Friday, April 3, 2020

The words test and prueba, and related words, Part 5

[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 5. Go to Part 4


Sp. probar and Eng. prove


As we have seen, the Spanish verb probar and the related noun prueba are the main ways to translate the English verb test and the related noun test, respectively, so let us take a look at these two related words. In this section, we look at the verb probar and in the following one, at the noun prueba.

As we mentioned in the preceding section, the Spanish verb probar, which is a cognate of Eng. prove, is quite polysemous. Both Sp. probar and Eng. prove descend ultimately from Lat. prŏbāre, a verb that was rare in Classical Latin, not being found in Caesar or Cicero for instance, but which took off in later times and was very frequent in Ecclesiastical (Church) Latin during the Middle Ages, for instance. Its principal parts were prŏbo, prŏbāre, prŏbāvi, prŏbātus (cf. Part I, Chapter 8). As for its meaning polysemous verb with several (related) meanings (senses) and usages not all of which have survived in the verb’s reflexes in the modern languages. This verb had at least the following senses (from Lewis & Short’s A Latin Dictionary):
  • ‘to try, test, examine, inspect, judge’
  • ‘to esteem as good, serviceable, fit, just, etc.; to be satisfied with, to approve’
  • ‘to represent or show a thing to be good, serviceable, fit, right, etc., to make acceptable, to recommend’, ‘to make a thing credible, to show, prove, demonstrate’
The verb prŏbāre was derived from the Latin adjective prŏbus/a that meant ‘good, proper, serviceable, excellent, superior, able’ and which was often used with moral connotations and thus can also mean ‘upright, honest, honorable, excellent, virtuous, etc.’ (L&S). This adjective has been borrowed into Spanish in recent times as probo/a with the meaning ‘honest, reputable, upright’, the morality sense of the Latin source word or etymon, though it is rather formal and rare. It was first added to the Academy’s dictionary (DRAE) in 1852. The Latin adjective prŏbus/a has been reconstructed as coming from Proto-Indo-European *probʰwo- ‘being in front’, from the prefix *pro‑ (extended form of per‑) ‘forward’ and the root *bʰuH‑ ‘to be’.

Actually, the Latin abstract noun derived from the adjective prŏbus, namely prŏbĭtātem (nominative wordform: prŏbĭtas; prŏb‑ĭ‑tāt‑em) appears to have been borrowed into Spanish even before the adjective, as probidad, since it is found in the DRAE already in 1803 as a synonym of honradez ‘honesty’. Interestingly, this noun was also borrowed in English, in the early 15th century, as probity [ˈpʰɹ̯ɾi], with the meaning ‘honesty and decency’, according to one dictionary (COED), or ‘adherence to the highest principles and ideals : uprightness’ according to another (MWC).

The Spanish verb probar, on the other hand, is a patrimonial word, descended by word of mouth from spoken (Vulgar) Latin and it is found already in early writings such as the Cid (circa 1200), for instance (cf. Part I, Chapter 1 and 9). Reflexes of this Latin verb are also found in other western Romance languages: Catalan provar, Portuguese provar, French prouver, Italian provare. The verb has also been borrowed by other non-Romance European languages, e.g. proeven, English probe and prove (see below), Dutch proberen, Hungarian próbál, Irish promh, and German probieren, proben, and prüfen.

Sp. probar is a stem-changing verb, that is, one in which the root vowel ‑o‑ changes to ‑ue‑ whenever it is stressed, as in the present tense form pruebo ‘I try/test/taste, etc.’ (but not probemos ‘we try/test/taste, etc.’, since in this form the ‑o‑ is not stressed). That is because a stressed short Latin ‑ŏ‑ always changed to ‑ue‑ in Old Spanish in patrimonial words (cf. Part I, Chapter 10). As for the spelling, this verb used to be spelled with the letter v in Old Spanish, as provar, much like in most other Romance languages, but the spelling was changed to a b under the influence of the written Latin etymon. (Both letters, of course, are pronounced identically in Spanish, cf. Part I, Chapter 7.)

The change of the letter b〉 in Latin words to v〉 in the descendants of those words in Spanish and French (and thus in English) was a common one in these languages in intervocalic position (between vowels), as in the case of Lat. prŏbāre. Intervocalic b〉 changed its sound in these languages to the same sound that Latin 〈v〉 changed to, which explains why this letter was chosen to represent the new sound. The sound that Latin 〈v〉 and intervocalic 〈b〉 changed to was somewhat different in French and Spanish, namely [v] in the former and [β] in the latter. Also, in Spanish, but not in French the new sound [β] and the old sound [b] (of non-intervocalic 〈b〉) eventually fully merged into a single sound (phoneme), one with two contextually determined variants (allophones): [b] and [β]. Later on, Spanish, but not French, changed the spelling of words so that they would have the same letter, 〈b〉 or 〈v〉 that a word’s etymon (source word) had in Latin, e.g. Lat. prŏbāre and tabĕrna became French taverne and prouver, but Modern Spanish taberna and probar (cf. Part I, Chapters 7 and 10).[1]

