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To form adverbs in Spanish, you take your chosen adjective, e.g. lent@ - slow, turn it into the feminine form, lenta, then add -mente, lentamente - slowly.

Why do you use the feminine form here?

In most gender-neutral cases, Spanish takes the masculine form, but this doesn't, why not?

  • 2
    Note that unmarked adverbs use the masculine (technically neuter) form of adjectives. Using -mente isn't always required – user0721090601 Oct 16 '16 at 2:00
  • Like mucho do you mean? – BladorthinTheGrey Oct 16 '16 at 20:56
  • That's actually probably a pretty clear example of one (as it doesn't even admit the -mente formation). But you can do it with a number of other adjectives that can be marked: Ella trasnochó trabajando muy duro (=**duramente*)*. These days it's rare but for a handful (most of which are given explicit entries in the DRAE and are rarely marked, like rápido) – user0721090601 Oct 27 '16 at 20:04
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Latin mens, mentis produced ablative mente

This practice began all the way back in Classical Latin, passed into Vulgar Latin and Proto-Romance and thence to all modern Western Romance tongues: Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Occitan, French, and the many related neighboring languages in that group.

The Spanish feminine substantive la mente derives from the same ultimate Latin origin as does its -mente suffix used to derive adverbs from adjectives: mens/mentis, a feminine noun from the third declension. This noun meant thought or mind, the latter being its English cognate through a common Proto-Indo-European ancestor.

The Wiktionary entry for Latin mens observes:

In most classical Latin, the ablative singular mente was used with a feminine adjective to form a phrasal adverb that expressed a person's state of mind, such as vēlōcī mente ‎(“quick-mindedly, with a quick mind”)

  • 29-19 BCE, Virgil, Aenid, book 4, line 105:
    sensit enim simulata mente locutam‎
    for she realized that (she) had spoken with false purpose.

In Late Latin, this construction began to be extended to other adjectives and uses as well, and in Vulgar Latin and the later Romance languages, it became a general adverbial suffix.

Latin’s ablative case had quite a few uses that we now represent with a separate preposition instead of nominal case inflection. One of these prepositions used to translate the ablative case is with, so using mens in the ablative mente meant “with (a/the) mind/thought”.

By adding an adjective to that noun, as in rapida mente, it therefore indicates in a rapid manner. You can see why the adjective has to agree with a feminine noun: because mens itself was feminine.

This is also why you can chain together adverbs in Spanish by using a sequence of feminine adjectives saving up the -mente adverbial suffix for the last adjective in the series:

Se lo explicó lenta, clara y cariñosamente.

That -mente suffix on the last term, cariñosa-mente, distributes to both the earlier terms lenta and clara. But you do not use suspension hyphens in Spanish for this as one might do in English.

Body and Mind

This Romance habit of using a version of “mind” to derive adverbs from directly in lieu of using a longer phrase corresponds to the Germanic habit of using a version of “body” to do so. We no longer think about it, but the English -ly suffix comes from a word that meant “body”, lich. This practice also occurs in related languages like Dutch and German.

So where Romance tongues use a “mind” suffix, Germanic ones use a “body” suffix for the same purpose.

  • 1
    Fascinating! Do you know if the body/mind difference is due to a common route in PIE or some such thing? – BladorthinTheGrey Oct 15 '16 at 15:37
  • @BladorthinTheGrey No, I don’t know that at all, and would not venture a guess. – tchrist Oct 16 '16 at 5:19
  • You didn't mention one major romance language: Romanian – curt Oct 18 '16 at 19:23
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    @curt I did in a deleted comment. They don't use -mente. – tchrist Oct 18 '16 at 20:02
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According to the DRAE here the suffix -mente comes from the Latin mens (which also gives us the Spanish mente). Since that is feminine presumably the adjective agreed with it. So you originally said de lenta mente or some such. There is also, in the entry for mente itself the phrase de buena mente

  • The link doesn't say anything about femininity. Am I missing something? – BladorthinTheGrey Oct 15 '16 at 14:01
  • 1
    The entry about mente is not linked, but it's in dle.rae.es/?id=OwgZLgt – Pere Oct 16 '16 at 11:05

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