Thursday, October 26, 2017

Seña/signo & sign: The root SIGN-, Part 1

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 26, "Seña/signo & sign: The root SIGN-", of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]


A number of very common words in English and Spanish stem from the root sĭgn‑ of the Latin word sĭgnum. This word was polysemous. Its main sense was ‘a mark, token, sign, indication’, but had other derived senses. From this noun, Latin derived by conversion a verb sĭgnāre, meaning primarily ‘to put a mark on something’. Some of the words derived from this root in English are the nouns sign, signal and signature, as well as the verbs to sign and to signal. Some words derived from the root sĭgn‑ in Spanish are the nouns seña, señal, and signo, as well as the verb enseñar ‘to teach’.

In this chapter, we will look first at the noun reflexes of Latin sĭgnum, including some derived nouns that are closely related to the basic ones. Next, we will look at the verbs in English and Spanish that are derived from the root sĭgn‑ without prefixes. Finally, we will look at the verb sĭgnāre and several verbs that were derived from the verb in Latin and the cognates that they have spawned.

Nouns derived from Lat. sĭgnum

Lat. sĭgnum was a second declension, neuter noun, with the same form in the nominative and the accusative (root: sĭgn‑+ inflection: ‑um). The meanings of this polysemous word were the following, starting with the main one:

           1.  a mark, token, sign, indication
           2.  (military) a military standard, ensign, banner (including the aquila)
           3.  a watchword, password
           4.  a sign or token of any thing to come
           5.  an image, as a work of art; a figure, statue, picture, etc.
           6.  an image or device on a seal-ring; a seal, signet
           7.  a sign in the heavens, a constellation
           8.  (Church Latin) miraculous works

The English noun sign [ˈsaɪ̯n] is a 13th century loanword from Old French signe (still signe in modern French, pronounced [ˈsiɲ]). This French word is a learned borrowing from Latin sĭgnum. Actually, French has a patrimonial version of this word, namely seing [ˈsɛ̃], but most of the senses of this word were replaced by the learned signe. Fr. seing is still used in Modern French with the meaning ‘signature’. Therefore, seing and signe are doublets in this language.

As we just saw, Latin sĭgnum had the same primary meaning of ‘mark’ or, more generally, ‘something that stands for something else’, such as a flag or a signal. The root sĭgn‑ of this noun is thought to be related to the Proto-Indo-European verbal root *sek- that meant ‘to cut’, as in ‘to cut a mark’, for marks were often made by cutting into wood or other materials.[1]

Spanish has a direct patrimonial descendant of Lat. sĭgnum, namely seña. Actually, this word comes from the plural form of sĭgnum, namely sĭgna (sĭgn-a; the same in the nominative and the accusative cases). Sp. seña was converted into a singular noun meaning ‘sign, mark’. The sound changes we find here are totally the expected ones, for Latin short ĭ invariably became e in Spanish and Latin gn invariably became Spanish ñ ([ɲ]), giving us the root señ‑ (cf. Part I, Chapter 10, §10.3.2 and §


The singular noun seña is not very common in Modern Spanish, since for the most part it has been replaced by the plural señas or the derived word señal (see below). The noun seña can be used sometimes with the meaning ‘gesture to convey something’. It is typically found in collocations such as hacer una seña ‘to make a sign, to signal’, ser seña (de que) ‘to be a sign (that…)’, and  santo y seña ‘watchword’ or ‘shibboleth’.

As we just said, the noun seña is often used in its plural form, señas. This plural noun can translate in English as ‘address’ (or ‘direction(s) to a place’), as in Anoté sus señas en un papel ‘I wrote down her address on a piece of paper’. This plural noun señas can also be short for señas personales ‘physical description’ or for señas particulares ‘distinguishing marks’. It is also found in idiomatic phrases or collocations such as hacer señas a alguien ‘to signal somebody’, hablar por señas ‘to talk using signs’, dar señas de ‘to give signs of’, indicar por señas ‘to motion’, and the adverbial phrase para más señas, meaning something like ‘more specifically, to be precise’. It is also the word we use in the expression lenguaje de señas ‘sign language’ and lenguas de señas ‘sign languages’.

