History of Spanish language

Words from Quechua and Mayan in Spanish

Quechua and Mayan are two indigenous languages of Latin America. Quechua is one of the two indigenous languages with the largest number of speakers today (about 14 million, considering all its variants). Mayan or, rather, the Mayan languages currently have nine hundred thousand native speakers of the languages that make up this linguistic family.

Quechua is the language of the Inca Empire and has more than 500 years of contact with Spanish, so the influence between both languages has been natural. Loanwords happen from Spanish to Quechua and from Quechua to Spanish. Today, we will see some examples of words of Quechua origin that are part of the usual lexicon of Spanish, especially the one spoken in many Latin American countries.

On the other hand, Mayan is another of the native languages of Latin America that has influenced the Spanish we speak today. Notice, however, that what is currently known as the “Mayan language” is a linguistic family of around 30 different languages spoken in the ancient Mayan territory, which ranges from southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. These languages, which still live, share specific characteristics but are very different. Among all these, Peninsular Mayan is one of the official languages of Mexico.

In today’s article, we will see what are some of the words originating from Quechua and Mayan in Spanish:

The mayisms

Patatús: in Mayan, it means feigned death, and in current Spanish, it is a colloquial expression used to express astonishment or fainting. For example: con esta noticia me va a dar un patatús [This news is going to give me a patatús].

Cachito: Is synonymous with a piece, rather a little piece and comes from the onomatopoeia [cach] heard when something breaks. In Mayan, cach means “broken thing” or “that breaks.”

Cacao: Cacao was “the food of the gods” since the Mayans considered its plant sacred. Today, this food is known throughout the world and is an essential ingredient to produce chocolate.

Cenote: They are the characteristic wells of Yucatán province, in Mexico. It comes from the Mayan word tz’onot, which means well or cavern with water.

Cigar: Comes from the Mayan siyar and is a word that has spread to other languages due to the custom of inhaling tobacco made in the form of a roll.


Quechuisms are words of Quechua origin assimilated into Spanish over time. Some linguistic loans remain in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, and Colombia. Countries that were part of the Inca Empire. Let’s review some of these:

Cancha: It comes from the Quechua kancha and means enclosure, like the space intended for specific sports or shows.

Charqui: Dehydrated and salted meat typical of South America’s Andean and southern regions.

Chaucha: Currency of low value. Chauchera: in Bolivia and Chile, it is synonymous with a purse.

Concho: Sediment located at the bottom of a container and used to refer to the last child of a couple. In the case of the last child, the diminutive conchito is more common.

Mate: Drink made from the leaves and branches of Ilex paraguariensis, the plant itself and the container used to drink it.

Nanai: caress to soothe pain. The Chilean Academy of Language defines it as “a very tender caress that attempts to soothe pain or sorrow.” It is also used to express tenderness; for example, when one sees a very tender baby, they express “Nanai!”

Morocho: Comes from the Quechua “muruch’u”, which means “variety of tough corn.” But in Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay, it is an adjective for a person with brown skin and black hair.

Palta: Peruvians and Chileans call palta to this green and creamy fruit. It is known as aguacate in the rest of the countries in the region.

Poncho: A coat consisting of a square blanket made of wool or cloth with an opening in the centre.

Pucho: means leftover. In Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay, it refers to a cigarette or its butt.

Guagua: Boy, girl and infant. Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador use it as a synonym for baby.

Yapa: Is an Andean idiom that refers to a gift or extra addition to a product during a commercial transaction, especially in a popular context.

As a bonus track, two Nahuatl words used in current Spanish: aguacate and apapachar. Aguacate: It comes from ahuacatl, which means testicles. The avocado has this name because of the shape of this fruit.  Acapachar means squeezing or giving love to another with the first impulse. It is adorable and is a verb used in Latin American Spanish to hug or, to be more precise, to pamper to another.

Now you know that you can always comfort a loved one with a “nanai” or “apapacharlo” until he or she feels better. You know the influence of Quechua and Mayan in Spanish, and you can use it to take your Spanish to the next level.

