A Brief History of the Spanish Language
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A Brief History of the Spanish Language

Second Edition

David A. Pharies

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eBook - ePub

A Brief History of the Spanish Language

Second Edition

David A. Pharies

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About This Book

Since its publication in 2007, A Brief History of the Spanish Language has become the leading introduction to the history of one of the world's most widely spoken languages. Moving from the language's Latin roots to its present-day forms, this concise book offers readers insights into the origin and evolution of Spanish, the historical and cultural changes that shaped it, and its spread around the world. A Brief History of the Spanish Language focuses on the most important aspects of the development of the Spanish language, eschewing technical jargon in favor of straightforward explanations. Along the way, it answers many of the common questions that puzzle native speakers and non-native speakers alike, such as: Why do some regions use tú while others use vos? How did the th sound develop in Castilian? And why is it la mesa but el agua?David A. Pharies, a world-renowned expert on the history and development of Spanish, has updated this edition with new research on all aspects of the evolution of Spanish and current demographic information. This book is perfect for anyone with a basic understanding of Spanish and a desire to further explore its roots. It also provides an ideal foundation for further study in any area of historical Spanish linguistics and early Spanish literature. A Brief History of the Spanish Language is a grand journey of discovery, revealing in a beautifully compact format the fascinating story of the language in both Spain and Spanish America.

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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).
V₁ → V₁ V₁ → V₁ V₂ → V₂
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.

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