Go to Part 1
Sp. lengua vs. Sp. idioma—and Eng. idiom
As we saw in the preceding section, the word idioma in Spanish is synonymous with one of the meanings of the word lengua. However, as is typically the case with synonyms, the two are not typically used in all the same contexts or with exactly the same connotations. The word idioma is used in a context in which a particular language is contrasted with other languages, in particular in the context of ‘foreign languages’. Thus, for instance, in school one studies lengua española (or castellana) ‘Spanish language’, not idioma español (or castellano), but one studies idiomas extranjeros ‘foreign languages’ (not typically called lenguas extranjeras), sometimes in a escuela de idiomas ‘language school’ (not usually called escuela de lenguas).
The Spanish word idioma is a cognate—and false friend—of the English word idiom, which means ‘a phrase the meaning of which cannot be fully predicted from the meaning of the words that compose it’, e.g. (cf. Part I, Chapter 4, §4.12). These words come from the Late Latin third declension neuter noun ĭdĭōma. (The nominative and accusative case wordforms were the same, ĭdĭōma; the genitive was ĭdĭōmatis, and so the full regular stem from which other words were derived was ĭdĭōmat‑, see below). In Classical Latin, this word meant ‘style or peculiarity of language’, ‘special term or phrase used by an individual or group’ (OED). In Late Latin, however, around the 7th century, this word came to mean ‘language’ too, the meaning the word has in Spanish, and it later acquired other meanings in Medieval Latin as well.
This Latin word was a loanword from Greek ἰδίωμα (idíōma) ‘peculiarity, specific property, unique feature, peculiarity of style, peculiar phraseology’. This noun was derived from the root ἰδῐ‑ (idi‑) of the adjective ἴδιος (ídios) ‘one’s own, personal, private (not public), peculiar, separate, distinct’ plus the noun suffix -μᾰ (‑ma; genitive ‑μᾰτος, regular stem ‑μᾰτ‑ ‑mat‑), which was used to form neuter nouns from roots. (In between these two morphemes comes the linking vowel ‑o‑, cf. Part I, Chapter 8, §18.104.22.168.).
English idiom [ˈɪ.ɾɪ.əm] may have been borrowed at different times from both Latin idioma and from French idiome. The word was borrowed into French from either Greek or Latin around 1534 with the meaning of ‘speech distinctive to a people or country’. A few decades later, the word appears in English with that same meaning. Eventually, however, in the 17th century, the English word idiom came to be used with one of the meanings the original word had in Ancient Greek, something like ‘peculiar phraseology’, which is similar to the meaning the word has today, namely ‘a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words’ (COED). Spanish idioma first appears in Cervantes’ Quixote in 1605, where it already had the sense of ‘a nation’s own language’, the main meaning it has today. Considering that French had borrowed the word almost a century earlier, there is little doubt that the word came into Spanish through French, not directly from Latin or Greek.
What we just saw explains how the cognates Eng. idiom ~ Sp. idioma (and Fr. idiome) came to have the different meanings they have today. In particular, the main meaning of Eng. idiom is related to one of the meanings the original Greek word had (‘peculiar phraseology’), whereas the main meaning of Sp. idioma (and Fr. idiome) is one that developed in Late Latin, namely (‘language peculiar to a people’).
The French and Spanish words have the same meaning (they are ‘true friends’), which is different from that of the English word idiom (they are ‘false friends’). The meaning ‘idiom’ is expressed in Spanish with a number of different expressions, such as modismo, giro (idiomático), expresión idiomática, and even idiotismo. The latter term is a rather technical and rare one, a loanword from Fr. idiotisme, which borrowed it from Lat. ĭdĭōtismus ‘the common or vulgar manner of speaking’ (L&S), a loanword from Greek ἰδιωτισμός (idiōtismós) that meant ‘way or fashion of a common person’ or, when referring to speech, ‘vulgar phrase’. English also has the word idiotism, which means ‘idiotic conduct or action’ or ‘idiocy’ (RHWU). The word is rare, however, and many dictionaries do not even carry it. The English word idiotism has been used before with the meaning ‘idiom’ too, like its French and Spanish cognates, but that sense is now obsolete. By the way, Sp. idiotismo has also been used in the past with the meaning ‘idiotic conduct or action’, but that meaning is expressed in Modern Spanish with the word idiotez ‘words or deeds proper of an idiot’ (DLE) since at least the time of Cervantes (who used it in 1613).
We should mention that Eng. idiom has other meanings besides the main one of expression ‘cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements’ (AHD). Some dictionaries even mention a meaning that is very similar to the one the French and Spanish cognates of this word have, cf. ‘the language proper or peculiar to a people or to a district, community, or class’ (WNTIU), which can refer to a language or a dialect, as in the working-class idiom (Sp. el lenguaje de la clase trabajadora) or the local idiom (Sp. el habla del lugar). As we can see, this sense of Eng. idiom does not translate into Spanish as idioma or lengua but rather as lenguaje or habla ‘speech’. Another meaning of Eng. idiom that most dictionaries mention is ‘the style of writing, music, art, etc. that is typical of a particular person, group, period or place’ (OALD), as in neo-Impressionist idiom or the idiom of Bach. (Actually, most dictionaries only mention music and art, not writing.) This sense is rather technical and not known to most English speakers and it translates into Spanish as lenguaje or estilo.
Before we leave the idiom ~ idioma cognates, we should mention that Greek had an adjective derived from it, which also made it into Latin and into the modern languages. The adjective was ĭdĭōmatĭcus in Latin and ἰδιωματικός (idiōmatikós) in Ancient Greek (ĭdĭ‑ō‑mat‑ĭc‑us). Remember that the regular root of this word, from which other words were derived, was ĭdĭōmat‑ in Latin and ἰδιωματ‑ (idiōmat‑) in Greek. The derivational suffix here is Lat. ‑ic‑ or Greek ‑ικ‑ (‑ik‑), which derived adjectives from nouns. These suffixes were cognates, since they are both derived from Proto-Indo-European *-ik‑ or *‑iḱ‑, which was formed from the i-stem suffix *‑i‑ and the adjectival suffix *‑ko‑. From this word we get the cognates Eng. idiomatic [ˌɪ.ɾɪ.ə.ˈmæ.ɾɪk] ~ Sp. idiomático/a [i.ði̯o.ˈma.ti.ko] (and Fr. idiomatique). Both of these words are used in the equivalent phrases Eng. idiomatic expression ~ Sp. expresión idiomática, which basically mean ‘idiom’. English idiomatic is also used with the meaning ‘containing expressions that are natural to a native speaker of a language’, as in She speaks fluent and idiomatic English (OALD). This typically refers to language that contains idiomatic expressions, which are often lacking from the language of non-native speakers. This aspect of the meaning of the word is contained in the OED’s definition of this sense, which is ‘adhering to the manner of expression considered natural to or distinctive of a language; typically using idioms’. There is no simple way to translate this sense of the word idiomatic into Spanish and one must use expressions such as que no suena a extranjero ‘that does not sound like a foreigner’ or que contiene giros idiomáticos, for example, depending on the context. Most English-Spanish dictionaries, however, do not explain this use of the word idiomatic and insist that the equivalent of Eng. idiomatic is Sp. idiomático.
Go to part 3
Go to part 3
 The adjective ἴδιος (ídios) (feminine ῐ̓δῐ́ᾱ, neuter ῐ̓́δῐον) has been reconstructed as being derived from the word ἕ (hé) ‘him’, the accusative case of οὗ (hoû); (2) the connecting consonant ‑δ‑ (‑d‑); (3) the adjectival suffix ‑ι‑ (‑i‑); plus (4) the first-second declension adjectival inflections ‑ος (‑os), ‑ᾱ (‑a), ‑ον (‑on) (masculine, feminine, and neuter, respectively). The root ἕ (hé) goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *s(w)e- ‘separate, apart’, related to the reflexive words Sp. se, su, and Eng. self.