Monthly Archives: June 2016

Walking in Cervantes’s (baby) footsteps)

¿Don Quijote or Sancho Panza?

Like Gilligan’s Island fans trying to decide between Ginger and Mary Ann, visitors to Alcalá de Henares have to decide between their two favorite characters in Cervantes’s Don Quijote de la Mancha. Do you prefer the Don himself, the delusional would-be knight errant, or Sancho, his hapless but willing squire? Visitors can register their vote by choosing where to sit on the bench outside Cervantes’s childhood home, now a charming museum. You can see my vote below.

Don Quijote or Sancho Panza

Since Alcalá de Henares is a major stop on the Camino del Castellano, one of the inspirations for my linguistic tour of northern Spain, my companion Sue and I decided to spend a day there before leaving Madrid for Salamanca. Alcalá is known for its Cervantes connection and its university, founded at the end of the fifteenth century. Out two favorite stops were the Cervantes museum and the city’s cathedral. The museum is in Cervantes’ actual childhood home, although the furnishings and other decor are not original to the house. The curators have made a strong effort to recreate what the different parts of the house would have looked out, from the ladies’ sitting room, decked out Moorish style with carpets and low furniture, to the braziers in the middle of each room.

Sala de damas at the Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes, with a brazier to keep winter’s cold away

The cathedral stands on the spot linked in legend to the 304 C.E. martyrdom of the Santos Niños, two young brothers who declared their faith in Christ knowing that it would lead to their death. The cathedral’s crypt includes the rock on which they were supposedly beheaded, while its museum includes treasures like this priestly robe made in the Phillipines (shown below, alongside an enlarged view of one of the birds embroidered on it). The church was severely damaged during the Spanish Civil War and only repaired in the 1990s. It’s sad to think that this national treasure suffered, like so many Spaniards, from that tragic period in the nation’s history.



One final note: back in Madrid, we wrapped up our day with a quick visit to the Reina Sofía museum to pay homage to Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, which I used to see in New York’s MOMA when I was a girl (it went back to Spain when Franco died). Looking at the innocent victims screaming in agony, all I could think was: Orlando.


A non-visit to the Real Academia de la Historia

Today’s itinerary in Madrid was mostly non-linguistic. My travel companion Sue and I put in a full day of museum-going, tapas-hopping, and lots and lots of walking. However, we did come as close as we could to the Glosas Emilianenses, which are housed in the Real Academia de la Historia in Madrid’s charming Las Letras quarter.  Here’s a picture to prove that we were there. You can just see the name of the institution above the doorway.

IMG_20160615_130054 outside the Real Academia de la historia

The Glosas Emilianenses are glosses, or marginal notes, on a Latin text found in the Monasterio de Suso in the town of San Millán de la Congoja. (The adjective emilianense comes from Millán.) They are of extreme linguistic importance because they are written in an early form of Spanish and thus constitute possibly the first written evidence for the language. (The first written Italian, I have to admit, is much more fun.)

Here’s a page from the Glosas. Unfortunately they are not on display in the Academia, as I confirmed before our trip. In fact, when Sue and I stepped in through the building’s open door, we were immediately shooed away. Next week, however, we will visit Suso together and will at least see where the Glosas were found.


A page from the Glosas Emilianenses

A visit to the Real Academia Española

Today was a dream come true for me: I visited the seat of the Real Academia Española. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably already know that I’m a big fan of the RAE. This visit was therefore a top priority for my linguistic tour of northern Spain. I also wanted to use the RAE’s library to look at a specific book that is not available in the United States.

The seat of the Real Academia Española, just behind the Museo del Prado.

The RAE is not generally open to the public, but the head of the Academia Norteamérica de la Lengua Española, Gerardo Piña-Rosales, kindly contacted the RAE to arrange for me to take a tour. As it happened, a local public school had scheduled a class trip to the RAE on my preferred date and time, so I was simply added to this group of very well-behaved kids. We saw a video about the RAE (see below) and then visited the principal rooms, including meeting rooms, the lecture hall, and various libraries.

My two favorite rooms were the coat room and the plenary meeting room. The coat room is fun because each hook is labeled with a member’s name, and they are ordered by their year of admittance to the RAE.  I was happy to see the designated hooks for one of my favorite writers, Arturo Pérez-Reverte (whose work has popped up in my blog here and here), and the linguist Inés Fernández Ordóñez, whose research on leísmo I’ve cited here. The plenary meeting room is where the RAE convenes to vote on proposed changes to their dictionary, spelling guide, or grammar. One letter of the Spanish alphabet, either upper-case or lower-case, is carved into each chair around the table. This reflects that fact that each membership position on the RAE corresponds to a letter: when member P dies, for example, a new member is appointed to position P. Our tour guide made sure to point out, however, that each member is NOT responsible for the section of the dictionary corresponding to his or her letter. (Perhaps this is a common misconception?) They aren’t even required to sit in their corresponding chair.