Keep learning more and more about the Spanish language and its different cultures through the articles published on our blog.

History of Spanish language

Why does the letter “h” exist in Spanish?

The letter “h” is a big headache for many Spanish speakers. When speaking, there is no problem; the difficulty is when writing a letter with no sound and having certainty about when and where to place it. It is such a discreet letter that many have advocated for its elimination, but this queen of imperceptible sounds has triumphantly held a place in the Spanish alphabet. Is it a simple whim? No. In grammar, everything generally has an explanation.

The letter h is the eighth letter in the Spanish alphabet. It is pronounced only when preceded by the letter c, forming the sound “ch”. The problem is that more than 2,000 words begin with the letter h in Spanish and a few more have this letter interspersed. But then, if it doesn’t sound, why do we write it? Why write something that doesn’t exist? One of the reasons is that it was not always mute.

The origins of the “h”

Let’s go back to its past: the Phoenicians were the first to use this letter and pronounced it as an aspirated “j”. The Phoenicians passed it to the Greeks, who adopted it with a gentle aspiration. Then, it passed into Latin, from Greek, and the sound became even softer.

 From Latin, it made its jump to Spanish, where at first it was also pronounced as an aspirated sound, accompanied by a small explosion of air similar to the current pronunciation of the aspirated “h” in English. But Spanish not only used Latin words that began with “h”, but it also appropriated numerous Latin words that began with “f”. At first, these words also began with “f” in Spanish, but as the years went by and since, in some parts of Spain, the “f” sound was also pronounced with an aspiration, in the 14th century, the “f” initial began to be replaced by the initial “h”. This is what happened with farina, which became harina (flour), the verb hacer (to do), which in its beginnings was facer, helecho (fern)(which during the Middle Ages was felecho), humo (smoke), which was fumo, hola (hello), which derives from fola and many other words. This change also affected some words that had the f interspersed, such as the case of búho (owl), which comes from bufo in Latin.

According to the RAE records, until the mid-16th century, the letter h in Spanish was still pronounced with an aspiration, especially in words initially written with f in Latin.

Starting in the 15th century, the trend changed, and the aspirated h began to be considered a vulgarism typical of the lower classes, so little by little, the h began to be silenced entirely until it became the silent letter that it is today.

H: the only letter that is not a sound but is equally necessary

One more historical fact explains the existence of this letter: in the past, both the letters u and v were written precisely the same, although they were not pronounced in the same way. Therefore, to identify that the corresponding sound was that of the vowel “u” and not that of the consonant “v”, an h was placed before it. In this way, it was known that huevo (egg) should be pronounced as “uevo” and not as “vevo” as it would have been without the h in front.

Furthermore, the letter h in Spanish differentiates homophonous words in writing. Those that are pronounced the same but have different meanings. Thus, we can quickly differentiate writing hola (hello) from ola (wave), hojear (leaf through) from ojear (to browse), hecho (fact) from echo (he/she drop) or differentiate the preposition a (to) by ha from the verb hacer (to do).

As you have seen, “H” is a silent letter with a great history that still fulfils essential functions in Spanish. The discreet queen can only be used correctly if you practice reading and writing a lot. The mere fact of being the only letter in Spanish that holds the title of having no sound makes it very special. After knowing its story, I hope you are encouraged to correct your spelling and remember your “Hs” here or there.

And remember that if you still need help with Spanish grammar, iScribo is always here to help you improve!

History of Spanish language

The origin of the letter ñ, are there other languages that use it?

The letter ñ is an undisputed reference in Spanish. It is expected to see this letter and immediately relate it to this language; in fact, the name of the language already includes it, although its sound is not exclusive to this language. Learn with us a little history of the Spanish language through this letter.

Although Spanish comes from Latin, the eñe represents a sound that did not exist in that language. With the evolution of Latin, new sounds emerged and thus the Romance languages were born, such as Italian, Portuguese, French and Spanish. All these languages share phonetic and grammatical similarities, and along with the appearance of these new languages, a new sound also emerged defined as nasal (the air comes out through the nose), palatal (when pronouncing it, the tongue rests against the hard palate), voiced (the strings vowels vibrate), which in Spanish we identify as eñe.

