**Caution: This post is intended for linguistics nerds.** 😀
As we walked into the famous Atlanta pizzeria, “Antico Pizza”, a bright green sign on the door caught my eye. “APERTO”, the poster proclaimed, the Italian word bold on the solid background.
It was our last day in Atlanta, and we were about to head home after a satisfying (but still too short) Fall Break in the Smoky Mountains. Being avid pizza enthusiasts, my parents had chosen Antico Pizza, supposedly one of the best pizzerias in the country, to enjoy one final Atlanta meal before our flight.
As my family poured over the menu, my mind wandered back to the sign. The meaning of the word was no mystery– going on my fifth year of learning Spanish, I could safely assume that “aperto” was a cognate of the Spanish word “abierto”, meaning open. What interested me was not the meaning of the word, but the fact that the “p” in Italian switched to a “b” in Spanish. It wasn’t the first time I had noticed this shift. I had known, through some previous schema, that one of the verbs for “to know” in Italian is “sapere”. Interestingly, in Spanish, the verb is “saber”.
As my family devoured the pizza, my mind was still on my linguistic queries. Now you may think me a bit of a communist, but I always find it unfair to give extra attention to Spanish by sidelining French, or vice versa. So, I thought of a way to fit French into the equation, and maybe find another layer to the pattern. I organized my thoughts into a table, and it turned out something like this:
The pattern was evident. I realized that in many cases, the “p” in Italian verbs becomes a “b” in Spanish and a “v” in French. A quick search on the Internet brought me to a book called Spanish Vocabulary: An Etymological Approach, which revealed yet another treasure: a table showing how several letters had changed from the original Latin terms in Italian, Spanish, French, and English.
It was intriguing to see how the patterns worked for different languages. In most cases, there was a perceivable change in the Spanish and French versions , while the Italian word was often the closest to the Latin.
My research brought me back to the original pattern I had spotted: the “p” to “b” from Italian to Spanish. The pattern was validated by research, but then there was the question of “Why?” Why did the Italian “p” in many verbs become a Spanish “b”?
Alright, now let’s bring Arabic into the mix. As I questioned the idea of a “p” being pronounced as a “b”, I thought immediately of Arabic, which lacks the letter “p” altogether. As a result, it is often very difficult for Arabs to pronounce the “p” sound. Thus, words like “pencil” are pronounced as “bencil”, or “paper” is said as “baber”. (Before you laugh, try pronouncing the letter “ ع”) The prior linguistic research I had done taught me about the Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, in which 800 years of Arab rule left a lasting impact on the Spanish language, which, at the time, was developing from a dialect of Vulgar Latin to a language of its own.
Keeping this in mind, and considering the letter shift, I wonder if the “p” to “b” transition in this select group of words was influenced by Arabic. While I have not yet found any real research to back this up, it is something that I continue to muse about. If anyone has any answers to this linguistic mystery, I would love to know. Meanwhile, I plan to go on scouring the Internet to gather some clues. 🙂