Spanish learned word doublets

When studying Spanish, you may encounter a phenomenon where native Spanish words exist side-by-side with the Latin word they descend from. Being aware of this allows you to learn words more quickly and understand them better. In this article, I’ll describe how these “learned word doublets” appeared and how you can use them to learn Spanish faster.

History of learned doublets

What’s known as Spanish today is actually descended from a form of Latin called Vulgar Latin over the course of roughly a thousand years. During this time, words that look typically Latin like “computāre” or “pectus” evolved through a series of sound changes into modern Spanish words like “contar” or “pecho”. These sound changes are described in great detail in this Wikipedia article.

In some cases, however, these modern Spanish words co-exist with their older versions due to a process called “Reborrowing”, where Spanish actually borrowed words from Latin, despite already having newer forms of the same words. This happened because despite the fact that Spanish started to develop into a distinct language around the year 900, the written language continued to be Latin up until roughly the 15th century. As a result, words from the written language, especially more technical or specialized scientific words, tended to leak back into the language, as shown in the below diagram:

This type of historical knowledge can help with understanding word origins and memorizing words more easily, since knowing the history of a word makes it stick better in your mind. In addition, keeping this in mind allows you to predict that e.g. “pecho” is just the simple, everyday word (meaning “chest”) while “pectoral” is the more scientific/advanced term.

There are many such pairs; some are similar in meaning, while others have diverged. In any case, recognizing them will help in linking them together in your mind and memorizing them.

  • “noche” (night) and “nocturno” (nocturnal)
  • “pecho” (chest) and “pectoral” (pectoral)
  • “delgado” (thin) and “delicado” (delicate)

You can see more examples in this Wikipedia page and this one.

Influence on Spanish phonology

This learned word re-borrowing in Spanish also has the interesting side effect of occasionally even changing the phonology of the language! Originally, Spanish actually simplified many of its consonants and consonant clusters, but due to the influence of borrowed Latin words, many such sounds were re-introduced into the language:

Original LatinOriginal SpanishLatin-influenced Spanish

So now, in modern-day Spanish, you’ll see consonant combinations like “ct”, “pt”, “mn”, and so on, all of which had actually previously disappeared from Spanish, but were re-introduced later on thanks to influence from an older form of the same language!


Being aware of these learned doublets and their effect on Spanish can be very helpful when you study Spanish – it helps to understand where words come from and why they have evolved to be their modern forms. Having this extra historical knowledge actually helps in memorizing them, because each word has its own unique “story” of how it came to be, and being aware of that story and how it’s related to the story of other words is a great way to make words stick in your mind.

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