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Review of  Estudio Elemental de Gramática Histórica de la Lengua Castellana

Reviewer: Jason Doroga
Book Title: Estudio Elemental de Gramática Histórica de la Lengua Castellana
Book Author: José Alemany Bolufer
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Spanish
Issue Number: 25.37

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This publication is a reprint of José Alemany Bolufer's 1915 monograph (henceforth, B) first published in Spain. In the preface, the author states that his intention for writing this book is to provide university students who study Old Spanish texts (here understood to be texts composed between the twelfth- and early fifteenth-century) a reference manual of historical Spanish grammar. B believes that the knowledge of historical grammar should be an integral part of literary studies. Without this knowledge of earlier forms of language, according to B, early texts are reduced to nothing more than a study of remote dates and events. Indeed, B believes that the language of an early text is “la parte sabrosa y deleitable que tiene este estudio” (‘the rich and enjoyable part of this study’, my translation; p. xii). This grammar was intended to be a practical, useful reference work that facilitates students’ comprehension of the linguistic forms that are documented in Old Spanish texts. The remainder of the preface provides a brief overview of the modes of transmission of Latin words into Spanish (e.g., learned, semi-learned, popular). Though B acknowledges that other languages have enriched the lexicon of Spanish (e.g., indigenous language of the Americas, Celtic), he argues that the phonology, morphology and syntax of Spanish is undeniably Latinate, and the remainder of the work only addresses changes from Latin to Spanish.

“Part I: Phonology” (pp. 1-62)

This section is divided into three parts. In Part I (pp. 1-7), B provides an overview of the Latin alphabet and compares it to the alphabet of Old Spanish. This brief section contains an overview of Latin diphthongs, Latin orthography and the Old Spanish alphabet (including a discussion of geminate consonants). Part II (pp. 8-11) treats the differences between the vocalic system of Classical Latin and Vulgar Latin, paying special attention to vowel length and aperture in the two systems. In Part III (pp. 12-62), B outlines the development of the vowels and consonants in Old Spanish. In a highly systematic way, B discusses the historical development of tonic vowels, atonic vowels (both pre- and post-tonic) and then each category of consonants (e.g., voiceless stops, voiced fricatives). For each sound, B first establishes the general rule of the sound change before outlining the changes that occur within specific phonetic contexts. Finally, for each rule established, he presents important exceptions to the rule. For example, B shows that the Latin consonant cluster /fl/ is maintained in word initial position (e.g., ‘floc’ > ‘fleco’ (‘tassel’)) but does not persist in word medial position (e.g., ‘sufflare’ > ‘soplar’ (‘to blow’)). An important counter-example to this general rule is seen in ‘flama’ > ‘llama’ (‘flame’), though B does not offer any explanation for this apparent anomaly. This section concludes with a brief illustration of the phonetic processes of metathesis, assimilation, dissimilation and epenthesis. A notable feature of this entire volume are the abundant examples that illustrate the phonetic environments where these changes are most likely to occur. One interesting example that is not often cited in other historical phonology reference manuals is the example of an ‘epenthetic n’ which can occur before Latin voiceless velar, palatal and dental consonants. This is seen in words such as ‘nec uno’ > ‘ninguno’ (‘none’) and ‘lacosta’ > ‘langosta’ (‘lobster’).

“Part II: Morphology” (pp. 63-153)

This section is divided into five parts. The morphology of nouns is treated in Part I (pp. 63-76). The central claim in this section is that the uniformizing tendency seen in the noun morphology of Old Spanish is the result of the decline of the case system of Classical Latin, as well as the result of the loss of the Latin neuter gender. This is seen, for example, in the creation of the analogical plural form ‘brazas’ (‘fathoms’) from Latin ‘brachia’. Also covered in this part is a brief discussion of the morphology of augmentatives, diminutives and patronyms. Part II (pp. 76-82) discusses adjective morphology, including comparative and superlative morphology, as well as numerals. Part III (pp. 82-91) addresses the morphology of articles and pronouns. In Part IV (pp. 91-148), B presents the verbal morphology of Old Spanish. The majority of this lengthy section consists of lists of verbs with irregular morphology (e.g., present indicative verbs with a velar consonant infix). Nonetheless, B’s central claim here is that verb morphology is the result of two competing processes. On the one hand, B demonstrates that it is the result of regular phonetic processes that he discusses in the first part of this volume. For example, he claims that the development of the participle ‘ruptus’ > ‘roto’ (‘broken’) is wholly expected, though the Spanish form is traditionally classified as an irregular participle. On the other hand, the competing force is morphological change as a result of analogy (which B identifies as a “psychological cause of morphological change” (my translation; p. 97) as seen in the development of ‘rupi’ > ‘rompí’ (‘I broke’). Throughout this section, the author seeks to find patterns in Spanish verbal morphology. He notes that there is a predictable tendency for Spanish to inherit the inchoative form of Latin infinitives (e.g., ‘florescere’> ‘florecer’ (‘flourish’). In the brief Part V (pp. 149-153), B discusses the morphology of Old Spanish adverbs, conjunctions and prepositions.

