Consonant Clusters 9: "Sp-"
Sp- spits out at us and spurts across the page. It explodes outwards as is suggested by the bilabial plosive /p/, which expels the cluster with force out of our mouths.
A second meaning of the sp- cluster is that of spikiness: we have sharp chips of wood, metal and plants in spars, spurs and even spoons.
The ancient art of spinning provides a link between these two meanings. An early meaning of spin was “shoot out” or “gush”, and many words connected to spinning also start with the sp- cluster. Spinning is the ancient craft of taking plant or animal fibres and then twisting them together to make yarn. In hand spinning, this was done in Stone Age times on a wooden spike named a hand spindle, which later became part of the much larger spinning wheel, which had internal bars or spokes. Spun yarn was then wrapped around bobbins or spools. The job of spinning was done by a male spinner or a female spinster.
By the 17th century, spinster had also acquired the meaning of “unmarried woman”, used for those that were past the usual age for marrying, an alternative for the term old maid.
Now, let’s deal with the sp- words that concern the explosive liquid elements of the sp- cluster.
Sputum and spittle are used only as nouns, while the rest can be nouns or verbs.
Of the verbs, spit, (spat, spat) and spill (spilt, spilt) are irregular.
Match the words with their definitions below. (Hover over the questions to reveal the answers, tap on mobile devices).
Now put the same words into the following sentences in the correct forms:
1. Trevor’s blood-clothing left the police in no doubt that he had been at the scene of the crime.
2. It was such a windy day that Greg was soaked by theblown off the waves, even though he was standing at the water’s edge.
3. Eleanor has had an amazing growth. Last year she was smaller than her brother. Now she is 10cm taller!
4. The camera caught Rooney just as he wason to the grass in front of the referee.
5. “I..I..I don’t know what you are t-talking about!”Don on being accused of treachery.
6. “Just cough onto this swab, please Mr Statham. We’d like a good sample of your.”
7. Eddie tripped over his own feet andhis drink all over the floor.
8. The spider climbed up the waterin the back garden.
9. When Miss Hutton got excited, little balls ofwould gather at the corner of her mouth.
10. It was a scene of devastation after the party. Smashed glasses were strewn all over the floor, all the ashtrays were overflowing, and here and therewas spattered all over the walls and floor from those who had drunk too much.
The words for spit and spew ultimately derive from the Indo-European form *spyēu-, which is imitative of the sound of spitting. This form also produced Latin spuere from which we get sputum.
Similarly, the Spanish noun for spit is esputo, in Portuguese it is cuspe, while in Italian it is sputo. The verb for spit in Swedish is spotta, while in Danish it is spytte and in German spucken.
The Slavs take the /plju:/ from *spyēut to have pljuvati (Croatian), плюя (Bulgarian) and плевать (Russian). The Poles have both clusters with both pluć and splunąć meaning to spit. Now to more pleasant matters: sp- for spiky things.
The etymologies of these words can be traced to ancient Germanic words for spikes and chips of wood, as well as the Latin words for thorn (spīna) and ear of corn (spīca). An example of the former is the north-eastern English dialect word “spelk”, a splinter of wood, which comes from the Old English spelc and Old Norse spelkur both of which mean a surgical splint. An example of the latter is “spinney” which means a thicket or a small, but dense wood.
Now let’s test your knowledge on some of the others.
a) a spurn
b) a spit
c) a spot
d) a spat
a) his spoons
b) his spangles
c) his spurs
d) his spikes
a) a spoon
b) a spatula
c) a spark
d) a spoor
a) the beans
b) the peas
c) the nuts
d) the lentils
a) call a spot a spot
b) call a spit a spit
c) call a spanner a spanner
d) call a spade a spade
Other languages have cognates with the sp- cluster. If you want to call a spade a spade in the Netherlands or anywhere in Scandinavia, you can feel comfortable calling it exactly that, because they have the identical word, spade!
The German for a spike is Spitze, while in Swedish it is a spik. The /s-/ has been lost in other European languages, so we have pic in French, piek in Dutch and pico in Spanish.
Sp- for a spur also spans Latin and Germanic languages: in Danish and Norwegian, it is anspore, in Icelandic spori, in German Sporn. The Portuguese cognate is esporão, while the Italian equivalent is sperone.
The Latin spinae provides the base for spine as a thorn and a backbone in the Romance languages, so thorn is espina in Spanish and backbone is espinazo. Similarly, the words are spina are spina dorsale in Italian and spin and şira spinării in Romanian.
For some learners of English, sp- can be problematic when followed by another –s to make /sps/. This cluster appears in a number of plurals, as well as in the he/she/it forms of certain verbs.
First, the verbs: match the words with their meanings.
Now pronounce these sentences:
1. The way Stephen lisps makes him sound Spanish.
2. Patsy grasps the concept.
3. The ball spins out of the goalkeeper’s hands, and the crowd gasps expectantly.
4. Spencer rasps the words into the microphone.
5. Whenever we cross the street, she clasps my hand.
Now look at the pictures and repeat the nouns:
Now repeat the following:
1. “Lusk!” rasped the thesp, “what’s your point?”
2. “Watch out for the wasps – they’re on your crisps!”
3. Wisps of smoke blew round the spooky spinney.
As a postscript, I would like to share a personal sp- experience. Those involved in marketing and advertising spend colossal sums on the naming of new products so that the brand name carries certain associations. This is why washing powders prefer “Fairy” and “Ariel” to “Troll” and “Splat”.
Anyway, when my eldest son was three, he sat on my knee and pointed to a plastic clip that was holding the tablecloth in position on the table.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“It’s a spangalang,” I lied.
Did I say this because deep in my sub-conscious, sp- was connected to spun cloth and that the spangalang was protruding spikily from the table? Or was I just spouting gobbledegook?
Shakespeare left thousands of words to us. I would like to add just one: here’s hoping that spangalang will catch on!
PPS: Having just checked on Google, I am dismayed to find that spangalang actually exists and is a particular rhythm with the cymbals in jazz music. Shakespeare can sleep easily. Foiled again!
Images credits: Spindles: By Pschemp (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons Spinning wheel: By Jacob.jose (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Spinster: By Peter van der Sluijs (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Spools: By Thamizhpparithi Maari (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Crisps: By Silar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Thesps: By Tulane Public Relations (Theater Uploaded by AlbertHerring) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Wasps: By Thomas Quine (Flickr: Drunken Wasps) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Wisps: By Nicholas (originally posted to Flickr as Wisps) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons