Monthly Archives: May 2016

A historical question about the language map of Spain

The main languages of Spain besides Castilian Spanish are spoken in the north of the Iberian peninsula, from Galicia in the west to the País Vasco and Navarra in the center to Catalonia in the east. Additionally, Portuguese territory occupies the western edge of the peninsula, and Catalonian is also spoken in Valencia, on its eastern edge.

Modified from under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Castilian became the predominant form of Hispanic Romance because Castilians took the lead role in the Reconquista: the long process of retaking Arab-held territory, culminating in the conquest of Granada in 1492. As Ralph Penny summarized, “At first typical only of the speech of the Burgos area of southern Cantabria, Castilian linguistic characteristics were carried south, southeast and southwest, in part by movement of population, as Castilians settled in reconquered territories, and in part by the adoption of Castilian features by those whose speech was originally different.” This naturally left Galician, Basque, Catalan, and Portuguese remaining in areas that weren’t part of this takeover process.

An animated map I found on Wikipedia has me wondering about the specifics of this process. It shows all the different forms of northern peninsular Romance pushing south, then Castilian spreading east and west at the expense of Leonese and Aragonese. I don’t know enough Iberian dialectal history to evaluate the accuracy of this narrative. Can anyone chime in? I’m particularly curious about the map’s depiction of the history of Portuguese. Was Mozárabe really the form of Romance spoken in today’s Portugal until the Reconquista?

By The original uploader was Alexandre Vigo at Galician Wikipedia (Transferred from gl.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Jespersen’s Cycle in Spanish – past and present

When I started teaching Spanish in 2004, I put linguistics on the back burner — I assumed, forever. This changed in the summer of 2008, with a single “Aha!” moment during an advanced Spanish class I was taking at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. (Another class that summer was the source of a useful reading list of Spanish light fiction.) Our professor, José Luis Ocasar (now at George Washington University), explained that en absoluto ‘absolutely’ had come to mean ‘absolutely not’ because of its frequent use in negative sentences, such as No era un nombre árabe en absoluto ‘It was absolutely not an Arab name’.

This immediately struck a linguistic bell: it was clearly an example of Jespersen’s Cycle, the well-known process by which affirmatives become negatives. Readers may be familiar with this process from the use of French pas (as in Je ne sais pas) to mean ‘no’ even without the ne. Recognizing it in Spanish was thrilling, like running into an old friend in an exotic locale. It also made me realize that my linguistics background gave me the privilege of understanding facts of Spanish in a different way than my fellow students. The desire to share this privilege is what eventually led me to write ¿Por qué?.

For me, Jespersen’s Cycle in Spanish has been the gift that keeps giving. I later learned that en absoluto is not the only ongoing instance of the process; en modo alguno ‘in some way’ has also come to mean ‘in no way’. Even better, looking back into the history of Spanish, it turns out that Jespersen’s Cycle starred in the creation of four Spanish negatives: nadienada, jamás, and tampocoNadie and nada began with Latin expressions built on the verb nascor ‘to be born’ (the source of nacer): non homines nati ‘no people born’ and non res nata ‘no thing born’. These were roughly equivalent to English ‘not a soul’ and ‘nothing on Earth’. Over time, nati became nadienata became nada, and both became standalone negatives. Jamás developed from the expression ya más ‘any more’, and tampoco from tanto poco ‘so little’, both paired with no so frequently that they became negative themselves.

Until this morning, I thought I knew all there was to know about Jespersen’s Cycle in Spanish. Then I read this useful blog post about the Spanish of Don Quijote. It included the use of persona instead of nadie — for example, in the sentence Una noche se salieron del lugar sin que persona los viese. While this usage is not possible in modern Spanish — the RAE doesn’t even list it with an ‘archaic’ warning — it is directly analogous to the rise of the French negative personne ‘nobody’.

Please let me know if I’m missed any other instances of Jespersen’s Cycle in Spanish.

Note: this post is basically an expansion of slides 20 and 21 of my 2016 New Year’s listicle, “The top 10 surprising ways that Spanish isn’t special”.


A linguistic tour of northern Spain

In a few weeks I’ll be heading to northern Spain with a friend for a 16-day trip. We organized our itinerary around language-oriented destinations that I learned about while researching my book, and also from their inclusion in the Camino de la lengua castellana (here and here). These are sites relevant to the history of (Castilian) Spanish, beginning with Roman and pre-Roman ruins. Therefore, we won’t be visiting the Basque Country and Galicia, though we will be spending some time in Catalonia.

Our trip will begin in Madrid and circle clockwise, ending in Barcelona. Below is a map and also an outline of where we’ll go and what we’ll see. (I’ve left off the usual tourist sites, such as the Prado, which I always revisit when in Spain.) I’d be interested in hearing any other ideas that you have. And, Dear Reader, if you live in Spain, or will be visiting in June, perhaps we could even get together IRL (In Real Life).

I plan to be blogging regularly while on the road.

