A Brief History of the Spanish Language: Second Edition

A Brief History of the Spanish Language: Second Edition

by David A. Pharies

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ISBN-13: 9780226134130
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/12/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

David A. Pharies is associate dean for humanities and professor of Spanish at the University of Florida. He is the editor in chief of the sixth edition of the University of Chicago SpanishEnglish Dictionary.

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A Brief History of the Spanish Language

By David A. Pharies

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 David A. Pharies
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-13413-0


Language Change

Inexorability of Language Change

The one constant in our world and our universe is change. Some things change so slowly as to be hardly perceptible, as in the case of geologic change, whereby over the course of millions of years a mountain may be reduced to a plain. Other changes are imperceptible because of their rapidity, like the movements of subatomic particles. In contrast, changes in human culture occur at a pace that makes them susceptible to detailed observation.

These observations reveal that all aspects of human culture are engaged in an implacable process of change, including fashion, politics, media, technology, and human relations. This explains, for example, why today's grandparents dress differently from their grandchildren, have different political opinions, are slow in accepting modern digital technology and new means of communication, and are baffled by modern-day sexual mores and child-rearing practices. Inevitably, by the time today's children are grandparents, they will be similarly out of step with their grandchildren's world.

Language, as a central aspect of human culture, is equally susceptible to this inexorable process of change. Some language change — especially the coining of new words — is in response to changes in other cultural spheres, but even the most abstract and fundamental components of a language such as its sounds, grammatical forms, and syntactic rules are involved in a process that will eventually render the current form of today's languages all but unintelligible to future speakers.

Nature of Language Change

In order to characterize the nature of language change, it is necessary to distinguish between the initiation of a change and its diffusion through the language.

A language change is initiated with the introduction of an innovation — that is, a new way of expressing something. For example, the possibility might arise to say coach for entrenador (lexical innovation), freído for frito 'fried' (morphological innovation), or el hombre que su casa se vendió for el hombre cuya casa se vendió 'the man whose house was sold' (syntactic innovation). It is possible to understand canguro 'kangaroo' to mean 'babysitter' (semantic change) or to pronounce presidente 'president' as prehidente (phonetic change called jejeo).

The innovations that arise in this way come into competition with established forms. For this reason, as Florentino Paredes and Pedro Sánchez-Prieto Borja (2008:22) explain, what speakers perceive is not "change" but "variation". Old and new variants alternate among themselves and are statistically distributed in a specific way according to social, regional, and stylistic factors. In time, this distribution evolves, with some variants becoming more dominant and others less so, in a process that can be represented as follows, where the introduction of an innovative variant (V2) results in the eventual wholesale replacement of the original variant (V1).


What we call "change", then, is the long-term difference between the two ends of this process. During the period of competition among variants, this process can be termed a change in progress.

The characterization of change as a competition among variants brings up two questions: Where do the new variants come from? And what principles determine the success or failure of any one of them?

Factors That Produce Innovative Variants

Probably the majority of innovative variants are due to the heterogeneous nature of language — that is, the uncountable variants that are arbitrarily introduced into human speech by chance. Occasionally more specific causes can be identified. In phonology, for example, many innovations are due to the physical nature of sounds and the human organs that produce and perceive them. These factors are outlined in chapter 5, which is dedicated to this aspect of the language's evolution. Focusing on the other language components, which are by nature more purely cognitive, we can identify some of the more general sources of innovations.

Economy of effort. In language, as in any human activity, there is a general tendency to use the least effort necessary in order to achieve communicative goals. In morphology, the economy factor is expressed in a phenomenon called analogy, that is, the modification of certain words in order to accommodate them to a more frequent or regular model in the language. This process explains the reanalysis and subsequent regularization of morphemes such as the past participles frito >freído and preso >prendido and the names of female agents presidente >presidenta and juez >jueza.

Influence of other languages or varieties. In derivational morphology, it is not unusual for languages to absorb foreign affixes (Visigothic -ingôs > Cast. -engo), and in the lexicon there are various types of influence such as those that English is currently exerting upon Spanish, most obviously in the case of lexical borrowings (escáner< scanner) but also in calques, both lexical (año luz, on the model of light year) and phraseological (tener en mente, on to have in mind), as well as in semantic borrowings (educado 'well-bred' -> 'well-schooled', influenced by educated). Also, in situations where a new variety arises through massive contact among speakers of related varieties or languages, the resulting process of koineization can generate new variants.

Grammaticalization. This is a process through which a word is bleached of its lexical meaning and becomes purely grammatical. In Spanish the grammaticalized word that is most often cited is Med. Cast. auer 'to have', which in the course of the Middle Ages cedes to its rival tener the lexical function of designating possession and becomes a purely auxiliary verb, the only function of its modern descendant, haber. As we will see in chapters 6 and 7, grammaticalization is also involved in the creation of the Spanish articles, third-person pronouns, and personal a, among other elements.

