Stress pattern in the Spanish preterite


Senior Member
USA English (Mich. & Calif.)
The following seems to be true of the Spanish preterite without fail. (Vosotros forms are excluded.)
  • If a verb has a regular preterite stem (or one that is only yod-influenced or only undergoes changes in orthography), stress always falls on the syllable immediately following the root:
manejar (manej-): mane, manejaste, mane, manejamos, manejaron
llegar (lleg-): llegué, llegaste, lle, llegamos, llegaron (orthographically normalized)
dormir (dorm-): dor, dormiste, durmió, dormimos, durmieron (yod-influenced in the third-person forms)​

  • If a verb has a truly irregular stem (one whose changes go beyond yod influence or orthographical normalization) stress always falls on the penultimate syllable of the conjugated form, causing it to shift in the first and third person:
    venir (vin-): vine, viniste, vino, vinimos vinieron
    traer (traj-): traje, trajiste, trajo, trajimos, trajeron
    estar (estuv-): estuve, estuviste, estuvo, estuvimos, estuvieron​
Also, verbs with irregular preterite stems always use the same set of suffixes regardless of whether they are of the -ar or -er/-ir variety (except in j-ending roots which change -ieron to -eron).​
(This is notwithstanding single-syllable verbs such as dar and ser, which always force stress past the [one- or two-letter] stem.)

It's striking that these rules appear to be 99.9% exceptionless. How could an irregularity trigger a stress change so automatic and regular? Does anybody know how this came to be?
  • It's a pretty complicated question which has to do with how these irregular verbs developed from their Latin ancestors, to which I don't know the answer. However, you can find a partial explanation of this development in this article; unfortunately, I don't think there's anything better on the web. For a full explanation, you'll have to hit the library. This book should have all the answers you need, judging by its table of contents.
    Thanks! The first link was especially useful. I think I understand it much more fully now. The evidence suggests that stem-changing irregularities in the preterite (other than the ir/ser merger into fui, fuiste, etc.) were essentially caused by the same process - a metathesis of the stressed vowel. Both the stem change and the stress change were embodied in this single mechanism.

    I can identify three classes of preterite irregularity:
    • Forms that metathesized in and of themselves
    saber: sapui > saupi > sope > sube​
    • Forms that shifted by analogy
    haber: habui > haubi > hove > hube
    tener: tenui > teuni >! grafted from haber > tove > tuve​

    It's interesting that tener could've very well had developed its own unique irregularity without influence from haber: *tune, *tuniste, *tuno, etc.

    It's also interesting to note that irregular -ar preterites all seem to have developed by analogy as well: andar/anduve, estar/estuve. This would explain why the irregular preterite endings are shared between -ar and -er/-ir verbs.

    I'm guessing that venir/vino also became irregular by analogy somehow.
    • Forms that were already irregular in Latin
    trahere: traxi > traje​

    Even in these cases, I imagine that the same process of metathesis may have occurred going into Latin:
    *trahui > *trauhi > traxi​
    Also, you might want to check out this excellent article discussing various points of Spanish vocabulary and grammar from the perspective of their development from Latin. Unfortunately, it doesn't say much about the preterit specifically.
    I don't know about his linguistics, but his history is amusingly oversimplified, if not caricatural! :D

    Well, while I certainly wouldn't recommend someone who is about to write an exam on ancient and medieval European history to use this page instead of the texbook :D, I wouldn't really say that is "caricatural". Its biggest flaw is that it presents the popular, but mistaken view that Dark Ages descended on Europe with the collapse of the imperial power in the Western Roman Empire. It also promotes the common horrible misconception that languages somehow become "simpler" if their grammar becomes more analytic (highly irritating to someone like me, whose major frustration in life is the impossibility to master the intricacies of the most analytic of all I-E languages :D). But otherwise, I'd say that it's more or less accurate.

    Linguistically, as someone who spent some time dabbling in both Latin and Spanish (though never getting anywhere near an advanced level in either), I have the impression that everything I read on this page makes sense. Of course, someone with a higher level of expertise in either (not that this says much) might well disagree.
    I don't know about his linguistics, but his history is amusingly oversimplified, if not caricatural! :D

    P.S. A site for a quick overview (not 100% trustworthy, I'm afraid).

    This last link has a gigantic error: it says that the imperfect subjunctive in -ra comes from the latin imperfect subjunctive, while it comes from the latin pluperfect indicative. It then assumed the function of the subjunctive. Moreover I have the impression that the author tries to match the latin and spanish conjugation with poor history and linguistics.
    I surely would not recommend it
    I know, that's one of the big errors in that site. I think the author got confused because he expected the Spanish imperfect subjunctive I to have derived from a subjunctive tense, which is not the case!

    However, apart from that error and a few others here and there, it seems like an O.K. site for a quick overview. Obviously, it's not a scholarly reference.

    Besides, the original question in this thread was about the preterite.