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Review of  Diachronic Applications in Hispanic Linguistics

Reviewer: Hella Olbertz
Book Title: Diachronic Applications in Hispanic Linguistics
Book Author: Eva Núñez Méndez
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Language Family(ies): Romance
Issue Number: 28.2895

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Diachronic applications in Hispanic linguistics, ed. by Eva Núñez Méndez. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016, contains nine, mainly sociolinguistic, studies of diachronic change in Spanish. The chapters are ordered in such a way that the book begins with the most concrete and ends with the most abstract features of language: the first three chapters are dedicated to the lexicon, followed by three chapters dealing mainly with phonological aspects of language change; Chapter 7 is dedicated to morphology and the last two chapters to syntax.

In Chapter 1, “Unique lexical survivals in Ibero-Romance: a diachronic approach”, Steven Dworkin gives an overview on the etymology of Latin-based lexemes used on the Iberian Peninsula, with a focus on Spanish. Section 1 introduces a tri-partite classification of Romance lexemes: Latin words that survived in (i) nearly all, (ii) most and (iii) only one or two Romance languages. The study concentrates on type (iii) lexemes. Section 2 discusses four etymologically controversial cases from (Old) Spanish, presenting the different analyses that have been offered by other scholars. Obviously, a definitive solution cannot be offered. Section 3 presents a list of words with their Latin origins that have no cognates outside the Iberian Peninsula and an etymological list of Ibero-Romance words that have cognates at the Eastern extreme of the Roman Empire, the late and only briefly occupied Romanian territory. Section 4 discusses a number of words that are generally thought to prove the conservatism of Ibero-Romance, caused by both its early integration into the Roman Empire and its geographical isolation. Section 5 is dedicated to etymons that have survived only in parts of the Peninsula, and Section 6 focuses on the lexical innovations on the Iberian Peninsula, such as the Sp. ‘amarillo’ and Ptg. ‘amarelo’ “yellow”, originating from a diminutive of AMARO “bitter”. Section 7 shows that a major part of the Spanish etymons belongs to group (i), i.e. it is shared with other Romance languages.

In Chapter 2, “Arabisms in the Spanish lexicon of trades: a diachronic perspective”, Patricia Giménez-Eguíbar provides a historical-sociolinguistic account of a specific lexical field of Arabic borrowings in Spain from the beginning of the Moorish occupation in 711 to the twentieth century. Section 1 begins with a general overview of the impact of the Arabic dominance not only on the lexicon of science “for which the Hispano-Romance of the time had no suitable signifiers” (p. 40), but also on the core-vocabulary. Next, the author gives a list of Arabisms with competing Romance vocabulary, the focus of the paper. The remainder of the chapter provides a critical analysis of the sociolinguistic effects of the Reconquest, which lead to the stigmatization of Arabic lexical borrowings and their gradual substitution by Romance-based alternatives. The negative evaluation concerned those Arabisms that were identifiable as such due to their beginning with the agglutinated article ‘al’. Giménez-Eguíbar shows in detail how this process went hand in hand with the standardization of Spanish, which culminated in the publication of Nebrija’s grammar, and was aided by the introduction of printing in the early sixteenth century. Even Coromines & Pacual’s etymological dictionary (1980-1991) is shown to contain derogatory comments on Arabisms. (This may however be related to the fact that the first volume, A-C, of the dictionary, containing most of the Arabisms, was already published in 1970, i.e. under the nationalist Franco-dictatorship - a fact that the author fails to recognize.) The study contains two very well documented case studies of the fate of two obsolete Arabic terms for professions: ‘alfajeme’ “barber” (now ‘barbero’) and ‘alfayate’ “tailor” (now ‘sastre’). Their loss was caused by both the association of Arabic with Islam and, as such, lower class and the positive valuation of the Castilian Christian world.

