Monday, December 24, 2018

Some descendants of Latin comparatives, part 3: Eng. mayor and Sp. mayor (adj.)

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 20, "Some descendants of Latin comparatives", of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

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Eng. mayor and Sp. mayor (adj.)


After seeing all about irregular Latin comparative adjectives, we are ready to go back and look more closely at the often-confused words we started the chapter with: Eng. mayor and major and Sp. mejor and mayor. We shall start by looking at the words derived from Lat. māior. In this section we will explore the English word mayor, comparing it primarily to its cognate (and false friend) Sp. mayor. In the next section we will look at Eng. major, a doublet of mayor, and compare it to its also cognate Sp. mayor. After an aside on the cognates Eng. minor ~ Sp. menor, derived from the Latin antonym of Lat. māior, we will finally take a close look at Sp. mejor.

Eng. mayor comes from Old French maire, which is a patrimonial descendant of Lat. māior and is thus a cognate of Sp. mayor. By the 12th century, this Old French word could be an adjective meaning ‘primary, principal’ or as a noun meaning ‘senior public official’, and eventually ‘chief magistrate of a community’ (OED). Sp. mayor has the sense ‘primary, principal, most important’ in a few expressions such as fiesta mayor ‘major festivities’, as we will see in the next section, though that is not a primary sense. More importantly, Sp. mayor never had the sense of ‘senior public official’ or anything similar, although supposedly in (some varieties of) 4th century Latin, the word māior could already be used with the sense of ‘person in authority’ in the (post-Classical Latin) and, in the early 6th century, ‘feudal officer’ (OED).

The word mayor entered English in the 13th century, during the Middle English period, with the meaning ‘chief magistrate of a community’. During this period, this word it was spelled in many ways, including maiere, maieur, mar, and marye. The spelling mayor for this word appeared in early modern English when it was decided to standardize orthographically the letter y for i between vowels. Another example of this spelling change is found in the noun prayer, from Old French preiere, which is a cognate of Sp. plegaria. Both words come from post-classical Lat. precaria ‘call to prayer’.[1]

The source of this Old French word is none other than the Latin irregular comparative adjective māior ‘bigger, greater, superior’ that we have been discussing. The adjective came to be use used as a noun, as we just saw, to refer to an important official. In other words, the adjective was nominalized in French already before being borrowed into English. There was nothing special about a Latin adjective being used as a noun. We have plenty of examples of this in English and, especially, Spanish.[2]

In American English, the word mayor is pronounced mostly with two syllables, as [ˈmeɪ̯.əɹ]. Note that there is no consonant between the two vowels, though the semivowel [ɪ̯] may sound like a semi-consonant to Spanish ears, something that is reinforced the spelling of the word, which contains the letter y which, between vowels typically acts as a consonant. It is common in rapid colloquial speech in American English for the final reduced vowel [ə] to be fully reduced and dropped and for the final r to join the first, stressed syllable, resulting in the pronunciation [ˈmeɪ̯ɹ], with just one syllable.

In Standard British English, this word is pronounced with only one syllable since at least the 17th century. The postvocalic r is not pronounced in this dialect, resulting in compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel with full merge of the two vowels, resulting in a vowel that is lower in British English than in American English. Thus, the standard pronunciation of this word in British English is [ˈmɛː], with a single, long [ɛ] vowel, not the higher (diphthonguized) vowel [eɪ̯] we find in the American English pronunciation.

Modern French still has the noun maire and it still means ‘mayor’ and it is pronounced [ˈmɛʀ]. Derived from this word is the French word mairie [me.ˈʀi] ‘mayor’s office, town hall, city hall’, found outside city and town halls all over the French-speaking world. As we mentioned earlier, the word for ‘mayor’ in Spanish is alcalde, a borrowing from Arabic قَاضِي ‎(al qāḍī) ‘(the) judge’, whose feminine is alcaldesa. One word for ‘city/town hall’, derived from the word aldcalde, is alcaldía. As is the case with most words that begin with al… in Spanish, this word comes from Arabic, from the word meaning ‘judge’, اَلْقَاضِي (al-qāḍī) ‘judge’ (the al‑ part was the incorporated definite article, equivalent to Sp. el ‘the (masc.)’).[3] In Argentina and Uruguay they use the word intendente for ‘mayor’, an otherwise rare French loanword (but cf. Sp. superintendente ~ Eng. superintendent). Another common name for ‘city/town hall’ is ayuntamiento and, in Spain, casa consistorial is a fancy alternative for city halls. The word ayuntamiento more properly refers to the city/town council that runs a town or city, though it can also refer to the building.[4]

As we saw in the introduction, Sp. mayor is primarily an adjective which has several meanings. It is, first of all, the comparative of the adjective grande ‘big’, so it can mean ‘bigger’, typically in size, as in una talla mayor ‘a/one bigger clothes size’ (equivalent to una talla más grande). However, although in comparisons of size mayor can be used, as in Mi casa es mayor que la tuya ‘My house is bigger than yours’, the overwhelming preference in Spanish is to use the phrasal comparative más grande in such cases, i.e. Mi casa es más grande que la tuya. Note that grande ‘big, large’ can also be used figuratively and it is not only about size, at least in some contexts, as in un problema muy grande ‘a very big problem’. In other contexts, however, grande can only have the ‘big in size’ meaning, as in Juan es muy grande ‘Juan is very big’ or Tú eres más grande que yo ‘You are bigger than me’.

The Spanish adjective mayor can occasionally also have a figurative meaning (‘greater’ rather than ‘bigger, larger’), as in greater in importance or in intensity, e.g. un riesgo mayor ‘a bigger risk’ or mi mayor enemigo ‘my greatest enemy’. As with all comparatives, mayor can also be interpreted as a superlative in the right context, meaning ‘biggest’ or ‘greatest’, not just as a comparative, as we saw in the last example.

Since when talking of children, bigger also typically means ‘older’, the adjective mayor developed the meaning ‘older’ when referring to people, as in Yo soy mayor que tú ‘I am older than you’ or Hay personas mayores en la casa ‘There are older people (grown-ups) in the house’. Although originally this sense of mayor was relative/comparative, i.e. equivalent to older in English, the word mayor can also be used now in absolute terms, i.e. meaning ‘old’ rather than ‘older’, as equivalent to (persona) adulto/a or (persona) de edad avanzada ‘lit. advanced-age person’. We find this sense, for example, in the sentence Me casé con un hombre mayor ‘I married an old man’. (Notice, however, that the comparative sense returns if there is an overt comparison in the sentence, e.g. Me casé con un hombre mayor que yo ‘I married a man older than me’.) The use of mayor in this way no doubt started as a euphemism for the purpose of avoiding the use of the adjective viejo ‘old’ which, when referring to people, has rather negative connotations (cf. Part I, Chapter 6, §6.4.2, §6.5.2.8).

Note that when the Spanish adjective mayor is used in an absolute, non-comparative sense, that is, meaning ‘old’ (not ‘older’), it is legitimate to add the comparative más before it, as más mayor, meaning something like ‘more grown-up’ or ‘of more advanced age’. We can see this in the following example (from the Academy’s website): Cuando seas más mayor (= cuando tengas más edad de la que tienes ahora), podrás ponerte ese vestido ‘You can wear that dress when you are older/more grown-up/more of a grown-up than you are now’ (cf. Cuando seas mayor (= cuando seas adulta), podrás ponerte ese vestido ‘You can wear that dress when you’re grown-up’).[i] However, when mayor is used as a comparative, meaning ‘older’, it already incorporates the ‘more’ sense, and thus it is not considered correct to say más mayor, as in *Yo soy más mayor que tú, meaning ‘I am older than you’. We must recognize, however, that things such as this have been said in colloquial speech for a very long time. The earliest written records of such usage are from the 13th century. Such usage, however, is considered redundant and a vulgarism (Sp. vulgarismo) in Standard Spanish.

The Spanish comparative adjective mayor can be used as a noun, but only in the generic sense and only in the plural, as in Respeta a los/tus mayores ‘Respect the elderly/older people/your elders’ or Esta mesa es solo para los mayores ‘This table is only for the adults’. However, mayor is not used as a noun to refer to single individuals. That is to say, in Spanish we do not say *un mayor, meaning ‘an old(er) person’ or unos mayores ‘some old(er) people’. Of course, as with all other Spanish adjectives, the adjective mayor can be used ‘as a noun’, without a noun next to it, as long as the noun is understood, as in De mis hijos, el mayor tiene 20 años ‘Out of all my children, the oldest (one) is 20 years old’. Here the noun hijo ‘child, son’ is ‘understood’ (Sp. sobreentendido). In English, we typically replace the understood noun with the pronoun one, as in the older one (or the rich one ‘el rico’, the middle one ‘el del medio’, etc.). In Spanish, adjectives can regularly be used as nouns this way also if the understood noun is indefinite, something that is rather alien to English. Thus, in Spanish we can say un rico, meaning ‘a rich man/person’, since a noun such as hombre is understood in these cases, cf. un hombre rico. Interestingly, however, this cannot be done with mayor and, thus, we cannot say *un mayor, meaning ‘an older man/person’. We can say, however, uno/a mayor ‘a bigger one’, with an understood noun. These nuances of the use of mayor as a noun result in English-speaking learners of Spanish often using mayor as a noun incorrectly.

Before we leave this section, we should mention that as we saw in the introduction, there is also a noun mayor in Spanish used in certain specific contexts, such as in the military or in music. Spanish dictionaries invariably group this noun mayor in the same entry as the adjective mayor (which, as we saw, has some noun uses), which was to be expected since they have the same origin, namely the Latin comparative adjective māior. However, we will deal with those noun uses of mayor for the next section, which deals primarily with the English word major. Although Eng. mayor and major have the same source, namely the Latin comparative māior, nobody would confuse the two as being the same word, if for no other reason than that they are spelled and pronounced differently, in addition to having different meanings.


[1] Lat. prĕcārĭus, fem. prĕcārĭa, is derived from the first conjugation, deponent verb precārī, whose main meaning was ‘beseech, beg, pray, entreat’. The adjective prĕcārĭus meant primarily ‘obtained by begging, entreaty, or prayer’. Derived from this was the meaning ‘depending on the will of another’, and from that ‘doubtful, uncertain, transient, precarious’ (L&S). The cognates Eng. precarious ~ Sp. precario/a with this latter meaning in the 17th century. The main senses of Eng. precarious today are ‘dangerously lacking in security or stability’ and ‘subject to chance or unknown conditions’ (AHD). Common collocations with this word in English are precarious existence, precarious position, and precarious state. A common collocation with this word in modern Spanish is empleo precario ‘precarious employment’.

[2] An example of a noun being used as an adjective in English could be superior. This word, which derives from the Latin comparative sŭpĕrĭor ‘higher’ that we saw in the preceding section, can be used for as an adjective, as in the sentence This coffee is superior to that, or as a noun, as in She is my superior. The derivation of nouns from adjectives was very common in Latin and continues to be very common in Spanish as well, cf. Part I, Chapter 5, §5.7.2.

[3] The Spanish noun alcalde is unrelated to and should not be confused with the word alcaide ‘prison warden/governor’, which comes from Arabic اَلْقَائِد ‎(al-qāʾid) ‘military leader, captain’.

[4] At one time, the noun ayuntamiento also meant something like ‘mating’, especially in the phrase ayuntamiento carnal ‘carnal knowledge, sexual intercourse’ (synonymous with apareamiento). This noun is derived from the archaic verb ayuntar ‘to join/yoke together’, ultimately from a frequentative version of Latin adiungĕre ‘to add, join, attach, append, etc.’, source of Eng. adjoin. Sp. ayuntar is related to and synonymous with juntar ‘to join (together)’, cognate of Eng. join, which has always been more common than ayuntar in Spanish.

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