Category Archives: From Latin to Spanish

A Spanish teacher in Italy

I recently returned from a short visit to Italy with my husband. It was our third time there together. We spent one day in Milan, three in Florence, and four in Bologna, including a day trip to Ravenna to see the mosaics. My mother used to tell me about the mosaics, so I had her very much in my thoughts while we were there. It was the best day of the trip.

The first time we went to Italy, I worked through the first 100 or so pages of a standard Italian grammar workbook on the plane ride over. (It’s hard for me to sleep on an airplane, so I decided to use the time productively.) Given my Spanish, my French, and a year of college Latin, I found Italian easy to pick up. I managed to have some respectable conversations with hotel receptionists and restaurant servers. This time, I worked through Language Transfer’s Introduction to Italian course, which I recommend 100%! I also bought a short grammar reference book and an adorable book of short Italian stories for beginners, which I devoured. My favorite story was about a lonely yellow sock with a green stripe whose owner matches him with a lonely green sock with a yellow stripe, and wears them all over the world. This book was a lot of fun.

What struck me most about Italian the second time around was the similarity between its past tense and that of French. Like French, Italian has mostly abandoned the simple past (like I ate) in favor of the periphrastic past (like I have eaten), a transformation that may be underway with Spanish in Spain. Also, both Italian and French use two different auxiliaries (‘to have’ and ‘to be’) to form the periphrastic past tense, and the past participle (like eaten in I have eaten) agrees with the verb’s subject or object in a rule-governed but confusing way.

I also learned that Italian, unlike Spanish or French, does not have a periphrastic future tense. In Spanish and French you can either use the future tense conjugation (e.g. comeré ‘I will eat’) or, as in English, use the verb ‘to go’ as an auxiliary (e.g. Voy a comer ‘I’m going to eat’). Catalan doesn’t have a periphrastic future either, and in fact uses the verb anar ‘to go’ to form a periphrastic past, e.g. va parlar ‘He/she spoke’ — literally, ‘he/she went and spoke’. This tells us that the use of ‘to go’ as a future auxiliary, which Spanish and English speakers take for granted, must not have been uniformly present in Vulgar Latin.

Like other Spanish speakers (I suppose), I found that Spanish occasionally tripped me up when I was trying to speak Italian. For example, in Spanish andar and caminar both mean ‘to walk,’ but in Italian andare means ‘to go.’ As another example, I kept confusing Italian cinque ‘five’ with Spanish quince ‘fifteen’. But overall, Spanish was more of a help than a hindrance.

I did get to speak some Spanish during our trip, for example with a couple from Colombia who were staying at our hotel in Bologna. It was such a pleasure to slip back into my comfort zone! I also took advantage of our presence in the European Union to finally purchase a jigsaw puzzle of Gaudi’s “El Capricho” house in Comillas, Spain that I had been coveting since 2019, thereby saving $35 on postage.

During this visit, my attempts at conversation were less successful than previously, with people I spoke with switching to English. I can think of several possible explanations for this:

  • Perhaps this year’s crash course in Italian wasn’t as successful as previous attempts. I am several years older, after all. But I sincerely believe that my Italian is pretty good, given that I don’t actually speak Italian! I’d rather find an alternative explanation. So…
  • Since we were staying at more luxurious hotels this time around, perhaps their staff are proudly bilingual, and trained to reply to clients in their own language.
  • It’s also possible that given the current influx in American tourists in Italy, Italian hospitality workers in general are primed to speak English

At any rate, now that I’m home Italian is going on the back burner — until the next viaggio.

Something borrowed, something blue

For the last few years I’ve had a research project about Spanish word origins on the back burner. This summer I’ve resurrected the project, and it is simmering nicely: I have now finished the first major stage.

