question ¿Qué hora es? ‘What time is it?’ elicits information, so we would describe the action of asking this with preguntar and, thus, we could embed the question under that verb as in Preguntar qué hora es ‘To ask what time it is’. The derived (back-formed) noun pregunta is the equivalent of the English noun question. A request for money or a favor, on the other hand, that is, a request for something tangible or for some action, is always expressed with the verb pedir in Spanish, never preguntar. The related noun is petición ‘request’.


Indirectness: Questions as requests (and statements)

It is easy enough to understand the two types of asking and thus the two Spanish verbs. There are even two sentence types associated with the two types of asking. The prototypical sentence type associated with preguntar is the question, as in ¿Tienes cinco dólares? ‘Do you have five dollars?’, which is a yes-no question. The prototypical sentence type associated with pedir is the command, as in ¡Dame cinco dólares! ‘Give me five dollars!’

Still, the fact that English uses just one verb for the two of them is quite understandable as well. In both cases, you want something from someone and you use words to elicit it. Proof that there is a connection between the two types of asking is that we often use the ‘wrong’ sentence type to obtain what we want. This is most clearly see in indirect speech, in which we typically ask questions in order to request some action on the part of our interlocutor, rather than information.

Although the direct way to ask for action, that is, to get someone to do something, both English or Spanish use the command or imperative sentence type, as in Dame cinco dólares ‘Give me five dollars’, or Ven a la fiesta conmigo ‘Come to the party with me’, in practice that is not how we typically ask people to do things for us. Often we ask for action indirectly, through questions, as in ¿Me puedes prestar cinco dólares? ‘Can you lend me five dollars?’ or ¿Te gustaría venir a la fiesta conmigo? ‘Would you like to come to the party with me?’

Notice that, although in the last two examples of requests questions are used, these are not at all regular questions, in the sense that they are not requests for information, as questions supposedly are, but rather are requests for action. That is, they are indirect requests for action, for someone to do something. If you asked someone Can you lend me five dollars? and they answered Yes, I can (information), but left it at that and didn’t give you the money, they would be behaving rather uncooperatively. That is because the purpose of the question was not the literal one of getting information, as direct questions usually are, but to indirectly make a request.

Using questions to (indirectly) elicit behavior is a derived use of the question sentence type, not the primary one, which is to elicit information. When and how questions—which are primarily was to elicit information—can be used in order to elicit action, or to do things other than elicit information, is to some extent culture dependent and we should not expect this type of indirectness to be used exactly the same way across cultures and, thus, across languages, or even across subcultures that share a language.

Notice that we also often use questions, which are literally requests for information, to make indirect statements, not just indirect commands. Think about the following questions:

1)    Are you going to wear that to the party?
2)    Would you like to stop for a drink?
3)    When are you going to call your doctor about that back pain?

If we think about it, we have no trouble realizing that these are not simple requests for information, as the question format might suggest. It is quite obvious that question #1 should probably be interpreted as a statement (not a question) to the effect that I do not think that what you’re wearing is appropriate for the party. Question #2 should more likely than not be interpreted as an invitation to stop for a drink. Finally, a perceptive listener would probably understand question #3, as a statement to the effect that the addressee should be contacting his or her doctor (probably his) if they have not done so by now. In other words, indirectness allows us to, among other things, make statements, requests, and demands look like questions or, rather, to make statements in the form of questions. Such indirectness allows speakers not to seem too pushy and give the addressee a graceful way out of an uncomfortable situation. (Cf. Part I, Chapter 6, §6.8)

All of this makes one wonder whether there is any relationship between (1) conflating the senses of request and question in one word, the way English does with ask, and (2) the tendency to make requests by means of questions. Could it even have something to do with English speakers being more indirect than Spanish speakers? Although that is extremely unlikely, it is worth examining the differences in level of indirectness among cultures.

It is well known that some cultures are more indirect than others. Americans visiting Spain, for instance, often remark that Spaniards do not use questions to request things in situations where an American would, such as when talking to a waiter at a restaurant or when requesting things such as the salt at the table. It is, of course, very unlikely that there is any connection between using questions for requests and having a single word (ask) for both questions and requests. Still, the question is quite valid and it makes us think about what is going on here.

It is probably true that Spaniards are more direct than Americans, at least in some situations. Thus, it is often shocking to American that people in Spain typically ask for things in a restaurant or a café directly, using imperatives. There is no doubt that Spaniards, in certain situations, are more likely to give what sounds to outsiders as (rude) commands requesting action in situations where an English-speaking American would more likely use a question to make an indirect request. Thus, it is perfectly acceptable in Spain to tell your waiter Tráeme una cerveza ‘Bring me a beer’ (an imperative sentence), whereas an English speaker would most likely use a question, such as Can/could I have a beer? Actually, using the equivalent of Can you bring me a beer? in Spain, would probably sound rather odd to your waiter and some might even be offended by the ‘excessive politeness’.

The truth is that there is nothing intrinsically rude about the Spanish way of asking for things, as long as this is the socially accepted way of doing it. Using a direct ‘command’ form rather than an indirect question when speaking to a person whose job is bring you things doesn’t have to be offensive, unless it is said with the wrong tone of voice, of course, and sounding demanding. If you translate the words directly and do not pay attention to how the request is made and the context in which it’s made, it may seem rude to someone from a culture in which such situations call for conventionalized indirectness.

