Category Archives: From Latin to Spanish

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.

Capture

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

temp

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?!?

map

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.

Glosas

 

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

Spanishlinguist.us 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.

img_0001

A page from the Glosas Emilianenses

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.

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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Autonomous_communities_of_Spain.svg 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 (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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”.

 

The top 10 reasons why Spanish is special

Today’s post is the first of several I plan to make in the next few weeks to summarize the broad linguistic themes that emerged as I wrote my book. It is a follow-up on a post I did some months ago, “What makes Spanish unique”. This post is somewhat more general, and, I hope, more fun because it’s a slideshow.

Enjoy!

Click the bidirectional diagonal arrow to view in fullscreen mode.