Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | April 23, 2011

The Etymological Approach to Learning Spanish Vocabulary

The Etymological Approach to Learning Spanish Vocabulary

By Jon Aske, Department of Foreign Languages

I was recently teaching my elementary Spanish class about the troublesome Spanish prepositions por and para. These prepositions are problematic because both of them sometimes translate by means of the English preposition for and this confuses students. When I asked my students, ¿Qué es una preposición? “What is a preposition?,” I got mostly blank stares, so I figured a short discussion of  grammatical terminology was in order. I decided to try the etymological approach and so I told them that we should analyze the word preposición “preposition”. My students are used to our not missing any chances to compare Spanish words to cognate English words, that is, words that look and sound alike and have very similar, if not identical, meanings.

Sources of English vocabularyThose who follow my historical linguistics columns in Lingua Franca may remember that the word cognate in linguistics has to do with native words of related languages having a common ancestor. So in that sense the English word fish and the equivalent Spanish word pez are cognates since they both derive ultimately from the word peisk in the ancestor language of both English and Spanish (Proto-Indo-European). (If this seems odd to you, you should know that in old English fish was something like fisc and in old Spanish, aka Latin, pez was piscis, and then the similarities will be more obvious.)

Sources of English vocabulary

Nation 2001, p. 265, modified from Wikipedia

In language teaching, however, two words are called cognates if they sound or look alike and also have the same or very similar meaning, irrespective of where they come from.  So for a language teacher, fish and pez are not cognates, like they are for the historical linguist, since they don’t really look alike. And for a historical linguist, English telephone and Spanish teléfono would not be cognates, since they are both a word made up in the 19th century from Greek parts, but they are indeed cognates for a language teacher. Cognates for language teachers are “friendly words”, since they are supposedly easy to learn. Words that sound or look alike, but have different meanings are called false cognates or false friends by language teachers (more on this later).

The Germanic Languages

English is a member of the Germanic family of languages. Germanic is a branch of the Indo-European language family. Spanish is a member of the Italic family of languages, the main descendant of which was Latin. Italic is also a member of the Indo-European language family.

So, breaking the word preposition into two was easy enough for my students: pre + position. The second part, position, was not a problem: position is like location, the place where something is. The first part, pre, was not much of a problem either. This is a prefix in many English words, from pre-condition to pre-fabricated. It means “before”. The equivalent Germanic version is fore, as in forearm and forethought (fore, by the way, is a cognate of Latinate pre, since both come from Proto-Indo-European per: notice how here, as in the case of fish, Latin has p where English has f; also notice that the word before is derived from the old adverb fore).

So a preposition is something you put before something else. And what is that something else? One of my students said “the subject”. Someone else said “the verb”. Obviously they didn’t have a very clear idea of what a preposition is. So I had to tell them that a preposition usually comes before a noun phrase, together with which forms a prepositional phrase. Nothing cleared this up like a few examples, such as en la casa “in the house”, where  en “in” is the preposition and la casa “the house” is the noun phrase; or para mi professor “for my teacher”, where para “for” is a preposition and mi professor  “my teacher” is a noun phrase. Could it really be that my students had gone through high school without ever learned what a preposition is? Indeed most of them did.

Anyway, I would like to think that my students got a kick out of what came next. I put the English word prepose on the board and asked them if they could come up with other words that ended in –pose. It didn’t take long to come up with a list: suppose, oppose, compose, depose, expose, impose, dispose, etc. I explained that all these words came from Latin and were formed by a Latin preposition (the prefix) plus the root –pose, which means something like “to put.” Spanish equivalents have poner “to put” where English has pose. So sup– (which comes from sub) means “under” and thus supposesuponer in Spanish—is “to put under”, as in a foundation for our reasoning (Spanish also away with Latin double letters, since they are only pronounced once). Next, op– (which comes from ob) means “against”, so oppose—oponer in Spanish—is “to put against”. Com, which comes from con, means “with” or “together”, so composecomponer in Spanish, is literally “to put together” (in Spanish componer can also mean “to repair”). De means “away”, so depose—deponer in Spanishis “to put away”. Ex means “off, out”, so expose—exponer in Spanish, means “to put out”. Finally, im, which comes from in, means “in, on”, so impose—imponer in Spanish, means “to put on” as in a putting a burden on someone. And so on.

This approach to teaching vocabulary, never mind that this time I used it to teach a grammatical concept, is called the etymological approach because it brings up the original meaning of a word, its etymology. Spanish is a language that derives directly from Latin, so most of its vocabulary is clearly related to Latin. Sometimes the relationship is obvious, as in Spanish rosa “rose”, which comes from Latin ROSA, and other times it is not, such as hambre “hunger”, which comes from Latin famine, for many sound and meaning changes took place across the centuries that may have obscured a word’s relationship to its etymon, its original source.