In addition to patrimonial seña, Spanish also has a doublet from the same Latin source, or actually from the singular wordform sĭgnum, namely the learned signo. The noun signo also means ‘sign, mark’, but it is used in different contexts from seña, so they are not equivalent. Some contexts where only signo is found are in the collocations signo del Zodiaco ‘astrological sign’ and signo de interrogación ‘question mark’. It is also found in the expression lenguaje de signos ‘sign language’, which is synonymous to lenguaje de señas.

In addition to patrimonial seña and learned signo, Spanish also has a semi-learned noun sino, meaning ‘destiny, fate’, which is on its way to becoming obsolete. This other sino is an abbreviation of the phrase si no(n) son, lit. ‘if they are not’, ‘unless they are’.[2] We call this word sino semi-learned because even though it is patrimonial, it did not undergo all of the expected sound changes due to the influence of the original written Latin word sĭgnum, which was ever-present in Medieval Christian religion. The reason for this is that the Latin word sĭgnum was used in Ecclesiastical (Church) Latin in the Middle Ages to refer to miracles and other such signs of divine intervention, much like sign was in English. The origin of this sense of the word predates Christianity, however. It turns out that one of the meanings of the Latin word sĭgnum had been ‘constellation (of stars)’, no doubt because of the connection the ancients thought there was between constellations and human lives and their ability to give us clues (signs) about the future. The sense of sign in Zodiac sign or astrological sign (Sp. signo del Zodiaco or signo zodiacal) has this origin as well.

Thus, presumably, because this sense of the Latin word was kept alive in Church Latin, it did not change as a patrimonial word should have changed, giving us this semi-learned doublet of patrimonial seña (and of learned signo). In other words, the first vowel remained i and did not change to e. However, the consonant cluster ‑gn‑ was simplified, to ‑n‑, but it did not change to ‑ñ‑, which is what happened to Latin ‑gn‑ normally in patrimonial words.

sign [saɪn]
1 (symbol) signo, símbolo
  question sign signo de interrogación
  peace sign símbolo de la paz
2 (gesture) gesto, seña; (signal) señal n.f.
  wait until I give the sign espera hasta que dé la señal
3 (indication) señal n.f. indicio, muestra, signo; (proof) prueba; (trace) rastro
  it’s a sure sign of rain es un claro indicio de lluvia
  that must be a good sign eso debe de ser (una) buena señal
  talking to oneself is the first sign of madness hablar solo es el primer signo de locura
  there was no sign of them anywhere no se los veía por ninguna parte, no había ni rastro de ellos
  there are no signs of life in this village no hay señales de vida en este pueblo
  she’s showing signs of improvement da muestras de mejoría
  all the signs are that ... todo parece indicar que ...
4 (board) letrero; (notice) anuncio, aviso; (over shop) letrero, rótulo
as a sign of como muestra de
to make the sign of the cross hacer la señal de la cruz
sign language lenguaje por señas
sign of the zodiac signo del zodíaco
Table 169: Entry for the noun sign in VOX English-Spanish Dictionary

Moving now to the English noun sign, we find that it is quite polysemous, something that we may not seem very obvious until we compare the meanings of this word in different contexts with those of its Spanish equivalents. We can see this in Table 169, an adaptation of the entry for the noun sign in the VOX English-Spanish Dictionary, which shows the different possible translations of the English noun sign. Four major senses are identified, with all but one having several sub-senses, which have different possible translations into Spanish.

As we can see, seña and signo are not the only options when it comes to translate Eng. sign. Actually, one of the most common translations for English sign is not its cognate seña, but rather señal [se.ˈɲal], another patrimonial word, which is a cognate of English signal [ˈsɪɡ.nəɫ]. The English noun signal is a 14th century borrowing from Old French signal, seignal ‘seal, imprint, sign, mark’, from the Late or Medieval Latin noun signāle, derived from the neuter form of the Late Latin adjective sĭgnālis ‘of a sign, that acts as a sign’, which was formed from the root sĭgn‑ and the adjective-forming suffix āl‑ (and the inflectional nominative singular ending ‑is: sĭgn‑+‑āl‑+‑is). Interestingly, the derived noun signāle came to compete with the original noun sign, perhaps because this word derived from sĭgnum had become so polysemous already.

