English to Spanish rules of thumb

Here are four rules of thumb for converting English words in to Spanish.

  1. Words ending in -ible or -able often stay the same.
  2. Change words ending in -ent and -ant to end in -ente and -ante respectively.
  3. Change words ending in -tion to end in -ción.
  4. Change words ending in -ical to end in -ico (or -ica if feminine).

These are only rules of thumb. There are exceptions. For example, two exceptions to the third rule are that the Spanish word for translation is traducción and the word for explanation is explicación. But these rules hold quite often.

Related post: Xylophones and zebras part II: Learning Spanish

17 thoughts on “English to Spanish rules of thumb

  1. Do you know Grimm’s Laws? There are a lot of rules similar to the original Grimm’s Laws that describe the shift from Latin to Spanish. I found they make it much easier to guess unfamiliar Spanish words. Some simple examples:

    * Initial f -> Initial h: fungus -> hongo
    * Initial s* -> Initial es*: stare -> estar
    * Intervowel x -> intervowel j: dixit -> dijo

    There are also some very subtle ones, like the pattern that transformed parabola into palabra.

    I used to spend days and days enumerating these kind of rules when I was in high school. Glad you’re interested in this sort of thing as well!

  2. Grimm’s laws are fascinating. And along those lines, the great vowel shift.

    When I was in school, the attitude I encountered in English and foreign languages was that brute force memorization was best. Some would say there really are no rules, or that there’s no point in learning rules that have exceptions. I think that’s ridiculous. There are rules, and they hold often enough that they’re worth learning, even though they have exceptions.

    I saw a home school spelling curriculum once that was developed by a couple linguists, native English speakers who decided to look at English as if it were a new language and empirically study its regularities. There are quite a few rules that are less familiar and hold more often than old saws like “i before e except after c …”

  3. John, I personally think the difficulty with language education is that there are so many patterns that they’re overwhelming to most people. So people end up learning the patterns from simple repetition rather than explicit education. Certainly I often have the intuition that “something just sounds wrong” even though I can’t justify it. In Spanish I find that effect is most powerful with gender: I just know the gender of words, but find it very difficult to articulate why many words have the gender they have.

    Kyle, I think there’s not enough work on the historical linguistics of programming languages. I’ve always wondered why people don’t test the methods being used to infer the history of languages on programming languages, where we actually know the ground truth.

  4. (spanish is my native tongue)

    John, don’t worry about gender of words, at the end they are arbitrary. Why “cazadora” (jacket) is feminine and “abrigo” (coat) is masculine? There are even some (rare) words that can have different meanings depending wether they are feminine or masculine, like “cometa”. In masculine form (el cometa) it means “the comet”, in feminine form (la cometa) it means “the kite”.
    In different languages, the gender of the same things change, in Spanish fork (tenedor) is masculine and spoon (cuchara) is feminine, but in German is the other way around.

    Those are small details that I think are not that important to have a decent level of understanding. You may sound a little weird, but you can be understood. The precision will get later, when all those word are internalized and are part of your intuition.

  5. I’m still trying to find a language worthy of respect. Things that remove my respect:

    Not having evolved your alphabet beyond first level abstraction (According to my history textbook this is why Chinese has so many characters. They didn’t increase the abstraction level before it became too widespread to change). This makes it harder to typeset.

    Gendered words: Requires brute memorization, encourages sexism. (Odd facts: The German word for Women is neuter, the French word for Vagina is male).

    Between these two I’m having a hard time finding languages other then English I like, even though English is ugly as sin. I’ve heard good things about Sanskrit.

  6. Grammatical gender often has little to do with biological gender. Some languages don’t have (much) gender, as in English. Some only distinguish between animate and inanimate, such as Basque, and others (particularly African languages) have more than 10 noun classes.

    Noun classes and grammatical gender are just ways of increasing the information density (or the abstraction as you say in the first point) to speed up conveyance of information.

  7. kudos for sparking such an interesting chain of comments!
    I loved learning about the Great Vowel Shift: So English spelling did make sense, once!

  8. Regarding brute-force memorization vs learing rules and patterns, I’m sympathetic to the view that memorization needs to be primary. The primary value of language rules are to help you organize the knowledge you’ve already internalized, and to extrapolate intelligently from that knowledge to new words.

    I think the same is true in science education. You need to have a base of knowledge before you can appreciate power of the rules and laws. Do you remember the story Feynman told in “Surely you’re joking..” about the Brazilian (?) physics students who had memorized the rules and formulas, but didn’t recognize how to apply them to physical situations? That’s what you get when you learn the rules first, without being familiar with the phenomena that they were devised to explain.

  9. I’d suggest that, as with your native language, reading is one of the best ways of acquiring vocabulary. When I was learning English the stories of Isaac Asimov were great sources: not that long, simple vocabulary and very fun. I suck at memorizing lists of words without relevant context, so seeing words within a sentence and working out their meaning was best (again, for me). You may find other authors that work for you.

    As a programmer, developing/using rules comes naturally and they are very handy at the beginning, but be prepared for a long list of exceptions. In general, listeners will try to work out what you are saying and offer a correction. The gender of nouns is fairly constant across romance languages and, most of the time, they can be worked out from their ending, although there are many exceptions of course.

    I often use JMW’s rules the other way around :-)

  10. And of course, if rules 1 to 4 don’t apply just add -o :-)

    And on a less flippant note, I came across this essay by Norvig” yesterday, taking Chomsky to task on his rubbishing of statistical approaches to understanding languages compared to rule-based approaches. It includes a table of frequencies of when “i before e except after c” holds compared to when it doesn’t.

  11. Tom:
    I’m afraid that Mr. Feynman would strongly disagree with you. He hated brute force memorization: A quote from him:

    ‘I began to read the paper. It kept talking about extensors and flexors, the astrocnemius muscle, and so on. This and that muscle were named, but I hadn’t the foggiest idea of where they were located in relation to the nerves or to the cat. So I went to the librarian in the biology section and asked her if she could find me a map of the cat. “A map of the cat, sir?” she asked, horrified. “You mean a zoological chart!” From then on there were rumors about some dumb biology graduate student who was looking for a “map of the cat.”

    When it came time for me to give my talk on the subject, I started off by drawing an outline of the cat and began to name the various muscles. The other students in the class interrupt me: “We know all that!”
    “Oh,” I say, “you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you’ve had four years of biology.” They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.’

    –”Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”
    Adventures of a Curious Character
    by Richard P. Feynman
    as told to Ralph Leighton

    Finally I’d like to direct you to the final quote of Mr. Feynman’s at http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Richard_Feynman#Surely_You.27re_Joking.2C_Mr._Feynman.21_.281985.29 The one about learning Japanese.

  12. One complication with the false friends is that they’re actively becoming real words in Spanglish: my friends particularly like to make jokes about the phrase, “vacumear la carpeta”, which is frequently used in parts of Florida even though it sounds absurd to many native Spanish speakers.

  13. The “false friends” (faux amis) problem is even stronger between French and English, because ~70% of common English vocabulary (IIRC) is originally French — but most of that was Norman French, which diverged from modern French at least 1000 years ago. That’s a long time for the English sense of a word, or the French, or both, to have migrated.

    It also leads to the fun situation where English has borrowed the same word twice from French: /warden/ (Norman) and /guardian/ (modern), for example.

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