When declined as feminine, aquel becomes aquella, not just adding the feminine marker -a, but palatalising the final consonant /l/ → /ʎ/. A similar thing happens with don, doña.

Are there any other words like this in Spanish? i.e.

  • m. ...l → f. ...lla
  • m. ...n → f. ...ña

If not, why did it happen in these words?

  • 1
    My guess is for these words the final vowel was lost particularly early and so the geminate consonant didn't palatize like it would have intervocalically. aquelle /a'kel.le/ -> /a'kel:/ wouldn't undergo the transformation that aquella /a'kel.la/ -> /a'ke.ʎa/ did. – user0721090601 May 17 '19 at 13:12
  • @guifa apparently there is an older form of aquel, lla spelled aquele, la which (according to CORDE) seemed to be used in the 12th - 16th centuries, though it only first appears in a dictionary in 1726 with the note "Son voces antiquadas." – brazofuerte May 17 '19 at 13:31
  • CORDE also notes ~1800 instances of aquell (most occurring from the 13th - 16th centuries). – brazofuerte May 17 '19 at 13:49

As pablodf76's answer says, this comes from a historical neutralization of the contrasts /ɲ/ vs. /n/ and /ʎ/ vs. /l/ in syllable-final position. (From what I remember, a similar neutralization happened in a certain stage of French, although French has different examples of alternation because it developed /ɲ/ and /ʎ/ from different sources, and of course French and Spanish words often have different syllable structures.)

The neutralized coda consonant is typically non-palatal, except for if it becomes palatalized by assimilation to a following palatal consonant (circumstances where that can happen are described on this web page: Neutralization in Spanish).

Other examples of alternations between /ɲ/, /ʎ/ and /n/, /l/

I don't know of any further examples of alternation between masculine and feminine words other than the ones mentioned in the question and in pablodf76's answer. I found an article, "Spanish 'Depalatalization': The Synchronic, Diachronic and Perception Perspectives", by Ryan M. Bessett and Sonia Colina, that gives examples of this alternation in other pairs of related words, such as

  • bello (adj.) 'beautiful' and the related noun of quality beldad 'beauty'

  • desdeñar (v.) 'disdain' and the related abstract noun desdén 'disdain'

(p. 224-225; Bessett and Colina attribute these examples to Pensado, 1997, p. 595-596 and Lloret & Mascaró 2006, p. 77-78)

"When diachrony meets synchrony: Phonological change, phonological variation and Optimal Paradigms", by Clàudia Pons-Moll, mentions that aquel and el have a palatal consonant not only in their feminine forms, but also in their masculine plural forms: aquellos and ellos (p. 18). In contrast, don and desdén have plurals with non-palatal [n]: dones and desdenes.

There seems to be a lot of linguistic literature about how exactly to analyze the historical patterns of alternation, and to what extent the alternation is related to currently active as opposed to only historical rules of the Spanish sound system. If you're interested in a deeper look at that kind of thing, you could read either of the two linked papers or some of the works that they cite. (I have only skimmed them.)

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We have a question and a tentative answer about how don and doña came about. The answer is mostly intended to clear up why these did not diphthongize as in dueño, a, but at the end of the accepted answer there's an explanation of the differential palatalization, which boils down to the fact that the final -e of the masculine form was regularly dropped, leaving the consonant as final, and Spanish doesn't allow either of its two palatalized consonants (ll and ñ) to appear in the syllabic coda.

Aquel, aquella and the rest of those seem to have been the product of the merging of a locative particle *accu- with the respective Latin demonstratives with the stem ill- (ille, illa, illud, etc.), which of course gave us also the personal pronouns él, ella, ello and, in their unstressed forms, the definite articles el, la, lo.

Latin demonstratives

The same reason as above holds here: final -e was dropped from (accu-)ille. I don't know if that was before or after geminate ll palatalized. If it was before, then final ll was simplified to l without any chance to palatalize. If it was after, then palatalized ll was neutralized back to l because Spanish doesn't allow it in the coda. So it was either of these:

  1. [akel:e] > [akel:] > [akel]
  2. [akel:e] > [akeʎe] > [akeʎ] > [akel]

There are probably a few other pairs like these, but I could only find:

  • él ~ ella
  • doncel ~ doncella (nowadays very infrequently used)
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  • 2
    There's also the obvious él/ella (of which aquel/la is derivative) – user0721090601 May 17 '19 at 21:54
  • @guifa I've updated the answer to note that. – pablodf76 May 18 '19 at 15:19
  • I know this theory sounds dumb, but could don->doña have happened because dona also means donut? I feel like problematic homonyms are a common enough source of divergence for this to be plausible, even though it's silly – Alex May 21 '19 at 22:17
  • 1
    @seisvelas Don and doña have existed since at least the XVI century. Doughnut is first attested in English in 1809. I first heard it in Spanish when it was used in the (Mexican) Spanish translation of The Simpsons (so, not three decades ago). – pablodf76 May 21 '19 at 23:11

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