Spain Sunday: Basic Spanish Etymology

Etymology is the study of the history of words. The etymology of ‘etymology’ is that it was a Middle English word via Latin from Greek etumologiaThis is really typical for English – a mix of Middle English (basically German), Greek and Latin.

In the 15th century we just started shoveling French into English to sound more sophisticated and posh. So English looks like this:


While Spanish looks like this:

Other would include Basque, Iberian, French, Italian, Catalan,Celtiberian, Visigothic and even words from Native Americans (in North and South America).

Spanish is, give or take, Latin. This is vulgar Latin (or Spoken Latin). At one point pretty much everyone in red spoke vulgar Latin:

This makes Spanish actually pretty simple while English is very much a mess. But is it better to have a mixture? After all as an English speaker you can undertsand

“difficile est germinare oregano”  in Latin – germinate (fancy word for “grow”), difficult, oregano.

You can also understand “Hier ist mein Buch” in German. Here is my book.

You can also probably make out “L’armée va au théâtre” in French but this is getting trickier. The army goes to the theater. 

So that’s pretty cool, you can almost-understand so many languages. Do you, as an English speaker have an advantage of language learning?

Maybe not. Look at how Spanish speakers operate. Remember that map in red? Yeah all of those people have an approximate understanding of each other.

Look at the sentence: “I close the window before dinner.”

  • Cierro la ventana antes de la cena (Spanish)
  • Chiudo la finestra prima di cena (Italian)
  • Je ferme la fenêtre avant le dîner (French)
  • Peche a fiestra antes da cea (Frisian)
  • Ego claudere fenestram ante prandium (Latin)
  • Eu fecho a janela antes do jantar (Portuguese)
  • Închid fereastra înainte de cină (Romanian)

These all look the same but look nothing like English. And they look nothing a like German, either (because it wasn’t in red in the map) “Ich schließe das Fenster vor dem Abendessen.”

All those countries in red are, give or take, Romance languages. Romance languages come from vulgar Latin (spoken Latin). While English – since it’s a mix of everything – only shares about 30% of these magical similarities.

The best example of a Spanish-speaker’s advantage is seen in the days of the week.

English Days of the Week

If you were wondering, the days of the week in English come from that typical mix of Germanic (Saxon/Vikings) and Greek/Latin planets.

Moon Day – Monday. From the Moon.

Tyr’s Day – Tuesday. Tyr is a one handed guy who is maybe daddy to all gods or is the son of Odin.

Woden’s Day – Wednesday. Another spelling of Odin – Woden is the god of pretty much everything of worth. WoDen’s day – WeDnesday – we probably get the silent D in Wednesday from Woden. 

Thor’s Day – Thursday. Hammer wielding god, maybe of thunder.

Freya’s Day – Friday. Goddess of beauty, fertility, love. Rides a chariot pulled by two cats.

Saturn Day – Saturday. Day of Saturn.

Sun Day – Sunday. Day of the sun.

Some people assume (maybe partially correctly) that Saturday also comes from Sabbath or Shabat’s day – Day of Rest. Put a pin in this idea for a minute.

The Days of the Week in Romance Languages

There are 7 planets of worth to the Greeks/Romans (Latin language): Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, the Sun, the Moon. We get Sunday, Moonday, and Saturnsday from this.

In Latin it used to sound like this

  • Moon Day – diēs Lūnae (makes sense we say “Lunar” to mean moon, still)
  • Mars Day (Tuesday) diēs Martis
  • Mercury Day (Wednesday) diēs Mercuriī
  • Jupiter Day (Thursday) diēs Iōvis
  • Venus Day (Friday) diēs Veneris
  • Saturn Day – diēs Saturnī
  • Sun Day – diēs Sōlis

Looking at a Spanish calendar (which starts on a Monday not a Sunday) it looks alarmingly like the Latin from so very very long ago.

Spanish is lunes, martes, miercoles, jueves (pronounced “huay-vays”) viernes, sabado, and domingo.

When you look at all the Romance languages (those who used to speak vulgar Latin) it looks extremely similar across the board:

What’s up with Saturday and Sunday looking different?

Domingo means “Day of the Lord” although there is a rumor the Roman Emperor Constantine looked into the sun (day of Sun) and saw the sign of the cross. So a fair trade.

As for Saturday this comes from shabbat/sabbat (day of rest) we put a pin in – look at that. Sabbath – Sabado

The Romans actually met up with Germanic people and wrote down the German’s stories/religious perceptions. The Romans compared the German gods with their own turning Thor into Hercules, Wodin into Mercury and Tyr into Mars.

So Tyr – equates to Mars which is incidentally the same day of the week, Tuesday. Wodin is Mercury and both represent Wednesday.

Who has the better advantage?

Does a Spanish speaker have a better advantage than an English speaker to learn a new language? According to Psychology Today, learning a new language similar to our own helps us go “through the process known as positive transfer or reliance on already familiar sounds, words, and grammatical categories. Unfortunately, not all of the similarities we perceive are real.”

So Romance language learners probably have an advantage of this positive transfer except for false friends (words that look the same but mean something different: German “gift” = poison, in English gift is a present).

But for a Spanish speaker, Portuguese is linguistically 89% similar. And Spanish speakers can typically read Italian but not automatically speak it or understand it completely. This is probably because the grammar is fairly similar across the Romance languages (not just similar words).

This makes a huge difference in language learning – the grammar. Even if there are tons of similar words (Like German-English) the grammar can make or break your language learning. So yes, I think it is easier for them – but not so easy a Spanish speaker picks it up in an afternoon. But that is no excuse for English speakers to only know one language!

We will leave you with a joke.

  • What do you call someone who can speak two languages?
  • Bilingual.
  • What do you call someone who can speak three?
  • Trilingual.
  • And one language?
  • An American.

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