Monday, December 28, 2020

Slaves and slavery, part 10: Lat. sĕrvīre: Eng. serve ~ Sp. servir

[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 10 of Slaves and Slavery: Go to Part 1

Lat. sĕrvīre: Eng. serve ~ Sp. servir

A verb was derived in classical Latin From the noun sĕrvus, namely the fourth conjugation verb sĕrvīre. Its principal parts were present tense sĕrviō, present infinitive sĕrvīre, perfect active sĕrvīvī or sĕrviī, and passive participle sĕrvītus. This verb was intransitive and could take a dative object, but it had a passive form, which was impersonal in meaning.[1] Its main meaning was ‘to be a servant or slave, to serve, be in service’ (L&S). With a dative complement, it translated as ‘to be enslaved to [X], to serve [X]’ (L&S). It was also used in a figurative sense with the meaning ‘to be devoted or subject to; to be of use or service to; to serve for, be fit or useful for; to do a service to, to comply with, gratify, humor, accommodate; to have respect to, to regard or care for, etc.’ (L&S). Other, more general senses were added later such as the post-Augustan ‘to help, assist, be serviceable to, be useful for’ (L&S).

The patrimonial descendant of this verb in Spanish is third conjugation servir [seɾ.ˈβiɾ], which is conjugated like pedir and is thus irregular in that the stem vowel e changes to i when stressed in the present tense (sirvo, sirves, etc.) and when it has a semivowel [i̯] in the following syllable, in the 3rd persons of the preterit (sirvió, sirvieron). The vowel change also happens in all the persons of the present and imperfect subjunctive (sirva, etc.; sirviera, etc.). This verb is attested very early on in Old Spanish, in the Aemilian glosses of the 10th century (cf. Part I, Chapter 9). Today, servir is a very common verb and also a rather polysemous one, as we will see when we compare it with its English cognate serve. The DLE gives 20 senses for Sp. servir, 12 of which are basically intransitive (though 2 of them can be used transitively), 6 are transitive, and 2 are pronominal (servirse).

English borrowed the verb serve [ˈsɜɹv] in the 12th century from French servir. Eng. serve is also a rather polysemous verb, though its senses do not always coincide with those of Sp. servir, which makes the two verbs fickle friends, for although in theory and in the abstract they have the same meaning, in practice they are used somewhat differently. The American Heritage Dictionary gives 13 senses for transitive serve, five of which have two subsenses, and 8 senses for intransitive serve. The Oxford English Dictionary is much more thorough in analyzing the senses of Eng. serve, and it gives 56 different senses for this verb, though some of them are now obsolete or very rare, which is why they don’t appear in most other dictionaries. Since dictionaries divide and group the senses in different ways, this results in greater or fewer senses for a word in different dictionaries. Added to this is the fact that there is a large number of somewhat idiomatic expressions that contain the verb serve in English.

In order to compare how the cognates Eng. serve ~ Sp. servir are used, let us look first at different ways to translate the main senses of English serve into Spanish:

·         sense ‘distribute food or drink’ (transitive): equivalent to Sp. servir, e.g. Eng. Serve the guests first ≈ Sp. Sirve a los invitados primero, Eng. Dinner was served early ≈ Sp. La cena se sirvió temprano; note, however:

§  When the action is performed for oneself, English often uses the verb help oneself to, but Spanish uses servir only, e.g. Help yourself to another drink ≈ Sp. Sírvete otro trago

§  For serving of drink, English (but not Spanish) may use an alternative verb, namely pour: Eng. Pour yourself another drink ≈ Sp. Sírvete otro trago (Spanish has verbs that translate Eng. pour, but they are just not used in this context)

§  Eng. serve is used in recipes to indicate how many people a recipe will be good for, e.g. Eng. (This recipe) serves four ≈ (in a recipe) (Esta receta es) para cuatro personas, (on a packet) Cuatro raciones/porciones (OSD)

