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The English word crocodile seems to originate from the Latin crocodīlus and Ancient Greek κροκόδιλος. Indeed it has ended up very similar in several modern languages: German (Krokodile), Russian (крокодил), Hungarian (krokodilfélék).

But does anyone know why the Spanish (and only they) moved the r and call it a cocodrilo?

  • Oh, that's funny, I didn't know. I have no idea how this metathesis came about (God, I hope it is really metathesis this time). – Cerberus Feb 21 '13 at 23:01
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    It is definitely metathesis. Incidentally, the recursive mnemonic for metathesis is methatesis; you can probly guess what haplogy, epenethesis, pocopy, syncpy, and athemtic are. – jlawler Feb 21 '13 at 23:56
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    see also en.wiktionary.org/wiki/cocodrilo – Alex B. Feb 22 '13 at 0:05
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    @jlawler: Haha, yes, although your pocopy and syncpy are also examples of the phenomenon called polyphonee (sic). – Cerberus Feb 22 '13 at 0:59
  • Note that Cocodrillus also existst in laitn. But this merely shifts the question to Latin... – Frédéric Grosshans Feb 28 '18 at 16:06
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This is an example of metathesis, the rearranging of sounds or syllables in a word. It occurred in a number of words in the evolution from Latin to Spanish:

  • Latin parabola > Old Spanish parabla > Spanish palabra 'word'
  • Latin rāculum > Old Spanish miráclo > miraglo > Spanish milagro 'miracle'
  • Latin pericŭlum > Old Spanish pericolo > periglo > Spanish peligro 'danger, peril'
  • Latin crocodīlus > Old Spanish crocodilo > Spanish cocodrilo 'crocodile'

  • animalia > alimaña

  • integrare > entregar
  • vius/a > viudo/a
  • crusta > crosta > costra
  • Algeria > Argelia
  • guirlanda > guirnalda
  • Old Spanish mur + ciego> Old Spanish murciégo > (diminutive) murciégalo > murciélago

There are even instances of this happening multiple times to recreate the original syllabic pattern:

  • praelātus > prelado > perlado > prelado

This also occurs commonly with these non-standard (i.e. not recognised by the RAE) pronunciations (and associated spellings):

  • croqueta > cocreta
  • dentífrico > dentrífico
  • calcomanía > calcamonía
  • vereda > vedera
  • cerebro > celebro
  • guijarro > guirrajo
  • programa > pograma
  • neandertal > neardental
  • colchoneta > cholconeta
  • meteorología > metereología

Note: These changes do not occur in all Romance languages, see:

  • French Algérie
  • French miracle, Italian miracolo
  • French guirlande, Italian ghirlanda
  • Portuguese crocodilo, Galician crocodilo
  • Portuguese perigo, Galician perigo, Italian pericolo

But other Romance languages did in fact undergo the same change as Spanish with this last word:

  • Italian coccodrillo
  • Sicilian cuccudrillu
  • Vernazzese (Spezzino (Ligurian)) cuccudrìllu
  • Logudorese Sardinian cuccudrillu
  • Corsican cuccudrillu
  • Asturian cocodrilu
  • Old French cocodril
  • Picard cocodril
  • Catalan cocodril
  • Languedocien (Occitan) cocodril

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metathesis_(linguistics)#Spanish
https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metátesis
https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/crocodile#French

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    It's interesting that modern French then reverted back to the form closer to Latin. – apat Dec 8 '17 at 8:54
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    Yeah, this wasn't a 'natural' shift in sounds but a conscious attempt in the 16th century to use a form closer to the 'original' Latin/Greek forms. cnrtl.fr/etymologie/crocodile – brazofuerte Dec 8 '17 at 10:47
  • From many of your examples, it would seem that it was common for an /r/ to move away from the stressed syllable: peligro instead of perigo, milagro instead of miraclo, palabra instead of parabla, entregar instead of integrar. Evidently, the opposite happened to cocodrillo, where the /r/ moved to the stressed syllable. – Luís Henrique Dec 9 '17 at 1:31
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    "l" and "r" were frequently swapped in all possible configurations in the evolution Spanish words (examples of dissimilation): ARBOR, PRECARIA, LOCALIS, colonello, LIQUIRITIA → árbol, plegaria, lugar, coronel, regaliz – brazofuerte Feb 24 '18 at 19:54
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    @apat : Interestingly, this word is known to be hard to master for small French kids. They often say «cocrodile», and it is a stereotypical «cute» example of childspeak. I guess it hints at the somehow non-natural position of r in crocodile in French – Frédéric Grosshans Feb 25 '18 at 17:28
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Actually the word crocodilo is listed in some Spanish dictionaries, but one thing is what dictionaries say and another thing is what real users of language do. Anyway, it seems that this is a case of metathesis, which is a process that reorders the segments of a given string. Thus, perhaps crocodilo became cocodrilo after the /r/ was reordered in the word. In Italian it is very similar: coccodrillo, so Spanish is not the only case as you think. This phenomenon could have started in Latin for crocodilus, and this would explain that Spanish and Italian exhibit the metathesis too.

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  • i can confirm that in croatian langage this happens often with little children cannot say: krokodil; but they say: kokrodil. ;) it is considered a slip of the tongue here, as it happens with adults as well. – b0x0rz Feb 22 '13 at 13:58
  • It's very hard for me as an English speaker to put the 'r' anywhere other than in the first syllable. – Nicholas Shanks Jul 23 '13 at 13:02
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    For now, you've not actually answered the question; you've only described the phenomenon in linguistic terms. Why was there metathesis? – user3503 May 5 '14 at 21:14
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    Why questions in linguistics are usually unanswerable. We can often answer the how, and sometimes a question like why should this have happened at this time and place rather than anywhere else; but usually we cannot predict that a certain change will or will not happen, or explain why it did or didn't. – Colin Fine May 6 '14 at 16:03
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    As by Hume, all "why" questions are fundamentally without answer, but still, science is full of attempts to make causal explanations. As an example, a typical phonological answer will often refer to a sound pattern that becomes suboptimal in a diachronic context as triggering change, such as violations of the sonority hierarchy (e.g. when a word is introduced from a language with a different hierarchy and becomes regularised). Either way, I do not see how the fact that "why" questions are supposedly unanswerable somehow makes mentioning the name of a phenomenon a satisfactory explanation. – user3503 May 6 '14 at 21:18
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I think that one should think of the Vulgar Latin that was spoken in many countries by speakers who were not too firm in Latin or Vulgar Latin. And such special cases of metathesis that r not only jumps from its place before a vowel after it but also to a place in the last part of a long word occur, because a lot of speakers could not reproduce long words correctly. That's how I would explain such curiosities that r is shifted to a remote position.

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I think that with time the original word of crocodīlus has become cocodrilo in Español, through laziness or just by error. The same thing happens with Jerusalem (יְרוּשָׁלַיִם (yerushaláyim) in Hebrew): in Spanish it is called Jerusalén (with a final -n). On many occasions I have heard people say "Ansterdan" (with two n's). Horrible but true.

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    Welcome to Linguistics SE. Do you happen to know of any Spanish etymological dictionaries that you could use to back up your claim? On this SE we're more interested in answers backed up by external sources or examples. Your current answer seems a bit too much like a guess. Maybe this would be better as a comment. – acattle May 9 '14 at 16:58
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    -1 does not answer the question, does not cite sources – robert May 11 '14 at 15:21

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