Actually, using indirectness in a culture where one is expected to be direct in a particular situation, could result in a misunderstanding too. Excessive politeness is a thing and it is associated with socially distancing you from the person you are asking something from, which can be seen as rude. Excessive politeness, when used with people you are close to, such as intimates, but also with people who are there to assist you, such as a waiter, could be seen as a sign of lack of trust and a sign of assuming a certain social distance. In such a culture, a simple Pásame la sal ‘Pass me the salt’ can be the expected way of making a request at a table from a friend or family member, and anything more indirect that that can be seen as a sign that lack of intimacy, and thus seem rude and offensive, even adding a simple por favor ‘please’ to the request.

Of course, none of this is likely to have anything to do with the fact that Spanish has two basic words, pedir and preguntar, whereas English speakers only have one, to ask. Also, it should be mentioned that not all cultures that use the Spanish language behave the same way as mainstream Spanish culture (from Spain) does. A Spaniard will probably seem rude in a situation like the one just described to a Colombian or Peruvian as well, not just to the average American. And, of course, all Spanish speakers use questions sometimes to request actions, not just information, even if Spaniards are less likely to do it in certain circumstances where it is not called for in the culture.

Actually, in informal situations such as the ones we have described, Spanish often uses a type of question to soften the edge of asking for things but which has the property of not sounding excessively polite, which, as we have seen, could seem offensive to Spaniards in some situations. We are referring to a type of question construction that sounds somewhat strange when translated into English because it doesn’t make literal sense.

For example, if you want to ask your waitress for a beer, there is a third form we can use besides the two that we have seen, which are the direct Tráeme una cerveza ‘Bring me a beer!’ and the excessively polite ¿Podrías traerme una cerveza? ‘Could you bring me a beer?’ Note that the latter question, which is likely to be used by an American visiting Spain, would probably sound rather strange to a native Spanish speaker from Spain. Note also that the former is acceptable in Spain, as long as it is not uttered with a demanding tone of voice.

The third way that we are referring to is one in which one would ‘ask’ the question ¿Me traes una cerveza? Notice that because it is a question, it is also an indirect way of asking. Literally, this question translates as ‘Do you bring me a beer?’ or ‘Are you bringing me a beer?’ These questions sound odd when translated directly into English, but they are probably the preferred construction to use in Spain in requests among people who are intimate or who do not want to seem to be aloof and distant. A Spaniard who wants to add an extra edge to this type of request, might add por favor ‘please’ to it, but that is not at all necessary since, again, it is something that makes it sound more formal and thus off-putting in most situations.

Interestingly, it is also possible to give an extra edge of politeness to the command form type of request that we saw earlier. That can be accomplished by adding something at the beginning that softens the request. The simplest such thing to add is the interjection ¡Oye!, ‘Hey!’, lit ‘Hear!’. If we put all these factors together, we could come up with a range of ways to ask for a beer at a café in order of politeness, from least polite to most polite:

¡Tráeme una cerveza! (or just ¡Una cerveza!)
¡Tráeme una cerveza, por favor! (or ¡Una cerveza, por favor!
Oye, tráeme una cerveza.
¿Me traes una cerveza?
¿Me traes una cerveza, por favor?
¿Podrías traerme una cerveza?
¿Podrías traerme una cerveza, por favor?
Table 168: Degrees of politeness in requests in Spain

The default, most neutral option in Spain would probably be the middle one, namely #4. Of course, one could add another layer of politeness to this sequence by changing the form of the verb to usted, another social-distancing mechanism, and thus a way to code politeness.

These options transfer pretty much to any type of situation in which we ask for things and request some type of action. At the dining room table, for example, the most common way of asking for the salt, would probably be ¿Me pasas la sal? lit. ‘Do you pass me the salt?’, though it would not be at all out of place to use a command such as Oye, pásame la sal. Likewise, the most common way of asking a friend (not a stranger) to lend you five dollars would probably be ¿Me prestas cinco dólares? lit. ‘Do you lend me five dollars?’ If you were asking a stranger, or at least someone you’re not close with and who might be willing to lend you the money, you would probably use a more polite indirect question, namely ¿Podría(s) prestarme cinco dólares (por favor)? Note that using the wrong type of request form may also constitute a faux pas or social blunder.

Also, just as Spaniards know how and when to use indirectness (questions) when asking for action, English speakers also know when it is OK to use directness (commands) to ask for things. English speakers are not always indirect, using questions, when trying to get people to do things for them. They too often use imperatives (command sentences) to get people to do things by means of direct requests, if the situation calls for it. There are even situations in which a question would be out of place in English in order to get someone to act. If you are asking someone who just came into your home to sit down, for instance, you would probably use the ‘command’ form Sit down (maybe followed by the softening word please, or at least with a friendly tone of voice), rather than a question such as Could you sit down? or Would you (like to) sit down? A gentle tone of voice in the imperative Sit down! can be enough to make it sound like a request, and not as a command.

Whatever the connection between requesting (making requests) and questioning (asking questions), it is indeed the case that English speakers have a hard time with the difference between the two Spanish verbs pedir and preguntar. It is a difference that is covered early on in elementary textbooks. English speakers tend to be confused by this pair of words, for they don’t see anything unusual about using the same word ask for actions that for a Spanish speaker seem to be obviously different, or different enough to use different words for them.

Actually, the reason why it seems so natural to English speakers to use the same word for what Spanish ‘thinks’ are two different things might also have something to do with the fact that asking a question can be seen as a special type of a request for action, namely a request for giving information. In other words, there is some obvious semantic overlap between requests for information and requests for action.

Take, for instance, a situation in which someone asks another for their opinion about something. This is asking for information, obviously, but it is also a request for action (giving one’s opinion). So in Spanish you can say Me pidió mi opinión ‘She asked me for my opinion’, with pedir, not with preguntar. This puts emphasis on the fact that it is a request. But one could also say Me preguntó mi opinión (same meaning) or Me preguntó qué opinaba ‘She asked me what I thought about it?’ with the verb preguntar, not with pedir. This emphasizes that it is a question. (Notice that you cannot say *Me pidió qué opinaba.)

An unusual case is the one regarding reports of asking for the time. With an embedded question in the sentence, there is no doubt that Spanish must use preguntar, as in Me preguntó qué hora era ‘He asked me what time it was’, which is a request for information. There is a common and idiomatic way to shorten such a sentence, which is by changing the embedded question to the noun phrase la hora ‘the time’. Thus, we often hear things such as Me preguntó la hora ‘He asked me for the time’. Less commonly one also hears, however, the equivalent sentence Me pidió la hora ‘He asked me for the time’, with emphasis on the request.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The roots VERT- & VERS-, Part 6: Lat. revert- and invert-

[This entry is an excerpt from, "Diversión & diversion: the roots VERT- & VERS-," Chapter 7 of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

Lat. revert- and revers-

The next pair of cognates that come from a verb derived from Lat. vĕrtĕre is Eng. revert and Sp. revertir, which are not exactly useful cognates, that is, ‘good friends’. English intransitive revert /ɹɪ.ˈvɜɹt/, which is always followed by the preposition to, is a 13th century borrowing from Old French, which got it from Vulgar Latin *revertīre, a variant of Latin revĕrtĕre ‘to turn back’, formed with the prefix re‑ ‘back; again’. The main meaning of Eng. revert is ‘to change back to a situation that existed in the past’, as in Things reverted to normal, though it has a legal sense also, namely, when speaking of money or property, ‘to return to the former owner (or to the former owner’s heirs)’ (COED), as in The estate reverted to his brother.

Spanish revertir, from the same Vulgar Latin variant *revertīre of Latin revĕrtĕre, shares with Eng. revert the legal sense just mentioned, as in La casa revirtió a su hermano. Some dictionaries claim that it also has the other sense, namely ‘to go back to a previous state or condition’.[1] This last meaning, however, is not common today and Spanish prefers to use volver or even regresar to express it.

Spanish revertir has another sense that English revert does not have, one which we can summarize as follows: ‘to have an impact for someone’, typically having to do with monetary benefits or charges. This last sense or revertir is rather fancy and rare. It is typically followed by the preposition en and is synonymous with repercutir, e.g. Estas inversiones revertirán en beneficio nuestro ‘These investments will have a positive impact on our benefits’.

The prefix re‑ is also found with the other version of the root we are looking at, namely vers‑, as in the English word reverse, derived from the Latin past participle reversus ‘returned’ of revĕrtĕre, and which can be a verb, an adjective, or a noun. The source of the three words reverse varies, however. The adjective and the noun come ultimately from the Latin past participle reversus. The adjective reverse came first, around 1300, from Old French revers ‘reverse, cross, opposite’, itself borrowed from Latin reversus in the 13th century. The noun reverse, meaning ‘opposite, contrary’, came in the mid-14th century, probably derived from Old French noun revers, with the same meaning, and which eventually goes back to the same Latin past participle. The verb reverse, on the other hand, comes from Old French reverser ‘to reverse, turn around; roll, turn up’, a 12th century loan from Late Latin reversāre ‘to turn about, turn back’, a frequentative version of Latin revĕrtĕre. At first it was only a transitive verb meaning ‘to change, etc.’, but in the 15th century it came to also have an intransitive sense, something like ‘to go backwards’.

The verb to reverse is an uncommon verb which, as we have seen, can be used transitively or intransitively. Most common is transitive reverse, which means primarily ‘to turn around to the opposite direction’, ‘to turn inside out or upside down’, or in legal terminology, ‘to revoke or annul (a decision or decree, for example)’ (AHD). This verb translates in different ways depending on the sense. So, for example, speaking of reversing roles or positions (‘turn the other way round or up or inside out’ COED), Spanish uses invertir (see below). Speaking of legal decisions, Spanish uses revocar. Speaking of vehicle moving backwards, Spanish uses dar marcha atrás, poner marcha atrás or hacer retroceder. Finally, speaking of causing something to be the opposite of what it was, as in reverse climate change, one may use the same words as for moving backwards, or other verbs such as cancelar.

The adjective reverse, as in reverse order, translates as inverso, cf. orden inverso. The noun reverse, meaning the back of something, such as a coin or a piece of paper, translates with the cognate reverso, which Spanish borrowed from Italian. If talking about the inside of an article of clothing, Eng. reverse translates as revés (e.g. el revés de la camisa ‘the inside of a shirt’), which is the patrimonial descendant of the Latin noun reversus. Finally the English expression the reverse, synonymous with the opposite, translates as lo contrario.

