Tag Archives: Spanish

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.



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 Salamanca

Today was for the most part a day off from my linguistic tour of northern Spain. My friend Sue and I spent the day touring the standard sights of Salamanca, such as the Casa de las Conchas and the Convento de San Esteban. As I had hoped, we came across a good used book store (La Galatea), where I picked up three novels for my bookshelf, all by women: Laura Restrepo’s Delerio, Almudena Grandes’s Estaciones de Paso (actually a collection of novellas), and Soledad Puértolas’s Si al atardecer llegara el mensajero.

Today’s most linguistically relevant destination was the Universidad de Salamanca lecture hall named after King Alfonso X, known as Alfonso el Sabio (‘the wise’). Alfonso, who reigned from 1252-1284, was not only a scholar, and an early supporter of the Universidad, as described in the informative sign below, but also played a key role in standardizing the Spanish language. The prologue to El libro de la ochava esphera, a scientific treatise from a group of scholars in Alfonso’s court, states that he “removed the expressions that he felt were superfluous or duplicated and that were not written in correct Castilian (castellano drecho), and he added others that were more appropriate; and regarding the language, he himself corrected it” (translation from D. Pharies). The use of the term castellano as a language name is itself noteworthy.


However, my lasting impression of Salamanca will be of the architectural details that both Sue and I fell in love with. Here are our two favorites.

Escalera de Soto at Convento de San Esteban. The artisan managed to fit a sculpture of Mary Magdalene into the triangle formed between the railings above and the arch below. Mary is taking a break from reading in bed, where she is tucked in with a skull and her favorite jar of unguent.

Interior of Casa de las Conchas, showing stone carved into honeycomb (left) and basketweaving (right) railings.

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.


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

Leísmo and verb subject properties

Earlier this month I wrote a blog post comparing the contexts of leísta and non-leísta pronoun usage in Jordi Sierra’s Cuatro días en enero. At least in the first few chapters of this book, masculine human direct objects of physical verbs tended to be expressed with lo and los, and objects of other verbs (mostly verbs of cognition) with le and les. Here is the verb table from that post.Since then, I’ve dusted off my virtual pile of leísmo readings to check for anything written about the relationship between verb choice and leísmo. This literature search came up almost dry: research on the semantics and leísmo uniformly refers to the semantic properties of nouns rather than verbs. One property that comes up frequently in the literature is whether an direct object expresses discrete, or countable, items (like cars) or non-countable materials (like sugar). Another, discussed in a 1974 paper by Erica García and Ricardo Otheguy, is relative strength, or activity. García and Otheguy suggest that le is chosen when a verb’s direct object is “stronger”, or more active. For example, they give the example of María le llora ‘Mary complains to him’, whose object “him” (a living person) is more active than the corpse in María lo llora ‘Mary mourns him’. This reminded me of Jon Aske’s comment on my original post, that “leísmo is used to add a nuance to the sentence, primarily having to do with human objects that are highly involved in the action or that something is being done for them, as opposed to to them.”

However, García and Otheguy also relate the le/lo choice to the properties of subjects, suggesting that le is chosen when a verb’s subject is “weaker”, or less active. For example, they contrast:

  1. No hagas ruido, niño, que le molesta a su padre ‘Don’t make noise, child, because it annoys your father’
  2. No hagas ruido, niño, que lo molesta a su padre ‘Don’t make noise, child, because you’ll annoy your father’.

As is typical in gustar-type sentences, the subject of sentence #1 (“noise”) is not an active participant. In contrast, the subject in sentence #2 (the child himself) is only too active!

This distinction might help to explain the division between le and lo verbs in the table above. Someone who eludes, finds, kills or unites (verbs from the second column of the table) is surely a stronger, or more active, subject than someone who merely sees, asks, or needs (first column). This might be a fruitful topic for a Spanish linguistics dissertation, if anyone is looking…


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.

Jordi Sierra’s off-and-on leísmo

When I could distract my brain from the engrossing plot of Jordi Sierra I Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, and pay attention to Sierra’s language, I was struck by his off-and-on leísmo. For readers who are unfamiliar with this term, leísmo refers to the use of the masculine indirect object pronoun le ‘to him’ instead of the masculine direct object pronoun lo ‘him’, as in the first row of Table A, below. Leísmo, a centuries-old speech pattern, is most common in Spain. Most Spanish textbooks in the United States therefore teach the non-leísta pattern shown in the second column. Note that leísmo normally only applies to human direct objects.

Table A

Sierra’s object pronoun usage is fascinating because he isn’t strictly leísta or non-leísta, but alternates between the two styles of pronoun usage. An example is the following sentence, at the beginning of Chapter 2, which uses one les and two los.

Todos los soldados más o menos útiles estaban siendo sacados del lugar con urgencia, tal vez para llevarles a combatir, tal vez para trasladarlos a la última resistencia, Valencia, tal vez para conducirlos a Francia.

‘All the soldiers who were more or less fit were being taken away urgently, perhaps to carry them to combat, perhaps to move them to Valencia, the last city of the resistance, perhaps to take them to France.

The same approximate ratio of two instances of lo (or los) for each one of le (or les) holds more broadly in Cuatro días de enero, as can be seen in Table B, which contains all examples of masculine human direct objects in the book’s first two chapters.

Table B: Masculine human direct object pronouns in Cuatro días de enero, caps. 1-2

A serious look at leísmo in Sierra’s writing would of course have to analyze much more text, ideally pulling it from a variety of his books. It would have to take into account Sierra’s Catalonian origins: Sierra is from Barcelona, and writes in both Castilian Spanish and in Catalán. Perhaps his bilingualism plays a role in his pronoun usage? And to a linguist, an analysis of leísmo in spoken Spanish will always be fundamentally more interesting than one based on written Spanish.

Nevertheless, an interesting pattern immediately emerges from the data in Table B: Sierra’s use of leísta and non-leísta pronouns appears to be governed by semantics rather than syntax. Sierra uses the two types of pronouns in the same syntactic contexts: in both single and double pronoun structures (e.g. Se les necesitabaSe los llevaron), in reference to both singular and plural people, and both before and after verbs. However, as shown in Table C (based on the examples in Table B), most of the verbs used with lo and los express physical actions, while most of those used with le and les express cognition. These are tendencies rather than absolutes: llevar (used with le) and entender (used with lo) are obvious exceptions.

Table C: Verbs with le and les vs. lo and los in Cuatro días de enero, caps. 1-2
(based on Table B)

This pattern is doubly logical. The object of a physical action — the person who is killed, accompanied, trapped, and so on — is closer to the canonical idea of a direct object than one who is seen, believed, needed, and so on. In addition, the use of le and les is already associated with non-physical verbs of the gustar type: someone who is pleased (me gusta), surprised (te sorprende), bothered (le molesta), and the like. The next task on my to-do list is to hit the literature to review what has already been written on this topic.

Incidentally, in Siete días de julio, the sequel to Cuatro días de enero, I noted an example of le being used to refer to a non-human direct object: Su…llamémosle trabajo no era precisamente agradable ‘Her…let’s call it work…wasn’t exactly pleasant.’ According to Inés Fernández Ordóñez (a leading leísmo scholar), the use of le with llamar is quite common in much of Spain. There are no such examples in the first two chapters of Cuatro días.

[See follow-up post here.]

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”.