Yong Huang's Blog: Learning Spanish and French Words Through Etymology and Mnemonics

January 23, 2023

Latin sentire ("to feel") diverges in Romance languages

From the same Latin etymon sentire ("to feel", "to perceive"):

French sentir mostly means "to feel", "to smell".
Spanish sentir mostly means "to feel", "to hear".
Italian sentire mostly means "to feel", "to hear", "to smell".
Some dictionaries list other meanings, e.g. Italian sentire could also mean "to taste", etc. but I only list the most common meanings here.

It is interesting that different Romance languages extend the sense of the Latin word to different sense organs, if we only count the common meanings. French sentir can mean "smell" but not "hear", Spanish sentir can mean "hear" but not "smell", while Italian sentire can mean both. Again, just the most common meanings (other than "feel"). If you want a mnemonic to remember the differences, imagine a Frenchman good at smelling fragrance because he's a romantic lover and smelling good food because he's a gourmet eater, a Spaniard capable of hearing faint sounds from afar since he has the gene from his ancestors with this skill when they were on the formidable Armada, while an Italian excels at smelling as he is both a romantic lover and a first-class chef, and has acute hearing as a result of constant exposure to grand operas.
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Published on January 23, 2023 21:12

December 7, 2022

Word for "people" in Romance languages can be singular

English people, as well as peoples, is a plural word. The Spanish, French, and Italian words that translate this English word may be grammatically singular depending on which word you use, even though their meanings always imply plural.

gens: Plural, e.g. les gens qui se lèvent tôt ("the people that get up early"). While cognate with Spanish singular word gente, this word is plural.
peuple: Singular, e.g. le peuple sud-américain (“the south American people”); le peuple élu (“the chosen people”). This word is used instead of gens in a context of ethnic or religious significance.

gente: Singular, e.g. la gente que se levanta temprano ("the people that get up early"). While cognate with French plural word gens, this word is singular.
pueblo: Singular, e.g. el pueblo mexicano ("the Mexican people").

gente: Singular, e.g. la gente che si alza presto ("the people that get up early"). While cognate with French plural word gens, this word is singular. Well, this example is sort of contrived in that it may be more natural to say le persone che si alzano presto instead. This is opposite to English convention; we say people more than persons in this case.
popolo: Singular, e.g. il popolo degli Stati Uniti ("the people of the United States").

In short, the words corresponding to or cognate with English people, i.e. French peuple, Spanish pueblo, and Italian popolo, are all singular in the three Romance languages. In the case of the words cognate with English gentle or gentile, French gens is plural while Spanish and Italian gente is singular.
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Published on December 07, 2022 15:16

October 22, 2022

French 'orphelin', Spanish 'huérfano', or Italian 'orfano'

French orphelin, Spanish huérfano, or Italian orfano is translated into English as orphan. If you read the Wiktionary pages written in their respective language, such as the French page for orphelin, and the Spanish page for huérfano, you'll see that the word can refer to a child even if he or she has lost only one parent; "[q]ui a perdu son père et sa mère, ou l’un des deux" and "[d]icho de un infante, que ha perdido uno o ambos progenitores", respectively. On the Italian page for orfano, however, there is no such indication. So it prompted me to think maybe the Italian word is like English orphan, which denotes a child both of whose parents have died. (If only one parent has died, the child cannot be called an orphan.)

I posted this question to a Facebook polyglots group. The tens of replies from fellow polyglots can be summarized in two points:

* In quite a number of languages, including French, Spanish and Italian, the word commonly translated as orphan implies that the child has lost both parents. But you can specifically refer to a child that has lost only one parent, e.g. French une orpheline de père, Spanish huérfano de padre, meaning “a fatherless child”. In English, orphan strictly refers to a child with neither father nor mother, so "fatherless child" instead of "orphan of father" is the correct translation.

* In some languages, the situation becomes more interesting. For example, In Arabic, one word refers to a child who has lost his father before puberty, and a relatively rare word to a child who has lost both parents. There are languages that are like English, for example Chinese and Polish, in which the word commonly translated as "orphan" must be one having lost both parents.

