LINGUIST List 12.1545

Tue Jun 12 2001

Review: Penny, Variation and Change in Spanish

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  1. Elizabeth Martinez-Gibson, review of Ralph Penny, Variation and Change in Spanish

Message 1: review of Ralph Penny, Variation and Change in Spanish

Date: Mon, 28 May 2001 14:24:40 -0400
From: Elizabeth Martinez-Gibson <>
Subject: review of Ralph Penny, Variation and Change in Spanish

Penny, Ralph (2001) Variation and Change in Spanish, Cambridge University
Press, hardback, x+284 pp., $59.95, ISBN: 0-521-78045-4.

Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Mart�nez-Gibson, College of Charleston,
Charleston, SC

"Variation and Change in Spanish" is quite concise and manageable for an
undergraduate class on the history of the Spanish language, a diachronic
dialectology or phonology of Spanish class. Since the text is in English,
it serves Spanish speakers as well as English speakers interested in the
historical changes and variations of Spanish. The Portuguese features of
Portugal and Brazil, in their relationship to Spanish and their proximity
to Spain and Spanish America, are also of interest to those studying

In the Preface, Penny indicates his purpose as being to "apply certain
theoretical insights into linguistic variation and change to the
Spanish-speaking world." Most of the data are that of Castilian Spanish
and the constant theme throughout the book is 'dialect mixing'. 'Dialect
mixing' is defined as an occurrence due to population movement and
therefore mixing different dialects creating new features. Within this
constant theme, Penny's focus is on historical change and variation
related to Spanish and suggests that language variation is 'seamless',
that is, "variation is almost infinitely subtle, and occurs along all
parameters (geographical and social), so that it is usually inappropriate
to seek to establish boundaries between varieties."

He does "not aim to provide the reader with an exhaustive description of
geographical variation in Spanish," therefore providing a general review
of the historical changes of Peninsula Spanish and these influences on
Spanish American Spanish.

In this, the book differs from John M. Lipski's (1996) "El espa�ol de
Am�rica" and Manuel Alvar's (1996) "Manual de dialectolog�a hisp�nica: El
espa�ol de Espa�a," each of which provide some historical, as well as
modern variation. In addition to those areas discussed in Penny's book,
these two include lexicon and a more complete view of sociolinguistics.
Penny touches on the important areas of social features, but as he states
the book does not "claim to describe in detail the correlation between the
linguistic and sociological features of the Spanish-speaking communities."
Again, this book focuses on historical changes and variation, how changes
from the Middle Ages brought us to the Spain we know today.

The first chapter "Introduction: Language variation" discusses the dialect
continuum of the Northern part of the Peninsula. Penny indicates that
variation is observable across the continuum. Individuals will use the
different variants within the community based on the circumstances, i.e.,
formal versus informal, etc., whereas over time, formal variants tend to
be replaced with informal variants.

Chapter 2 "Dialect, language, and variety: definitions and relationships"
focuses on the relationship between dialect and language. Penny presents
the idea that the only difference between the concepts of dialect and
language is a 'degree of difference' and not a 'difference of kind'
because dialects can eventually become languages and over time languages
fragment into dialects forming different variations. He discusses how
"language is delimitable, therefore there is no one particular definable
moment in time to determine its birth.

In this chapter, Penny discusses his theory of the misconception of the
division of the Romance language family (Western, Eastern, and Sardinian)
which is based on two features (voiceless intervocalic consonants in
Western Romance, but not in Eastern, and the loss of final /s/ in Eastern,
but not Western Romance. He explains five reasons for this misconception
and documents these with examples to the contrary.

In the Iberian Peninsula, he offers population movement as the only
explanation for the division of three linguistic blocs in the Southern two
thirds of the Peninsula. This resettlement was the consequence of
Christian reconquest of Islamic Spain.

Chapter 3 "Mechanisms of change" focuses on the process by which change
spreads through social groups and how the composition of such groups can
affect "who imitates whom." Language change depends upon language

In medieval Spain after a period of dialect mixing, language began to
level out and simplify, therefore reducing variation and developing norm
patterns. If there were co-existing competing items in the same territory,
one was chosen and the other abandoned, unless the community was divided,
and then both forms would remain acquiring different prestige turning it
into a social variation. Communities dominated by strongly tied sub-groups
were more resistant to linguistic change, and individuals with more power,
prestige were imitated more often than non-powerful people.

Chapter 4 "Variation in Spain" presents the geographical and social
variations in Spain. In the geographical variations, Penny presents two
sets of circumstances: the Northern dialect continuum and the territorial
expansion of northern varieties, which accompanied the reconquest of
Islamic Spain.

The Northern dialect continuum stretched across the northern third of the
Peninsula and varieties of this move south were subjected to dialect
contact and dialect mixing with other northern dialects and Mozarabic
varieties. With this progression, the processes of focusing and
standardization introduced breaks in the east-west continuum, so that, in
the southern two thirds of the Peninsula there was a superimposition of
isoglosses, which produced sharp boundaries between the Portuguese set of
varieties, a Castilian set, and a Catalan set. In this chapter discussion
focuses on the features of linguistic variation of the dialects of the
Peninsula such as the Mozarabic of Toledo; the Northern Peninsula dialects
of Zamora, Cantabria, Old Castile, and the Pyrenees; the broken Southern
Peninsula of Central and Southern Portugal, Catalan speech along the
Mediterranean coast from Tarragona to Alicante, and the territory between
these two areas of the South; Galicia and Portugal; Catalan and Valencian;
Andalusian and Canaries. Penny also presents the Eastern and Western
innovative features, as well as the expansion of northern features
southward. Some of the variant features of Spanish America that resemble
Andalusian Spanish and differ from those of Castilian such as seseo,
ye�smo, maintenance and loss of /h/, weakening of final /s/, vowel system,
merger of final /r/ and /l/, third person clitic pronouns, and modes of
address were presented in this chapter.