Origin of the sound eñe

In the Middle Ages, there was Vulgar Latin, the Latin from people, which distanced itself from Classical Latin due to its syntactic simplifications and differences in pronunciation. One of the phenomena present in Vulgar Latin was the palatalization of the letter “n”, which gave rise to the sound “ñ” mainly in three contexts:

  1. In the syllables “ni” and “ne” + vowel: when the sounds “ni” or “ne” were followed by another vowel, the sound “n” was influenced by the palatal sound of the vowels and ended up adopting a nasal sound: the eñe. As in the case of the Latin vinea, which derived to “viña” (in Spanish), “vigne” (in French), “vigna” (in Italian), “vinha” (in Portuguese) and “vinya” (in Catalan).
  2.  GN: the eñe sound is also born as an evolution of the union of the sounds /g/ and /n/, as in the Latin agnellus (little lamb) from which the French “agneau”, the Italian “agnello”, the Spanish “añojo” and the Catalan “anyell”.
  3. NM or NN: the articulatory effort involved in pronouncing a double “n” or an /n/ plus an /m/ led to the simplification of the sound towards /ñ/. This is what happens in “año” (Spanish), which comes from the Latin annus, or “sueño” (Spanish), “sogno” (Italian) and “sonho” (Portuguese), which come from the Latin somnu.

Writing of the eñe

Once the sound was generated, the problem of writing it arose. At first, the scribes used the spelling “nn”. For example, in the case of año (year), they wrote “anno”, or instead of añojo (yearling), they wrote “agnojo”, but to save time, parchment and ink, they began to use abbreviations (something widespread at that time) and so, for the abbreviation of the “nn” it was decided to write a single “n” with a virgula above it (virgula is the wave so characteristic of the letter ñ).

The “ñ” was then born motivated by the economy of resources. It was a practical solution that saved a lot of time for the scribal monks of the time since they were practically the only ones who knew how to write during the Middle Ages.

The spelling of the double “n” was already a solved problem, but what was happening with “gn” and “ni”+vowel and “ne”+vowel? Well, they continued writing it in that way, and that was not practical at all. Then, it was Alfonso X of Castile, also known as the Wise, who decided to take matters into his own hands and in the 13th century, he established the first rules of Spanish where the “ñ” was designated as the only spelling to represent the voiced palatal nasal sound that we call “eñe” in Spanish.

Thank you, Alfonso X the Wise, for standardising such a beautiful letter in our language.

The eñe in the world

Well, the spelling of the “ñ” and its phoneme (sound) are not exclusive to Castilian or Spanish. It turns out that in the Iberian Peninsula, Galician and Asturian also use this spelling and in Latin America, indigenous languages such as Quechua, Aymara, Mapuche, Guaraní, Mixtec, Zapotec and Otomí also have the eñe. However, in the case of Amerindian languages, many did not have writing when the Spanish arrived on the continent, so the languages that did have the voiced palatal nasal sound, like Spanish, were transcribed using that spelling.

In addition to these Amerindian languages and languages from Latin, the “eñe” sound is also present in languages as diverse as languages of Slavic origin, such as Czech (with its “Ň”) or Polish (with its “ń”), and even Senegalese languages. On the other hand, the letter ñ is used in countries like the United States in terms of Spanish origin, such as “piña colada” and the climate phenomenon “El Niño”.

Despite all this, the “ñ” continues encountering obstacles in the digital age. Why is there such a significant rejection of this iconic and beautiful letter? The big problem is that, in the world, English continues to be the dominant language, and it has neither that spelling nor that phoneme and many times, everything that English does not have does not exist, even though it is abundant in the world. Ñ is essential because it is not the same to say pena (sorrow) as peña (crew), cana (grey hair) as caña (rod), or año (year) as ano (anus), you see!

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