Category Archives: Linguistic tour of northern Spain

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.

 

The gender of sugar (azúcar)

I drank a lot of coffee when I was recently in Spain, partly because of jet lag and partly because the coffee was so good. As in the U.S., it was always served with a small paper container of sugar. Who ever reads these containers? I do — when I’m in Spain — and was rewarded with a linguistic gem: one sugar packet I opened was labeled azucar morena (see picture). This was truly surprising, not because of the missing accent mark on azúcar, but because morena is a feminine adjective, and azúcar is masculine.

Or is it?

Although I had learned azúcar as a masculine noun, and had always seen it treated as such, It turns out that azúcar is one of a handful of Spanish nouns that are ambiguous in gender, meaning that either morena or moreno is legitimate. You can see this for yourself on wordreference.com or in the Real Academia Española dictionary.

I was familiar with this phenomenon from the examples of radioesperma ‘sperm’, and reúma  ‘rheumatism’. The latter two were borrowed from Greek as feminines because of their final -a, but have drifted toward masculine usage because the -ma masculine, most often seen in words of Greek origin, is associated with intellectual words such as temapoema, and apotegma.

In its Nueva gramática de la lengua española, the Real Academia points out that words of ambiguous gender are relatively rare. Besides azúcar, they list:

  • mar ‘sea’ (I believe that the feminine usage is confined to set expressions like pelillos a la mar ‘let bygones be bygones’)
  • agravante ‘aggravating circumstance’
  • armazón ‘shell, frame’ (as of a building)
  • azumbre ‘liquid measure, corresponding to 2 liters’
  • interrogante ‘question’
  • maratón ‘marathon’
  • prez ‘honor’
  • pringue ‘grease, drippings’
  • ánade ‘duck’

Now that I’ve written this post, I can finally throw out the sugar packets I brought home from Spain: a sweet reminder (jajaja) of how travel can open up new linguistic horizons.

Taxdirt?

My sister is a tax attorney, so when I saw this street sign in Barcelona I had to take a picture and send it to her. (Carrer is Catalan for ‘street’; its Spanish cognate is calle.)

"Taxdirt Street" in Barcelona.

“Taxdirt Street” in Barcelona.

I couldn’t find taxdirt in wordreference.com, my go-to Spanish dictionary; nor did I expect to, since it doesn’t sound at all Spanish. My next step was to ask a friendly server at a gelato shop we stopped at later that afternoon on the Ramblas. It turned out that he lived around the corner from Carrer de Taxdirt — but had no idea what it meant.

Fortunately, Google and Wikipedia soon came to the rescue. It turns out that Taxdirt is the name of a famous 1909 cavalry charge in Morocco, near Melilla (with Ceuta, one of two Spanish cities in Morocco). It has inspired a monument in Melilla, a set of toy solders (or perhaps ‘military figurines’), and even a hymn. Lyrics here.

 

On my way home

I’ve just arrived back in Madrid, by train from Barcelona, and have a little time on my hands before leaving for the airport. It felt odd to so quickly unwind the overall trajectory of the last two weeks, and to be on my own again after sharing this experience with my friend Sue. Odder still to think that in a few hours I’ll be home and picking up the threads of my normal life. I have some leftover posts to write about the trip, which should help soften the transition, and of course my normal life involves lots of Spanish!

Right now I’m sitting in a small patch of green grass just outside the Real Jardín Botánico, and feeling profoundly relieved to be back in a city that abounds in parks. So many spaces that appear green on a map of Barcelona turn out to be paved or graveled. It’s also a relief to be away from the hordes of tourists that seemed to be everywhere we went in Barcelona, like Times Square blown up to the scale of a full city. Barcelona has many wonderful things to see but I always feel more at home in Madrid.

I must now take advantage of my Left Luggage fee to stroll through the park before heading back to the station. If you’ve been following my blog while I’ve been traveling, I thank you for your time and interest, and hope you’ll continue to read once I’m home.

 

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

The Iberian ruins of Ullastret

When I began to plan my linguistic tour of northern Spain, I knew that visiting Ullastret would be a top priority. One of the 101 questions in my book is “What other languages were spoken in pre-Roman Spain?” (this comes after two questions about Basque), and I illustrated it with a reproduction of this Iberian lead plaque, found in Ullastret. I was dying to see it in person.