The answers in the group also remind us that the definitions in a dictionary are sometimes not completely true to the native speakers' real-life usage. For example, the German page for Waise says "minderjährige Person, die beide Eltern oder eines der Elternteile (durch Tod) verloren hat" ("a minor who has lost both parents or one of the parents (through death)"), and my paperback Duden dictionary says the same. But according to the group, when using the word Waise, people would assume both parents have died, and if not, another word Halbwaise (literally "half-orphan") would be used instead. This highlights the usefulness and importance of usage notes commonly considered dispensable in a typical dictionary that minces words to save space. A book that is dedicated to vocabulary studies but is not a pure dictionary fits the need perfectly.

With that discussion in my mind, I wrote and edited the headword orphelin for my Learning French Words book as follows:

orphelin child who has lost one or both parents; (adj.) of such a child. Cognate with orphan. Note while English orphan refers to a child who has lost both parents, French orphelin (as well as Spanish huérfano or the equivalent word in many other languages) can refer to a child only one of whose parents has died, although the ambiguity depends on the context. Example, une orpheline de père (“a fatherless child”; this is a good phrase to break ambiguity; note translating it as “an orphan of father” would make no sense in English).
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Published on October 22, 2022 19:12

September 20, 2022

Spanish 'terco' ("stubborn")

The Spanish word for "stubborn" can be obstinado, which is easy since we know English obstinate. But there's another word, terco. Wikitionary has a fairly long paragraph about its etymology. But none of the words in this paragraph is helpful to us. On the other hand, we can easily take Turkish or in Spanish turco as a mnemonic. Just say un turco es terco ("a Turkish is stubborn"; by the way, this is only a mnemonic, not a true statement). Easy. Right? But there's something better. Much to my delight, a few decades ago, one linguist wrote a 15-page research article on this topic, The Etymology of Hispanic "terco", where he says (on p578)

"it seems permissible to think of a cross with turch 'Turk, Turkish.' Sp. terco, Cat. enterch were, in general, mostly employed in diatribes against heretics and infidels (including Jews). Since the Turks, at the close of the Middle Ages, had replaced the Saracens as the indomitable opponents of Christianity, the association of enterch with turch was within the realm of possibilities.'

And in a footnote on this page, he adds

"The sweeping association of Turks, the hated infidels par excellence, with an unpleasant trait of human character does not cause surprise."

That is quite gratifying. To me, in reading the article, I mostly care about the semantic association of this Spanish word with turco or the Turkish people. Here it is. This means such an association is not baseless, making my originally pure mnemonic a historically justifiable statement.
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Published on September 20, 2022 14:32

June 30, 2022

Two types of word association

Anna Gudmundson in his article The mental lexicon of multilingual adult learners of Italian L3: A study of word association behavior and cross-lingual semantic priming summarizes word association categories of other researchers (Fitzpatrick & Izura). The first two categories are

1. Equivalent meaning relation
 * synonymy (rug-carpet);
 * co-ordination (bus-car);
 * superordination (bird-robin);
 * subordination (bird-animal);
 * partonymy (bird-feather)
2. Non-equivalent meaning relation
 * scream-afraid; steak-argentina; bubble-child

and he said "Equivalent meaning relations represent a close semantic relation and could be
said to operate on a paradigmatic level: both words belong to the same word class,
appear in the same semantic and grammatical contexts and have similar referents, while the non-equivalent meaning relations and the collocational meaning relations represent a looser semantic connection and a more syntagmatic-based relation" (see pp.78-9), and "there was an increase with age as regards the proportion of paradigmatic associations, and a decrease of the proportion of syntagmatic and form associations" (p.76).

I hope the examples he gave are clear in distinguishing the two types of association. Basically, if you see the word scream and immediately think of cry, shout, you're using equivalent meaning relation, because these words are near synonyms or have some semantic relations with scream. If instead you think of afraid, danger, panic, that's non-equivalent meaning relation.

My books ( Learning Spanish Words and Learning French Words ) mostly use equivalent meaning relation (or paradigmatic association), rarely non-equivalent meaning relation (or syntagmatic association). And so according to his summary of the research, the preferred readers of my book are adults and not young children, which is what I stated repeatedly in the introductions of the books. Now I come to think of it. Maybe I should occasionally add some non-equivalent meaning relation as mnemonics, especially when a good mnemonic is hard to come by (and etymology does not help). Actually, there are some in the books, but just too few.