Lat. invert- and invers-

The remaining pairs of cognates are even less ‘friendly’ than the preceding ones, since their meanings diverge even more. The first one is Eng. invert and Sp. invertir. The main meaning of English invert is ‘put upside down or in the opposite position, order, or arrangement’ (COED), just as in its Latin source invĕrtĕre, whose literal meaning was ‘to turn upside down’, though it could have other derived figurative senses, such as ‘to pervert’ and ‘to change’. Both English and Spanish seem to have borrowed this verb directly from Latin in the 16th century.

Spanish invertir can also be used with the meaning ‘to turn upside down’ or ‘reverse order’, but the most common sense of this word in modern Spanish is ‘to invest’ (either time, money, or other resources), a very different meaning. Perhaps because of this, Spanish does not use invertir much for the ‘reverse’ sense, other than as a technical term, preferring to use phrases such as dar la vuelta. A person who invests money is known as inversor in Spanish, an investor.

As usual, Latin could derive a noun from the verb invĕrtĕre by means of the suffix, ‑iōn‑, to name the action or the result of the action and, as always, the suffix was attached to the past participle stem, in this case invers‑. From this noun, we get the cognates Eng. inversion and Sp. inversión. Predictably, English inversion ‘turning upside down, etc.’ and Spanish inversión means primarily ‘investment’ in Spanish though, just as in the case of the verb, it can also have (more rarely) the other meaning, the same one that English inversion has.

Both Spanish and English have derived adjectives out of the respective regular past participles of these verbs, namely Eng. inverted and Sp. invertido. Spanish invertido, again, could have both meanings: ‘inverted’ and ‘invested’. Additionally, Spanish has developed a noun invertido which is used with the meaning of ‘homosexual’. This sense probably stems from the sense ‘to pervert’ of Latin invĕrtĕre mentioned earlier.

The past participle of Latin invĕrtĕre was invĕrsus (in+vĕrs+us), which has given us the cognate adjectives Eng. inverse and Sp. inverso/a. English inverse means primarily ‘opposite’ and it typically translates into Spanish as inverso, though as we saw earlier, used as a noun, inverso can also translate the English adjective reverse. Spanish uses the adjective inverso/a in a couple of expressions that do not translate with cognates: a la inversa ‘mirror-image, in reverse, the other way round, vice versa’ and en sentido inverso ‘in the opposite direction’.

One wonders how Spanish invertir and inversión acquired their current main meanings. Related to this is the question of how English invest and investment come to have the meaning that Spanish invertir and inversión have. Let us start first with the latter question. The English verb invest comes from Latin investīre (investio, investīre, investivi, investitus), from in ‘in’ + vestire ‘to dress, clothe’ (cf. Sp. vestir), which meant ‘to clothe (in)’ and, figuratively, ‘to cover, surround’. The descendant of this verb in Spanish is investir, whose primary meaning is a metaphorical one, one synonymous with conferir and otorgar, as in the sentence Le invistieron doctor honoris causa ‘they invested her with the degree of doctor, honoris causa’ (VOX).

English borrowed the verb to invest in the late 14th century, with the same meaning of Sp. investir, namely ‘to clothe in the official robes of an office’. So how did the current meaning of the verb invest come about? Some think this new meaning of English invest came from the notion of giving one’s capital a new form or dressing. This sense of the word supposedly was added to English invest, eventually becoming primary, in the 17th century. It would seem that the new sense came through Italian, where the cognate verb investire also has that meaning. English still has a noun derived from this verb that maintains the original meaning, namely investiture, from Med.Lat. investītūra, formed from the suffix ‑ura added to the past participle stem (in+vest+īt+ūr-a). English derived the noun investment, with the suffix ‑ment, out of the verb invest in order to name the act or result of investing, with the new sense. Actually, the noun investment was created in English before the verb acquired the new meaning and it originally meant ‘the act of putting on vestments’.

Just as curious as this meaning change of the word invest in English is the development of the ‘invest’ meaning of Sp. invertir out of the original meaning ‘to turn around’. It is not too hard to imagine how the change came about if one thinks of some of the senses of the English phrasal verb turn around, such as ‘to change for the better’ (MW). Also, notice that one of the senses of the derived English noun turnaround is ‘the time between the making of an investment and receiving a return’ (RHW).

[1] The DLE says: ‘dicho de una cosa: Volver al estado o condición que tuvo antes’.

The roots VERT- & VERS-, Part 5: Lat. sŭbvĕrt- and pervĕrt-

[This entry is an excerpt from, "Diversión & diversion: the roots VERT- & VERS-," Chapter 7 of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

Lat. sŭbvĕrt- and sŭbvĕrs-

The next pair of cognates that come from a verb derived from Lat. vĕrtĕre are Eng. subvert /səb.ˈvɜɹt/ and Sp. subvertir /sub.beɾ.ˈt̪iɾ/. They are both rather fancy learned verbs meaning to ‘undermine the power and authority of (an established system or institution)’ (COED). They both come from Lat. subvĕrtĕre, formed with the prefix sub‑ ‘under’, whose meaning something very similar, namely ‘to overturn, upset, overthrow; to destroy or subvert’, from a literal meaning ‘to turn under’.

The English verb subvert came into the language in the 14th century, and it may not have come directly from Latin, but through French, where it was a learned word. There are also cognate derived nouns that name ‘the act of subverting’, namely Eng. subversion and Sp. subversión. They come from the Lat. stem subversiōn‑, formed from the supine stem subvers‑ and the noun-forming suffix ‑iōn‑. This Latin noun meant ‘overthrow, overturn; ruin, destruction’, but also ‘pouring out (of wine)’.

