LINGUIST List 12.1545

Tue Jun 12 2001

Review: Penny, Variation and Change in Spanish

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  • 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 Portuguese.

    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 variation.

    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 standardization.

    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.