The focus of the project is Spanish borrowings, or loanwords: words in Spanish that originated in other languages. The project applies to Spanish the methodology from Martin Haspelmath and Uri Tadmor’s World Loanword Database (WOLD) project. Beginning in 2004, Haspelmath and Tadmor organized a team of linguists to collect data on loanwords in forty-one languages around the world. In 2009 they published their results in a book, Loanwords in the World’s Languages: A Comparative Handbook (De Gruyter), and the contributing linguists shared their data on the WOLD website.

My goals in this project are:

  1. To compare Spanish to the forty-one languages in the WOLD project, in terms of (i) its percentage of loanwords, and (ii) these words’ characteristics, such as their part of speech.
  2. To quantify the relative contributions of different source languages to Spanish vocabulary. I already did this for my first book, using a random sampling of five hundred words from a standard Spanish etymological dictionary. But that sample may have skewed toward more recherché vocabulary.
  3. To address various issues involved in etymological research, in Spanish and in general.

More about the WOLD project

In order to obtain comparable results across the WOLD languages, all participating linguists started with the same list of 1460 core meanings: ‘house,’ ‘mother,’ ‘go,’ and so on. Each linguist identified ‘their’ language’s words for these meanings, then traced the origins of those words using a standardized set of guidelines. I have now completed the first of these two steps for Spanish. It raised all sorts of interesting issues, which I will discuss in my next blog post.

One goal of the WOLD project was to compare the frequency of borrowing in different languages. In other words, of the core meanings, how many were expressed in each language by loanwords? As shown in the table below, borrowing rates ranged from 1.2% for Mandarin Chinese to 62.7% for Selice Romani. Yaron Matras’s review of the WOLD Handbook in the journal Language points out that these two languages are spoken in diametrically different environments. Speakers of Mandarin “show little or no bilingualism”; the language has “a status as a majority language, a powerful standard, and a sociopolitically dominant population.” In contrast, Selice Romani is associated with “universal multilingualism, a minority language status, the absence of a written standard, and sociopolitical marginalization.”

Romanian, the only Romance language in the project, fell into the “high borrowers” category (25.9% to 45.6%), as did English. My previous research (see above) placed Spanish in the “very high borrowers” category, with roughly one-third “native” vocabulary (from Vulgar Latin), one-third later borrowings from Latin, and one-third words from other languages. It will be interested to see whether this holds up for a WOLD-based lexicon.

Borrowing typeLanguages (in increasing order of % loanwords)
“Low borrowers”
(1.2 – 9.7%)
Mandarin Chinese, Old High German, Manange, Ket
“Average borrowers”
(10.7 – 22.4%)
Otomi, Seychelles Creole, Gawwada, Hug, Oroqen, Hawaiian, Kali’na, Iraqw, Q’eqchi’, Wichí, Zinacantán Tzotzil, Malagasy, Dutch, Kanuri, White Hmong, Mapudungun, Hausa, Lower Sorbian
“High borrowers”
(25.9 – 45.6%)
Takia, Thai, Yaqui, Swahili, Vietnamese, Sakha, Archi, Imbabura Quechua, Kildin Saami, Bezhta, Indonesian, Japanese, Ceq Wong, Sarmaccan, English, Romanian, Gurindji
“Very high borrowers”
(51.7 – 62.7%)
Tarifyt Berber, Selice Romani

Another goal of the WOLD project was to learn more about borrowing in general. The research confirmed several generally accepted principles about borrowings:

  • Function words were borrowed less than content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs). Overall, 12% of function words were borrowed, compared to 25% of content words.
  • Nouns were more likely to be borrowed (31%) than other types of content words (14-15%).
  • Borrowing was most common for cultural vocabulary, such as religion, clothing, housing, law, social and political relations, agriculture, food, and warfare; and least common for personal vocabulary, such as sense perception, spatial relations, body parts, and kinship.


