5 Latin Shortcuts to Learning Spanish
Last Thursday, the headline on pretty much every newspaper in Barcelona was: “la exhumación de Franco”. Our Spanish teacher displayed some on the board and asked us what was going on.
Thanks to Latin, I was able to decode this new word:
ex = out of/from humus = the ground/earth
It turns out that exhumation is an English word, too: the act of digging up that which has been buried.
In many situations like this, Latin has been like an imaginary friend in these Spanish lessons. Not only explaining new (obscure) vocabulary but also making the subjunctive feel like second nature, providing a framework for new tenses and hinting at how irregular verbs are going to conjugate.
The fact that Latin can help you learn Romance languages is on every Why You Should Study Latin list. But in the spirit of show and don’t tell, here are some shortcuts to learning Spanish gracias/gratias to Latin, encountered so far.
1. The verb to be
It’s the most important, frequently used and notoriously irregular verb in every Romance language. But if you know esse in Latin, you basically already know ser in Spanish.
2. Transgender words
Words ending in –a in Spanish are usually feminine and –o/anything else, masculine. This determines whether the articles el/los or la/las are used in front of them.
la música / los chicos / la novia / las iguanas / el reggaeton / el razón
But then you have words that do not identify with the gender that they appear to be such as — el día, el problema* and la mano.
This is usually because of how the same word was engendered in Latin (or Greek…):
*problema is masculine in Greek (though neuter in Latin) and this is maintained in Spanish, as happens with the gender of other Spanish words with Greek origin ending in “-ma” / “-ta” / “-pa”:
e.g. el clima, el tema, el idioma, el poema, el sistema, el mapa, el planeta.
3. Words that end in -dor
The Spanish suffix –dor functions like the –tor of Latin. Which denotes the “agent noun”, or simply, the person/thing that does x when x is a verb. Agent nouns in English are usually formed with ‘-er’ such as teacher (from to teach) or cutter (to cut).
For some of these –tor words, Spanish has maintained the Latin word and meaning e.g. inventor, ascensor, cantor, conductor, defensor.
For those which have an a before the suffix in Latin (-ator), you can be pretty confident that they become –ador in Spanish:
gladiador, mercador, amador, visitador, salvador, operador, imperador, dictador.
4. Verbs that work like ‘me gusta’
And there are a lot of them.
In any Latin textbook, you are bound to meet mihi placet, which uses a personal pronoun in the dative case (mihi, tibi, ei, nobis, vobis, eis) + 3rd person form of the verb placere ‘to please’.
mihi placet– It is pleasing to me / I like [+ something singular] mihi placent– They are pleasing to me / I like [+ something plural]
This is exactly how gustar works. Verbs like gustar always take an indirect object pronoun (which is essentially a dative case personal pronoun -to/for someone).
In Spanish these are: me, te, le, nos, vos, les.
*Note that a mi and a ti can be added for emphasis for the first and second person but they are not necessary.
Whereas with le gusta/gustan ‘he/she likes’ and les gusta/gustan ‘they like’ it is not always clear to whom you are referring. Therefore a ella/el ‘to her/him’ or a ellas/ellos ‘to them (f/m)’ are added in front to avoid confusion, by specifying gender and number.
a ella le gusta la gasolina — Daddy Yankee
5. Knowing the difference between direct and indirect object pronouns
As you can see from the table below, it’s not a big deal if you don’t know the difference between these until it comes to 3rd person singular and plural.
One way to make this easier is by viewing them as the equivalent of the dative/accusative case of personal pronouns in Latin:
Direct Object: Who/What is receiving the action of the verb (=accusative case) Indirect Object: To/For whom the action is being done (=dative case)
Le he alquidado mi casa [a ella] — I have rented out my house to her. ¿La has visto esta mañana? — Did you see her this morning?
With the Spanish verb decir, consider that you tell something to someone, so it takes an indirect object pronoun. Just like dicere takes the dative case in Latin.
Unfortunately, though, “Tell him/her it” would not be dilelo, as you might expect from the table, but rather diselo. That’s because Spanish does not like the sound of two pronouns together that begin with ‘L’. So le/les become se.
¡dime si tienes algunos otros ejemplos!