Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | November 27, 2013

Spanish-English Cognates: Viento & Vent

Spanish-English Cognates: Viento & Vent

Jon Aske, World Languages and Cultures

The following was written as part of a forthcoming book that Dr. Aske will be working on during his sabbatical in the spring semester of 2014. The book is about Spanish-English cognates, words that have the same origin, Latin words in most cases. The purpose of the book is to introduce linguistic concepts related to language sounds, language change, and the history of Spanish and English, while at the same time helping readers improve their Spanish (and English) vocabulary. The first part of the book will introduce linguistic and historical concepts. The second part will exemplify those concepts with actual cognate word sets. This is an example of one such word set.

Spanish words English words
viento, ventilar, ventana, ventanilla, ventilation, ventilador, vendaval vent, ventilate, ventilation, ventilator; wind


All these words, except for wind, are related to the Latin word ventum, meaning “wind”, the direct ancestor of Spanish viento  with the same meaning. Interestingly, though much harder to see, the English word wind is also related to them, though it is a different kind of relation, one that goes further back in time and one which takes some training to see.

We say that Spanish viento and English wind are historical cognates because they both descend from a word in an ancestor language that predates Latin and English by several thousand years. That ancestor language, of which we have no record whatsoever because its speakers did not write any of it down, but which we can surmise from the evidence left in the descendant languages, is called Proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short. The story of wind and ventum goes all the way back to the PIE root *wē-, which supposedly meant something like “to blow,” from where we also seem to get a word like weather in English.


The wind blows

The thousands of years of separation explain why viento and wind look so different on the surface despite having exactly the same meaning. Natural language change has acted on that original word differently in the languages that split off from it, languages that are ancestors of Spanish and English respectively. Only one letter is the same in these words: the letter n!

But appearances can be deceiving if you don’t know what to look for. What if I told you that the letter v in Latin was pronounced not like it is pronounced in either English or Spanish nowadays, but rather the way the letter w is pronounced in English? Then we can already make a connection between two sounds in the pair viento and wind. Then what if I told you that the sound of the letter e in Latin ventum and the sound of the letter i in English wind are not all that different. Make the sound e as in the word met and then the sound i as in the word mitt, again and again and you will see that there is just a slight change of the tongue position: a little higher for i than for e. Because of this, we find that it is very common for an e to change (mutate) to i in languages through time, and vice versa, sometimes for reasons that we understand, having primarily to do with influence from surrounding sounds, and sometimes not.

Finally, have you noticed that the sounds of the letter t and the letter d are very similar both in the way they sound and the way they are produced? Say tip and dip several times and you will notice that what you do with the tongue in the mouth to produce these words is identical for both words. The only thing that differentiates a t and a d is that to make the d, but not the t, your vocal chords are vibrating! Not that you could detect this vibration by putting your fingers over your Adam’s apple (something you can do for other pairs of sounds, such as s and z, as in sip and zip), since the duration of the consonants t and d is so brief, around 1/10 of a second, but it’s there and it is the only sound cue that we have to distinguish these two sounds, and thus those two words. But we’re wired for making that sort of distinction.

So we can already explain or at least understand the connections between the first four letters of wind and ventum. You might like to know now that the -um part of ventum in Latin is an ending that wasn’t really part of the word’s root. The ancestor language of English had it too, but English lost most such endings over a thousand years ago. The m was lost as Latin became Spanish and the u mutated to o, another common type of change for the same reason we saw above for e and i. On its way to becoming Spanish, Latin short e (ĕ) also mutated to the diphthong ie in Spanish. This was a totally regular change, just like the others: Whenever a short e was stressed in Latin, it changed to ie in Spanish. This explains all e/ie alternations in Spanish words, of which there are many. For instance Spanish has e in setenta “seventy” but ie in siete “seven”. Notice that the e in setenta is not stressed, whereas the ie in siete is. Learners of Spanish are very well aware that this alternation exists in the present tense of hundreds of so-called stem changing verbs.

In the list of words related to viento at the top you saw the word ventana, Spanish for window. Perhaps you also made a connection between wind and window in English. You would have been right! The words wind and window are indeed related! The word window comes from an Old Norse windauga, literally “wind eye,” from windr “wind” and auga “eye”. Windows in olden days were not like windows today, made of a transparent material such as glass. Originally they were more like holes for ventilation than anything else. Eventually these holes, when in walls, as opposed to the ceiling, would be covered with cloth or wood (shutters) part of the time, when it was not a good idea for the holes to be open. Glass-making technology stems from the second century CE Roman world, but glass did not become quite transparent for another thousand years and glass windows did not become the norm in Europe until at least the 17th century.


Ventana – window

Interestingly, though, ventana, the Spanish word for window does not come from the Latin word for window. The word for window in Latin was FENESTRAM, from which we get the words for window in French, fenêtre, Catalan finestra, and Italian (also) finestra. Even some Germanic languages have a cognate of fenestram for windows with glass panes: Swedish fönster and German Fenster, something which Latinate Spanish lacks, due to the vagaries of language change. Only Portuguese has a cognate for ventana, namely ventã. Even in Spanish until the 15th century the word for window was hiniestra, derived from Latin fenestram, from an earlier finiestra, with an [h] sound derived from the Latin [f] sound, which later became mute, another very common sound change in Spanish). The word hiniestra is however now obsolete. It is what we call an archaism, a word that was in the language but that it is no more.

Why Spanish replaced the perfectly serviceable word hiniestra with ventana is sort of a mystery, though some think maybe the word became too similar sounding to other words. For instance, Corominas argues that once the h stopped being pronounced iniestra sounded a lot like iniesta, from Latin genista, meaning “broom”, a type of plant common in Spain (and which interestingly has also become obsolete in modern Spanish, having been replaced by an Arabic borrowing, retama). Other similar sounding Spanish words were enhiesta a. f. upright”, from Latin infesta and, more ominously, I think, siniestra, a tabu word, from Latin sinister “left”, which was replaced with izquierda, from Basque ezkerra, one of very few such borrowings from Basque.

The original meaning of Spanish ventana in Spanish originally was “breathing hole”, or “vent”, much like that of English window, which originally meant “wind eye.” This explains why another word for nostril in Spanish, besides fosa nasal or orificio nasal, is ventana de la nariz, literally nose window.

Whereas the origin of the first part of this word, vent-, is clear, the source of the second part of ventana, namely -ana, is not readily apparent. It is possible that the way we get from ventum to ventana is by analogy in part with Germanic (Gothic) *windaugo, literally “wind eye,” a perfect cognate of English window. Gothic, after all, was a language that influenced Spanish to some extent about 1500 years ago when the Visigoths invaded Hispania, the Iberian Peninsula, and became its rulers for 200 years, until the arrival of Arabs and Moors in 711.

English has a cognate of Spanish viento, and thus ventana, which would seem to mean something similar to the original meaning of window. I am referring to the word vent, a noun referring to a hole or outlet for air or other gases. The word is first documented in written English in the 15th century and comes from Anglo-French, the dialect of French brought by Norman invaders to England in 1066. The verb to vent came first and the noun vent, the place through which the venting takes place, came next. The verb to vent is a reduction of the original Anglo-French esventer (from Latin ex+venter, literally “to blow out”). Spanish does not have a related word coming from Latin. In Spanish to vent translates in various ways, some literal, referring to gases—ventilar, emanar, emitir, etc.—and some metaphorical, referring to the venting of emotions such as anger, frustration, and rage—dar rienda suelta, desfogarse, etc.

Although Spanish does not have any trace of a cognate of French eventer, that is, there is no *exventar or *esventar or *eventar in Spanish meaning “to vent out”, Spanish does have a couple of prefixed words followed by –ventar (prefix-+-ventar), namely reventar “to blow up/out, explode” which comes from Latin reventare (re+ventare), with the same meaning, and aventar “to throw to the wind”, from Latin adventare (ad+ventare), an interesting verb because most Spanish speakers in some countries in modern times have probably never heard it.