“Part III: Texts” (pp. 154-368)

The bulk of this volume, and perhaps its greatest asset, is a compilation of Old Spanish texts composed between the twelfth century (e.g., “El Cid”) and the fifteenth century (e.g., “El rimado del palacio”), accompanied by a glossary of antiquated lexical items. This section includes selections from familiar texts (e.g., “Libro de buen amor”, “Proverbios morales”), as well as texts that appear less frequently in modern anthologies (e.g., “Poema de Alfonso onceno”, “El libro de los gatos”). B does not include the dates of composition for the majority of the texts. The inclusion of selections of a wide variety of Old Spanish texts reflects B’s purpose for writing this grammar. As stated in the prologue, the literary study of texts and the linguistic study of language necessarily complement each other. In theory, any linguistic form documented in these texts is explained in Parts I and II of the volume, though the reader will quickly notice that B does not include any discussion of syntactic or semantic changes from Latin to Old Spanish.


This is the twenty-first volume published in the LINCOM Classica series. To date, there have been several volumes that, like the present volume under review, are of particular value to Romance linguists (e.g., a reprint of de Mugica’s “Gramática del Castellano Antiguo” as well as Gröber’s “Grundriss der Romanischen Philologie”). The republication of B’s monograph, originally published almost a century ago, comes at a time when some in the modern academy claim that Medieval Spanish studies are becoming increasingly watered down because of the use of modernized editions of texts. B calls for a renewed interest in reading texts in the original language, without adulterations or modernizations. As B acknowledges in the preface (p. xii), this work is primarily meant for students of literature, which is reflected in the inclusion of over one-hundred pages of Old Spanish texts, using the most reliable editions that were available in 1915.

This volume will be of particular interest for advanced students of Medieval Spanish studies, as well as historical Hispanic linguists and comparative Romance philologists. The monograph provides succinct and clear descriptions and documentation of the various sound changes and morphological changes that occurred between Latin, Vulgar Latin, and Old Castilian. Although it is not an adequate primary textbook for a History of the Spanish Language course, it is a suitable complementary manual of examples for students who are studying language change. As would be expected for a book written during the nascent period of Hispanic linguistics, this volume does not provide explanations for changes, or categorizations of these changes, as representations of phonological processes, a de facto endeavor that more modern books on the subject of sound changes undertake.

Another potential problem for modern readers is the lack of consistent IPA symbols to represent sounds. For example, the voiceless, velar fricative /x/ is occasionally represented by the symbol ‘G’, but more frequently the author simply relies on orthography (e.g., ‘ge’ or ‘gi’) to represent the sound. Though this is generally discouraged in modern phonetics courses, B relies heavily on orthography to demonstrate the relevant changes rather than on phonetic symbols. As a result of this, the reader might assume that the voiceless dental sibilant is consistently represented by the grapheme ‘ç’ in Old Spanish texts. This simply is not the case in the manuscript tradition. It is unfortunate, also, that the book has no index or bibliography. Even a more specific table of contents would help guide the reader to appropriate sections of the text.

Despite these limitations in format, the reader occasionally is struck by how modern this work appears to be, despite the fact that it was published a century ago. For example, at a time when sound changes were assumed to be governed by universal principles of regularity, B consistently provides counter-examples to the laws of sound change. Additionally, throughout the work, the author includes forms other than Castilian, such as Leonese and Asturian, to illustrate that the laws of sound change are not necessarily universal.
Jason P. Doroga is Assistant Professor of Spanish at Centre College in Danville, KY. His research interests include historical syntax and morphology, semantics and pragmatics, and Spanish/Portuguese contact and language acquisition. His current research project focuses on the grammaticalization of the past participle in compound tenses in Spanish and Portuguese.