Tag Archives: Don Quijote

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”.


Top 10 Spanish quotations of linguistic interest

Here for your listicle pleasure are my favorite quotations from Spanish literature, in the broadest sense, that illustrate some of the most interesting facets of the language. The quotations date from the early 13th century to 2011, and come from works of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Sources range from best-sellers (Don Quijote and El tiempo entre costuras) to Nobel-prize winning literature to academic tomes. The facets illustrated include aspects of syntax, word structure, pronunciation, and vocabulary, as well as language history and dialectology.

¡Que disfruten!

Quixote y Quijote

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Comentando sobre mi aporte de ayer sobre las palabras escritas con xión y cción, Susan me pidió que explicara la diferencia entre xj, y específicamente el caso de Quixote versus Quijote.

Encontré la respuesta fácilmente en mi ejemplar confiable de la Ortografía de la Real Academia. Una sección corta del libro ( aborda el tema. Aquí la abrevio y parafraseo:

Hasta principios del siglo XIX, el sonido de j o g (antes de e o i) podía ser también representado con x. Así, eran normales grafías con x como embaxador, exemplo, mexilla, etc. En 1815, la Real Academia decidió eliminar el uso de la x con este valor fónico. Sin embargo, quedan algunos restos del antiguo valor de la x en ciertos topónimos y antropónimos como México, Oaxaca, Texas, el nombre de pila Ximena y los apellidos Ximénez y Mexía…En el caso de México y sus derivados, las grafías con j eran usuales hasta no hace mucho en España, donde se han impuesto también las grafías con x, que resultan preferibles por ser las usadas en el propio país y, mayoritariamente, en el resto de Hispanoamérica.

En el caso de Quijote/Quixote, la ortografía moderna oficial usa la j. La representación con la x es antigua, notablemente en la primera edición:


In a comment on yesterday’s post about words ending in xión and cción, Susan asked me to explain the difference between x and j, especially as regards the case of Quixote vs. Quijote.

My trusty copy of the Real Academia’s Ortografía provided an instant answer. A short section of the book ( addresses the topic. Here’s a rough translation/condensation:

Until the beginning of the 19th century, the sound of j or g (before e/i) could also be represented with x. So, it was normal to see spellings like embaxador, exemplo, mexilla, etc. that are written with a j today. In 1815, the Real Academia decided to eliminate this use of x…Nevertheless, some traces remain of the former use of x in certain place names like México, Oaxaca, or Texas, and people-names (“antropónimas”) like the first name Ximena and last names Ximénez or Mexía…In the case of ‘México’ and its derived forms, spellings with j were common until recently in Spain, where… the x spellings have since prevailed because they’re the ones used in their own country and, for the most part, in the rest of Latin America.

In the case of Quijote/Quixote, the “official” spelling is j. The version with x is old-fashioned, and was used notably in the first edition, pictured above.