The social variations include ye�smo, based on age and higher socio-
economic class groups; maintenance of intervocalic /d/ among women in
Valladolid and in the Mexican variety of Spanish; aspiration of final /s/
in working class Valladolid; neutralization of atonic vowels in the less
educated social strata.

Chapter 5 "Variation in Spanish American" focuses on the continuation of
the process of change occurring in the Peninsula and the Canaries during
the Middle Ages. Penny acknowledges some features related to Native
American languages among those that were bilingual speakers, however his
focus is related to Peninsula Spanish. Penny indicates numerous factors
for the Andalusian speech pattern dominance in Spanish America. The first
Spanish settlements were Cuba and La Espa�ola, Veracruz and Mexico City,
Cartagena and Lima. With these settlements, two lines of communication
with the Peninsula were created: a Madrid norm and a Seville norm. Seville
was granted a trade monopoly between the Peninsula and the American
Empire, however the Madrid norm has precedence. Therefore the linguistic
development in Spanish America was a dialect mixing based on the origins
of the settlers and the extent to which the Seville norm was checked by
the Madrid norm.

Some of the features noted in Spanish American Spanish are: 1) weakening
of final /s/, with retention in areas that attracted more prestigious
central Castile speakers such as Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and
Bolivia; 2) neutralization of final /r/ and /l/, a transfer from Southern
Spain, in the Lowlands of Spanish America among working class or rural
speakers, strongest in the Caribbean; 3) velarization of final /n/ in the
Lowlands and Coastal areas, some areas of the Highlands show this feature,
but the Southern Cone was unaffected; 4) voseo versus tuteo showed that
areas in closest contact with the central part of the Peninsula abandoned
voseo for tuteo; 5) devoiced /tr/ in the Southern Highlands and in Central
America; and 6) amplification of preterit versus present perfect tense is
linked to the Northwestern area of the Peninsula via the Canaries.

The social variations of Spanish America included the following features
and sociolinguistic phenomena: 1) existence of the phoneme /h/ for the
grapheme f in rural speech from New Mexico to Argentina; 2) fronterizo
speech from Northern Uruguay to Brazil with features of both Spanish and
Portuguese in phonetic variation as well as morphological, lexical and
sociolinguistic; 3) the Pidgins of the 16th Century slaves to Spanish
American colonies formed Creoles among the slave children, however
decreolization quickly took place in the Spanish colonies leaving only two
Spanish Creoles today, Papiamentu (Cura�ao, Aruba, and Bonaire) and
Palenquero (interior of Colombia).

Chapter 6 "Variation in Judeo-Spanish" presents the Jewish speech along
the Northern Peninsula continuum as well as the linguistic effects due to
their expulsion from the Peninsula and the influences of those countries
of immigration. Penny notes the variation of Spanish features, which
indicates that Jews from different parts of the Peninsula reached the same
destinations of Europe or Northern Africa. The weak social ties due to
emigration led to linguistic change leaving room for innovation. Although
Judeo-Spanish preserves some features of 15th Century Spanish, Penny
suggests that dialect mixing has led to the simplification and leveling of
differences between competing varieties in phonology and morpho-syntax,
however preserving Castilian features.

Chapter 7 "Standardization" a process in the written language, has a
tendency to reduce linguistic variation. In this chapter, Penny discusses
'status planning', which addresses the social and extralinguistic aspects
versus 'corpus planning,' with the intralinguistic aspects of

Designed for either classroom use or self-study, this book addresses the
historical development of the varieties of Spanish. The main focus of the
book is phonological changes and variations, however Penny does discuss
the major morphological, syntactic, and sociolinguistic variations.

Areas not touched upon in this book are lexical and semantic topics and
the topic on Spanish America is quite broad and only touches on those
features related to Peninsula Spanish, which Penny states as his aim in
his preface.

The linguistic changes discussed are historical in nature covering the
progression of Spanish through the Middle Ages. Penny suggests that the
role of the Christian reconquest played an important part in the
linguistic development of the Peninsula, the Canaries, and the American
Empire providing population movement and therefore 'dialect mixing' which
in turn created the changes and variations that we know today.

This book is a good concise review of the phonological changes and
important sociolinguistic features in Spanish from the Middle Ages to its
present use. Penny provides a sound theory for the variation that exists
in Spanish America, Judeo-Spanish, and those of the different parts of the
Peninsula. It will serve well for an undergraduate text.


Alvar, Manuel. 1996. Manual de dialectolog�a hisp�nica. El espa�ol de
Espa�a. Barcelona: Ariel.

Lipski, John M. 1996. El espa�ol de Am�rica. Madrid: C�tedra.

Elizabeth A. Mart�nez-Gibson is an Associate Professor at the College of
Charleston, Charleston, SC. She is the author of "Morpho-syntactic Erosion
Between Two Generational Groups of Spanish Speakers in the United States,"
(Peter Lang, 1993) and several articles. She has been at the College of
Charleston for nine years and is presently creating a Linguistics Minor.
Her areas of interest include: Language variation and change,
dialectology, second language acquisition, bilingualism, and Spanish in
the U.S.
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