LINGUIST List 28.4643

Mon Nov 06 2017

Review: Spanish; Sociolinguistics: Hidalgo (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 17-Jul-2017
From: Natalie Operstein <>
Subject: Diversification of Mexican Spanish
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Margarita Hidalgo
TITLE: Diversification of Mexican Spanish
SUBTITLE: A Tridimensional Study in New World Sociolinguistics
SERIES TITLE: Contributions to the Sociology of Language [CSL]
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Natalie Operstein,

REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


''Diversification of Mexican Spanish'' by Margarita Hidalgo examines the interplay of external and internal factors in the origin and diversification of Mexican Colonial Spanish. The study is based on close reading of representative documents from different stages of the Mexican colonial period, 1520-1821, and comprises an introduction and eleven chapters.

The introductory chapter introduces the book by defining its object of study, Mexican Colonial Spanish (MCS), as ''the Spanish variety written (and spoken) in Mexico during the colonial period'' (p. 26); and diversification as ''both the act and the result of diversifying the roles, functions, domains, and even traits of a transplanted language'' (p. 1). It introduces the colonial documents to be examined in subsequent chapters, and the target linguistic features to be traced in them (p. 26). The former principally consist of two sets of documents, those from the Mexican Central Highlands (Company Company 1994) and those from the Gulf of Mexico (Melis et al. 2008). The targeted linguistic features comprise seseo (merger of medieval Spanish sibilants into a single /s/), leísmo (use of the third-person object pronoun 'le', as opposed to the etymological 'lo', for direct masculine singular animate objects), voseo (use of 'vos' as a singular second-person pronoun), use of the imperfect subjunctive forms in -se versus those in -ra, and the presence of Taino and Nahuatl borrowings. In addition to these key features, the book also aims to examine ''residual variants'' (p. 26) deriving from MCS. These are forms originating in the informal register that have been redistributed in and currently pertain to colloquial New World Spanish. Two categories of residual variants are distinguished: those used by most speakers in colloquial registers (e.g. the use of 'lana' ''wool'' with the meaning ''money'') and those confined to rural or socio-economically marginal areas (e.g. the use of 'vide' ''I saw'' and 'truje' ''I brought'' for the normative Spanish 'vi' and 'traje'). The introductory chapter also surveys the major cornerstones in the standardization of Spanish, summarizes several key publications of the pioneering Colombian dialectologist Rufino José Cuervo, and offers a chapter-by-chapter outline of the book's contents.

Several chapters provide the social and historical information to serve as background for the analysis and interpretation of the linguistic data. These are intercalated among the chapters that analyze the colonial documents.

Chapter 1 continues to set the scene by surveying the major external events and linguistic changes leading to the formation of Castilian and Andalusian Spanish, the theories of origin of New World Spanish, the notion of koineization as it applies to New World Spanish, and demographic information about Spanish immigration to the New World. Chapter 2 looks at the social, economic, racial, ethnic and linguistic composition of the early Spanish-speaking colonial society, devoting particular attention to the role of the records kept by the Inquisition in reconstructing this reality. Chapter 5 outlines the social, economic and cultural aspects of life in sixteenth-century Mexico, with the focus on the loci of language contact and the activities contributing to the diffusion of Spanish among non-Spanish speaking groups. Among the aspects examined are the organization of labor in the various industries, demographic data on the ethnic composition of urban centers, organization of education and the curriculum taught, the linguistic impact of printing, and the literary genres cultivated in the New World. Chapter 7 focuses on the indigenous side of the Spanish-indigenous language contact, examining such issues as the growing rates of bilingualism in Spanish, the social and political contexts of Hispanization, the linguistic effects of Christianization, the role of missionaries in the maintenance of indigenous languages, and the role of ''Hispanicized Indians'' as intermediaries between the Spanish-speaking and indigenous societies.

The remaining chapters, except the last two, are devoted to the analysis of the colonial documents. These are divided into several periods: the letters of Hernán Cortés dating from 1519 and 1520 (analyzed in Chapter 3), documents written in the first half of the sixteenth century and corresponding to the first generation of MCS speakers (in Chapter 4), documents written in the second half of the sixteenth century and corresponding to the first generation of locally-born MCS speakers (in Chapter 6), documents from the seventeenth century (in Chapter 8), and those from the eighteenth century (in Chapter 9).