Incidentally, older language learners not only change their word association type (from non-equivalent meaning relation to equivalent meaning relation), but also tend to rely more on cognates. According to Cognate recognition by young multilingual language learners: the role of age and exposure , "age was the strongest determinant of cognate word recognition". This is again consistent with my claim that my books are more suitable for older learners.
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Published on June 30, 2022 20:08

April 6, 2022

Initial letters catch more attention for a mnemonic

In the Appendix of either Learning Spanish Words or Learning French Words , I describe some tips on creating mnemonics. Over the years I have found another fact I should add to the article, i.e. initial letters of a word or word root catch more attention for a mnemonic. For example, when you learn the Italian word rupestre ("rocky" or "rock" used as adj.; also a French and Spanish word, e.g. peinture rupestre, pintura rupestre "rock painting" or "cave painting"), your first impression is probably some word like ruby because you naturally focus on the first part of the word and ignore the latter part, which often is a suffix or something like that anyway. So ruby ("a kind of precious stone") is taken to be a mnemonic, and it's actually a good one (imagine reddish rock paintings). We can think of many other examples:

* French branché ("trendy"): Think of brand (focus on bran- and more or less ignore -ché).
* French cravate: crave for a necktie (ignore -te)
* French entamer ("to start"): You can strip the prefix and use tame as a mnemonic (to get along with and eventually use a wild horse, you have to tame him first), but the initial letters of entamer look like enter , whose meaning more or less matches "start". So why not use that?
* French matelas ("mattress"): You can use mat as a memonic even though mat is etymologically unrelated. Interestingly, matelas and mattress are cognates because they both come from one single Old French word (which comes from Arabic), but it may not be easy to think of changing l of matelas to r to associate it with mattress.
* French sabot ("hoof"; "wooden shoe", "clog"): Cognate with Spanish zapato (“shoe”), after which the online shoe retailer Zappos was named. But if you don't know Spanish, as a mnemonic, just think of the saddle on a horse when you see sa- of this word (but you still need to move your thought from saddle down to hoof).

* Spanish acantilado ("cliff"; "steep"): Imagine cantaloupes grown on a cliff (focus on the root, i.e. without prefix a-).
* Spanish aseverar ("to assert"): The first three letters or two syllables ase - may be a hint for assert.
* Spanish azotar ("to whip"): Imagine an Aztec man whipping another man, perhaps a captured enemy tribesman.
* Spanish cacique ("chieftain"): Imagine the chieftain of a Native American tribe cuts the ribbon at the opening ceremony of a new casino in this Indian reserve.
* Spanish fosa ("pit"): Think of a fox in a pit.
* Spanish legado ("legacy"): English legacy is from Old French legacie, from Medieval Latin legatia, from legatus (“legate”, “envoy”), from which Spanish legado is directly derived. It's easier to just focus on the first two syllables of legado and legacy.
* Spanish zanahoria ("carrot"): carrot as salad (focus on zana- although you sure can use another word to accomodate -horia, e.g. carrot as salad plus Oriel cookies)
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Published on April 06, 2022 07:42

January 17, 2022

guinea pig

A guinea pig is a species of rodent, commonly used for laboratory experiment. In Spanish, the word is cobaya (or conejillo de Indias). In French, it is cobaye. And in Italian, it's cavia. The word is from Old Tupi, a language spoken by the aboriginal Tupi people of Brazil. The original form in Old Tupi was sabuia, alternatively written as çabuia. Later the cedilla in ç somehow got lost (probably due to unclear handwriting) and this letter became c, hence *cabuia. I suspect there was a metathesis (syllable or letter swap), along with a small vowel sound change, in *cabuia > Spanish cobaya and so French cobaye. But in Italian, the form cavia is closer to the original, with just b > v, which is a common development.

Since the word is of native American origin, and the English word guinea pig is not, we can't rely on etymology to remember it. As a mnemonic, if you know the song Kumbaya (literally meaning "Come by Here"), you can imagine seeing this small animal on an African safari. Or if you don't mind, imagine the disturbing scene of a cobra snake eating such a cute little yet fatally unlucky creature.
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Published on January 17, 2022 08:29

November 12, 2021

How much can a mnemonic help?

When the etymology or origin of a word doesn't help us remember the word, we can create a mnemonic. How much does a mnemonic really help? It depends on two factors.

(1) First and foremost, it depends on the learner's position on, for lack of a good term let me temporarily call it, the scale of word analyzing habit (WAH). Some people strongly prefer rote memory while some prefer to do some word analysis in vocabulary study. Generally, the younger the learner, the lower WAH score he/she has. With increasing age, people diverge on the score. I personally have a high WAH score and enjoy and heavily rely on word analysis, but I know very well many people (adults) have a low score and speak foreign languages fluently. Word analysis in this context consists of two parts: etymology and mnemonics. In this blog posting, I'm only referring to the latter.

(2) Some words can have remarkable mnemonics created while others defy such effort. If a great mnemonic is found, such as “I like the smell of Olay (a name brand skin care product)” that helps you remember Spanish oler ("to smell") or olor ("smell", n.), even a person with a low WAH score may like it. On the other hand, a mnemonic such as “Harry cooked beans” that is meant to help remember French haricot ("bean") probably only appeals to an adult learner with a high WAH score.

So we see that the two factors, (1) and (2), should be combined to judge how helpful a mnemonic is. If you say I don't like mnemonics, you probably still use this trick occasionally when the good mnemonic is too good to ignore. If you say I use mnemonics a lot, there're still times you can't think of one even remotely helpful and you more or less resort to rote memory.

One side note: A mnemonic can help you remember the word but can also negatively affect your fluency. If you strive for speaking the language fluently, word analysis should be out of the picture; after all, your brain can't run as fast as a modern computer. That's why I said in the past that once a word is firmly stuck in your brain, you should forgo the mnemonic you used to remember it, and optionally the etymology (although the latter can be retained for other purposes, as knowledge of the culture for instance). In short, to answer the question how much a mnemonic can help, we should limit the scope of what is being helped to first-stage word study, i.e. when the word is still relatively new to the learner.
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Published on November 12, 2021 13:51

October 17, 2021

"menos de" and "moins de"

Spanish menos de and French moins de seem to mean "less / fewer of". In fact, French moins de does mean that, or sort of, as in e.g. moins de gens ("fewer people", literally "less of people"), although you say menos gente, not menos de gente, in Spanish.

What's interesting is that when the phrases are followed by an amount or quantity, the meaning is "less than", in both Spanish and French. E.g. menos de un año, moins d'un an ("less than a year"), menos de 12 personas, moins de 12 personnes ("less than 12 people"). If we had to literally interpret them, we might say "less from", not "less of". If the amount looks lower from the point of the amount said after that, this amount is less. Here de (of both Spanish and French) is not interpreted as "of", but as "from" (as in un tren de Londres, un train de Londres, "a train from London").

At least one other Romance language, Italian, has the same phrase, e.g. meno di 12 persone ("less than 12 people").
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Published on October 17, 2021 18:15

October 4, 2021

How to remember 'melatonin'

One user wonders if there's a better way to remember the English word melatonin ("A hormone, related to serotonin, that is secreted by the pineal gland, and stimulates colour change in the skin of reptiles, and is involved in the sleep/wake and reproductive cycles" according to Wiktionary). And I said,

If you know melancholy ("depression"; "sorrow"), you will remember half of it. The first half, melan- is the same as mela- of melatonin in origin, meaning "black" in Ancient Greek. For -tonin, think of tonic (so literally melatonin is "black tonic" and melancholy is "black bile"). If you don't know melancholy, you can use a pure mnemonic. For instance, imagine that Carmela and Tony both have a dark or black face. Etymology plus mnemonics can help you memorize almost all words of a language. Some adults memorize words purely by rote memory, while others rely on some analysis of the words to remember them. I'm among the latter group. Children and young people are mostly in the first group.

The above example is of an English word. But the idea is the same for words in any language. If you wonder how I think of melancholy, I used the Windows console command

C:\temp> findstr mela words.txt | more

where words.txt is from a Linux server under /usr/share/dict. You can also download it from my web page. If you don't use this method, you can of course try to think of various combinations and may eventually get it. But with this Windows command, you're doing a systematic search and it saves time in those cases where a match is not obvious.
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Published on October 04, 2021 08:43

Learning Spanish and French Words Through Etymology and Mnemonics

Yong    Huang
(1) Small corrections and updates to the published book, Learning Spanish Words Through Etymology and Mnemonics
(2) Miscellaneous notes about the unpublished book, Learning French Words Through Etymolo
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