In Spanish, people use the word “deberes” to mean “homework”. It is the pluralised form of “deber”.

In all senses and forms of “deber”, the negative notions of debt, obligation and owing people things are consistently perpetuated. When it is a noun, it refers to debt and obligations (besides homework), and when it is a verb, it means “should” or “to owe”. In fact, “deber” is cognate to the English words “due” and “debt”. They descend from a common Latin root. It feels as if the “debt” meaning is strongly emphasised in the usage of the word.

When did the Spanish word for homework begin to be associated with debt, and other negative connotations? Are there any historical reasons which explain this relationship, or is this just a mistake of viewing Spanish words from an English speaker’s perspective?

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    It's also "les devoirs" in French and "els deures" in Catalan. – Charo Aug 3 at 14:22
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    Playing "devil's advocate" here... Do you do any actual home work when doing homework? I'd say that "deberes" it's used not as a debt, but as an academic obligation. As in "deberes escolares". – Arriel Aug 3 at 21:51
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    As a Spaniard, I've never understood deberes as "debts", but as "duties" or "tasks": "Mis deberes (escolares)" should be translated as "My duties". In some places we even say "tareas" instead of "deberes". – Pablo Lozano Aug 4 at 8:30
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    Homework is also "due". – henning -- reinstate Monica Aug 4 at 8:31
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    To say "in Spanish" is too much generalization, at least in Chile we say tareas, the common teacher expression is "tarea para la casa" which means "work/duty for home" – Andrés Chandía Aug 4 at 18:18

This French book can assist to explain this semantic shift, for the French noun for homework ("devoirs") also hails from the same Latin etymon (dēbēre). I've translated the relevant page into English. La dette, le devoir, la faute | Cairn.info

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La notion de dette est par nature polysémique. Elle renvoie à la somme d’argent dont il faut s’acquitter et de façon plus générale à l’obligation de rendre des comptes qui rapproche alors la dette du devoir moral ou de l’expiation religieuse. L’étude linguistique permet d’établir une parenté étymologique dans un certain nombre de langues entre la « dette », le « devoir », la « faute » et la « culpabilité ». En français, le verbe « devoir » traduit autant la dette matérielle que le devoir moral. En allemand, le terme Schuld signifie aussi bien la dette matérielle que la faute morale ; de même schuldig désigne le « coupable » et le « débiteur ». De cette parenté, on pourrait déduire, comme le fait Nietzsche, une antériorité de la dette et montrer que les sentiments moraux, tels que le devoir et la faute, dérivent des relations créancier-débiteur, que la morale a pour fondement une économie primitive dont elle est l’expression déguisée. Cependant, la dette primitive dépasse le champ de l’économie. Elle inaugure dès l’origine non seulement un lien social mais aussi un rapport moral original.
La dette a une dimension ontologique fondamentale et ne peut se réduire à une simple métaphore du devoir, de la faute ou de la culpabilité. Elle est fondatrice d’une éthique et d’un statut éthique de la subjectivité qui s’écarte de la morale traditionnellement comprise en termes de devoir, de faute et de culpabilité.

My translation into English:

The notion of debt is by nature polysemous. It refers to the sum of money to be paid and more generally to the obligation to be accountable which makes debt approach [the notions of] moral duty or religious expiation. Linguistic study permits us to establish an etymological relationship in a number of languages ​​between "debt", "duty", "fault" and "culpability. In French, the verb "devoir" translates equally material debt and moral duty. In German, the term Schuld signifies material debt and moral fault; likewise schuldig designates the "culpable" and the "debtor". From this relationship, one could deduce, as Nietzsche does, an anteriority of debt and demonstrate that moral sentiments, such as duty and fault, derive from creditor-debtor relations, that morality is founded on a primitive economy, which debt is a disguised expression of. However, the original debt overpasses the scope of economics. From the origin, it inaugurates not only a social bond, but also an original moral rapport.

Debt has a fundamental ontological dimension and can't be reduced to a simple metaphor of duty, fault or culpability. Debt is the founder of an ethic and an ethical status of subjectivity that excerpts from morality traditionally understood in terms of duty, fault and culpability.