My interest in the WOLD methodology dates from 2018, when I was starting to work on my second book, Bringing Linguistics into the Spanish Language Classroom. The book is organized around five themes, or “essential questions,” including “How is Spanish different from other languages?” and “How is Spanish similar to other languages?” I thought it would be interesting to compare Spanish to the WOLD languages so that I could say either “Spanish has borrowed more words than most other languages” or “Spanish has borrowed a typical amount of words.” (I was confident that Spanish would be a “low borrower.”)

I originally imagined that I could research this topic in a couple of weeks, but soon ran into methodological issues such as:

  • Should word pairs like hijo and hija (‘son/daughter’) be counted as two separate words, even though they are just masculine and feminine forms of the same word?
  • WOLD linguists could identify multiple words for a single meaning. How far should this be taken for Spanish? How does one draw the line between synonyms and dialectal variants?
  • When looking up word origins, the WOLD guidelines count a word as borrowed if it entered the language at any point in the language’s history. This would include, for instance, words borrowed into Classical or Vulgar Latin, such as gato ‘cat.’ (Vulgar Latin cattus is believed to be Afro-Asiatic in origin, and replaced the original Latin feles.) This guideline rubbed me the wrong way. Shouldn’t Spanish begin with Vulgar Latin?

After three months of a futile quick-and-dirty run at these issues, I decided to put the project on my back burner and eventually do a more thorough job that would hopefully yield publishable results. So…here we are.

All in the family: Etymologies of Spanish kinship terms

Now that the semester has ended, I’m turning my attention back to a research project on Spanish etymologies that I’ve neglected for months. I owe my readers a blog post introducing this project, but for the time being I’ll share this teaser on the etymology of kinship terms like madre and padre. These words are fun to look at because (i) all languages have a set of such words, which (ii) reflect culture, especially gender roles, and (iii) have surprisingly varied etymologies, many of which (iv) have interesting twists and turns.

All etymologies presented here are from Juan Corominas’ Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana (1961).

To begin with, five pairs of Spanish kinship terms derived their masculine variant from Latin and their feminine variant from the Spanish masculine. This is the largest class of kinship terms we will see here, which is to be expected given that in Spanish, as in most languages, the masculine gender is dominant, or ‘unmarked.’ Thus new words usually enter the language as masculine even if they end in an -a (e.g. yoga, from Sanskrit, and centinela, from Italian), and many feminine words add suffixes to masculine bases (e.g. actor/actriz, español/española).

Note that all pairs of this type except for hijo/hija feature an interesting etymological twist or turn.


Etymology of masculine term
(In all cases, the Spanish feminine term is derived from the Spanish masculine by changing final -o to ‑a.)
hijo/hija ‘son/daughter’Latin filius ‘son’
hermano/hermana ‘brother/sister’Latin germanus ‘of the same parents,’ from frater germanus ‘true brother, i.e. of the same parents’
primo/prima ‘cousin’Latin primus ‘first,’ from consobrinus primus ‘first cousin’
sobrino/sobrina ‘nephew, niece’Latin sobrinus ‘first cousin once removed,  second cousin, etc.’, replacing Latin nepos ‘nephew, grandson’ (as in English nepotism)
cuñado/cuñada ‘brother/sister-in-law’Latin cognatus ‘blood relative’ (con + natus ‘born with’) > ‘any type of relative’ > ‘in-law’ > ‘brother-in-law’

Three pairs of kinship terms developed in the opposite direction from those above: their feminine variants came directly from Latin, and then served as the source of their masculine variants. You might be able to guess that two of these these are terms for grandparents and in-laws. After all, many grandmothers play a large supporting role in their grandchildren’s lives (more so than most grandfathers do) and mothers-in-law loom large in legend and marital strife (more so than fathers-in-law do, unless creepy).


