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Review of  A Guide to Old Spanish

Reviewer: John M. Ryan
Book Title: A Guide to Old Spanish
Book Author: Steven N. Dworkin
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Spanish
Issue Number: 30.2104

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A Guide to Old Spanish is an introductory grammar of the language variety commonly referred to as Old or Medieval Spanish, and as Dworkin terms it, Medieval Hispano-Romance. The book is divided into two parts. The first, which is titled “Linguistic features of Medieval Hispano-Romance,” consists of 5 chapters that focus on the phonological, morphological, syntactic, and lexical structures that characterize the diasystem of vernaculars that form this historical variety of Romance. The second part of the book is a brief anthology that consists of excerpts from three Castilian texts of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, respectively, and whose purpose is to illustrate many of the points made throughout the first section of the book.

Part I begins with an introductory Chapter 1 on the nature of “Old Spanish,” and seeks to define terms, establish parameters and limitations, and provide a backdrop of previous work on the topic. The chapter begins with the more general discussion of language naming and segues into the differing varieties of Hispano-Romance. It then poses the question of the Latin/Romance dichotomy with a discussion of Wright’s theory of the effects of the Carolingian Reform on Latin pronunciation. The penultimate section of the chapter delves into the characteristics of the earliest Hispano-Romance texts. Chapter 1 then concludes this introductory overview with a section on traces of spoken medieval Hispano-Romance.

Chapter 2 is the first installment of what will be the topic of the remainder of the book’s first part, namely the description of medieval Hispano-Romance linguistic structure. The focus of this chapter is phonetics, phonology, and orthography. It begins with a brief summary of some fifteenth-century sources which help inform medieval Spanish pronunciation. It also mentions the modern Judeo-Spanish varieties that retain earlier consonants. The chapter then leads to a discussion of vowels, stress patterns, and consonants, including dedicated sections on “yeísmo” and the aspiration of syllable- and word-final -s. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the non-standardized nature of medieval Spanish orthography.

Chapter 3 continues the discussion of Hispano-Romance linguistic features with the topic of inflectional morphology. With a brief description of the chapter’s scope, Dworkin reminds us that the polymorphism that can be found to exist within the same text should not be construed to mean that such instability existed within an individual speaker. He then takes the discussion to the topic of grammatical gender and gender marking, determiners and pronouns, followed by brief sections on morphological adverbs and numerals. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to assorted topics in verbal morphology, focusing on conjugation classes, past participles, gerunds, verb stems and endings, and the final sections of the chapter addressing the synthetic pluperfect, future stems and endings, the compound tenses, and subjunctive verbal morphology.

Chapter 4 addresses the topic of syntax and specifies that its purpose is not to provide a detailed description of syntactic phenomena, but rather focuses on select features of the noun phrase, verb phrase and sentential syntax. Beginning with the noun phrase, Dworkin pursues the discussion of medieval use of the definite and indefinite articles, the neuter pronoun “lo”, demonstratives and possessives, and partitive constructions. He then transitions into the topic of SVO versus VSO word order, placement of nominal direct objects, and pre- versus post nominal placement of adjectives. Dworkin then concludes this section with a discussion of direct object marking and the placement of object pronouns, and pronominal duplication. Moving on to the verb phrase, Dworkin begins with the simple tenses, the synthetic versus analytic futures, and the compound past tenses with related subtopics of differential auxiliary selection, participle-object agreement, and auxiliary placement. The chapter then concludes with attention to more notable verbal constructions which include the “estar” plus gerund construction, the subjunctive, passive constructions, “tener” versus “(h)aver” and “ser” versus “estar.”

Chapter 5 marks the end of the first section of the book with a treatment on the medieval Hispano-Romance lexicon. The chapter begins with an overview of both specialized and more generalized dictionaries on the subject. Dworkin indicates that his purpose is to highlight select differences between the modern standard language and medieval Hispano-Romance. He then discusses the topic of lexical strata and how early borrowings by such writers as Berceo were restricted to written registers and did not make it into the spoken language until much later. Dworkin also discusses the great extent of lexical stability and retention of core vocabulary in Spanish. He then provides a list of those nouns, verbs and function words that have fallen into disuse. The next section of the chapter broaches the topics of previously existing doublets for which one of the variants fell into disuse and words that have undergone semantic change. The chapter finishes with a discussion of the nature of suffixation, prefixation and compounding in the medieval language as compared with their productivity in the modern language.

Part II, titled “Anthology of Texts” is the shorter of the two sections of Dworkin’s book. It provides three textual samples of medieval Hispano-Romance: the first being the “General estoria IV” of Alfonso X el Sabio dating from the second half of the thirteenth century; the second being “El conde Lucanor” of Don Juan Manuel from the first half of the fourteenth century; and the last being “Atalaya de las corónicas” of Alfonso Martínez de Toledo from the mid-fifteenth century. Dworkin introduces each excerpt with a brief analysis of the relevant features contained therein.