§  When Eng. serve is used figuratively, it may translate as something other than servir, e.g. Eng. They served cod as halibutHicieron pasar bacalao por halibut (Collins)

·         sense ‘be useful for’ (trans.): this sense of Eng. serve is only used in expressions with an object such as purpose, these translate with intransitive servir, e.g. It serves no useful purpose = Sp. No sirve para nada (útil) (OSD), or This doesn’t serve my purpose = Sp. Esto no sirve para lo que necesito; however, note:

§  this ‘be useful’ sense can occasionally be intransitive as in serve as; equivalent to Sp. servir de, e.g. This will serve as a table ≈ Sp. Esto servirá de mesa, Eng. to serve as an example ≈ Sp. servir de ejemplo

§  Spanish also servir has a ‘be useful’ sense, which is strictly intransitive and is extremely common; most of the time this sense of Sp. servir is not translated by the verb serve, e.g. Sp. Esta caja no sirve ≈ Eng. This box won’t do / is no good (OSD); Sp Tíralo, ya no me sirve ≈ Eng. Throw it away, it’s (of) no use to me anymore (OSD); Sp. ¿Para qué sirve este aparato? ≈ Eng. What’s this device for? (OSD); Sp. No lo tires, puede servir para algo ≈ Eng. Don’t throw it away, it might come in useful for something (OSD); Sp. ¿De qué sirve hablarle si no te escucha? ≈ Eng. What’s the point in (the use of) talking to him if he doesn’t listen to you?; Sp. Aquel consejo me sirvió mucho ≈ Eng. That piece of advice was a great help to me (AEIV); Sp. Quejarse no sirve de/para nada ≈ Eng. It’s no good complaining (AEIV); Sp. Este sofá sirve para dormir ≈ Eng. This sofa can be used for sleeping on; Sp. Esos zapatos ya no me sirven ‘Those shoes don’t fit me anymore’

§  Related to the ‘be useful for’ sense is the ‘act as’ sense of Sp. servir (de), which also does not usually translate into English as serve, e.g. Sp. Esto te puede servir de mesa ≈ Eng. You can use this as a table; Sp. Sirvió de mediador ≈ Eng. He acted as mediator (AEIV)

·         sense ‘have effect, function, be good for’: similar to the ‘be useful’ sense; used in a limited range of contexts; translates as servir, e.g. Eng. It only served to heighten tension ≈ Sp. Sólo sirvió para aumentar la tensión, Eng. Let this serve as a warningQue esto te/etc. sirva de advertencia (OSD)

·         sense ‘be of assistance to someone in a shop’: this sense is used in a shop context only; it normally translates into Spanish as atender, but occasionally as servir in formal fixed phrases, e.g. Eng. Are you being served? ≈ Sp. ¿Lo atienden?, cf. Sp. (formal) ¿En qué puedo servirle? ‘How may I help you?’, Sp. (formal) Para servirle ‘At your service’

·         sense ‘provide a public or social service’: this does not typically translate as servir, except if it is a duty, as in Eng. to serve in the military ≈ Sp. servir en el ejército, Eng. to serve one’s country ≈ Sp. servir a la patria; but Eng. to serve on a committee/jury ≈ Sp. ser miembro de una comisión/comité/un jurado, Eng. to serve on the council ≈ Sp. ser concejal, Eng. to serve in parliament ≈ Sp. ser diputado (Collins)

·         sense ‘provide transportation for a location’: this sense is used for bus lines and airports, for example; this sense never translates as servir; e.g. Eng. the bus route serving Newtownel servicio/la línea de autobuses que va a Newtown (OSD); Eng. Riem airport serves MunichRiem es el aeropuerto de Munich (OSD)

·         (legal) sense ‘give summons/notice/order to someone’ (to serve something on somebody to serve somebody with something): this sense never translates as servir, but entregar or (more formal) hacer entrega de or recibir if in the passive, e.g. Eng. They served a summons on all the directors ≈ Sp. Todos los directivos recibieron una citación judicial (OSD); Eng. She was served with divorce papers ≈ Sp. Recibió notificación de la demanda de divorcio (OSD)