Chapter 3 analyzes the first and second letters of Hernán Cortés, ''[t]he first speaker and writer of Mexican Spanish'' (p. 110). The letters, addressed to the Emperor Charles V and Queen Doña Juana, are dated 1519 and 1520, respectively, and relate the events leading to the conquest of Mexico. Their linguistic analysis is divided into features of orthography, phonology, lexicon and morphosyntax. Key features include preference for leísmo and the imperfect subjunctive in -se, use of the second-person pronouns 'vos' (singular) and 'vosotros' (plural), and the presence of Taino borrowings (e.g. 'cacique', 'canoa', 'ají'). Other features include mid / high vowel variation (e.g. 'mesmo' ~ 'mismo'), initial /f/ ~ /h/ variation (e.g. 'fablar' ~ 'hablar'), a rich repertoire of preposition-definite article and preposition-demonstrative contractions (e.g. 'destos' for 'de estos'), assimilation of object pronouns to infinitives (e.g. 'velle' for 'verle'), feminine gender of selected presently masculine nouns (e.g. 'la calor' for 'el calor'), use of 'como' as a relativizer, double negation, use of past participles in adverbial clauses, use of prepositional gerund, variation between the full ('para') and contracted ('pa') forms of the preposition 'para', older or variant forms of some common verbs (e.g. 'traxe' ~ 'truxe' for modern 'traje', 'vido' for modern 'vio'), use of 'haber' ''have'' as a possessive verb, variable placement of object and reflexive pronouns (e.g. 'se partió' / 'acordóse' for modern 'se partió' / 'se acordó'), and use of presently obsolete lexical items (e.g. 'aína' ''rapidly'').

Chapter 4 analyzes representative documents from the Central Highlands and the Gulf regions written in the period 1520-1555 by colonists born in Spain and assumed to constitute the first generation of MCS speakers. Throughout this period, the author assumes the existence of diglossic division of labor between the formal (high) variety of Spanish based on the peninsular norm ('toledano-castellano') and the informal (low) variety based on the emergent koine. The formative period of the koine is assumed to extend ''from the early 1520's to the mid 1550's and may be extended through the end of the 16th century'' (p. 141). The documents present features that are similar to the ones seen earlier in the letters of Hernán Cortés. Writers of this period generally maintain the sibilant system of 'toledano-castellano', tend toward leísmo, prefer the imperfect subjunctive in -se, and use 'vos' and 'vuestra merced' as second-person singular pronouns. Apart from the established loans from Taino and Nahuatl, writers of this generation also introduce local toponyms (e.g. çacatula) and ethnonyms (e.g. çapotecas); in addition, the author credits the tenseness of /s/ in Mexican Spanish to the introduction of Nahuatl loans (pp. 173-175). Other salient features include maintenance of fricative voicing and the /ʎ/ ~ /y/ opposition, mid / high vowel and initial /f/ ~ /h/ alternation, assimilation of object pronouns to infinitives, variation in the preterite of 'traer' ''bring'' ('traxe' ~ 'truxe') and the gender of 'mar' ''sea'' ('la mar' ~ 'el mar'), use of prepositional gerund, alternation in the placement of object and reflexive pronouns in relation to infinitives and conjugated verbs with stylistic variants prefiguring modern usage (e.g. 'le servir' alongside 'traerle', 'pusieronlos' alongside 'los tenia'), preference for 'platicar' ''to chat'' over its synonym 'charlar', and variation in the use of the preposition 'para', with some writers using only the full form, others only the apocopated form, and still others alternating the two forms in their writing.

Chapter 6 examines representative documents from the second half of the sixteenth century, produced by the first generation of locally-born Spanish speakers. Omitting individual inter-speaker differences, the common thread that runs through the observations is greater overall variability than in the documents of the preceding period, attributed to greater impact of inter-dialect contact on speakers of this generation. With respect to the key features, there is variation in the spelling of the sibilants, with more documented instances of seseo; preference for leísmo; and preference for the imperfect subjunctive in -se, though it is more pronounced in the Gulf documents than in those from the Central Highlands (pp. 247-248). The pronouns of address are the singular 'vos' and 'vuestra / vuesa merced' and the plural 'vosotros' and 'vuestras / vuesas mercedes', with faint indications of voseo in the occasional matching of 'vos' with the oblique forms and/or verb paradigm of 'tú'. Other features include mid / high vowel variation, sporadic deletion of postvocalic /d/s (e.g. 'salu' for 'salud'), hypercorrect /h/s (e.g. 'horden' for 'orden'), interchange of liquids (e.g. 'habra' for 'habla'), and variable assimilation of post-infinitive clitics (e.g. 'ponella' / 'enbiarles').