The effect of printing is taken up again in Chapter 3: “A socio-historical approach to lexical variation and change in early modern Spanish” by Fernando Tejedo-Herrero. The chapter examines the first printed editions of the ‘Siete partidas’ (a legislative study) and of the ‘Gran conquista de ultramar’ (a Crusade chronicle), both written in the 13th century. The editions of the manuscripts were printed in 1491 and 1503, respectively, under the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, who partially sponsored these editions. Tejedo-Herrero studies a number of selected lexical changes from the manuscripts to the printed version, and argues that the print edition also served the purpose of lexical standardization. He mentions two lexemes from the manuscripts that were adapted in the printed editions because they were not even understood by the editors: ‘enlaidecer’ “make ugly” and ‘amidos’ “by force”. However, in other cases of adaptation, the alternative form had not been lost and continued to be used elsewhere. The lexical adaptations found in the new editions were of three different kinds. First, ambiguities were eliminated, which holds e.g. in the case of the noun ‘sabor’ “desire, wish”, which was substituted by three different words. The effect was semantic specialization, e.g. ‘sabor’ became “taste”. Second, for less transparent reasons, alternatives were introduced, e.g. the adverb ‘asaz’ “enough” (from Latin AD SATIS) was always replaced by ‘harto’. Third, inherited vocabulary was systematically replaced by borrowings from Latin, e.g. ‘padron’ became ‘patron’ “patron”, and ‘sagramientos’ was rendered as ‘sacramentos’ “sacraments”; both represent coinages called ‘cultismos’ in Spanish. This undoubtedly had the effect of creating an “educated standard”, thus stigmatizing the inherited variants.

Eva Núñez Méndez is the author of Chapter 4, “A diachronic approach to the confusion of ‘b’ with ‘v’ in Spanish”. She studies an exclusively Spanish phenomenon: the neutralization of the contrast between /b/ and /v/, yielding /b/, realized either as a fricative [β] or a plosive [b] depending on the surrounding sounds. To begin with, Núñez Méndez uses data from the “Appendix Probi” to demonstrate that the phenomenon had already occurred in the Iberian varieties of Vulgar Latin. After explaining the complexity of this change, which also involved the voicing of Latin /p/, the reduction of the geminate /bb/ and the neutralization of /w/, she discusses the possible origin of the change. She argues that, like all other phonological idiosyncrasies of Spanish, the neutralization of /b/ and /v/ can be explained through the long-term contact of Old Castilian with Basque. Her overall claim is controversial (which the author readily concedes), but the argument for the fusion of /b/ and /v/ is generally accepted: Basque apparently never had a /v/. As regards dating the completion of the fusion of the two phonemes, Núñez Méndez provides evidence from prescriptive grammars and the like: up to the 16th century authors insisted on differentiating /b/ and /v/, but by the 17th century the neutralization was generally recognized. The only decisive evidence, however, comes from verse: as soon as etymological ‘b’ rhymes with etymological ‘v’ in a systematic way, we know that the two graphemes represent just one phoneme. In addition to discussing the literature that dates the generalization of the phenomenon somewhere between the 16th and 17th centuries, the author provides some nice examples from verse of both non-neutralization (from the years 1330-1496) and neutralization (from 1543-1624).

Chapter 5, “Andalusian Spanish: a diachronic survey of its origins and footprint in the Americas” (Cynthia Kauffeld), is a description of the formation of the Andalusian dialect as well as the influence of Western Andalusian on early American Spanish. Andalusian is described as a koiné that came into existence as a result of the repopulation of newly acquired territories in the South of Spain in the course of the Reconquest. In the description of the phonological and morphological characteristics of the Western Andalusian dialect in its present-day form, the author mentions, among others, ‘seseo’ (i.e. the lack of a phonemic distinction between /s/ and /θ/), the weakening of syllable-final /s/, the confusion of syllable-final liquids, and the use of ‘ustedes’ for the informal plural address. The author also mentions ‘yeísmo’ (i.e. the fusion of /λ/ with /ʝ/), which she - erroneously - believes to be specific to Andalusian Spanish. With reference to numerous studies by Boyd-Bowman, she argues that the majority of the first settlers were of Andalusian origin. Therefore, Kauffeld adopts the ‘andalucista’ stance in the debate about the origin of American Spanish against the defendants of a polygenetic origin (e.g. Henriquez Ureña 1925; Alonso 1951), but she restricts this claim to early (16th century) American Spanish. Against the polygeneticists’ argument that ‘seseo’ did not yet exist by the time of the early colonization, Kauffeld counters that recent research proves that the ‘seseo’ and the logically preceding simplification of the Old-Spanish sibilant system (consisting of both voiced and voiceless dental affricates, alveolar fricatives and prepalatal fricatives) through deaffrication and devoicing occurred much earlier than previously assumed. Evidence comes from, among others, Frago García (1992) and Kauffeld (2011). Not surprisingly, the ‘seseo’ turns out to be the most salient of the Andalusian features discovered in 16th century American Spanish documents. Despite her andalucista stance, Kauffeld concludes that modern American Spanish is heterogeneous rather than being “a simple continuation of Andalusian Spanish”.