·         sense ‘fulfill a sentence’: equivalent to Sp. cumplir: Eng. serve a sentence (idiom. serve time) ≈ Sp. cumplir una sentencia,

·         sense ‘fulfill a period of time for training’ (trans.): used for things like apprenticeships; not translated as servir; e.g. Eng. to serve a one-year apprenticeship ≈ Sp. hacer un aprendizaje de un año

·         sense ‘be a servant’ or ‘to be in (domestic) service’ (intrans.): this is a literary and historical (archaic) sense; it translates into Spanish as servir; this sense is rare nowadays in both languages, e.g. Sp. Empezó a servir a los catorce años ≈ Eng. she went into service at the age of fourteen (OSD)

·         sense ‘ball game (tennis, etc.)’: Spanish may use servir (especially in tennis) or sacar

·         Expressions with Eng. serve and Sp. servir and their equivalents in the other language:

§  Eng. It serves you right! ≈ Sp. Te lo mereces, Lo tienes bien merecido

§  Eng. if my memory serves me right/well ≈ Sp. si no me falla la memoria, si mal no recuerdo

§  Sp. Sírvase + infinitive ‘Please + verb’ (very formal), e.g. Sírvase rellenar la solicitudPlease fill in the application form (OSD)

§  Sp. ¿De qué sirve + infinitive ? ≈ Eng. What’s the use/point of + ‑ing ?

§  Sp. cuchara de servir ≈ Eng. serving spoon

Before leaving the verb sĕrvīre, we should mention that Latin had four verbs derived from it by means of prefixation, namely the following ones (the meaning come from CTL):




ad- ‘to’


‘to serve, aid, assist’

dē- ‘of, from’


‘to serve zealously, be devoted, be subject, be of service’

in- ‘in’


‘to be serviceable, be devoted, be submissive, serve’

sub- ‘under’


‘to serve, come to the help of, aid’

None of these verbs have made it into Spanish, either by the direct, patrimonial route, or through later borrowing. As you may have guessed, however, English has borrowed the verb deserve which ultimately comes from Lat. dēsĕrvīre, albeit with a somewhat different meaning from the one it had in classical Latin. The main meaning change took place not in English or French but rather in late Latin, where the sense ‘to merit by service’ arose out of the classical meaning ‘to serve zealously’. English borrowed the verb deserve [dɪˈzɜɹv] from Old French deservir in the mid-13th century. The French word is first attested in the 11th century. (In Modern French, the word is spelled desservir, pronounced [desɛʀˈviʀ], not because there were two s’s in the original word but to indicate that the word is pronounced with the sound [s] instead of [z].) There are a few words derived from this verb in English: (adjectives) deserved and undeserved (= Sp. merecido/a and inmerecido/a), (adverbs) deservedly and undeservedly (= Sp. merecidamente and inmerecidamente), and (nouns) deservedness and undeservedness (= Sp. merecimiento and desmerecimiento).

The main verb that translates Eng. deserve in Spanish is merecer, which comes from the Hispano-Latin inchoative verb merēscĕre, which is derived from the second conjugation verb merēre ‘to deserve, merit, be entitled to, be worthy of’ (mĕrĕō, mĕrēre, mĕrŭī, mĕrĭtus), which could also be conjugated as a second conjugation deponent verb merērī (mĕrĕor, mĕrērī, mĕrĭtus sum). In the late 15th century, English borrowed the verb (to) merit from Middle French meriter (Modern French mériter), which was either derived in French from the noun merite ‘merit, worth’ or else descends from the frequentative version meritāre of the verb merēre. Three centuries before English acquired the verb (to) merit, it had already borrowed the noun merit (cf. Sp. mérito) both through Old French merite ‘reward, moral worth’ and from its source Lat. mĕrĭtum, a noun derived from the neuter form of the passive participle mĕrĭtus meaning ‘due reward, worthiness to receive good or bad treatment, action worthy to receive such treatment’ (OED).