RAE plenary meeting room. A different letter of the alphabet is carved into each chair.

When I get home, I’ll have to write additional posts to share other tidbits I learned about the RAE, and also the fruits of my research session in the RAE library.

Saludos desde Madrid

I arrived in Madrid this morning and am taking a jet lag day before beginning my linguistic itinerary in earnest tomorrow. I’m happy as a clam to be back in Spain and surrounded by Spanish — specifically, Spanish Spanish. I’ve already seen a nice example of the typically Spanish extended use of (our airplane breakfast was served in a box that wished Que tengas un buen viaje), and an advertising poster with the vosotros verb form sois.

The most Spanish thing I’ve seen so far, leaving aside the language, is this “No food or drink” decal on the airport tram:

airport train

A similar sign in the U.S. would never in a million years feature a wine glass!

Leísmo and verb subject properties

Earlier this month I wrote a blog post comparing the contexts of leísta and non-leísta pronoun usage in Jordi Sierra’s Cuatro días en enero. At least in the first few chapters of this book, masculine human direct objects of physical verbs tended to be expressed with lo and los, and objects of other verbs (mostly verbs of cognition) with le and les. Here is the verb table from that post.Since then, I’ve dusted off my virtual pile of leísmo readings to check for anything written about the relationship between verb choice and leísmo. This literature search came up almost dry: research on the semantics and leísmo uniformly refers to the semantic properties of nouns rather than verbs. One property that comes up frequently in the literature is whether an direct object expresses discrete, or countable, items (like cars) or non-countable materials (like sugar). Another, discussed in a 1974 paper by Erica García and Ricardo Otheguy, is relative strength, or activity. García and Otheguy suggest that le is chosen when a verb’s direct object is “stronger”, or more active. For example, they give the example of María le llora ‘Mary complains to him’, whose object “him” (a living person) is more active than the corpse in María lo llora ‘Mary mourns him’. This reminded me of Jon Aske’s comment on my original post, that “leísmo is used to add a nuance to the sentence, primarily having to do with human objects that are highly involved in the action or that something is being done for them, as opposed to to them.”

However, García and Otheguy also relate the le/lo choice to the properties of subjects, suggesting that le is chosen when a verb’s subject is “weaker”, or less active. For example, they contrast:

  1. No hagas ruido, niño, que le molesta a su padre ‘Don’t make noise, child, because it annoys your father’
  2. No hagas ruido, niño, que lo molesta a su padre ‘Don’t make noise, child, because you’ll annoy your father’.

As is typical in gustar-type sentences, the subject of sentence #1 (“noise”) is not an active participant. In contrast, the subject in sentence #2 (the child himself) is only too active!

This distinction might help to explain the division between le and lo verbs in the table above. Someone who eludes, finds, kills or unites (verbs from the second column of the table) is surely a stronger, or more active, subject than someone who merely sees, asks, or needs (first column). This might be a fruitful topic for a Spanish linguistics dissertation, if anyone is looking…


A scholarly look at Burgos

I’m counting down the days to my upcoming linguistic tour of northern Spain with my friend Sue. To help prepare for our stay in the Castilian city of Burgos, I consulted Teofilo Ruiz’s The City and the Realm: Burgos and Castile 1080-1492. Dr. Ruiz is a historican whose unusual life trajectory has taken him from a Cuban jail, to driving a NYC taxi, to Princeton, UCLA, and a National Humanities Medal. I was impressed that the essays collected in the The City and the Realm were written in four languages: not just English and Spanish, but also French and Italian.

The two dates in the book’s title are easily recognizable. 1492 was, of course, a year of triple significance in Spanish history: the Catholic kings (Ferdinand and Isabella) completed the Reconquista by conquering Granada, Spanish Jews were forced to chose between conversion to Catholicism or expulsion, and Columbus sailed to the New World. 1080, in contrast, was a year of linguistic significance. The Church convened a high-level meeting, or Council, in Burgos, to deal with a language problem: the vernacular Romance, called mozárabe, used in the local Mass had diverged noticeably from the Latin of the traditional Roman Mass. The outcome of the Council was to enforce the Roman Mass. This event stands as a cultural milestone in the evolution of Latin into Spanish, and Hispanic Romance more generally.