It is important to realize that Latin-based words in Spanish come from two sources. One set are the words that were transmitted orally from generation to generation and which in many cases suffered sound and meaning changes. These are sometimes called popular words (palabras patrimoniales in Spanish). The other set consists of classical words (palabras cultas or cultismos in Spanish), words which had been abandoned in the spoken Spanish of the early Middle Ages and which were rediscovered in the late Middle Ages when Spanish became a written language that needed to enrich its vocabulary to make it as rich as that of Latin. What better place could there be to obtain fancy words than written Latin itself, the model of all written languages in Europe at the time? As we saw in an earlier entry in Lingua Franca, Latin too acquired some of its fancy vocabulary from other languages, in particular from classical Greek. These words, however, didn’t undergo the sound and meaning changes that popular words did.

And where do all the Latin words in English come from? Unlike Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese, English does not come from Latin. However, England was ruled by French speaking Normans for 300 years at the beginning of the last millennium, and at that time a great many French (and thus Latin-based) words entered the language. Then, once it became a written language, English too found itself in need to enrich its vocabulary so that it would be as rich as that of Latin, the model of a rich written language in Europe during the Middle Ages. And how else could English enrich its vocabulary if not by borrowing from written Latin, just like Spanish was doing around the same time. After all, those who were starting to write down the English language, had learned about reading and writing from Latin.

Thus it turns out that around two thirds of the English vocabulary comes from Latin. About half of it came through Norman French and the other half from classical or book Latin. An analysis of the eighty thousand words in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary reveals that 28% come from French and another 28% come from Latin. Only 25% come from English’s Germanic ancestor language. We shouldn’t forget, however, that 83% of the 1000 most common words are of Germanic origin. (By the way, many of those Latinate English words come indirectly from Classical Greek and 5% of words come from Greek but not through Latin.)

A book that we are reading in my graduate linguistics class promotes the use of the etymological approach to teaching Spanish vocabulary. Not only does this method help the English speaker learn Spanish words but, furthermore, since many common Spanish words have cognates in the fancy English vocabulary, this can also be a way to improve one’s English vocabulary.

This is hardly a novel approach, but the author of this book argues that even what are known as false friends can often be utilized in the etymological approach, something which may be more controversial. Take, for instance, the case of the following false friends: English constipated and Spanish constipado “suffering from a cold”.  They both derive from Latin participle CONSTIPATUM from the verb CONSTIPARE. What could be the connection between these two words with such different meanings? It turns out there is one if we go to the original meaning of the word in Latin which consists of the parts con “with, together” and stipare “to pack tightly; to press together”. Once that’s revealed, it is clear that in Spanish someone who is constipado is suffering from a stuffed up nose and sinuses and whereas someone who in English is constipated suffers from a different type of tightening in a different part of the body. This probably goes beyond what most language teachers think is feasible, but others may embrace this extreme approach. (By the way, if you are very observant, you may have noticed that Latin stipare is a cognate of English stiff, with English f corresponding to Latin p, as we saw earlier.)

I hope you will have found this account interesting and that you are motivated to use the etymological approach in your study of the vocabulary of a Latinate or Romance language, such as Spanish, French, Italian or Portuguese, which, by the way, are not called Romance because they are in any way romantic, but because they derive from Latin, the language of Rome. The noun romance is derived from the Latin adverb romanice, which meant something like “Romanly” or “in the Roman fashion.”


Brodsky, David. 2008. Spanish Vocabulary: An Etymological Approach. University of Texas. ISBN 9780292716681. Nation, I.S.P. 2001. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge University Press. p. 477. ISBN 0521804981

English Language, Vocabulary:

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. 2006. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


  1. I’ve built an entire blog (200 postings so far) on the etymological connections between Spanish and English.

    And I do find the Romance languages romantic!

  2. I think that your etymological approach to languages is an excellent shortcut for acquiring vocabulary and grammatical structures quickly, it just made me realize that learning German would probably be easier for me than Spanish, I think I am going to make that next on my list.

    Very interesting article, I will share it on Facebook with my classmates, gracias!

  3. I have made extensive lists of vocabulary words specific to particular literary texts in Spanish and French. It not only teaches vocabulary more quickly because of multiple neural pathways leading to stored vocabulary, but also gives the student the tools to continue to acquire vocabulary on their own.

    (I also use translation from English into the target language so that the student can work with a story that is already familiar in English, i.e. the Harry Potter translations, which are very high quality. This keeps their interest engaged because they can contextualize vocabulary within the plot of the original English that they have already read.)

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