Seventeenth-century documents are examined in Chapter 8. A major trend observed in this century is a rise in the instances of seseo, which is more substantial toward the end of the century in both regions, comprising over 52% of all sibilant spellings in the Central Highlands in the period 1681-1697 (Table 8.6, p. 290). Another major trend is restructuring of the pronouns of address, characterized by the elimination of 'vos' and filling of its functional space with 'tú' and 'vuestra merced' (Table 8.9, p. 301). As in the preceding periods, there is preference for leísmo and the imperfect subjunctive in -se. The minor differences between the Central Highlands and the Gulf regions are noted, and in part explained, throughout the chapter (e.g., p. 288).

Chapter 9 examines documents from the eighteenth century. Major trends during this century include prevalence of the etymological object pronoun 'lo' over 'le', of the imperfect subjunctive in -ra over the one in -se, and of the second person pronouns 'tú' and 'vuestra merced', as well as a sharp increase in the diminutives with the suffix -ito/-ita, which are used not only with nouns but also with other parts of speech including adverbs (e.g. 'ahorita', from 'ahora' ''now'') and gerunds ('llegandito', from 'llegando' ''arriving''). The use of the sibilant graphemes reveals tension between the generalized seseo in the pronunciation and the adherence to normative orthography, with about one-third of the spellings betraying seseo (Table 9.10, p. 321). The chapter also draws attention to the emergence of 'español indígena' (indigenous Spanish) through a brief examination of language-contact effects in several texts written by Nahuatl-Spanish bilinguals. Throughout, the linguistic analysis is presented against the background of major contemporaneous societal changes, including immigration trends, demographic shifts, urban growth and transition to independence. The last factor is held responsible for the society-level attitudes that favored the selection of features distinguishing and distancing MCS from contemporary peninsular Spanish; these features ''were supported by the resistance to ways-of-speaking like Spaniards'' (p. 342).

The last two chapters wrap up the book by reiterating the major findings and threads of argumentation. Chapter 10 begins by summarizing the major dynamic trends affecting the key linguistic features targeted by the study -- the merger of sibilants resulting in seseo, the decline of leísmo, simplification of the second-person pronoun system, and the decline in the use of the imperfect subjunctive in -se -- through the lens of the hypothesis that ''[t]he attrition of contending variants in the milieu of diversification reflects the decline of those that acquired a social meaning identified with peninsular-oriented attitudes'' (p. 343). It then briefly surveys the survival of residual variants in colloquial registers and isolated or marginal areas; disregarding the distinction between the two types of residual variants, these include certain lexical choices (e.g. 'harto' ''many, very''), the 'para' ~ 'pa' variation, the addition of -s in the second-person preterite indicative (e.g. 'pedistes' for 'pediste'), double possessives (e.g. 'su madre della'), aspiration of initial /f/, and velarization of /b/ before the diphthong [we] (e.g. 'aguelo' for 'abuelo'), among others. These features are assumed to have been transmitted into modern Mexican Spanish as part of the koine that coexisted with normative Spanish from the beginning of the colony, assuming the function of the low variety in this diglossic relationship (p. 370). Finally, Chapter 11 closes the book by emphasizing the need to view history, society and language -- the three dimensions reflected in the book's subtitle -- as interconnected phenomena to be integrated into a coherent explicative model of language change.


The book provides a valuable linguistic analysis of texts covering the entire colonial period in Mexico, together with a systematic comparison between the documents from the Central Highlands and the Gulf regions. In many instances, the analysis of the observed phenomena is not only qualitative but is also supported by quantitative data, particularly as regards the key targeted features of seseo, leísmo, voseo and imperfect subjunctives. The discussed linguistic developments are embedded in a rich social, historical and cultural context that aids in the comprehension of the observed trends and in the analysis of their causal connections. The book opens interesting vistas for research on the origins and functioning of diglossia in Mexican Spanish, and also contributes to the body of case studies on the potential of societal attitudes to propel differentiation between varieties of a single language. Given its broad sweep, it promises to be a valuable reference resource on both linguistic and sociohistorical aspects of the formation of Mexican Spanish, and Latin American Spanish more generally.


Company Company, Concepción. 1994. Documentos lingüísticos de la Nueva España: Altiplano Central. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Melis, Chantal, Agustín Rivero Franyutti & Beatriz Arias Álvarez. 2008. Documentos lingüísticos de la Nueva España: Golfo de México. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.


Natalie Operstein is the author of ''Consonant Structure and Prevocalization'' (2010) and ''Zaniza Zapotec'' (2015) and co-editor of ''Valence Changes in Zapotec: Synchrony, Diachrony, Typology'' (2015) and ''Language Contact and Change in Mesoamerica and Beyond'' (2017). Her research interests center on language change, phonology and language contact.

Page Updated: 06-Nov-2017