Etymology of feminine term
(In all cases, the Spanish masculine term is derived from the Spanish feminine by changing final -a to ‑o.)
Latin aviola, the diminutive form of avia ‘grandmother’ (like Spanish abuelita)
[Note: abuelo replaced the expected descendent of Latin avus ‘grandfather’]
Vulgar Latin socra ‘mother-in-law’, which “feminized” the masculine-sounding ending of Classical Latin socrus
[Note: suegro replaced the expected descendent of Latin socer ‘father-in-law’]
nieta/nieto ‘granddaughter/son’Vulgar Latin nepta ‘granddaughter’ or ‘niece,’ which “feminized” the ending of Classical Latin neptis
[Note: nieto replaced the expected descendent of Latin nepos ‘nephew, grandson’]

A few Spanish kinship terms come from unrelated masculine and feminine Latin roots.

padre/madre ‘father, mother’padre: Latin pater ‘father’
madre: Latin mater ‘mother’
yerno/nuera ‘son/daughter-in-law’yerno: Latin gener ‘son-in-law’
nuera: Vulgar Latin nora ‘daughter-in-law’, which “feminized” the masculine-sounding ending of Classical Latin nurus

Two final pairs of Spanish kinship terms are each sui generis.

tío/tía ‘uncle/aunt’Latin thius/thia ‘uncle/aunt’, from Greek thêios/théia ‘uncle/aunt’. These are rare examples of borrowed kinship terms.
padrastro/padrastra ‘stepfather/stepmother’padrastro: Vulgar Latin padraster ‘stepfather,’ derived from pater by adding the Latin pejorative suffix -aster; it replaced Classical Latin vitricus.
madrastra: Spanish derivative of madre, with the Spanish pejorative suffix -astra (from Latin ‑aster)

Some of the twists and turns described above reflect similar developments in the history of other words.

  • Just as suegra, nuera, and nieta “feminized” the masculine-sounding endings of Latin’s socrus and nurus, and the unrevealing -is ending of neptis, so too Latin infante ‘princess’ and seniore ‘lady’ became Spanish infanta and señora. Ralph Penny calls this process “hypercharacterization,” a phenomenon also seen when masculine Latin nouns like passare ‘bird’ and cortice ‘cork’ took on the standard -o ending to become Spanish pájaro and corcho.
  • Just as abuela absorbed the diminutive ending of Latin aviola, so too mantequilla ‘butter’ and various words ending in -eja, such as oveja ‘sheep,’ oreja ‘ear,’ and abeja ‘bee,’ come from Latin diminutives.
  • Cuñado‘s semantic transformation from Latin ‘blood relative’ (i.e., not an in-law) to ‘brother-in-law’ is no more far-fetched than that of ‘milestone’ to ‘doll’ or ‘wrist,’ or that of ‘broma’ from ‘shipworm’ to ‘joke.’

As a charming closing factoid, I learned that madre is related to the Spanish and English words metrópoli/metropolis, metropolitano/metropolitan, and metro (in the sense of ‘subway’), all via the Greek word metrópolis, meaning ‘mother city’ (ciudad madre).

It’s all in the family.

Bad Latin

Greetings from Cincinnati! I am here for a week grading Spanish AP tests, for the second time (read about the first time here). So far we’re off to a good start, though our team of hundreds of Spanish teachers from all over the country has to get through 190,000 exams. One test at a time…

I’m still thinking about my recent trip to Andalucía. Tonight I’ll share with you a linguistically interesting Latin mistake that I saw at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville, in this charming 1640 painting by Juan del Castillo, San Juan niño servido por dos ángeles (‘John the Baptist, as a child, served by two angels’).

The fun part of the painting is the Latin inscription on the ribbon entwined around baby John’s cross:

Hopefully you can see that this inscription reads Ecce annus dei, which translates as ‘Here is the year of God’. This should be Ecce agnus dei, ‘Here is the lamb of God’, a reference to John’s statement Ecce agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccatum mundi ‘Look, this is the Lamb of God; look, this is he who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).

This Latin error is intriguing because agnus disappeared in Spanish as well as in del Castillo’s painting. Cordero, the modern Spanish word for ‘lamb’, comes from a different root: Vulgar Latin cordarius, from cordus ‘late’, i.e. a late-born lamb. In contrast, Portuguese, Catalan, French, and Italian all retained the Latin root — as anho, anyell, agneau, and agnello, respectively — although the primary words for ‘lamb’ in Portuguese and Catalan are cordeiro and xai. (I don’t know where xai came from, nor miel, the Romanian word for ‘lamb’.)

Why eliminate agnus in Spanish? The most likely explanation is that Latin gn and nn both became ñ in Spanish; for example, Latin canna became caña ‘cane’ and Latin ligna became leña ‘firewood’ (see this earlier blog entry for more examples). This means that annus and agnus would both have emerged as año in Spanish once final -us turned into -o, so something had to give. Turning to another root for a new word for ‘lamb’ was a reasonable solution. In contrast, annus emerged with a plain n sound in the other Romance languages, so there was no danger of the two words for ‘year’ and ‘ lamb’ sounding alike.

I wonder, in fact, whether Juan del Castillo’s Latin mistake was somehow related to this history. Would a speaker of a different Romance language been as likely to confuse agnus and annus?

Why ser and ir are so irregular

The purpose of this post is to share two of my favorite slides from the PowerPoint I prepared for my recent talk at the NECTFL conference. The slides summarize the history of the two most irregular Spanish verbs, ser ‘to be’ and ir ‘to go’. It turns out that each of these verbs is a historical merger of three distinct verbs. Ser merged the Latin verbs sedere ‘to sit’ and esse ‘to be’, which itself combined Proto-Indo-European verbs meaning ‘to be’ and ‘to become’. Ir merged the Latin verbs ire ‘to go’, vadere ‘to go, walk’ (a cognate of English ‘to wade’), and esse ‘to be’. As you can see from the slides, each root is responsible for a subset of each verb’s modern forms.


The history of “ser” (‘to be’). The asterisks indicate reconstructed (hypothesized) Proto-Indo-European roots.


The history of “ir” (‘to go’). My favorite detail here is that the singular command ‘ve’ and the plural command ‘id’ come from different Latin roots.

This type of historical process, in which one verb does a “hostile takeover” of part of another verb’s conjugation, is common enough to have its own name: suppletion. You can see suppletion in the English verb ‘to go’, whose past tense form went comes from the semantically related verb ‘to wend’. The various cases of suppletion in the histories of ser and ir are likewise plausible:

  • for sedereesse: ‘to sit’ is connected to ‘to be’ because it expresses location
  • for *hes*buh: ‘be’ and ‘become’ are obviously related
  • for irevadere: ‘walking’ is a kind of ‘going’
  • for ireesse: if you ‘are’ somewhere, it follows that you ‘went’ there. For example, you can say “I’ve never been to Barcelona” instead of “I’ve never gone to Barcelona”.

I will have to save these charts for the second edition of my book!

Cervantes on the beach

I’ve just returned home from a glorious visit to the Caribbean. My husband and I resolved to do nothing but relax during our stay, and for the most part we managed to honor this commitment. However, my passion for Spanish linguistics is irrepressible! Even while lazing on the beach, I couldn’t resist taking note of several linguistically interesting passages in one of the Spanish books I tossed into my suitcase: a collection of three Novelas ejemplares by Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quijote.

Cervantes published these novelas — actually, short stories — in 1613, between the two volumes of Don Quijote. El licenciado Vidriera, the first story I read, takes place in the academic and courtly communities of Salamanca and Valladolid. La gitanilla focuses on an itinerant gypsy tribe, while Rinconete y Cortadillo describes the initiation of two teenage boys into a gang of street criminals in Seville. The three stories thus offer diverse perspectives on the people and places of Golden Age Spain. 

I will be writing several blog entries about the Novelas ejemplares in the upcoming days. Here are the topics I’ll cover; I’ll add links to the individual entries as I write them:

  • the use of the noun color with feminine gender;
  • sentences that, while lacking the explicit Spanish words for ‘former’ and ‘latter’ (aquel and este), follow the Spanish convention of putting ‘latter’ before ‘former’;
  • camarada, a nice example of a noun ending in -a that can be either masculine or feminine;
  • an explicit reference to the dialectal phenomenon of ceceo;
  • two examples of gustar used in a ‘forwards’ rather than its normal ‘backwards’ fashion;
  • a case study in how to learn a new word (the innocent-sounding piedeamigo);
  • the antiquated word hestoria;
  • exciting (to me) examples of the future subjunctive “in the wild”.



Wrapping up our tour in Barcelona

[This is a much-procrastinated final post about my linguistic tour of northern Spain in June.]

A visit to the Museu d’Arqueologia de Catalunya, in the Montjuic area of Barcelona, was the perfect capstone for my trip to Spain. This first-rate museum covers the human history of Catalonia from prehistory through the Visigoths. It is well laid out and the wall labels are consistently informative. (Some are in Catalan only, and some in Catalan, Spanish, and English.) A full visit would take two to four hours, and so can easily be combined with other Montjuic attractions including the Joan Miró museum.

The Museu d’Arqueologia’s collections of Iberian, Greek, and Roman artifacts reinforced what my friend Sue and I had already seen in person at Ullastret and Empúries on the Costa Brava. The museum also explained the active role of Phoenicians in pre-Roman Spain. We learned about Phoenician settlements such as Sa Caleta, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Balearic Island of Ibiza. My previous knowledge of Phoenician activity in Spain was, of course, limited to linguistics. I knew that several Spanish place-names are Phoenician, including España itself (probably from an expression meaning ‘land of rabbits’), Cádiz (‘fortress’), MálagaCartagena (after Carthage), Ibiza, and Mahón (the capital of Minorca). In addition, the Phoenician alphabet was the basis of the Iberian alphabet seen in artifacts such as those found at Ullastret.

The slideshow below shows some of my favorite artifacts from the museum.


Where Latin came to Spain

When I planned my linguistic tour of northern Spain, I hoped that today’s itinerary would be the best conceivable combination of intellectual engagement and touristic pleasure. In fact, it exceeded my expectations.

The intellectual part of our day (“we” being my friend Sue and I) was a visit to the Greco-Roman ruins at Empúries on the Costa Brava. This site made it onto our itinerary because, as referenced in this post’s title, Empúries is where Latin came to the Iberian Peninsula. The Greek ruins at the site date from the sixth century B.C.E. They memorialize a thriving settlement devoted to trade: in fact, the Greek name for the settlement, Emporion, means ‘market’. The Greeks traded actively with the native Iberian tribes, including the Indikites, whose capital city of Ullastret Sue and I visited yesterday. The Roman ruins at the site date from the beginning of the first century B.C.E.

The touristic part of the day was swimming at the fantastic beach located JUST YARDS AWAY from the ruins. How great is Spain?!?


I enjoyed the the Greek ruins at Empúries more than the Roman ruins. This was partly because I hadn’t expected them — I had assumed that the Romans overbuilt the existing Greek city, whereas in fact they co-existed (see explanation below). Also, these were the first Greek ruins I’ve ever seen, whereas I’ve seen Roman ruins elsewhere in Spain and also in France, Italy, and Israel.

The Greek ruins include houses, temples, factories for smelting metal and salting fish, an agora, or public plaza (a frequent crossword puzzle word!), and a water system. Their water cisterns were noticeably deeper than the ones we saw at Ullastret yesterday (sorry, Indikites). My two favorite Greek sights from Empúries are illustrated below. The first is a mosaic-tiled banquet hall, whose inscription translates as ‘how sweet it is to be reclined.’ The second is a statue of Asklepíeion, the Greek god of medicine. These two features struck my both for their beauty, and for personal reasons: the “reclining” mention reminded me of the fourth question of the Passover seder, while the statue of Asklepíeion reminded me of my daughter, who is a doctor. (Once you’re a mom, you see the world a little differently.)

Greek tiled banquet hall. The inscription translates as ‘how sweet it is to be reclined’.

Statue of Asklepíeion, the Greek god of medicine

Statue of Asklepíeion, the Greek god of medicine

Our main mission at Empúries, however, was to see the Roman ruins, and thus learn more about how Latin came to Spain. A wall panel at the museum at the ruins offered this helpful summary of how the Second Punic War against Carthage led to this fundamental and irrevocable change in the Iberian Peninsula and its languages:

In the year 218 B.C., the Roman army landed at the port of Emporion, an allied city, with a view to cutting off the Carthaginian rear-guard on their way to Rome. Once the war was over, the Romans wanted to control and exploit the adjoining territory, a process which initiated the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. This process, known as Romanization, included two stages. The first, of conquest and military domination, did not lead to changes in native culture and organization. The opposition of the natives to the new power resulted in the establishment, in the year 195 B.C., of a Roman military camp, on the upper part of the hill of Empúries, so that the country could be controlled and peace maintained. The second stage, which started at the beginning of the first century B.C., entailed the absorption of the various existing societies into Roman culture. New cities were created, such as Empúries itself, Gerunda [Girona] or Tarraco [Tarragona]; a major road network was developed, whose main axis was the Via Augusta; development of the land was carried out according to the Italic models based on the creation of country houses of villae and, lastly, the progressive use of Latin was promoted and new religious cults were introduced. Assistance given to the Romans by the Emporitan Greeks meant that they could enjoy a status of independence within the newly built Roman city.

The Roman ruins were much larger than the Greek section, and included a stunning private house with a different mosaic pattern in each room.

"Domus 1" at Empúries

“Domus 1” at Empúries

A pilgrimage to the Monasterio de Suso

Most pilgrims who visit the Monasterio de Suso are drawn by its religious significance. The monastery is built around, and still incorporates, the hillside cave where the Visigothic hermit San Millán retreated from the world, gathering acolytes over the decades until he died in 574 C.E. at the age of 101. His sarcophagus is still in Suso, though his remains have been transferred to the Monasterio de Yuso, the larger monastery later built at the base of the hill to support his increased following.

Our peregrination, though, was linguistic (“we” being I and my friend Sue, who’s joined me on a linguistic tour of northern Spain). Suso originally included a “scriptorium” — a room devoted to the copying of manuscripts. Here, some unknown scribe made annotations, in an early form of Spanish (and also in Basque) in the margin of a Latin text. These annotations, known as the Glosas Emilianenses, are among the earliest examples of written Spanish. The volume containing the glosas is now in the Real Academia de la Historia in Madrid. The scriptorium no longer exists.

A sampling from the Glosas Emilianenses, from a presentation by Magda Liliana Barrero Vàsquez

Just getting to the Monasterio de Suso was an adventure. My GPS blanked out briefly as we approached a key intersection, then directed us along a series of bumpy local roads through the vineyards of La Rioja for about fifteen minutes. It was a beautiful detour and we ended up safely at the Monasterio de Yuso, where we boarded the bus to Suso with a few dozen German tourists. Our guide was an elderly gentleman who has obviously been giving the same tour for years. He pointed out the monastery’s key features:

  • the cave where San Millán fasted and secluded himself
  • San Millán’s now-empty sarcophagus
  • a shelf containing bones from donors to the Monastery, housed there as a condition of their donations
  • the doorway that used to lead to the scriptorium
  • a series of archways that encapsulated Suso’s history: one Visigothic, some Moorish-style, and some Gothic (see picture below)

Arches at Suso: Visigothic (left), Moorish (middle), Gothic (right)

Arches at Suso: Visigothic (left), Moorish (middle), Gothic (right)

Back down at Yuso, we were tempted to stop for a snack at the “Mesón Las Glosas” but had to push on to Girona.


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