Although English has not borrowed the Latin verb subsĕrvīre, it does have two words that are related to that verb, namely the adjective subservient and the noun subservience. English borrowed the adjective subservient [səbˈsɜɹviənt] in the early 17th century from classical Latin sŭbsĕrvient- (nominative: sŭbsĕrviēns, accusative: sŭbsĕrviēntem), the present participle of the verb sŭbsĕrvīre. The first user seems to have been Francis Bacon (1604). It is possible that a Middle French word subservan ‘useful, profitable’ which is found in a single 1452 attestation was used as a trigger for borrowing this word from Latin (OED). Eng. subservient means primarily, when said of people, ‘prepared to obey others unquestioningly; obsequious’ (≈ Sp. servil) and, figuratively and formally, derived from it, ‘less important; subordinate’ (≈ Sp. supeditado/a a) (COED).

As for the noun subservience [səbˈsɜɹviəns], it was derived in English a few decades after the introduction of the adjective subservient on the model of many other words acquired through French that ended in ‑ient in the adjective and ended in ‑ience in the derived noun, such as convenient ~ convenience, obedient ~ obedience, and convenient ~ convenience (cf. ending ‑ence, OED). Most dictionaries do not define subservience but, rather, point to the meaning of subservient. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate does give two senses for this word, ‘a subservient or subordinate place or function’ and ‘obsequious servility’. English-Spanish dictionaries tend to give sumisión as the main or only translation of subservience. OSD expands it to sumisión (ciega) (a algo/alguien). Harrap’s gives two senses, none of which is sumisión: (a) ‘(servility) servilismo (to hacia)’ and (b) ‘(subjugation) sometimiento’.

Go to Part 11

[1] There are a couple dozen verbs in Latin such as this one whose English equivalents are usually transitive, but which in Latin take a dative, not an accusative object. Thus, Servit nobis ‘He serves us’ (lit. ‘to us’) in the passive would be Nobis servītur . These verbs have been divided into several types according to their general meaning, e.g. (we give each verb’s present tense and present infinitive forms): (a) aiding, favoring, obeying, pleasing, serving: auxilior/auxiliārī ‘to help, assist’, medeor/medērī ‘to heal’, opitulor/opitulārī/ ‘to help, assist’, subvenio/subvenīre ‘to support, assist’, faveo/ favēre ‘to favor’, studeo/studēre ‘to dedicate oneself’, pāreo/pārēre ‘to appear, etc.’, obsequor/obsequī ‘to accommodate oneself, comply’, oboedio/oboedīre ‘to obey’, placeo/placēre ‘to be pleasing, to please, etc.’, indulgeo/indulgēre ‘to be kind, courteous’, servio/servīre ‘to be a slave, to serve’; (b) injuring, opposing, displeasing: noceo/nocēre ‘to injure, do harm to’, adversor/adversārī ‘to stand opposite, to be against’, obsto/obstāre ‘to stand before, to stand in the way’, repugno/repugnāre ‘to fight against, oppose’, displiceo/displicēre ‘to displease’; and (c) commanding, persuading, trusting, distrusting, sparing, pardoning, envying, being angry: impero/imperāre ‘to command, give orders to’, praecipio/praecipĕre ‘to seize in advance; to order; etc.’, suadeo/ suādēre ‘to recommend, advice, etc.’, persuādeo/persuādēre ‘to persuade, convince’, fīdo/fīdere ‘to trust, rely upon’, diffīdo/diffīdĕre ‘to distrust’, parco/parcĕre ‘to refrain, be lenient to’, ignōsco/ignōscĕre ‘to forgive, pardon’, invideo/invidēre ‘to look askance or maliciously at; to be prejudiced against; to loath; to envy; etc.’, īrāscor/īrāscī ‘to be angry, enraged’, succenseo/ succēnsēre ‘to be inflamed with anger; irritated, angry or enraged’.

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