As we said earlier, in Modern Spanish, probar is a polysemous word, one with more than one meaning or use (senses). There seem to be at least four major senses for this word:
(1)  the prove/demonstrate sense, used with theories and claims, which translates into English as to prove, e.g. No probaron que ella estuviera allí ‘They didn’t prove that she was there’
(2)  the ‘put to the test’ sense, which can be translated mostly as to test or to try (out), as in Probaron el arma ‘They tried/tested the weapon’. There may be more specialized translations, such as when probar is used with actors and thus would translate as to audition, as in Probaron a cinco actores ese día ‘They tested five actors that day’.
Another subsense (or perhaps a separate sense) is when probar is used with articles of clothing, which translates as to try on, e.g. Se probó el vestido ‘She tried on the dress’ (reflexive) or Le probó el vestido a la niña ‘She tried the dress on the girl’ (non-reflexive)
(3)  the ‘taste’ or ‘try’ sense used with food or drink, as in No probamos el pescado ‘We didn’t try/taste the fish’ (in some contexts, other translations may be more appropriate, as in No pruebo el vino ‘I never drink wine’)[2]
(4)  the ‘try doing’ sense, used with complement verbs, as in probar a, e.g. Prueba a llamarle otra vez ‘Try calling him again’

As we mentioned earlier, the English verb prove [ˈpʰɹuv] is a cognate of Sp. probar. They are only ‘partial friends’, however, since only some of their meanings coincide, as we have seen, but not all. (We say that two cognates are false friends  when none of their meanings coincide, ‘partial friends’ when only some of them do, and ‘good friends’ when their meanings and uses are very similar, cf. Part I, Chapter 1.)

Eng. prove is an early 13th century loan from the Anglo-Norman (a dialect of Old French brought to England) reflex (descendant) of this Latin verb, which was spelled either prover or pruver at the time (cf. Modern French prouver [pʀuˈve]). From very early on, this English verb was used with different senses: ‘to show, demonstrate (first half of the 12th cent.), to establish as true (c1130), (used reflexively) to show oneself to be, to turn out to be (c1170), to show oneself to be able (c1170), (of a thing) to be evidence (1197), to be (in a particular condition) (c1285), to prove in court (c1292), to test (end of the 13th cent., apparently originally Anglo-Norman)’ (OED). All of these senses are found in Old Spanish provar and most of them are also found in Modern Spanish probar.

As we saw above, Sp. probar is only sometimes equivalent to Eng. prove, meaning that these cognates are only partial friends. The same thing is true the other way around. Engl. prove only sometimes translates as probar, since only some of these words’ senses coincide. The following are the main senses of Eng. prove and their Spanish translations (there are a few other, rare senses of Eng. prove, such as a legal sense and one used in cooking):

(1)  the ‘give proof’ sense: this can be translated as probar, though demostrar is a very common alternative, more so than its English cognate demonstrate, e.g. They proved that she was guilty = Sp. Probaron/demostraron que ella era culpable
(2)  the ‘turn out’ sense: this translates as resultar, e.g. She proved to be right = Sp. Resultó tener razón; when prove is followed by an adjective, Spanish typically ads a verb, e.g. It proved (to be) useful = Sp. Resultó (ser) útil (Collins)
(3)  the reflexive ‘demonstrate’ sense: this always translates as demostrar, e.g. He has proved himself worthy of our trust = Sp. Ha demostrado ser digno de nuestra confianza (Collins)

Finally, let us mention that there are words that are closely related to the cognate verbs Eng. prove ~ Sp. probar, such as the nouns Eng. proof ~ Sp. prueba, which come from Medieval Latin noun prŏba, which we will explore in the next section. Another related word is the English adjective provable, a 14th century loan from Old Fr. provable, which derived it from the verb. Eng. provable translates into Spanish as demostrable, verificable, and comprobable, even though Spanish has a cognate of provable, namely probable ‘probable’, which has a different meaning, as we will see in section §1.7.6 below.

So, let us next look in detail at the nouns that derive from the Medieval Latin noun prŏba derived from the verb prŏbāre, namely Eng. proof and probe and Sp. prueba. Finally, in the last section of this chapter, we will look at other English and Spanish words that ultimately derive from Latin words that contained the very same root prŏb‑, words that have the root prob‑ or prov.

Go to Part 6



[1] The patrimonial descendant of Lat. taberna was tavierna in Old Spanish (also sometimes spelled tabierna). Eventually, the learned form taberna won over under the influence of the original Latin word. In other words, Sp. taberna is a semi-learned word (Sp. semicultismo), cf. Part I, Chapter 1.

[2] Note that the noun and verb test are unrelated to the noun and verb taste. The latter were borrowed from Old French in the early 14th century. The verb to taste comes from Old French taster ‘to touch, feel’ (modern French tâter ‘to feel, touch, try, taste’, cognate of Provençal tastar, Old Spanish tastar, Italian tastare , descendants of Vulgar Latin *tastare, which was apparently derived from *taxtāre, from an earlier *taxitāre , frequentative of taxāre ‘to touch, feel, handle’ and ‘to censure, charge, tax with a fault; to rate, value, reckon, compute (at so much), make a valuation of’ and, in medieval Latin, ‘to impose a tax’ (hence the source of the verbs Eng. tax and Sp. tasar) (OED).

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