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.Seeing 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!
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)
Back down at Yuso, we were tempted to stop for a snack at the “Mesón Las Glosas” but had to push on to Girona.
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.
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.
A page from the Glosas Emilianenses