Iberian lead plaque, from Ullastret, Spain

I’m using “Iberian” here to refer not to the Iberian Peninsula itself, but to a community, with a distinct language and culture, that populated the eastern part of the Peninsula in pre-Roman days. They shared the Peninsula with Greeks (on the northeast coast), Phonecians (in the south), Celts (in the north and center), and Tartassians (in the southwest). Ullastret was the capital of a specific group of Iberians called the Indiketes (see map below). They were known for their extensive contact with the nearby Greek settlements. To quote the wall text from the Museum of Archaeology of Catalonia at Ullastret, Fou una zona intensament hel·lenizada, per la presència de les colònies gregues d’Emporion (fundad cap a 600 a.C.) i de Rhode (fundada molt probablement a finals del s. Vè a.C.).

[The middle dot in hel·lenizada shows that the double ll is pronounced as a long l and not like a Spanish ll — which Catalan also has.]

Map of Iberian settlements in Spain (from Museum of Archaeology of Catalonia at Ullastret)

Map of Iberian settlements in Spain (from Museum of Archaeology of Catalonia at Ullastret)

According to our guidebook, one sign of the Indiketes’s Hellenization is the purely decorative groove they added to the main gate of the city:

One side of Ullastret's main gate, with a decorative groove, a sign of Greek influence.

One side of Ullastret’s main gate. Its decorative groove is believed to show Greek influence.

Ullastret was a full-fledged city, with protective walls, streets and houses, temples, water cisterns, and grain silos. The silos were reused as garbage receptacles once the grain had been consumed (or sold to other settlements). This makes them a gold mine for the archaeologists who have studied Ullastret, since garbage is always a prime source of information about a culture.

“My” lead plaque was easy to find. It is part of a display of artifacts showing Iberian writing. Please see the presentation below. You can click on the double-headed diagonal arrow to the left of the LinkedIn “in” logo to see the presentation in full-screen mode.

In conclusion, I have to say that as much as my friend Sue and I enjoyed Ullastret, we both strongly preferred our previous visit to the Castro of Ulaca. The latter ruins are harder to get to, but are more impressive, and the location itself is more beautiful and magical.

 

The -se imperfect subjunctive is alive and kicking

My friend Sue and I didn’t visit any language-related destinations today, making it an exception in our linguistic tour of northern Spain. I’d like to take advantage of this “day off” to share with you some uses of the -se imperfect subjunctive that I unexpectedly observed yesterday.

The -se imperfect subjunctive is one of my favorite phenomena in Spanish: not only does the language have both present and past tense subjunctives, but also, the past tense subjunctive has two different forms. This is an unusual and possibly unique type of grammatical redundancy.

Of the two past subjunctives, the version that ends in -ra is much more common than the one that ends in -se. One sees the -se subjunctive in literature, but I’d never heard anyone use it in conversation, or seen it in any casually written text. (It does shows up in literature.) I was thrilled, then, to run into the -se subjunctive twice yesterday. First, our tour guide at the Monasterio de Suso used it once or twice in his explanations. Later, during our lunch stop in Zaragoza, I spotted it on a poster for an anti-aging treatment. This text on the poster asks ¿Qué edad tendrías si no supieses la que tienes? ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’; I’ve underlined the subjunctive. The newer, and more frequently used, form would be supieras.se subjunctiveSeeing the subjunctive in action, after spending so much time researching and writing about it, was a real thrill. Plus, I love the poster — and I’m glad to say that Dra. Montserrat Salvador López, whose services it advertises, is listed as one of Spain’s Top Doctors!

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

 

Passing the centuries in Burgos

My friend Sue and I are now in the second week of our linguistic tour of northern Spain. Yesterday we hiked up to the fortress overlooking the city of Burgos and its Arlanzón River, and thus back in time to the early centuries of the Reconquista (details here). Today’s two excursions, to the Catedral de Burgos and the Monasterio de las Huelgas, carried us forward several centuries, through the era of El Cid, the political consolidation of most of Spain, and the successful pursuit of the Reconquista.

