Major Differences Between Spanish and English 3/5: The Words of Spanish

This is part of a series going over major differences between English and Spanish:

  1. The Look of Spanish – Differences with the spelling, punctuation, and written markings of Spanish
  2. The Sound of Spanish – A brief overview on how Spanish pronunciation compares to English pronunciation
  3. The Words of Spanish – Things to know that are inherently different about Spanish words (like why there’s more than one way to say the word “the”)
  4. The Structure of Spanish – How word order is different in Spanish
  5. Addressing People in Spanish – A look at how Spanish makes a more precise distinction than English about addressing people formally, informally or as a group

In this article we’ll look at some of the ways major word categories in Spanish and English are inherently different.


The Words of Spanish

There’s a lot I could cover here, but for now, I want to help you understand two major word categories and how they are different in Spanish and English.  These two major word categories are nouns and verbs!

We’ll start with nouns!

Nouns

A noun identifies a person, place, thing or idea.  Both Spanish and English got ’em, but there’s a certain richness to Spanish nouns that English doesn’t have because of a certain linguistic quality that Spanish nouns have, the linguistic quality of gender.  Let’s begin examining this linguistic quality by looking at how many words for people or words describing people change their ending in Spanish based on the person’s gender. Here are a few examples:

  • amigo/amiga (friend)
  • voluntario/voluntaria (volunteer)
  • maestro/maestra (teacher)
  • hijo/hija (son/daughter)

Note that for the above words, an –o ending denotes male and an –a ending denotes female.

The concept of gender in Spanish is not strictly biological. In fact, every noun in Spanish has a gender, a quality that English nouns as a whole don’t have(outside of a few fringe usages … ever think it odd that a sailor can refer to his boat as a her?).  

What does it mean for a noun to have a gender?

In Spanish, regardless of whether the thing a noun refers to is biologically male (or even biological at all), the noun will be either masculine or feminine. For example, the word book in Spanish is masculine (el libro), and the word house is feminine (la casa). Gender is important in Spanish because words that accompany nouns such as adjectives and articles (little words like the, a, and some) actually change based on what noun they are modifying. For example, notice how the word “a” and “red” show up in two different forms here: “un marcador rojo” (a red marker), “una casa roja” (a red house). The forms of “a” and “red” are different because of the noun they modify. In the first phrase, marcador is a masculine noun, but in the second phrase, casa is feminine.

Here are some general tips on how you can tell whether a noun is masculine or feminine.

  • Check the noun’s ending. If the noun ends in an –o, it’s a good indicator that it’s masculine; if it ends in an –a, it’s likewise likely that the noun is feminine. However, there are some exceptions to this rule, and not all nouns end in –o or –a.
  • Look at the words around the noun. If it’s proceeded by an el or a los (the), or an un (a/an) or an unos (some) then it’s probably masculine. If it’s proceeded by a la or las (the), or an una (a/an) or an unas (some), then it’s feminine.   This is a pretty reliable rule however there is a notable exception which is explained in the following table.
  • Look up the noun in a Spanish language dictionary. In their dictionary listing, nouns will have the marking nm for “nombre masculino” (masculine noun) or nf for “nombre feminino” (feminine noun).

Let’s look at those above bullet points in table form.

StrategyDetailsProblems with the strategy
Check the noun's ending.If the noun ends in an –o, it’s a good indicator that it’s masculine; if it ends in an –a, it’s likewise likely that the noun is feminine. However, there are some exceptions to this rule (such as the word for day, el día, masculine even though it ends in –a, and hand, la mano, feminine even though it ends in an –o).  Additionally, many nouns don’t end in an –o or an –a, and so it can be tricky to tell the gender some times.
Look at the words around the noun. If it’s proceeded by an el or a los (the), or an un (a/an) or an unos (some) then it’s probably masculine. If it’s proceeded by a la or las (the), or an una (a/an) or an unas (some), then it’s feminine.  This is a pretty good strategy, as the exception doesn't come up all THAT often, but here it is: Some words that are proceeded by an el and end in an a are indeed actually feminine, and this will be seen in any other words that modify them. For example, el agua fresca (the cool water) and las aguas blancas). There is a pattern to this kind of word. They are words that start with an “a” but have a stressed first syllable. Other words that are like this include águila (eagle) and ama (housekeeper). Note that for these words, the la simply change to an el basically because it sounds better, but the gender of the noun is not changed.
Look up the noun in a Spanish language dictionary.In their dictionary listing, nouns will have the marking nm for “nombre masculino” (masculine noun) or nf for “nombre feminino” (feminine noun).This is the best strategy in terms of accuracy... only problem is that it takes more time than the others!