A Guide to Old Spanish is both a fresh and timely arrival among the canon of books on the topic of early Spanish structure, and as Dworkin points out in the preface, his text has several advantages over previous works in terms of accessibility to a wider audience of readers. In that regard, the text is truly an overview of all levels of linguistic structure in that it is organized to include individual chapters on the analyses of phonological, morphological, syntactic and lexical phenomena. Secondly, as Dworkin also points out, the fact that it is written in English, makes the material readily available not only to students of Spanish, but to students of other Romance languages, or other medieval scholars whose focus, though outside of the field of linguistics, may also benefit from exposure to the points made in the text. Before the appearance of Dworkin’s book, the closest analysis of this kind would have been Lloyd (1987), which although it too was in English, lacked treatment of syntax and the lexicon, and is now, of course, dated. Furthermore, much like Dworkin’s (2012) seminal book on the Spanish lexicon, the text of A Guide to Old Spanish is written in a style that is both approachable and a pleasant read.

Despite its modest length of 152 pages (including references), Dworkin’s book surveys the most important developments and opinions in the field of Spanish Romance linguistics, even those that have not received wide acceptance. For example, in Chapter 1 on the nature of Old Spanish, Dworkin discusses Wright’s (1982) theory of complex bilingualism in which the latter
argued for the lack of conceptual distinction among speakers between Latin and Romance up until the late eleventh century CE. Furthermore, Dworkin’s book is concise, well documented, and fully cited throughout. Each chapter clearly states what it will do and what it will not, and in cases where additional and more exhaustive treatment is available, Dworkin provides full citations to those sources. Such an example is Dworkin’s Chapter 4 on syntax, and his provision of Company (2006, 2009, 2014) as citations for further reading on the topic.

Another aspect of the book’s comprehensiveness is Dworkin’s use of data from Romance languages other than Castilian, both within and outside the Iberian Peninsula, to further explain content. An example of this is in Chapter 3 on the topic of gender marking where Dworkin provides a brief account of the differential marking of count and mass nouns in central and eastern Asturian. Later, in his Chapter 4 discussion of the topic of auxiliary selection for the compound tenses, Dworkin refers to Italo-Romance, French, and Provençal/Occitan as being languages that have preserved the use of the dual HAVE and BE auxiliaries for the perfect tenses. This multilinguistic approach is important for two reasons; first it underscores the notion that the history of Spanish did not happen in a vacuum but was rather part of a larger story in the evolution of Latin into the Romance languages. In second regard, it provides a point of convergence for scholars whose focus is other languages. An example of this is in Chapter 5 on the lexicon where Dworkin details lexemes that are no longer present in modern Spanish, but as this reviewer can attest, have survived with reflexes in the other modern Romance languages.

An additional strength of the book is the inclusion in Part II of the brief anthology of representative texts from the period of analysis, namely, between the tenth and fifteenth centuries CE. Although Dworkin never refers to his book as a textbook--there are no exercises at the end of each chapter--the anthology makes the text suitable for use as a springboard for discussion with both advanced undergraduate and graduate students.

In overall assessment, Dworkin’s categorization of his book as a “guide” as opposed to a “grammar” is highly accurate, not in terms of what it does not cover, but in the sense that it accomplishes more than what one would expect from a grammar. In fact, Dworkin’s use of the term is quite fortuitous in that it reflects the notion of a Spanish “guion” in its true augmentative sense as a ‘large or comprehensive guide’ rather than its more common usage as a ‘script’ or ‘outline.’ Both its accessibility and the comprehensive nature of its content make it an appealing read for a wide audience of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as scholars both within and outside of Hispanofilia.


Company Company, Concepción (Ed.). (2006). Sintaxis histórica de la lengua española. Primera parte: la frase verbal. Volúmenes 1 & 2. Lengua y Estudios Literarios Series. Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Company Company, Concepción (Ed.). (2009). Sintaxis histórica de la lengua española. Segunda parte: la frase nominal. Volúmenes 1 & 2. Lengua y Estudios Literarios Series. Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Company Company, Concepción (Ed.). (2014). Sintaxis histórica de la lengua española. Tercera parte. Adverbios, preposiciones y conjunciones. Relaciones interoracionales. Volúmenes 1, 2 & 3. Lengua y Estudios Literarios Series. Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Dworkin, Steven. (2012). A History of the Spanish Lexicon: A Linguistic Perspective. Oxford University Press.

Lloyd, Paul. (1987). From Latin to Spanish: Vol. 1: Historical Phonology and Morphology of the Spanish Language. Memoirs Series, American Philosophical Society.

Wright, Roger. 1982. Late Latin and Early Romance in Spain and Carolingian France. Liverpool: Francis Cairns.
John M. Ryan is Associate Professor of Spanish Linguistics at the University of Northern Colorado. His work on first and second language acquisition includes articles published in JCLAD, Hispania, JLTR and TPLS. Also, recent work in historical linguistics and discourse analysis has appeared in several edited volumes. He is currently working on a book manuscript on the early transitional structures of Proto Ibero Romance.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199687312
Pages: 176
Prices: U.S. $ 85.00