Reaction to a change in another linguistic component. Language is a system in which everything is connected, such that a change in one component is likely to prompt a change in others. One example of this principle is the loss of case endings in Latin, which obliges later forms of the language to impose a more rigid word order and to instrumentalize prepositions to signal grammatical functions that were previously indicated by case endings.

Factors in the Selection of Variants

Once such new variants or innovations have been introduced, it is clear that there must be a process or mechanism that determines the selection among them and their diffusion through the language. Thanks to the findings of modern sociolinguistics, we now recognize that this mechanism is driven by social factors. In this respect the studies of the American sociolinguist William Labov (1927–) have been most fundamental. Thanks to methodological innovations, he was able to show that, contrary to what had been claimed before, language change is susceptible to being observed in a synchronic context he terms "apparent time". Studies of this type systematically compare the speech of the oldest members of a linguistic community with that of its young adults, interpreting the linguistic differences between the two groups as representative of a half-century of language change. Once the validity of this method is accepted — including the implied supposition that the way a person speaks does not change substantially after the attainment of adulthood — it becomes possible to study change empirically in a scientifically selected and controlled population.

The basic principles of the mechanism of language change postulated by Labov (described most fully in his two-volume Principles of Linguistic Change [1994, 2001]) are as follows:

Variation is an intrinsic characteristic of language. Paradoxically, linguists have often affirmed the reality of linguistic heterogeneity while at the same time denying its relevance for the theory of language change. For Labov, on the contrary, variation — that is, the possibility of saying the same thing in many different ways — is an essential aspect of language, without which it would not be able to perform the many functions that speakers ask of it.

Social groups use linguistic variants to mark their identity within a speech community. According to Labov, a language change is initiated when a variant acquires a specific social value for a social group that for some reason regards its place in the community as being threatened. In other words, members of the group use the variant as a way of differentiating themselves from outsiders. Once the variant has been adopted by the most prestigious members of the group, it spreads rapidly to the others. In this way the group uses a linguistic difference to highlight a social difference.

Changes of this type sometimes become generalized throughout an entire speech community, but it is also possible that a community may reject a change by stigmatizing it. The decisive factor is the perceived prestige, both that of the group members who introduce the change and that of the group itself within the larger community. Labov distinguishes between changes "from above", that is, usually conscious changes based on innovations introduced by members of high-prestige groups, and changes "from below", often unconscious changes that are initiated by high-status members of groups that do not enjoy universal acceptance. In these cases it is common to speak of "covert" prestige (Caravedo 2003:49). Ralph J. Penny (2000:69) believes that the aspiration of /s/ in syllable-final position (as in estos tíos ['eh toh 'ti oh]) exemplifies this type of change in contemporary Spanish. Another possible example is the replacement of the (often unvoiced) alveolar trill /[??]/ by the unvoiced uvular fricative /χ/ in Puerto Rican Spanish, where it may be becoming a symbol of national pride (Lipski 1996:140).

Variants spread gradually through the lexicon and the speech community. Linguistic innovations do not spread instantaneously but instead gradually through both the lexicon and the speech community. In the case of phonological and morphological changes, a select group of words is affected first, after which the innnovation spreads gradually through the rest of the vocabulary. All innovations, regardless of the component involved, become generalized as they are adopted by a growing number of social groups, a phenomenon that is amplified by the fact that a single individual may be a member of several social groups.

It seems clear that in our exploration of the nature of linguistic change, we have also discovered its root cause. In view of the above, it seems accurate to say that we, the speakers of languages, are the cause of language change. Labov's studies have made it clear that we want — even need — our languages to change so that they can perform certain social functions. Seen from this perspective, human language represents a balance between conservative forces, necessary for language to function as an instrument of communication, and opposing innovative forces, which enable us to show, through our use of language, who we are and the groups to which we belong.


1. Make a list of changes in progress that you have noticed in the languages you speak.

2. For the following innovations, first identify first the linguistic component to which they belong (phonological, morphological, etc.), and then speculate on the factor or factors that might have generated them (language contact, economy of effort, etc.).

mismo ['mis mo] > ['miz mo]

la sastre >la sastra '(female) tailor'; el modista >el modisto '(male) dressmaker'

es la niña cuyo (->que su) papá ganó el premio 'it's the girl whose father won the prize'

han impreso (->imprimido) las hojas del folleto 'they have printed the pages of the pamphlet'

belleza [be '[??]e θa] > [be 'D[??]e θa] 'beauty'

subir 'to go up' -> 'to upload'

estos ['es tos] > And. Sp. ['eh toh] 'these'

satisfaré >satisfaceré 'I will satisfy'

tengo un hambre canina ->tengo un hambre canino 'I'm starving'

perro ['pe ro] > And. Sp. ['pe Ro] 'dog'

retirarse 'to step back', 'to recede' -> 'to retire'

que ->porque (apresúrate, que no hay mucho tiempo 'hurry, there's not much time')

registrar 'to search' -> 'to enroll'