The Cathedral is built on a site of great linguistic interest: in 1080, the Council of Burgos took place in an earlier church at the same site. As described in this previous post, the purpose of the Council was to enforce the use of the Latin Mass in place of the vernacular that had sprung up in Spain. While touring the Cathedral today, I learned that just one year later, in 1081, the city of Burgos became the official seat (sede) for the province’s bishopric, or diocese. Clearly the Council had increased the city’s prestige: language matters! The first Cathedral of Burgos was built over the next fifteen years.

Informative sign from Catedral de Burgos, showing establishment of Burgos as religious seat one year after the Council of Burgos.

Another informative sign, dating the original Cathedral to within fifteen years of the Council of Burgos.

Today’s Cathedral is of further linguistic interest because it houses the tomb of El Cid, the Reconquista hero of the epic poem that is the first known work of Spanish literature. The tomb’s inscription includes the Latin version of El Cid’s name (Rodrigo > Rodericus) and that of his wife, buried with him (Jimena > Eximena). Above the cross you can also see a key line from the poem: a todos alcanza honra por el que en buen hora nació: very roughly, ‘everyone gained in honor because this good man lived’.

Tomb of El Cid and his wife Jimena in the Catedral de Burgos

Our second touristic destination of the day, Burgos’s Monasterio de las Huelgas, fast-forwarded us less than a century to the year 1187. The Monastery was founded by Queen Leonor, the British-born wife of Alfonso VIII of Castilla, and serves as a pantheon, or royal burial place, for this couple and their descendants. By Alfonso’s reign the Reconquista was going full blast, carrying the Castilian language with it. The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, a turning point in the Reconquista,  took place in 1212; a spectacular door hanging from the tent of Alfonso’s Moorish opponent, Muhámmad al-Násir, hangs in the Monastery’s Museo de Ricas Telas Medievales. It is a harbinger of the eventual fall of Granada at the hands of Alfonso and Leonor’s descendants, Ferdinand and Isabella, and thus the final victory of Castilian Spanish.

Pendón de Las Navas de Tolosa

 

In the cradle of castellano

Today my friend Sue and I got to know Burgos better. Our day involved two walks: the first to the Cartuja de Miraflores, a monastery whose location is marked with a red arrow in the picture below, and the second to the hilltop fortress Castillo de Burgos, from which this picture was taken. Near the center of the photograph is Burgos’s Plaza Mayor, marked by the colorful row of pink, yellow, blue, and white buildings. We found this a welcome change from the more uniform (though more ornate) plazas of Madrid, Valladolid, and especially Salamanca. You can see the spires of the cathedral to the right, almost hidden by the trees.

We reached the Cartuja de Miraflores by walking along the Arlanzón River, marked by the ribbon of green running diagonally through the middle of the photograph. (We followed these walking directions, posted on TripAdvisor.) This monastery belongs to the contemplative Carthusian order. We spent over two hours studying the famous altar and other works of art and architecture in the building.

The pathway along the Arlanzón is part of the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. We spotted several pilgrims, easily identified by their heavy backpacks and scallop shell insignia. Scallop shell markers embedded in the pavement also mark the portion of the trail that runs through Burgos itself. As I described in an earlier post, Burgos’s position along the Camino de Santiago helped bring the city into prominence.

Our afternoon excursion to the Castillo de Burgos was a deep dive into the history of Burgos — and Spain. Castillo in this case means ‘fortress’ rather than ‘castle’, and this particular fortress was constructed in the late 9th century, during the Reconquista, or the Catholic reconquest of Spain from the Moors. Its construction was part of a deliberate effort to rebuild a Catholic population in the area as the Moors were being driven south. The city of Burgos thus began on the slopes of the hill, protected by the castle above, and slowly spread downhill toward the Arlanzón. This meant that its growth followed the opposite pattern of London, New York, and Paris, which began with riverside settlements, then spread outwards.

Ironically, as the Reconquista progressed Burgos spread so widely that the Castillo became irrelevant. A series of unfortunate events, culminating in the French occupation of the fortress during the Napoleonic War, then severely damaged it. It has only recently been excavated and partially rebuilt.

Sue and I heartily recommend both these excursions to anyone who comes to Burgos.