2 Explanations Why "Alto" in Spanish Can Mean "Stop"

Word Seen on Spanish Road Signs Comes From German

alto stop sign Spanish
Sign in Panama. Elisabeth D'Orcy/Creative Commons.

All over the English-speaking countries of the world, people may drive on different sides of the road, but an international constant is an octagonal red "STOP" sign is used to let drivers know they need to stop. The same cannot be said for Spanish-speaking countries.

In Spanish-speaking countries, the red octagonal shape is used to mean "stop," however, the word used in the sign changes depending on the Spanish-speaking country you are in. In some places the red octagon says "Alto," or in other places, the red octagon says, "Pare." 

Both signs signify for a driver to stop. But, the word "alto" does not traditionally mean stop in Spanish.

Parer is the Spanish verb meaning "to stop." In Spanish, the word alto commonly serves as a descriptive word meaning "high" or "loud." As in, the book is up high on a shelf, or the boy shouted loudly. Where did "alto" come from? How did this word end up on Spanish stop signs?

"Alto" Defined

Most native Spanish speakers do not know why alto means "stop." It requires some digging into the historical usage of the word and its etymology. For those with a knowledge of German, a similarity could be drawn between the word alto and the German word Halt. The word Halt in German has the same meaning as the word "halt" in English.

According to the Spanish Royal Academy's dictionary, the second reference to alto with "stop" as its meaning is commonly found on road signs in Central America, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, and it comes from the German Halt. The German verb halten means to stop. The dictionary provides a basic etymology of most words, but it does not go into extensive detail or give a date of first use.

According to another Spanish etymology dictionary, the Diccionario Etimológico, urban legend traces the Spanish usage of the word alto with the meaning of "stop" back to the 15th century during the Italian Wars. The sergeant raised his pike high as a signal to stop the column of soldiers from marching. In this reference, the Italian word for "high" is alto.  

More credence is given to the Spanish Royal Academy dictionary's meaning, suggesting that alto is a direct borrowing from the German Halt. The Italian story sounds more like a folk tale, but the explanation is plausible.

The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that the English word "halt" comes from the 1590s from the French halte or Italian alto, ultimately from the German Halt, possibly as a German military term that made its way into the Romance languages.

Which Countries Use Which Sign

Most Spanish-speaking Caribbean and South American countries use Pare. Mexico and most Central American countries use Alto. Spain and Portugal also use Pare. Also, in Portuguese, the word for stop is pare.