There are also agentive words derived from this verb, namely word that refer to an ‘individual who subverts’. Those words is subverter (sub+vert+er) in English and subversor in Spanish (sub+vers+or). The English word subverter has been derived in English out of the verb subvert plus the agentive suffix ‑er, whereas the Spanish word subversor is a calque of Lat. subversor ‘overturner, overthrower, subverter’, formed from the past-participle stem subvers‑ and the agentive suffix ‑ōr‑ (nom. ‑or).

Lat. pervĕrt- and pervĕrs-

The next pair of cognate verbs are Eng. pervert /pəɹ.ˈvɜɹt/ and Sp. pervertir /peɾ.beɾ.ˈt̪iɾ/. Dictionaries agree that both of these words have two closely related meanings (uses, or senses), one of which involves morality, namely: (1) ‘to change something in an unnatural and often harmful way’ and (2) ‘to influence someone so that they begin to think or behave in an immoral way’ (DOCE). The second sense is equivalent in English to the verb to corrupt and it is the main sense for Spanish pervertir. The first sense of English pervert is best translated into Spanish as tergiversar ‘to twist, distort’ (see below) or distorsionar ‘to distort’.

These cognates are both learned borrowings from Latin pervĕrtĕre ‘to overthrow; to pervert, corrupt’, formed from our verb vĕrtĕre ‘to turn’, and the prefix per‑, derived from the preposition per ‘through’. The English word was borrowed from written Latin in the 14th century and the Spanish one in the 15th. The prefix per‑ typically adds the sense ‘thoroughly, completely, intensely’, but also ‘to destruction, to ill effect, detrimentally’, which seems to be the sense this prefix adds to the word pervĕrtĕre.

English also has a noun pervert /ˈpɜɹ.vəɹt/, with stress on the first syllable rather than the second, which refers to ‘someone whose sexual behavior is considered unnatural and unacceptable’ (DOCE). The noun pervert first appeared in writing in English in the 17th century, with the meaning of ‘someone who has been perverted’, and it acquired its current meaning of ‘sexual deviant’ in the 19th century. The way this meaning is expressed in Spanish is with the noun pervertido/a, derived from the past participle of pervertir, which thus was an adjective before it became a noun. The participle and adjective pervertido is equivalent to English perverted.

The past participle of Latin pervĕrtĕre was perversus (per+vers+us), which meant something like ‘perverted’, and which could be used as an adjective, as usual. This word has given us the cognate adjectives Eng. perverse /pəɹ.ˈvɜɹs/ and Sp. perverso/a. Both of these words can have the sense of ‘perverted’, but English perverse can also have the sense of ‘obstinately in the wrong’, which in Spanish translates better as terco, obstinado.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The roots VERT- & VERS-, Part 4: Lat. convert- and convers-

[This entry is an excerpt from, "Diversión & diversion: the roots VERT- & VERS-," Chapter 7 of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

Lat. convert- and convers-

A number of these cognates are useful or good friends, in the sense that their meanings are quite similar. Take first the pair Eng. convert ~ Sp. convertir, derived from Lat. convĕrtĕre ‘to turn around, transform, convert’ (con+vĕrt+ĕ+re). The English verb convert /kən.ˈvɜɹt/ is a 13th century loanword from Old French, where it was not a patrimonial word. Spanish convertir is also a learned borrowing from written Latin, also from the 13th century.

English also has a noun written convert, pronounced /ˈkɒn.vəɹt/, meaning ‘someone who has been persuaded to change their beliefs and accept a particular religion or opinion’ (DOCE). This noun, which appeared in English in the 16th century, seems to be a back-formation of the verb to convert, i.e. the noun was derived from the verb, in English itself (cf. Part I, §5.9). As we saw in the preceding section, the equivalent noun in Spanish is a converso, a noun that is derived directly from the past participle of Latin convĕrtĕre, namely conversus ‘turned around’ (con+vers+us; fem. conversa).

As we mentioned earlier, all the derived Spanish verbs on this list are third conjugation ‑ir verbs, unlike verter, which is a second conjugation ‑er verb. As we have seen before, Latin third conjugation ‑ĕre verbs became either second ‑er or third ‑ir conjugation verbs in Spanish. Here we see how both options were realized with this very same root. Also interesting is that even though these are learned verbs, the stem vowel e, from the original Latin short ĕ, behaves just like patrimonial vowels do in that it diphthongizes to ie when stressed, as in yo convierto ‘I convert’. That is not the norm with learned verbs that are borrowed from written Latin and the reason must have had something to do with the influence (analogy) of verter, which is a patrimonial verb.

From the very same stem convers‑ (con+vers‑), Latin created other words, such as the noun conversiōnem (nom. conversiō), for ‘the act of converting’, formed with the suffix ‑iōn‑. This noun has given us the cognates Eng. conversion /kən.ˈvɜɹ.ʃən/ and Sp. conversión /kom.beɾ.ˈsi̯on/.

The same stem convers‑ also gave us in Latin the verb conversāre, a frequentative version of convĕrtĕre, which meant ‘to turn around or over; to ponder; to consort or associate with’, and its passive version conversārī, which translates as ‘to occupy oneself; to keep company (with); to live with’. From this last verb English and Spanish seem to have borrowed the verbs Eng. converse and Sp. conversar. Both cognates have the same meaning and they both appeared around the same time, namely 16th century, perhaps under French influence (see §7.3 below). Eng. converse can also be an adjective meaning ‘opposite’, as in the converse situation. This word does not have a Spanish cognate, and it translates as opuesto or contrario.

From the stem convert‑ we have the cognate adjectives Eng. convertible and Sp. convertible, both ultimately from Latin convertibilis ‘changeable’ (con+vĕrt+ĭ+bĭl+is), formed with the adjectival suffix ‑bĭl‑ (cf. Eng. ‑(a/i)ble). Both of these adjectives mean simply ‘that can be converted’. It is likely that French borrowed this adjective first and then passed it on to Spanish and English. English convertible /kən.ˈvɜɹ.tə.bəl/ has been around since the 14th century and it can be used as a noun since the 17th century, especially since the early 20th century for an automobile with a detachable top. Other English examples of uses of this adjective are convertible sofa (it can be turned into a bed), convertible currency (it can be converted to other currencies), and convertible collar (it can be turned around).

By the way, a convertible (car) is known in Spanish as un descapotable, a borrowing from French décapotable (1927), a noun related to the verb décapoter ‘to lower the top of’ (1929), from the feminine noun capote ‘greatcoat, bonnet, car top’ (cf. Sp. capota ‘folding cover’), related to the masculine capot ‘cover, hood’ (bonnet in British English) (cf. dialectal Sp. capó ‘car hood’).

There are a few other words with the prefix con‑ and thus with the stems the convert‑ and convers‑. One of them is Eng. converter (convert+er), also spelled convertor (convert+or), literally meaning ‘thing that converts’. This word was formed in English out of the verb convert and the agentive suffix ‑er or ‑or. It has several different uses, one of them, for example, is ‘electronic device that converts one frequency of a radio signal to another’ (AHD). It typically translates into Spanish as convertidor (con+vert+i+dor), derived from the verb convertir and the Spanish agentive suffix ‑dor, e.g. convertidor de corriente eléctrica ‘electric current converter’ or convertidor de señales de televisión ‘TV signal converter’. Another option in Spanish is conversor, as in analogue-to-digital converter, which in Spanish is sometimes called conversor de señal analógica a digital. This conversor also does not come from a Latin word, but it is formed from the stem convers‑ and the agentive suffix ‑or, by analogy with other agentive nouns derived from prefixed vĕrtĕre verbs. Sometimes a converter/or can also translate as transformador (cf. Eng. transformer).

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The roots VERT- & VERS-, Part 3: The words universe and university

[This entry is an excerpt from, "Diversión & diversion: the roots VERT- & VERS-," Chapter 7 of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

At the beginning of this chapter we mentioned that two very important words contain the root that we are studying here, namely universe and university. And, of course, Spanish has cognates of these two words, namely universo and universidad. What is the origin of these words?

Lat. ūnĭvĕrsus was an adjective that meant ‘whole, entire, taken collectively’. The feminine form of this adjective was ūnĭvĕrsa and the neuter ūnĭvĕrsum (all of them are nominative-case wordforms). It was a compound formed with the root ūn‑ of the numeral ūnus ‘one’ and the participle vĕrsus ‘turned’ that we have seen in this chapter, with the linking vowel ‑ĭ‑ added in between (ūn‑ĭ‑vĕrs‑us). Thus, this adjective meant literally ‘turned (into) one’. From this adjective, the adverb ūnĭversē was derived which meant ‘in general, generally’. The phrase in ūnivĕrsum had the same meaning as the adverb.

From the neuter form of the adjective, ūnivĕrsum, a converted (zero-derived) noun was derived in Latin meaning ‘the whole world, the universe, all people, everybody’. Also, from the plural masculine form ūniversī was used with the meaning ‘the whole body of citizens, all men together’.

Eng. universe /ˈju.nə.vəɹs/ seems to have been borrowed from both French and Latin by different authors at different times, not just once. It first appeared in the late 16th century with the meaning ‘the whole world, cosmos, the totality of existing things’. The word is attested earlier in the century in Old French as univers, a loanword from Lat. ūnivĕrsum, though it was used earlier in the phrase en univers, calqued from the Latin phrase in ūnivĕrsum.

According to Corominas, Sp. universo shows up in Spanish a century earlier than in French, in the first half of the 15th century, in 1438 to be exact, in a book titled El Corbacho o Reprobación del amor mundano, a misogynistic invective against earthly love and lust by Alfonso Martínez de Toledo, archpriest of Talavera de la Reina (Toledo). Also from the same period are Catalan univers and Portuguese universo. The earliest attested word that comes from this Latin word in the modern languages is Italian universo, from the early 14th century.

Although Lat. ūnĭvĕrsus was itself an adjective, Latin also derived an adjective at a later date, in the post-Augustan period, from the noun ūnivĕrsum by means of the third declension adjectival suffix ‑āl‑, namely ūniversālis (ūnivers‑āl‑is), meaning ‘of or belonging to all’. This adjective was borrowed into English and Spanish as universal in both cases, for Latin adjectives in ‑āl‑ always lost the inflectional endings in patrimonial Spanish and French words and hence in all such borrowed words as well, by analogy. In English, universal is pronounced /ˌju.nə.ˈvɜɹ.səl/ and in Spanish /ɾ.ˈsal/. (Although in Latin, the stress of adjectives in ‑āl‑ went on this suffix’s vowel, like in Spanish, in English, the stress was retracted to the preceding one.) The primary meaning of this word in both languages is ‘relating to or done by all people or things in the world or in a particular group’, ‘applicable to all cases’ (COED).

