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In my Spanish class, we learned that the verb for "to stop" is "parar", but many stop signs have the word "alto" on them instead of "pare" as the command form of "parar". I asked why, but no one was sure. Why is "alto" on a stop sign? What does it mean?

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The word "alto" as an exclamation has nothing to do with "alto" as an adjective. In the XVI century, king Charles I of Spain also became emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, Lord of the Netherlands and Archduke of Austria. So in terms of Linguistics it is interesting to note how some words passed from a language in the Holy Roman Empire, such as German, to Spanish. One of them was the German word "halt", which became "alto", as noted by the first Spanish dictionaries from the RAE. The following is from 1770:

ALTO. (Milic.) La voz de que se usa para mandar parar la tropa ó suspender la accion en que está.

[Word used to command the troops to stop moving or to stop doing the current action.]

And before that, in 1726 it was:

ALTO. Voz que se usa para imponer siléncio, y que no se prosiga una conversación, discurso, riña, etc. aludiendo à la voz Alto en el uso militar.

[Word used to make someone shut up and not continue a conversation or speech, dispute, etc., alluding to the same word in its military usage.]

In a dictionary from 1607 it is registered the expression "alto hazer" as originated from the German word "Halten". You can still say "hacer un alto en el camino" as "to make a stop in your journey". And in 1591 the expression "alto hazer" was registered in a Spanish-English dictionary as "to keepe aloose".

So its use is indeed registered in the military context. Nowadays it still carries the same sense of obligation to stop, extended to non-military contexts.

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  • Please feel free to roll back any of my edits that don't feel right to you. Apr 13 '18 at 11:23
  • @aparente001 no need to roll back, I know my English is far from perfection so I accept every improvement you made.
    – Charlie
    Apr 13 '18 at 11:25
  • Basically I thought you might want to know that voz appears to be a false cognate (although the sophisticates at ELU might know some other definition from linguistics that I'm not aware of). // (I put a helpful dictionary link in the edit documentation -- maybe it was a bit buried.) Apr 13 '18 at 11:33
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Alto as a noun is the name of the stop sign in some parts of America; as an exclamation ("¡Alto!") it means "stop!" in all the Spanish speaking countries.

See Alto in the Diccionario de la Lengua Española (it comes from the German "Halt", from the German verb "halten").

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  • Interesante, como Alto en la lengua es un sustantivo, cuando se trata de un verbo, sin embargo no tiene conjugaciones. entonces, es un verbo usado como sustantivo, o un sustantivo usado como verbo ?
    – Mike
    Apr 12 '18 at 21:04
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    @Mike se lo considera como una interjección con valor imperativo. Si tuviese flexiones que se pareciesen más a los del imperativo, quizás sería posible considerarlo como un verbo muy defectivo, como lo es abarse que tiene apenas formas en total: abarse, ábate, abate, abaos, ábese, y ábense Apr 12 '18 at 21:53
  • que tiene SEIS formas en total — tengo que dejar de comentar por el móvil Apr 13 '18 at 0:41
  • @guifa si quieres lanza un flag para que te editemos un comentario :) Apr 13 '18 at 9:16
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    @guifa - También hay un truco para componer un comentario: copiar el texto, borrar el comentario original, meter el texto en un nuevo comentario, editar, publicar. (Sólo funciona si no hay respuestas.) Apr 13 '18 at 11:25

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