Saturday, September 1, 2018

Inspiration and perspiration, Part 11: Some Latin verbs that had nouns with the suffix -ĭōn-

[This entry comes from Chapter 10, "Inspiration and Perspiration", of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]


Eng. aspire ~ Sp. aspirar


The main way to say ‘to breathe in’ in Spanish, is not inspirar, as we saw above but, rather, aspirar, a verb that is first attested in the 13th century. The word is an early loanword from Lat. aspīrāre, a word whose literal meaning was not ‘breathe in’, but ‘breathe upon’, since it was formed by adding the prefix ad‑ ‘to’ to the verb spīrāre (the d of the prefix fell off by dint of coming before two other consonants).

Sp. aspirar can also translate as suck in, draw in, actions not necessarily performed by living beings, but also by machines. Thus, we can say, for example, La bomba aspiró toda el agua del pozo ‘The pump sucked all the water out of the well’. Thus, it is not surprising that the word for vacuum cleaner in Spanish is aspiradora, probably short for máquina aspiradora, that is ‘machine that sucks/draws things in’, an adjective formed with the –(d)or(a) suffix that creates agent nouns and adjectives. It comes from the Latin suffix ‑ōr‑ that created agent nouns from the stem of passive participles of verbs (see the preceding section). Note that some dialects of Spanish in America use the verb aspirar with the sense ‘to vacuum’ (‘to hoover’ in British English), as in Voy a aspirar el sofá ‘I’m going to vacuum the sofa’. This a meaning of the word aspirer is still not found in most Spanish dictionaries (though some Spanish-English dictionaries do). The traditional expression for the verbal meaning ‘to vacuum’ is pasar la aspiradora, lit. ‘to pass the vacuum machine’, a phrase that is still preferred in most dialects of Spanish.

Sp. aspirar also has a figurative sense, one that it shares with its English cognate aspire, namely ‘to direct one’s hopes or ambitions towards achieving something’ (COED) or ‘to desire and work towards achieving something important’ (DOCE), as in Aspiro a ser profesor de universidad ‘I aspire to be a college professor’. This makes Sp. aspirar and Eng. aspire partial friends (or semi-false friends). The complement of this verb in both languages does not have to be a verb phrase as in the first example, but can be a noun phrase, as in aspire to the presidency or aspire to a scientific career.

English has a common adjective derived from this verb, namely aspiring, which is derived from the verb by means of the multi-purpose English suffix ‑ing. It is used to refer to individuals who aspire to a certain profession, as in the phrase aspiring actor, which translates into Spanish as actor en ciernes.[1] Spanish has also derived a noun from the verb aspirar to refer to individuals who aspire to things such as jobs or prizes, namely the noun aspirante, which translates into English as candidate or even applicant.

The cognate nouns that we are most interested in here are Eng. aspiration and Sp. aspiración. Sp. aspiración has two major meanings, just like the verb aspirar does: ‘breathing in’ (‘the introduction of air in the lungs’ and ‘a hope or ambition’, the meaning that Eng. aspiration has. In addition, these two nouns also have a technical use in linguistics. The term aspiration in linguistics refers to the quality of some speech sounds. Actually, aspiration can refer to two rather different things in the linguistic tradition.

First of all, aspiration can refer to the pronunciation of ‘(a vowel or word) with the initial release of breath associated with English h, as in hurry’ (AHD). This use of aspiration comes from the Ancient Greek study tradition, where the sound [h] was seen as a property of a vowel and was indicated as a mark on the vowel, not as a separate letter, a mark known as breath (cf. Part I, Chapter 8, §8.2.5).

The word aspiration is also used in linguistics to refer to a property of consonants, voiceless stop consonants in particular (Sp. consonants oclusivas sordas), when they are pronounced with a puff of air coming out of the mouth upon their release. English voiceless stops /p t k/ are aspirated when the start a stressed syllable, for instance, as in the words pin, tin, or kin (cf. Part I, Chapter 7, §7.3.1, §7.10.1, §7.12.2). Ancient Greek, on the other hand, had a set of aspirated voiceless consonants that contrasted with a set of unaspirated ones (cf. Part I, Chapter 8, §8.2.6). (In English, voiced and voiceless consonants do not contrast like they did in Greek and in Spanish, voiceless consonants are always unaspirated.) The phonetic symbol to indicate that a consonant is aspirated is a raised [ʰ], as in Eng. pin [ˈpʰɪn], tin [ˈtʰɪn] and kin [ˈkʰɪn], although the sound property of aspiration is nothing like the sound that the symbol [h] represents in phonetic transcription, which is the sound of the letter h in English words, when it is not ‘silent’, in words such as home [ˈhoʊ̯m].[2]

The Spanish verb associated with the linguistic sense of aspiration is aspirar, as in En español no se aspira nunca la te ‘In Spanish, the t are never aspirated’. The English equivalent of this verb is not aspire, however, but aspirate [ˈæs.pəɹ.eɪ̯t], a back-formation from the noun aspiration. The dictionary defines the verb aspirate as (1) ‘to pronounce (a vowel or word) with the initial release of breath associated with English h, as in hurry’ and (2) ‘to follow (a consonant, especially a stop consonant) with a puff of breath that is clearly audible before the next sound begins, as in English pit or kit’ (AHD). These two meanings correspond to the two linguistic senses of the noun aspiration we just saw. In addition, the verb aspirate can also mean ‘to draw (something) into the lungs; inhale’ and, in medicine, ‘to remove (liquids or gases) by means of a suction device’ (AHD).

An English word related to the ones we just saw is the noun aspirate, which is pronounced [ˈæs.pəɹ.ət]. In linguistics, this noun refers primarily to ‘a speech sound followed by a puff of breath’ (AHD), which translates into Spanish as consonante aspirada or sonido aspirado. The English noun aspirate is also used in medicine with the meaning ‘matter removed by aspiration’ (AHD).



[1] Sp. cierne is a rare noun that refers to the fruit of a plant as it is blossoming, before it is fully formed (Sp. en flor), in particular the fruit of vines, olive trees, or cereals. It is only used to day in the expression en cierne(s) ‘in bloom, budding; in the making’. The noun is related to the verb cerner (some people say cernir), which means (among other things) ‘to bud, blossom’ when speaking of plants and ‘to sift’ when speaking of flour or sand.

[2] Because the term aspiration (Sp. aspiración) has been to refer to the [h] sound before a vowel, it also came to be used in Spanish linguistics to refer for the pronunciation of an /s/ phoneme as the sound [h] after a vowel, at the end of a syllable (implosive or coda position) in some dialects of Spanish, such as in Caribbean Spanish in words like mismo and desde, cf. Part I, Chapter 7, §7.17.2,  and Chapter 11, §11.2, §11.5.3. As we saw in those chapters, a better term for this phonetic phenomenon is debuccalization.

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