The Genealogy of Spanish

Language Families

It is customary to apply terms such as family, genetic relationship, mother, and daughter to both linguistic and human relations. In one sense this identification appears to be appropriate. Even as the existence of each human being presupposes an uninterrupted chain of ancestors who managed to reproduce before dying, every language presupposes an uninterrupted chain of speakers, almost always native speakers, who as a speech community were able to maintain the vitality of their form of communicating.

However, a closer examination of the question forces us to the conclusion that human and linguistic relationships are qualitatively different. First, human lineage proceeds by generations, as new generations are born and older generations die. Conversely, in linguistic "lineage" there are no generations, births, or deaths, because the successive linguistic stages evolve gradually from earlier to later. Second, since human reproduction is sexual, each father and each mother transmits only 50 percent of their genetic material to their children, while the "genetic material" of languages — their sounds, grammatical structures, and words — remains intact from one historical period the next. For these reasons it is more reasonable to say that the linguistic organism that we now call Spanish is the continuation of earlier stages of the language and that therefore it is several millennia old. For the same reasons it is clear that the life of a language is more comparable to that of an individual than to that of a family. A language undergoes many changes during its long existence, just as a person experiences numerous transformations during a long life, and in both cases one and the same organism is involved.

Another difference between linguistic and human evolution is the fact that languages are capable of dividing themselves into two or more different varieties. These bifurcations in the family or genealogical tree of a language are not due to reproduction, as they are in the case of individual human beings, but to the inexorable process of linguistic change combined with the movements and migrations of speakers. When subpopulations of a linguistic community become isolated from each other through migration, a process is initiated by which the original language may transform itself into two or more different linguistic entities through the gradual accumulation of different linguistic innovations in each subpopulation. Normally this process is repeated over and over in the history of a given language, thus producing highly complex linguistic genealogies, that is, family trees with complex systems of branches. Given the pace of linguistic change, it may eventually become difficult to detect the relatedness between two languages whose ancestors became isolated from each other in the remote past.


Excerpted from A Brief History of the Spanish Language by David A. Pharies. Copyright © 2015 David A. Pharies. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Author’s Note

Chapter 1: Language Change
Inexorability of Language Change
Nature of Language Change
Factors That Produce Innovative Variants
Factors in the Selection of Variants

Chapter 2: The Genealogy of Spanish
Language Families
Some Important Language Families
Indo-European Language Family
Italic Branch of Indo- European
Bilingualism and Diglossia
Latin and Romance
Genealogy of Spanish

Chapter 3: External History of the Iberian Peninsula through the Thirteenth Century
Iberian Peninsula before the Arrival of the Romans
Romanization of the Iberian Peninsula
End of the Roman Empire
Visigothic Invasion
Muslim Invasion
An Extinct Variety of Ibero- Romance: Mozarabic
Rise of Castilian

Chapter 4: The Latin Language
Stages in the History of Latin
Orthography and Pronunciation
Nominal Morphology
Verbal Morphology
Text Analysis

Chapter 5: From Latin to Medieval Castilian: Phonology
Nature of Phonological Change
Most Important Phonological Changes through Medieval Castilian
Phonological Derivations
Exceptions to Regular Phonological Change
Text Analysis
Alphonsine Orthography

Chapter 6: From Latin to Medieval Castilian: Morphology and Syntax
Interdependence of Morphological and Syntactic Changes
Nominal Morphology
A Linguistic Myth: The Supposed Cacophony of the Pronoun Combination ***le lo
Verbal Morphology
Principal Syntactic Innovations
Text Analysis
Appendix: Lexical Archaisms in Alphonsine Prose

Chapter 7: From Medieval Castilian to Modern Spanish
Political and Cultural History of Spain after the Middle Ages
An Archaic Dialect: Sephardi
Linguistic Changes
A Linguistic Myth: The Lisping King
Text Analysis
A Linguistic Myth: The Phonemic Character of Spanish Orthography

Chapter 8: History of the Spanish Lexicon
Sources of Words in Spanish
The Reduplicative Playful Template
Stages in the History of the Spanish Lexicon

Chapter 9: Varieties of Spanish
Varieties of Spanish in the Two Castiles
Canary Island Spanish
American Spanish
Demography of the Spanish Language
Four Representative Varieties of American Spanish
Spanish in the United States

Rudiments of Spanish Phonetics and Phonology
Glossary of Linguistic Terms
Works Cited
Index of Spanish Words Cited
Subject Index

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