The noun signāle gave us the patrimonial Spanish noun señal, a cognate of learned Eng. signal. And Sp. señal ended up replacing some of the uses of the noun seña. The Spanish noun señal has several senses (eight, according to the Spanish-English VOX dictionary), which translate as different words in English. The major senses of Sp. señal, most of which we already saw in Table 169, are the following:

·    ‘sign, indication’: Bostezar es señal de tener sueño ‘Yawning is a sign of being sleepy’
·    ‘bookmark’: Puse una señal en el libro ‘I put a bookmark on the book’
·    ‘(communication or warning) signal’: la señal de salida ‘the starting signal’
·    ‘road or street sign’: señal de tráfico ‘traffic sign’
·    ‘scar’: tengo una señal en el cuello ‘I have a scar on my neck’
·    ‘(telephone) tone’: El teléfono no da señal ‘There is no ring tone’
·    ‘(money) deposit’: Deposité una señal ayer ‘I put down a deposit yesterday’

A collocation with this word is la señal de la cruz ‘the sign of the cross’. In the next section we will see how these two nouns, Eng. signal and Sp. señal have been converted into verbs in these two languages, though they are hardly equivalent.

[1] If so, Lat. sĭgnum would be related to the Latin verb secāre ‘to cut’ (root: sec‑), from where comes patrimonial Spanish segar ‘to mow, scythe’. However, the connection between these words, if there was one, is lost in time. The passive participle sectus of this verb has also given as a number of words in Spanish and English, such as Eng. section ~ Sp. sección and Eng. sector ~ Sp. sector.

[2] The reason that sino ‘fate’ is archaic if not obsolete is probably because belief in signs is not what it once was. Another word meaning ‘fate’ in Spanish is Sp. hado, which is now also archaic if not obsolete. This word is a cognate of Eng. fate, It. fato, and Port. fado (Port. fado is also ‘a type of popular Portuguese song, usually with a melancholy theme’, COED.). English fate is a late 14th century loan from Old French fate which, just like Sp. hado, is obsolete in Modern French. All of these words come from Lat. fatum, which literally meant ‘thing spoken’, derived from the verb farī ‘so speak’. Beyond this literal meaning, fatum meant ‘a prophetic declaration, oracle, prediction’ and, thus, ‘that which is ordained, destiny, fate’. Sp. hado is clearly a patrimonial word since it displays the f to h and t to d consonantal sounds (cf. Part I, Chapter 10).

By the way, the Modern Spanish words for fate are suerte (which also means ‘luck’) and, particularly, destino, a paronym of Eng. destiny. Both of these words go back to the Latin verb dēstĭnāre ‘to make firm’, ‘establish, determine’, and ‘intend, aim at’. Spanish borrowed this verb as destinar, with the meaning ‘to assign, allocate, set aside, reserve for a certain aim’, though when applied to people it can also mean ‘to appoint, assign, send, post’ (e.g. Lo destinaron a Barcelona ‘He was posted to Barcelona’).[2] From the verb, Spanish derived the noun destino, but which came to mean ‘destiny, fate’ (cf. Eng. predestination), ‘purpose, use’, ‘destination’, and ‘post’. English borrowed this Latin verb as destine in the early 14th century from Old French destiner. Nowadays it is used almost exclusively in its derived adjectival form destined. As for the noun destiny, it is a mid-14th century loanword from Fr. destinée, a noun meaning ‘purpose, intent, fate, destiny; that which is destined’, derived from the past participle of the verb destiner, a loanword from Latin dēstĭnāre. Finally, English also has the derived noun destination referring to a place and corresponding also to Sp. destino (as in un avión con destino a Barcelona ‘a plane bound for Barcelona’).

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