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According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, Spanish works about the New World in the 1500s wrote the word we spell in modern English as "hurricane" alternatively as "huracan" or "furacan". A spelling with an initial "f" has been preserved in many of the other Iberian languages: Portuguese, Galician, and Asturian, at least.

Did this "f" in Portuguese "furacão" come from the Americas, or was it created in Iberia?

According to Wikipedia, there is evidence of word-initial "f" being pronounced in Spanish as a glottal [h] as early as 863 A.D., but the word-initial [h] sound in words affected by this was still usually written as "f" until the 1500s. (Also around this time, /f/ was borrowed back into Spanish. It's unclear to me what this could mean about the earlier status of the sound [f] itself when not word-initial.)

As far as I can tell, the Iberian languages that spell hurricane with an "f" today did not undergo the f → [h] sound changes of Castilian Spanish.

This makes me unsure of how to understand words like "huracán", heard and written by Spanish explorers in the 1500s or earlier. It seems to me that there could have been possible confusions between word-initial [f] and [h] both in pronunciation and in spelling.

Compare also Juracán, which Wikipedia says is a "phonetic name given by the Spanish colonizers" from an indigenous Taíno word. This would support an [h] sound, but unfortunately, the article on Juracán is poorly sourced. The Wikipedia article on the Taíno language says that the reconstructed phonemes of that language do not include an [f] sound. The Arawak language, in the same language family and still spoken today, does include a similar sound (bilabial [ɸ]). There's a similar word ("Hurakan" or "Jun Raqan"?) from the K'iche' (Quiché) Maya, whose language does not seem to have an [f]. Neither does the reconstructed Proto-Mayan language.

Perhaps the local word was pronounced with something glottal, not an [f] sound, and spelling confusion or hypercorrection caused the birth of a different pronunciation in part of Iberia?

Am I just getting my head spun around by not reading the right sources?

Given what we know today, which of the following is most likely?

  • The original word was pronounced with an [f] or similar sound
  • The original word was pronounced with a glottal [h] or similar sound
  • The original word happened to be pronounced in both ways by different tribes, a coincidental parallel to the sound differences existing in Iberia

From any of these beginnings, I suppose the current state of the word in various languages could have come from some combination of mispronunciations, hypercorrections, and spelling pronunciations?

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From this book in Asturian:

D'una voz indíxena americana HURAKAN que'l cast. huracán fexo llegar al fr. ouragan y al it. uragano (REW s.v. hurakan). L'ast., lo mesmo que'l port. furacão, gall. furacán, cat. furacà, almiten el castellanismu orixinariamente aspiráu adautándolu con f- acordies col sistema fonolóxicu que desconocía l'aspiración d'aniciu, a nun ser na variante or. de la nuesa llingua. Ye claro que la existencia de términos averaos fónicamente nestes llingües, como tola familia rellacionada col ast. furar 'aufuracar', hebo perfavorecer l'adautación.

As translated by guifa in the comments:

From an indigenous word HURAKAN that the Castilian huracán gave origin to the French ouragan and the Italian uragana (REW s.v. hurakan). The Asturian form, along with the the Portuguese furacão, Galician furacán, Catalonian furacà, taking in the originally-aspirated Castilianism, adapting it with f- to fit the phonologic system that didn't have the initial aspiration, not being in the original version of our language. It's clear that the existence of phonetically-close terms in these languages, such as all those related to the Asturian furar 'aufuracar', aided the adaptation.

My grasp of Asturian is pretty poor, but I think the gist is that as a loanword from Spanish to Portuguese/Galician/Catalan as well as Asturian, the other Iberian languages automatically adapted the h- to f- in this loanword, "according to the phonological system" regardless of the original language's use of /h/. There is also the possibility of interference from the language gaining the word, here saying that the Asturian furar favoured the adaptation. This was also the case with English hurricane, where the i was introduced through the influence of hurry.

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    "From an indigenous word HURAKAN that the Castilian huracán gave origin to the French ouragan and the Italian uragana (REW s.v. hurakan). The Asturian form, along with the the Portuguese furacão, Galician furacán, Catalonian furacà, taking in the originally-aspirated Castilianism, adapting it with f- to fit the phonologic system that didn't have the initial aspiration, not being in the original version of our language. ... – guifa Nov 17 '14 at 17:29
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    ... It's clear that the existence of phonetically-close terms in these languages, such as all those related to the Asturian furar 'aufuracar', aided the adaptation." – guifa Nov 17 '14 at 17:30
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I'm not very familiar with the history of Portuguese phonetics, but my guess is that when the word huracán was imported in Spanish (being then aspirated, unlike now), when it got to the Portuguese, they likely lacked the sound and so f was probably a pretty good substitute.

  • This might be true, but even if it is, it leaves out part of the story. Latin 'f' regularly remains 'f' in Portuguese, but becomes 'h' (now silent) in Spanish. – Colin Fine Aug 10 '18 at 22:09
  • @ColinFine I'm not sure how Latin enters into the question, as the original word was not Latin and didn't exist in Latin before entering into Spanish/Portuguese/etc. Arias (quoted in the accepted answer, and who does not shy away from extensively discussing phone professions from Latin in his etymologic dictionary, and who coincidentally I heard give a talk last week), likewise seemed to feel no need to reference Latin. – guifa Aug 11 '18 at 2:43
  • I didn't explain my point well. What I meant is that it may have been more a matter of following a convention than because the sound was a good substitute. As a parallel case, I find it hard to believe that Russian speakers in 20th century actually heard the English /h/ as "like" the Russian /g/ (as opposed to the Russian /x/); but nevertheless, that was how English names were Russified at least up to the 1970s. – Colin Fine Aug 12 '18 at 16:22
  • @ColinFine many dialects of Russian, esp. from the South, realize gamma as /h/ or /x/. In Pushkin we see words like ДУХ and ДРУГ rhyming. Listen to Gorbachev; his speech often has this feature. While this feature has become much rare and stigmatized over the centuries, transliteration conventions change slower than speech. There's also the matter of etymology; Russian /g/ evolved from proto-Slavic /h/. – ubadub Oct 5 '18 at 0:36

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