The adjective universal appears in English before the noun universe, namely in the late 14th century, a borrowing from French universel, a loanword from Latin first attested in the 13th century. In Spanish, universal first appears in the same source as the noun universe, namely in the 15th century.

Both English and Spanish, along with French, have derived other words from the basic noun Eng. universe ~ Sp. universo, such as Eng. universalize ~ Sp. universalizar, meaning ‘to make universal; generalize’ (AHD). The suffix ‑ism‑ has also been added to this word to produce relatively uncommon words that mean primarily ‘the fact or condition of being universal in character or scope’ (SOED). The term has been used in philosophy and theology to refer to the belief in ideas of universal applicability. In English, however, universalism also came to refer to ‘a [Christian] theological doctrine that all human beings will eventually be saved’ (MWC) that appeared in the late 18th century in the US. In the Spanish world, universalismo has been used to refer to a political doctrine that defends the unification of states. Related to these nouns, as usual, are the adjectives Eng. universalist ~ Sp. universalista.

Finally, let us look at the cognates Eng. university ~ Sp. universidad. They are words that started to be used in the Middle Ages in Europe to refer to institutions of higher learning, where by the way, all learning was done in Latin, the universal language of the time for theology, politics, and education. The modern university is an
institution of higher education, usually comprising a college of liberal arts and sciences and graduate and professional schools and having the authority to confer degrees in various fields of study. A university differs from a college in that it is usually larger, has a broader curriculum, and offers graduate and professional degrees in addition to undergraduate degrees. (Encyclopædia Britannica)[i]
The first Western European university arose in Bologna (Italy) in the late 11th century, the second one in Paris (France) in the mid-12th century, and the third one in Oxford (England) in the late-12th century. In Spain, the universities of Palencia and Salamanca date from at least the early 13th century. The University of Salamanca’s claim to fame is that it was the first one to be officially called a university, by royal decree, in 1253.

The universities at both Paris and Oxford were composed of colleges, which were at the time basically residence halls for scholars. The word college, and its false-friend cognate Sp. colegio, come from Lat. collēgĭum, a noun that referred primarily to ‘persons united by the same office or calling, or living by some common rules, a college, guild, corporation, society, union, company, fraternity’ (L&S). The word college in Modern English means primarily ‘an institution of higher learning that grants the bachelor's degree in liberal arts or science or both’ (AHD). This concept has been referred to in Spanish as colegio universitario, though it is rare in the Spanish-speaking countries for a university not to grant all advanced degrees, including master’s degrees and doctorates. Thus, the equivalent of going to college in Spanish is ir a la universidad.

In Spanish, the word colegio used to have the same meaning as college did in English and it was used to refer to a community of people who lived in the same residence hall, which was destined for the study of sciences, arts, or trades under some kind of authority and rules. Nowadays, Sp. colegio refers primarily to a school of primary or secondary education, though this word is more common in some countries than others, with the term escuela being more common in some countries, especially for public schools. Today, for example, colegio is not used in Spain anymore for the equivalent of high school, for which instituto is preferred.

The Latin word collēgĭum was also used in Medieval times to refer to societies or corporations of people in the same profession or trade. Sp. colegio can still be used with such meaning and thus we find expressions such as colegio de abogados, equivalent to bar association in English, and colegio médico, equivalent to doctors’ associations in the English-speaking world. In the Catholic Church, the terms Eng. college of bishops ~ Sp. colegio de los obispos or colegio episcopal are used to refer to collection of bishops who run the Catholic Church.

In English too, the word college can have additional meanings, such as ‘an organized group of professional people with particular aims, duties, and privileges’ (COED), like in Spanish. In the US, it is used in the term electoral college, which is ‘a body of electors chosen to elect the President and Vice President of the United States’ (AHD).

Figure 110: Meeting of doctors at the University of Paris (14th-century manuscript)[ii]

The word collēgĭum is derived from the noun collēga ‘partner in judgeship or other office, colleague’ and the suffix ‑ĭ‑um, a suffix used to derive abstract nouns, sometimes denoting offices and groups (collēg‑ĭum). (The source of the suffix ‑ĭum is actually the neuter form of the adjectival suffix ‑ĭus/‑ĭa/‑ĭum.) As for the Latin noun collēga, it is the source of Eng. colleague /ˈkɒ.liɡ/ and Sp. colega /ko.ˈle.ɡa/. It contains the prefix con‑ ‘with, together’ and the root lēg‑ of the verb lēgāre, which meant primarily ‘to send with a commission, send as ambassador, depute, commission, despatch’ and ‘to bequeath, leave by will’ and which is derived from the noun lex (gen. legis) ‘a formal motion for a law’, source of both Eng. law ~ Sp. ley. (There are many words derived from this Latin verb, starting with Sp. legar ‘to bequeath, hand down, pass down’: Sp. legado ≈ Eng. legacy, Sp. delegar ~ Eng. delegate, Sp. alegar ~Eng. allege, Sp. relegar ~ Eng. relegate.)