Chapter 6, “Diachronic perspectives on varieties of Spanish pronunciation: ‘seseo’ and ‘yeismo’” by Sonia Kania, takes up the issue of ‘seseo’ and refers to the evidence presented in Chapter 5, according to which the development of the ‘seseo’ in Western Andalusia had taken place before the Spanish colonization of America. According to Kania, the easy spread of ‘seseo’ was not only caused by the numerical predominance of Andalusians among the early settlers, but also by the prestige of the city of Seville and the simplicity of the Andalusian koiné. Indeed, Kania provides impressive evidence of ‘seseo’ from orthographic errors from various Mexican sources from the 16th century onward. With respect to the second case of phoneme-neutralization, the so-called ‘yeísmo’, the results are much less convincing. In the first place, it turns out that ‘yeísmo’ is not a predominantly Andalusian phenomenon (Table 6.1, p. 215-216). Furthermore, in the Mexican corpora there is much less evidence of ‘yeísmo’ than of ‘seseo’, a fact that is probably simply due to the relatively low frequency of words expected to contain /λ/ as opposed to the words containing the sound pronounced as [θ] in Spain outside Western Andalusia. In present-day Spanish, ‘seseo’ has not been taken over in Central and Northern Spain, but ‘yeísmo’ is predominant in all varieties, which may be due to its relatively low impact as a distinctive feature.

In Chapter 7, “A diachronic perspective on Latin American Spanish verbal morphology: reassessing the role of koineization”, Israel Sanz-Sánchez takes a radically different stance with respect to the origin of American Spanish. First of all he argues that, despite persistent claims to the contrary, American Spanish is far from uniform. He rejects theories of monogenetic origin, such as the ‘andalucismo’ theory, because they provide no explanations beyond phonology. Furthermore, monogenetic approaches consider only the language of the settlers, failing to account for the highly heterogeneous linguistic conditions in America and the varying effects of language contact. A “tabula rasa” situation, such as presupposed by the monogenetic account, did obtain in the Antillean area, where the indigenous population was erased in the course of a few decades, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Taking a polygenetic or, as he calls it, a “multi-causational” (e.g. p. 269) approach to the origin of the different varieties of American Spanish, Sanz-Sánchez inspects the variation in verbal morphology encountered in the different varieties. After providing an overview of morphological variation, he discusses two cases of variation, both in Mexico and Spain, of the 3rd person preterites, ‘vido’ (standard ‘vió’) “he/she/it saw”, retained from Old Spanish, and ‘truxe’ or ‘troxe’ (standard ‘traxe’) “he/she/it brought”, an analogical formation based on other strong verb stems. It is shown that both in Spanish and in Mexican documents the initial variation decreases under the pressure of standardization from the Real Academia’s first grammar (1771). But Sanz-Sánchez also demonstrates that in more remote areas of Mexico the variation continues. From this example it is concluded that in the study of Spanish in America “a primary role should be given to the study of the local socio-demographic history of each area, including dialect and language contact” (p. 271).

