The Universe of Discourse

Sat, 28 May 2022

Where did the ‘c’ go in llave (“key”)? It's from Latin clavīs

Several readers wrote in with additional examples, and I spent a little while scouring Wiktionary for more. I don't claim hat this list is at all complete; I got bored partway through the Wiktionary search results.

Spanish English Latin antecedent
llagar to wound plāgāre
llama flame flamma
llamar to summon, to call clāmāre
llano flat, level plānus
llantén plaintain plantāgō
llave key clavis
llegar to arrive, to get, to be sufficient   plicāre
lleno full plēnus
llevar to take levāre
llorar to cry out, to weep plōrāre
llover to rain pluere

Is this the only Latin word that changed ‘cl’ → ‘ll’ as it turned into Spanish, or is there a whole family of them?

and the answer is no, not exactly. It appears that llave and llamar are the only two common examples. But there are many examples of the more general phenomenon that

(consonant) + ‘l’ → ‘ll’

including quite a few examples where the consonant is a ‘p’.

Spanish-related notes

• Eric Roode directed me to this discussion of “Latin CL to Spanish LL” on the WordReference.com language forums. It also contains discussion of analogous transformations in Italian. For example, instead of plānusllano, Italian has → piano.

• Alex Corcoles advises me that Fundéu often discusses this sort of issue on the Fundéu web site, and also responds to this sort of question on their Twitter account. Fundéu is the Foundation of Emerging Spanish, a collaboration with the Royal Spanish Academy that controls the official Spanish language standard.

• Several readers pointed out that although llave is the key that opens your door, the word for musical keys and for encryption keys is still clave. There is also a musical instrument called the claves, and an associated technical term for the rhythmic role they play. Clavícula (‘clavicle’) has also kept its ‘c’.

• The connection between plicāre and llegar is not at all clear to me. Plicāre means “to fold”; English cognates include ‘complicated’, ‘complex’, ‘duplicate’, ‘two-ply’, and, farther back, ‘plait’. What this has to do with llegar (‘to arrive’) I do not understand. Wiktionary has a long explanation that I did not find convincing.

• The levārellevar example is a little weird. Wiktionary says "The shift of an initial 'l' to 'll' is not normal".

• Llaves also appears to be the Spanish name for the curly brace characters { and }. (The square brackets are corchetes.)

Not related to Spanish

• The llover example is a favorite of the Universe of Discourse, because Latin pluere is the source of the English word plover.

• French parler (‘to talk’) and its English descendants ‘parley’ and ‘parlor’ are from Latin parabola.

• Latin plōrāre (‘to cry out’) is obviously the source of English ‘implore’ and ‘deplore’. But less obviously, it is the source of ‘explore’. The original meaning of ‘explore’ was to walk around a hunting ground, yelling to flush out the hidden game.

• English ‘autoclave’ is also derived from clavis, but I do not know why.

• Wiktionary's advanced search has options to order results by “relevance” and last-edited date, but not alphabetically!

Thanks

• Thanks to readers Michael Lugo, Matt Hellige, Leonardo Herrera, Leah Neukirchen, Eric Roode, Brent Yorgey, and Alex Corcoles for hints clues, and references.

[ Addendum: Andrew Rodland informs me that an autoclave is so-called because the steam pressure inside it forces the door lock closed, so that you can't scald yourself when you open it. ]