The essay I read in depth was the first, “Burgos and the council of 1080.” The main points I took away were:

  • The 1080 Council was the culmination of a series of Church actions taken against the mozárabe Mass during the preceding decade or so. This indicates that there was widespread awareness of the linguistic divergence.
  • Although Burgos is a relatively small city today — it ranks 37th in population within Spain — and is likewise not on the radar for most foreigners, it played an active role in medieval Spanish commerce and religion. it served as a trade center, funneling imports from the Bay of Biscay (see map) into southern Spain. By 1080 Burgos had also become a standard stop on the Camino de Santiago. (In fact, when I searched for tourist advice on “walk along rio alarzon burgos”, the top Google match was a modern-day Camino website!) Burgos was also surrounded by monasteries (including San Millán de la Cogolla and Santo Domingo de Silos, which happen to be  sources of early examples of written Spanish). The monasteries and the Camino made Burgos a natural location for the Council.
  • The mozárabe Mass, or Rito Hispano-Mozárabe, is still celebrated on a daily basis in the Capilla mozárabe in the Cathedral of Toledo — probably my favorite cathedral. The cathedral’s website has a lengthy description of the history and current practice of the Rito. I won’t make it to Toledo on this trip, but the next time I do go, I will definitely try to sit in on this Mass.

I also had a friendly back-and-forth email correspondence with Prof. Ruiz, who informed me that the Cathedral of Burgos is built on the site of the 1080 Council. This will be very much on my mind during our visit.

Jordi Sierra’s off-and-on leísmo

When I could distract my brain from the engrossing plot of Jordi Sierra I Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, and pay attention to Sierra’s language, I was struck by his off-and-on leísmo. For readers who are unfamiliar with this term, leísmo refers to the use of the masculine indirect object pronoun le ‘to him’ instead of the masculine direct object pronoun lo ‘him’, as in the first row of Table A, below. Leísmo, a centuries-old speech pattern, is most common in Spain. Most Spanish textbooks in the United States therefore teach the non-leísta pattern shown in the second column. Note that leísmo normally only applies to human direct objects.

Table A

Sierra’s object pronoun usage is fascinating because he isn’t strictly leísta or non-leísta, but alternates between the two styles of pronoun usage. An example is the following sentence, at the beginning of Chapter 2, which uses one les and two los.

Todos los soldados más o menos útiles estaban siendo sacados del lugar con urgencia, tal vez para llevarles a combatir, tal vez para trasladarlos a la última resistencia, Valencia, tal vez para conducirlos a Francia.

‘All the soldiers who were more or less fit were being taken away urgently, perhaps to carry them to combat, perhaps to move them to Valencia, the last city of the resistance, perhaps to take them to France.

The same approximate ratio of two instances of lo (or los) for each one of le (or les) holds more broadly in Cuatro días de enero, as can be seen in Table B, which contains all examples of masculine human direct objects in the book’s first two chapters.

Table B: Masculine human direct object pronouns in Cuatro días de enero, caps. 1-2

A serious look at leísmo in Sierra’s writing would of course have to analyze much more text, ideally pulling it from a variety of his books. It would have to take into account Sierra’s Catalonian origins: Sierra is from Barcelona, and writes in both Castilian Spanish and in Catalán. Perhaps his bilingualism plays a role in his pronoun usage? And to a linguist, an analysis of leísmo in spoken Spanish will always be fundamentally more interesting than one based on written Spanish.

Nevertheless, an interesting pattern immediately emerges from the data in Table B: Sierra’s use of leísta and non-leísta pronouns appears to be governed by semantics rather than syntax. Sierra uses the two types of pronouns in the same syntactic contexts: in both single and double pronoun structures (e.g. Se les necesitabaSe los llevaron), in reference to both singular and plural people, and both before and after verbs. However, as shown in Table C (based on the examples in Table B), most of the verbs used with lo and los express physical actions, while most of those used with le and les express cognition. These are tendencies rather than absolutes: llevar (used with le) and entender (used with lo) are obvious exceptions.

Table C: Verbs with le and les vs. lo and los in Cuatro días de enero, caps. 1-2
(based on Table B)

This pattern is doubly logical. The object of a physical action — the person who is killed, accompanied, trapped, and so on — is closer to the canonical idea of a direct object than one who is seen, believed, needed, and so on. In addition, the use of le and les is already associated with non-physical verbs of the gustar type: someone who is pleased (me gusta), surprised (te sorprende), bothered (le molesta), and the like. The next task on my to-do list is to hit the literature to review what has already been written on this topic.

Incidentally, in Siete días de julio, the sequel to Cuatro días de enero, I noted an example of le being used to refer to a non-human direct object: Su…llamémosle trabajo no era precisamente agradable ‘Her…let’s call it work…wasn’t exactly pleasant.’ According to Inés Fernández Ordóñez (a leading leísmo scholar), the use of le with llamar is quite common in much of Spain. There are no such examples in the first two chapters of Cuatro días.

[See follow-up post here.]