In Chapter 8, “Romance syntax in texts from the Early Middle Ages: a study in scribal evolution and continuity”, Robert J. Blake and Carlos Sánchez Lancis investigate two sets of notarial documents written in Latin between the 11th and 13th centuries, i.e. before the Romance vernacular was used in writing. The aim of the short but fascinating study is to disprove the belief that the Iberian Peninsula was a diglossic community, using Latin as the “high” and Romance as the “low” register. What a closer scrutiny of the documents reveals is that the notarial scribes combined a set of strictly Latin formulae with Romance syntactic structures. The study reveals four cases of typical Romance syntax. First, there is a tendency to use the redundant preposition AD with the dative form of pronouns (or AD with the nominative) in order to express the dative, in accordance with the Old and Modern Spanish rule. Secondly, the preposition AD (or A) tends to be used with the accusative with human referents, which is a precursor of human object marking in Old and Modern Spanish. Thirdly, the possessive adjective follows the noun in more formulaic Latin contexts, whereas in non-formulaic contexts, it tends to precede the noun, which is the rule in Old and Modern Spanish. Fourthly, ILLE, IPSE and the like may be followed by a possessive adjective, which corresponds to the Old Spanish usage of the article (from ILLE) with possessive adjectives (still common in present-day Portuguese). The authors conclude that by studying this and further features of documents of this kind from the Iberian Peninsula, the use of Latin as a written language helps to date syntactic features of Old Spanish ‘avant la lettre’.

In Chapter 9, “Semantic changes of ‘ser’, ‘estar’, and ‘haber’ in Spanish: a diachronic and comparative approach”, Miriam Díaz partially replicates the seminal study of these diachronic changes by Pountain (1985). The main difference is that she also gives a comparative description of the modern use of these verbs as copulas and auxiliaries in different Romance languages. Díaz first discusses the origins of the three verbs and their meanings and functions in Latin. She then turns to ‘ser’ (also: ‘seer’), originally meaning both “be” and “sit” (from Latin ESSE and SEDERE), and its functions as an existential verb, a copula, and a perfect and passive auxiliary in Old Spanish. Next, Diaz demonstrates how Latin STARE “stand” was grammaticalized in Old Spanish and took over the auxiliary functions of ‘se(e)r’: ‘estar’ came to be used as a resultant state passive auxiliary (‘ser’ continuing in the “action passive”), as well as copular functions with “stage-level” predicates. After that, ‘haber’ (from Latin HABERE “have”, “acquire”) is considered both in its developing existential function and in its perfect auxiliary function, where it competes with ‘ser’ until well into the 17th century. In parallel with its acquisition of auxiliary functions, ‘haber’ very gradually loses its possessive meaning to ‘tener’ (from Latin TENERE “have”, “hold”). In the section on present-day Romance languages, the realizations with cognates of the three grammaticalized verbs in (i) the (resultative) passive, (ii) locative and existential constructions, (iii) copula constructions, and (iv) perfects and progressives are compared, ending in a nice overview in Table 9.3.


The volume is aimed at “students of Hispanic Linguistics, as well as general readers and scholars with an interest in the field”; more specifically, the editor wants the book to suit “pedagogical purposes” (p. vii). Most of the papers do indeed provide sufficient background to be a good read for a non-specialist. The exception is the paper by Steven Dworkin, which is just too difficult for students without any training in etymology, but it can certainly be used in an etymology course or class, where additional explanation is being provided.

In order to make the book accessible to the non-expert reader, “technical terminology has been kept to a minimum” (p. vii). For an explanation of the unavoidable technical terms, there is a glossary at the end of each chapter. Some of the terms occur more than once, such as “standardization” (ch. 2 and 3), “social network(s)” (ch. 3 and 7) and “grammaticalization” (ch. 8 and 9), each time with slightly different explanations. Sometimes terms are missing in one chapter, but appear somewhere else. It would have been more helpful to the reader and it would also have enhanced the coherence of the book if the glossaries had been fused into a common one at the end of the book.

A serious drawback of the book is that the references to the literature never contain page numbers; this is even the case, most irritatingly, with literal quotations. Such a practice is very unhelpful for the reader and is simply unacceptable in scientific literature, whatever didactic intention a publication may have.