Eng. colleague and Sp. colega can be said to be pretty close friends, at least in theory, since they both refer to ‘a person with whom one works in a profession or business’ (COED). In practice, however, they are not used in exactly the same way. Sp. colleague is used in a serious way almost exclusively among people in the liberal professions (Sp. profesiones liberales), much more so that Eng. colleague. (A liberal profession is ‘an occupation that needs a high level of education and training’, such as doctors and lawyers.) On the other hand, Sp. colega is also used in some dialects of Spanish in colloquial slang with the sense ‘buddy, companion, comrade, pal’.

There are a few other interesting words derived from the stem collēgĭ‑ of Lat. collēgĭum. From this word, Latin derived the adjective collēgĭālis with the adjectival suffix ‑āl‑ (collēgĭ‑āl‑is) that meant first of all just ‘of a collegium (guild/fraternity/board)’, but which acquired additional meanings such as ‘relating to or involving shared responsibility’. Eng. collegial is a mid-14th century loanword from French. Its main meaning today is probably ‘marked by camaraderie among colleagues’ (MWC), though it has other senses, such as ‘relating to or involving shared responsibility’ (COED). The first of these meanings translates into Spanish as de colegas or de compañeros and the second one as colegiado (see below).

English also derived the noun collegiality from the adjective collegial in the late 19th century, which now means primarily ‘cooperative interaction among colleagues’ (RHWU), though it is also used with the sense ‘shared power and authority vested among colleagues’ (AHD). The former meaning translates into Spanish as camaradería or compañerismo and the second one perhaps as colegialidad.

The cognate of Eng. collegial in Spanish is colegial, a false friend, for this is an adjective of the noun colegio meaning ‘of a colegio, related to a colegio’. In addition, colegial has been turned into a noun in Spanish with the meaning ‘schoolboy, a child that attends a colegio’, which is the most common meaning of this word. The feminine form is either colegial or colegiala ‘schoogirl’. The noun colegiatura can refer to an admission or scholarship in a school (beca o plaza de colegial, MM). In Mexico, it means ‘school fees’.

Another word derived from collēgĭum in Latin was collēgĭātus, which is formed with the suffix ‑ātus (fem. ‑āta), which in addition to being the regular passive participle ending of first conjugation verbs, could also be used to form adjectives from nouns indicating the possession of a thing or a quality. From such adjectives, nouns could also be derived. That is what happened with Lat. collēgĭātus which came to mean ‘member of a collēgĭum (society, college, corporation)’.

Descendants of words with this Latin suffix end in ‑ate in English and ‑ado/‑ada in Spanish. Thus, the descendants of Lat. collēgĭātus are Eng. collegiate and Sp. colegiado, but their meanings are very different. Eng. collegiate is an adjective that means ‘relating to college or a college’ (DOCE) and thus translates as universitario in Spanish, e.g. collegiate sports ‘deportes universitarios’ (intercollegiate = interuniversitario).

Sp. colegiado (fem. colegiada) is first of all a noun that refers to a person who is a member of a colegio in the professional, not school sense. Most commonly this word is used in soccer, where it means a referee who is a member of an official referee association (colegio de árbitros).

Spanish has also developed a verb colegiar(se) that means ‘to form a professional colegio’ and ‘to become an official member of a professional colegio’. From the past participle colegiado of this verb comes the adjectival sense of this word, ‘that has joined a professional colegio’, as in médico colegiado ‘a doctor who is a member of the professional association of physicians’. A tribunal colegiado is a court of justice containing three or more judges.

Going back to the words university and universidad, these words are derived from the Latin term ūnĭvĕrsĭtās ‘the whole’, or more accurately its accusative wordform ūnĭvĕrsĭtātem. This word is formed, in Latin, from the stem ūnĭvers‑ that we have seen and the noun-forming derivational suffix ‑tās (plus the linking vowel ‑ĭ‑). This suffix was added to adjectives (or sometimes nouns) to form abstract third declension feminine nouns indicating a state or condition. The reason that the accusative form of this word was used is that patrimonial Latin words with the suffix ‑ĭtās descended into Spanish and French through their accusative wordform, which in this case ended in ‑ĭtātem, an ending that in patrimonial words changed to ‑idad in Spanish and ‑ité in French (English ‑ity comes from Fr. ‑ité). When additional words with this suffix were borrowed from Latin later on, the same patrimonial suffix was added to them.

So, how did universities get this name? The Latin word ūnĭvĕrsĭtās, which originally just meant ‘the whole’, came to be used for ‘a number of persons associated into one body, a society, company, community, guild, corporation’ (L&S), a meaning similar to the one Lat. collēgĭum had. Also, when these new centers of learning, or guilds or corporations of teachers and of students were created, they were called, in Latin, universitas magistrorum ‘guild of teachers’ or universitas scholarium ‘guild of students’ (or, together, universitas magistrorum et scholarium). It was a matter of time before these terms were reduced to universitas, a term which was then adapted to the local languages by changing its ending.

The model of the European university has spread to the whole world but universities have also changed much in recent times. The focus of learning has shifted in the last 200 years from learning Latin and the seven liberal arts—grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music—that resulted in students then joining one of the three professional faculties, namely medicine, law, and theology.

[i] Source:, accessed 2017.11.11
[ii] Source: A meeting of doctors at the university of Paris. From the "Chants royaux" manuscript, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Accessed: 2017.11.11

Verbs of asking in English and Spanish, Part 1

[This entry is an excerpt from, "Verbs of asking in English and Spanish," Chapter 24 of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanis...