Monday, April 13, 2020

The words test and prueba, and related words, Part 11

[This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

This is Part 11. Go to Part 10

Eng. probable ~ Sp. probable and related adverbs

The cognate adjectives Eng. probable ~ Sp. probable are learned words (Latin loans) in both languages that ultimately go back to the classical Latin adjective prŏbābĭlis. Lat. prŏbābĭlis is clearly derived from the present stem prŏb‑ā‑ of the verb prŏbāre, and the suffix ‑bĭl‑ that formed adjectives from verbs, the source of Eng. ‑(a)ble in words like movable and lovable and Sp. ‑(a/i)ble in words like lavable ‘washable’ and querible ‘lovable’. The ‑is ending is a the nominative singular inflection for third declension adjectives. Note that a form of this Latin adjective, the neuter nominative form prŏbābĭle, came to be used in Latin as a neuter noun meaning ‘appearance of truth, probability’.


The Latin adjective had two main meanings. The first one was closely related to the second meaning of the verb prŏbāre, ‘to approve’ (cf. §1.5): ‘worthy of approval, pleasing, agreeable, acceptable, commendable, laudable’ (CTL). The second meaning was related to the third meaning of the verb, namely ‘to prove, demonstrate’: ‘likely, credible, probable, plausible’ (CTL). It is this second meaning that is closest to the meaning of the reflexes of this adjective in English and Spanish.

Eng. probable [ˈpʰɹɒbəbəl] ‘likely to happen or be the case’ (COED) didn’t come into the language just one time and from one source and then spread from there. It seems that it was introduced at different times in the late 14th century both from Middle French probable and from its classical Latin etymon prŏbābĭlis. Fr. probable is attested as early as the year 1380, and an earlier version proubable meaning ‘that can be proven’ is attested a hundred years earlier, in 1285.

In British English, the word probable can be used as a noun meaning ‘a person likely to become or do something’ (COED), ie. ‘someone who is likely to be chosen for a team, to win a race etc.’ (LDCE). There is one expression with this word in legal US terminology dating back to the late 17th century, namely probable cause, which means ‘reasonable grounds to believe that a particular person has committed a crime’ (COED). There is no equivalent concept in jurisprudence in the Spanish-speaking world, but specialized English-Spanish dictionaries give a number of possible Spanish translations, such as causa razonable, causa presunta, and motivo fundado. Nonetheless, one can expect that due to the law of least effort, Spanish speakers in North America will often resort to the calque causa probable to translate Eng. probable cause.

Sp. probable [pɾoˈβaβle] is also attested very early on, just like in French, or even earlier, in the mid-13th century, then spelled provable. It seems that Old Spanish probable could be an adjective and a noun that meant ‘that can be proven, provable’ and ‘thing that can be proven’ (Nebrija, 1495, cf. DCEH).[1] Also, Sp. probable is a polysemous word, just like the verb probar, and in addition to meaning ‘probably/likely’, it can also mean ‘provable, demostrable’. María Moliner’s dictionary tells us that Spanish speakers often avoid using the word probable with the ‘provable’ sense because it lends itself to confusion with the ‘probable’ sense, which is more basic, preferring to use the synonyms demostrable, verificable, or comprobable (from demostrar, verificar, and comprobar, respectively).[2]

There are other differences in meaning and usage beteen the cognates Eng. probable ~ Sp. probable besides the ones we have already seen. Note, first of all, that English has a Germanic synonym for the word probable, namely likely, apparently a loanword from Old Norse líkligr ‘likely’, though Old English also had a related, prefixed word ġelīclīċ meaning ‘fitting, proper’. Eng. likely is the more basic word of the probable-likely pair, which is why this word is used in the definition of the word probable in all English dictionaries (see above). Thus, Sp. probable can be translated into English as either probable or likely, and most often it is translated by the latter, which is more common in English than the former. Spanish, on the other hand, only has one word, probable, to cover the territory of both English words.

Note also that Eng. likely can be used as an adverb in addition to as an adjective, as in She will likely come or She is likely to come, cf. Sp. Es probable que venga, Vendrá probablemente. (Note that you cannot say *She will probable come or *She is probable to come, where the * indicates that the construction is not grammatical with this word.) The English synonyms probable and likely are also not fully interchangeable in all grammatical contexts. With some constructions, English must use likely and not probable, such as in the construction It’s (not) likely (with what is likely or not being left understood), e.g. Do you think she’ll come? It’s (not) likely (not *It’s (not) probable.). Eng. likely, but not probable, is also used in the construction likely/*probable for … to…, as in It is likely/*probable for it to rain tomorrow. On the other hand, both can be used in the construction likely/probable that…, as It is likely/probable that it will rain tomorrow.

Both English and Spanish have derived adverbs from their respective adjectives: Eng. probably (probable+ly) and its semi-cognate or paronym Sp. probablemente (probable+mente). These adverbs have been created in their respective languages from the adjectives and the adverb-forming suffix used in each language: Eng. ‑ly and Sp. ‑mente (cf. Part I, Chapter 5, §5.5, § Remember that a synonym for probably is likely, when this word is used as a verb-modifying adverb rather than as a noun-modifying adjective.

The two adjectives also have as antonyms, namely Eng. improbable (= unlikely) ~ Sp. improbable. Their ultimate source is Lat. prŏbābĭlis, formed with the prefix im‑ (the version of the prefix in‑ used before p, b, or m). Eng. improbable is first attested in the late 16th century and Sp. improbable is first attested in a dictionary in the early 17th century. Most English dictionaries give two senses for the word improbable. One is the expected ‘not likely to be true or to happen’ (COED), which translates into Spanish as improbable. The other one can be defined as ‘unexpected and apparently inauthentic’ (COED) or ‘surprising and slightly strange’ (LDCE), as in improbable combinations of colors (LDCE) or The team made an improbable comeback (MWALD).  This sense of Eng. improbable translates into Spanish as inverosímil, an adjective derived from (and the antonym of) verosímil ‘credible, plausible, likely, probable’.

English also created an adverb from this antonym of the adjective probable in the mid-17th century, namely improbably, which means ‘in an improbable manner; without likelihood. Usually qualifying the statement as a whole, and denoting that it is not likely to be true; now chiefly in not improbably, an expression for ‘with more or less probability’’ (OED), as in improbably cheap prices (CALD), He claimed, improbably, that he had never been there (OALD), or an improbably happy end (OALD). There is no analogous Spanish adverb derived from the adjective improbable, since the word *improbablemente does not exist. Rather, the English adverb improbably translates into Spanish as  increíblemente, an adverb derived from the adjective increíble ‘incredible’ (cf. precios increíblemente baratos, Afirmó, increíblemente, que nunca había estado allí, and un final feliz increíble).

There are also cognate nouns derived from these adjectives, namely Eng. probability (= likelihood) ~ Sp. probabilidad. They descend ultimately from Lat. prŏbābĭlītātem (nom.: prŏbābĭlītas), an abstract noun derived from the Latin adjective prŏbābĭlis by means of the derivational suffix ĭ‑tāt‑ that creates abstract nouns (cf. Part I, Chapter 8). Eng. probability is attested in the mid-15th century and its main meaning today is ‘the extent to which something is probable’ (COED), as in The probability of winning the lottery is really very low (LDCE) (cf. Sp. La probabilidad de ganar la lotería es realmente muy pequeña). Additionally, there is a secondary meaning derived from the primary one, namely ‘a probable or most probable event’ (COED), as in A peace agreement now seems a probability rather than a possibility (LDCE). Sp. probabilidad is also used with both senses. Additionally, both cognates share their use in statistical technical language where they mean ‘a number expressing the likelihood that a specific event will occur, expressed as the ratio of the number of actual occurrences to the number of possible occurrences’ (AHD). An idiomatic expression with the English noun is in all probability, meaning ‘most probably; very likely’, as in In all probability, she won’t come today (cf. Sp. Muy probablemente no vendrá hoy, Lo más probable es que no venga, or Con toda probabilidad no vendrá hoy).

Finally, a new word was created in French in the late 17th century out of the adjective probable, cognate of Eng. probable and Sp. probable. The word is probabilisme and it was formed by adding the suffix ‑ism of Greek origin to the stem probabil‑ of the Latin source adjective prŏbābĭlis. The word was created for use in philosophical and religious contexts. Both English and Spanish have borrowed this word, as Eng. probabilism and Sp. probabilismo. All of these words have two senses or definitions: (1) in philosophy, ‘the doctrine, introduced by the Skeptics, that certainty is impossible and that probability suffices to govern faith and practice’ and (2) in Roman Catholic theology ‘a theory that in cases of doubt as to the lawfulness of an action, it is permissible to follow a sound opinion favoring its lawfulness’ (RHWU). An analogous set of cogantes adjectives are Eng. possibilism ~ Sp. posibilismo ~ Fr. possibilisme, which refer to ‘the policy of confining efforts to what is immediately possible or practicable’ (WNTIU).

Go to Part 12

[1] The noun found in Nebrija’s late 15th century works was spelled probabile, like the Latin noun prŏbābĭle derived from the adjective prŏbābĭlis (DCEH). The meanings of the two nouns, however, are not the same.

[2] Source: ‘1. (poco usado por prestarse a confusión con la 2.ª acep.) adj. Susceptible de ser probado. Demostrable’ (MM).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Words for mushrooms and other fungi, Part 17

[This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook  Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Span...