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Additionally, another meaning of "deber" (specially as a noun) is "duty" / "obligation". So, "deberes" abbreviates "deberes escolares (a ser realizados en casa)" ("school duties (to be performed at home)").

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  • This. I think this is the right answer. – Renan Aug 5 at 13:44
  • @Renan indeed, English duty also comes from Latin debere. – phoog Aug 5 at 16:07

It is not a mistake in any sense to ask about the origins of words or wonder about their etymological associations. It might be seeing too much into things, though. I personally don't feel a strong association between the idea of el deber (the obligation towards some authority, e.g. in the military) and deber ("to owe"), and I didn't associate los deberes ("the homework") with hierarchy/obedience or with debts (owing something) when I was a child. The meanings are sufficiently distinct that the connection isn't evoked every time.

This happens all the time. For example, when I think of a contador ("an accountant"), I don't associate it immediately with contar ("to count"). When you open an account in a bank you don't feel the same way as when you're opening a door. When you lie down in your bed to rest, you don't necessarily think of this as being what you'll be doing for the rest of the day. When a child sits down to do their homework, they don't think they're working (the thing their parents do when they go every day to their office or wherever). The contexts are different.

From a quick check it seems that using deberes as "obligations" was usual in Spanish centuries ago. I don't know when it started being associated with homework. It must have been when some of these "obligations" turned into (or were seen more like) "chores". Nowadays I don't know if people use deberes that much; the usual word is tarea.

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    "when I think of a contador ("an accountant"), I don't associate it immediately with contar ("to count")" I do. – Renan Aug 5 at 13:43

From: https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/debt#English


From Middle English dette, dett, borrowed from Old French dete (French dette), from Medieval Latin dēbita, from Latin dēbitum (“what is owed, a debt, a duty”), neuter of dēbitus, perfect passive participle of dēbeō (“I owe”), contraction of *dehibeō (“I have from”), from de (“from”) + habeō (“I have”). Doublet of debit.

(Emphasis mine)

Deber as a verb can have different meanings and connotations which can range from ‘owing’, ‘having to’ to ‘should’. That being said, ‘duty’ is probably the most accurate translation for the noun ‘el deber’. That ‘debt’ and ‘duty’ are somewhat related (‘debt creates a duty’. See also ‘obligation’) in meaning might give a hint on why you see some etymological relation between the english debt and the spanish deber (see quote above). I’d say ‘la deuda’ is used way more often as noun when debt is meant (actually I have never heard anyone say ‘el deber’ when he meant ‘debt’ - might be my southamerican bias but I think it also holds for spain). Deber as verb OTOH can also mean ”to owe” (which of course makes sense when there is a debt, but it could also be like a moral or different obligation).

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  • You already mention duty: etymonline.com/word/duty – Carsten S Aug 5 at 8:23
  • Good to see that someone mentioned "deuda"! I was about to add post an answer saying so. I don't think any Spanish speaker would think of "deberes" as something that is "owed" in anyway. – Ricardo Cárdenes yesterday

I would question your assertion that the words debt or obligation in English or negative. You can have a debt of gratitude or a debt of honour neither of which is negative and even a monetary debt is the result of a transaction so you have received something in exchange for incurring that debt. In accountancy terms it is a negative of course. Similarly obligations are not all negative. I am obliged to: drive on the left hand side of the road, stand up for people with a disability in the train, help old ladies cross the road, and so on.

At least when I was at school homework was obligatory so I can understand why the word for obligation is used in Spanish and, as Charo pointed out in a comment, in other Romance languages too. It will be interesting to see when school becomes something undertaken purely at home on-line whether it will still be called homework but that is a matter of speculation.

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If you translate"duties" into Spanish, you get "deberes". This has a natural semantic connection to homework. Didn't overthink it.

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English "ought" as in "You ought to do such and such" is etymologically the same word as "owe".


This doesn't mean that the kinds of obligation we talk about with "ought" have negative connotations in English.

Debt and duty are functionally similar things so it makes sense that people would use the same language to talk about both.

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