The partially didactic nature of the book does not mean that its scientific merits would not have to be evaluated. Most of the studies are interesting and original, but the ‘andalucista’ studies in Chapters 5 and 6 are somewhat outdated, because the only way in which they account for regional variation of Spanish in America is the ‘highlands vs. lowlands’ theory, which attributes the lack of ‘Andalusian’ features to the influence of Madrid in the Highlands (pp. 192, 223). With such an approach it is impossible to explain features that are unrelated to any variant of Old World Spanish, such as the strong consonantism in the Andean Highlands (cf. e.g. Toscano Mateus 1953; Lipski 1994, n.d.). Furthermore, Chapter 9 retells the - admittedly very complex - story of interrelated semantic and syntactic changes, but is less clear than Pountain’s (1985) study on the same subject. What unnecessarily complicates the story is that Díaz attributes a lexical meaning to the copula ESSE in Latin, i.e. “to exist” (pp. 303, 306). In addition, there is an error in Chapter 9, i.e. the repeated claim that (Classical) Latin used ESSE with “the gerund to create the progressive tenses” (p. 304; see also pp. 309, 311 and 333). In fact, Latin never had “progressive tenses” (cf. e.g. Posner 1996: 175). The example of the alleged progressive “tunc in monte erat Darius vociferando et congregando multitudinem hostium” (Leo, ‘Historia Alexandri Magni’) dates not from Classical but Medieval Latin (10th century), and the construction with the gerunds in the ablative case most probably should be read as a secondary predication (Stengaard 1991: 76). On the positive side, Díaz’s lucid description of modern Romance provides a starting point for potentially very interesting comparative research.

Apart from the above criticism, this book certainly is an interesting collection of a broad spectrum of diachronic phenomena, containing valuable (sociolinguistic) explanations of the different “Spanish curiosities”, from which I, personally, have learned a lot.


Alonso, Amado. 1951. Historia del ceceo y del seseo españoles. Thesaurus. Boletín del Instituto Caro y Cuervo 7, 111-200.

Coromines, Joan & José Antonio Pascual. 1970. Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico. vol. 1: A-C. Madrid: Gredos.

Coromines, Joan & José Antonio Pascual. 1981-1990. Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico. 6 vols. Madrid: Gredos.

Frago García, Juan Antonio. 1992. El seseo: orígenes y difusión americana. In: César Hernández Alonso (ed.), Historia y presente del español de América. 113-142. Valladolid: Junta de Castilla y León.

Henríquez Ureña, Pedro. 1925. El supuesto andalucismo de América. Cuadernos del Instituto de Filología 2 (1), 117-122.

Kauffeld, Cynthia. 2011. Andalusian Spanish: a linguistic study of 14th and 15th century texts from Sevilla y Córdoba. New York: Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies.

Lipski, John M. 1994. Latin American Spanish. London: Longman.

Lipski, John M. n.d. The role of the city in the formation of Spanish American dialect zones. (6 December, 2016)

Posner, Rebecca. 1996. The Romance Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pountain, Christopher J. 1985. Copulas, verbs of possession and auxiliaries in Old Spanish: The evidence of structurally interdependent changes. Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 62 (4), 337-355.

Real Academia Española (1771) Gramática de la lengua castellana, compuesta por la Real Academia Española. Madrid: Juan de Ibarra.

Stengaard, Birte. 1991. Vida y muerte de un campo semántico. Un estudio de la evolución semántica de los verbos latinos ‘stare’, ‘sedere’ e ‘iacere’ del latín al romance del s. XIII. Tübingen: Niemeyer (Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie, 234).

Toscano Mateus, Humberto. 1953. El español del Ecuador. Madrid: Gredos (Revista de filología española, Anejo 16).
Hella Olbertz (Ph.D. 1996, University of Amsterdam) is researcher at the Amsterdam Center for Language and Communication. She works on the syntax and semantics of varieties of Spanish and Portuguese, which she approaches from a functional perspective. Her recent publications concern language contact in the Ecuadorian Andes and the grammaticalization of periphrastic aspect and modality in Peninsular Spanish.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 1443890529
ISBN-13: 9781443890526
Pages: 360
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