  • Madrid
  • Salamanca
    • En route from Madrid we will stop at the Castro de Ulaca, a hilltop Celtic ruin.  [I later posted about this visit here]
    • We won’t have time to visit Ávila but can at least admire the walls before we turn off for Ulaca.
    • Although Salamanca doesn’t have any specifically linguistic sites, it is a gorgeous city with Spain’s oldest university. [I later posted about this visit here]
  • Valladolid
    • We’ll stop here en route to Burgos to see the Universidad de Valladolid and another Cervantes museum, in the house where Cervantes lived when Don Quijote was published.  [I later posted about this visit here]
    • I’m also hoping to connect with an academic pen-pal of mine, a faculty member at the university who researches Spanish slips of the tongue. She furnished the epigraph for the relevant section in my book: Muchas tardes, buenas gracias.
  • Burgos: home town of El Cid and the cradle of the Castilian language, this is a city I’ve longed to see for years. [I posted about our visit to Burgos here and here]
    • The spectacular cathedral is built on the site of the 1080 Council of Burgos, a church meeting at which clergy and royalty discussed the problem of enforcing the use of Latin in the mass. This is an early milestone indicating that Spanish Romance had diverged dramatically from Latin.
    • The city is filled with El Cid connections, from our hotel (El Mesón del Cid) to the Plaza del Mío Cid with its iconic statue, to El Cid’s purported sword Tizona, on display in the Museo de Burgos.
    • Besides the Museo de Burgos we’ll also visit the Museo de la Evolución Humana for its relevance to the peninsula’s prehistory. (didn’t happen)
    • A day trip to the monastery at Santo Domingo de Silos, where the Glosas silenses were written, may be possible if we have time. (didn’t happen)
  • Monasterios de Yuso y Suso [I later posted about this visit here]
    • This will be a pit stop en route to Girona.
    • It is where the Glosas Emilianenses were found — the first examples of written Castilian.
  • Girona
    • Girona has some well-regarded museums, including one devoted to local Jewish history, and an archaeological museum.
  • Costa Brava
    • Our home base here will be the seaside village of L’Estartit. I predict some beach time in addition to language tourism!
    • One day trip will be to Ullastret, which has excellent pre-Roman (“Iberian”) ruins and a branch of the Catalonian Museum of Archaeology. I illustrated a lead plaque from Ullastret in my book and am looking forward to seeing it in person. [I later posted about this visit here]
    • Another day trip will be to Empúries, the site of the first Roman settlement in the Iberian Peninsula — in other words, the place where Latin came to Spain. [I later posted about this visit here]
  • Barcelona

When one rule trumps another

I just finished Jordi Sierra i Frabra’s Siete días de julio, his equally dynamite sequel to Cuatro días de enero, which I wrote about last month. This is rapidly becoming one of my favorite book series in any language. I’m looking forward to reading Cinco días en octubre soon — right now it is out of stock at Amazon (a good sign for Spanish literature lovers).

On p. 87 of Siete días, one character asks another No tiene a nadie, ¿verdad? This sentence caught my eye because of its intriguing use of the “personal a“, the preposition used to mark direct objects that are (i) human and (ii) specific. To give a more typical example, the personal a is required in Visito a María because María is a specific person. It isn’t needed in Visito Madrid, because Madrid is a place, not a person, or in Necesito unos amigos nuevos, because the friends are not specified — in fact, they are unknown. A fuller explanation is here.

No tiene a nadie is an interesting use of the personal a because it lies at the intersection of two of this structure’s subtleties. On the one hand, tener is usually an exception to the personal a. One says, for example, Tengo dos amigos, in contrast to Veo a dos amigos, Visito a dos amigos, and so on. However, nadie requires the personal a, even though it doesn’t specify a person: one says No veo a nadieNo visitan a nadie, and so on, just as one says No veo a Miguel and No visitan a Ana.

In the case of No tiene a nadienadie trumps tiene. This seems to be the outcome in general, not just in Siete días de julio, at least as judged by numbers of Google hits. By this metric, No tiene a nadie outnumbers no tiene nadie five to one, and no tengo a nadie outnumbers no tengo nadie seven to one.

This reminded me strongly of dueling subtleties in the Spanish past tense. In general, the imperfect is used for repeated actions, and the preterite for time-bounded actions. For examples, one says Iba a la playa cada día  ‘I went to the beach every day’, but Fui a la playa ayer ‘I went to the beach yesterday’. When an action is repeated within a specified time frame, the preterite wins. For example, one would say Durante mis vacaciones fui a la playa cada día, or La semana pasada fui a la playa cada día.

Nadie trumps tener for the personal a. A specified time frame trumps repetition in the past tense. These rules of thumb are good to know.

The strange history of muñeca

A stray comment on /r/Spanish got me thinking about muñeca, the word that, bizarrely, means both ‘doll’ and ‘wrist’. The ‘doll’ meaning is primary. It’s the one listed first in dictionaries, and if you do a Google image search on muñeca, you see more dolls than wrists. It’s the first meaning that I learned, since ‘wrist’ is one of the less important body parts. When I eventually learned the second meaning, I was surprised that one word could have two such completely unrelated interpretations.

I’ve just looked up the history of muñeca in my can’t-live-without-it etymological dictionary by Joan Corominas. It turns out that the word’s original meaning was neither ‘doll’ nor ‘wrist’, but something entirely different: ‘milestone’, in the physical sense of a road marker.

Muñeca ‘milestone’ turns into both ‘wrist’ and ‘doll’.

How did this bizarre transformation take place? According to Corominas, the key was the interpretation of a milestone marker as something that sticks up out of the ground: a bump, or using fancier English, a protuberance. The word was then extended to ‘wrist’ because the wrist bone protrudes from the arm. The road to ‘doll’ began with the extension of muñeca to a bumpy bundle of rags, and from there to a rag doll, and then other dolls.

Muñeca‘s original meaning of ‘milestone’ has been lost from everyday discourse, but is still included in the Real Academia’s dictionary — but only after ‘doll’, ‘wrist’, and other meanings related to ‘doll’, such as ‘cadaver’ and ‘bimbo’.

Incidentally, the earlier history of muñeca is obscure. It is not Latin, but seems to come from a pre-Roman language, possibly Celtic.