The transitive verb aventar, literally meaning “to throw in the air,” came to mean primarily “to winnow,” which for all of you city people and modern farmers, means “to separate the chaff from (grain) by means of a current of air” (AHD), an uncommon activity in modern times. It can also mean “to blow” or “to impel” (primarily by wind). Intransitive aventar can mean “to pant,” and pronominal (reflexive) aventarse can mean in some places, like Mexico, “to fill up with gas” or, figuratively, “to take off.” The word aventar has pretty much disappeared from common use in Spain, but it is still alive in many parts of the new world. An interesting noun which is derived from aventar is aventón, which is quite common in many Spanish speaking countries as well. In Mexico and parts of Central America and South America it is used to refer to getting a free ride in a car, the equivalent of hitch-hike, ride, or lift. Thus dar aventón means to give a ride, pedir aventón means to ask for a ride (hitch-hike) (which in Spain is called hacer autoestop, an expression taken from French, which includes a made-up English-like word), and ir/viajar de aventón means to catch a ride. This is obviously a derived meaning and the original meaning of aventón was “push” (“gust”?), which is another meaning of this word in these countries.



Spanish ventanilla is a diminutive of ventana, but like most diminutives with the suffix -ill-, it has acquired meanings beyond that of “having small size,” for which now the suffix -it- is now used. Thus a cigarrito means “small cigar”, but cigarrillo means “cigarette”. The connection is clear, once you know it, but it is not obvious or necessary. That is, we can see why a cigarette would be analogized to a small cigar, but it is not obvious that that would have been its name, whereas there is only one way to refer to a small cigar, namely cigarrito. For the same reason, ventanilla in modern Spanish has come to be used to refer to different types of (small) windows, such as a car’s window (la ventanilla del coche), an envelope window (where you see through to the address), a service window (such as a bank window or a ticket window), and even a porthole on a boat. A ventanita, on the other hand, is just a small window.



A well-known Spanish expression containing ventana is tirar la casa por la ventana, literally “to throw the house out the window,” which figuratively means “to spare no expense,” “go for broke,” as in being wasteful and squandering. The expression supposedly dates from the late 18th century Spain, where winners of the royal lottery would get rid of all the old furniture and household goods in such a fashion as a prelude to acquiring new ones.

The Spanish word ventanal is a derived word meaning large window or picture window. A picture window, by the way, is “a large window consisting of one pane of glass, typically facing an attractive view” (Oxford English Dictionary).

In addition, Spanish and English have several related learned (classical) words that they took from written Latin in the last 1000 years (Spanish had simply “lost” these words during the middle ages, only to “recover” them later from written Latin sources). Spanish ventilar and English ventilate come from the Latin verb VENTILARE, meaning “to ventilate, to air, to blow.” The same is true of the nouns derived from those verbs: Spanish ventilación and English ventilation. Spanish ventilador is a cognate of Eng. ventilator, but it has an additional meaning in some varieties of Spanish (for example in Spain) to the meaning it has in English. Spanish ventilador can be used to refer electric, cooling fan, which in some countries is called abanico, the same word for a hand fan (for example in Nicaragua).


Ventilation in clothing

Among words related to window is windowsill. In Spanish a word for window-sill is repisa de ventana. The word repisa can also translate as “ledge” or “shelf” in some contexts. Also, repisa de chimenea is how you say mantelpiece, for instance. Another word for windowsill is alféizar, which comes from Hispanic Arabic alḥáyza, which comes from classical Arabic ḥā’izah, meaning “empty space”.

Let us end this story by going back to the Latin word for window, fenestram, from which French and Italian get their words for window. You should know that fenestra is an English word, even if you’ve never heard of it. If you look in the AHD you will see that there are four senses for the English word fenestra, from a small opening in the ear to an opening cut into a bone. Finally, you might like to know that English and Spanish share a word that is derived from the Latin word for window, fenestram, namely English defenestration and Spanish defenestración, words associated with certain very famous historical acts of protest in Europe, namely the defenestrations of Prague, acts involving throwing people out of windows, the second of which is particularly famous because it precipitated the Thirty Years’ War in Europe (1618-1648).

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