Overall, there are lots of clues about the gender of nouns, and I would recommend that you don’t stress out too much about being perfect on this.  Errors are super common when it comes to gender and people are forgiving when you’re learning!

The thing to keep in mind about gender is it doesn’t just affect the noun in Spanish.  It affects a bunch of different kinds of words that are attached to the noun.

The gender of a noun affects…

  • Articles in front of the noun.  (Example: the=el or la, a/an = un or una, some= unos or unas.)
  • Adjectives that describe the noun. (Example:  Red is “Rojo” when describing a masculine noun, and “Roja” when describing a feminine noun.)
  • Pronouns that take the place of the noun.  (Example:  The word “they” is “ellos” when it stands in for los niños (the boys), but “ellas” when it stands in for las niñas (the girls).

The gender of a noun does not affect

  • Adverbs (quickly, slowly, easily).
  • The verb – actions done by the noun.

But, you may say, “I remember from high school Spanish that verbs end in lots of -o’s and -a’s and they change a lot.  What’s all that about if it’s not about gender?”

Oh good question, inquisitive one!  Let’s move on and talk about verbs!

Verbs

Verbs have something quite different about them too in Spanish and English, called conjugations.  It’s not exactly that English verbs don’t have conjugations, because they do, not does.  (Get it?  Hee-hee!)  English DOES conjugate its verbs, it just doesn’t have as many different ways to do so as Spanish.  In the present tense we say either go or goes (2 possible forms)- but in Spanish, we would say either voy, vas, va, vamos, van, or even vais (6 possible forms).  Yikes, that may seem like a lot!  The Spanish system of conjugation is richer and more complex than in English, but the good news is that it does follow predictable patterns!

So, what’s conjugation?

Conjugation is changing the verb to match the subject.  Let’s make some sense out of that definition.  When we conjugate, we conjugate a VERB.  (We don’t conjugate nouns or any other kind of word.  We conjugation verbs.)  And how do we conjugate?  Well, we change the verb ending to match the subject (who or what does the action or is being mainly described).  HOW does the verb change to match the subject?  The verb changes based on perspective (whether you’re talking about yourself, talking to someone, or talking about someone) and time (whether it’s past, present, or future). 

Here is an example of common conjugations. The verbs in the second column can be described as forms of the verb hablar, which means “to speak.”

I speakyo hablo
you speakhablas
she speaksella habla
we speaknosotros hablamos
they speakellos hablan

Most conjugations follow predictable patterns, but some verbs are irregular in Spanish. English does conjugate verbs too, but it’s much more simplified than Spanish. Since Spanish conjugation is so complicated, it makes sense that it’s often correct to leave the subject out of a sentence. The verb already contains information about the subject, more information than English verbs contain.

A Riddle For You

Now that we’ve looked at some basic ways that nouns and verbs differ in Spanish and English, let’s see if you can make sense out of this common question from beginning students of Spanish.

Maybe you just learned about gender, and you also learned how to introduce yourself using the phrase “Me llamo”.  Here are some common questions I get asked.  Can you think of the answer with the information that you’ve learned so far about nouns and verbs?

I’m female.  Why do I say “Me llamo” and not, “Me llama?”

The same question, but phrased a little differently:

Why does Sarah introduce herself as “Me llamo Sarah” and not “Me llama Sarah” since she’s a girl?

Answer:

Yep, we use “Me llamo” to introduce ourselves regardless of whether we are male or female.  This is because the word llamo is actually a verb and not a noun.  Nouns change on gender, but verbs don’t – verbs change based on perspective (first, second, third person) and tense (past, present, future).  Me llamo literally means I call myself, not My name is.  So, llamo = first person (I’m talking about myself) present tense of “llamar”, to call.


How are you doing?  Can you summarize how nouns are different in Spanish and English?  How verbs are different?  Can you give an example of each?

  • SPECIAL NOTE:  5 unique comments on this blog entry answering the questions above, sharing something new that you learned from this article, or asking a question to clarify or learn more… and I’ll post Article 4/5 on Word Order!!! 🙂

 

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