The Story of Spanish
Authors: Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Review by Dwain Richardson
According to 2012 statistics prepared by the Cervantes Institute, Spanish is the native language of some 500,000,000 people. It has official status in 21 countries, and 18,000,000 people worldwide are learning Spanish as a foreign language. Indeed, Spanish is now the world’s second or third most widely spoken language. With such compelling statistics, one might ask: How did Spanish become so important in the world today? Why are so many people learning it? Answers to these questions, and many others, can be found in The Story of Spanish.
Like The Story of French, published in 2008, The Story of Spanish is the brainchild of Canadian authors Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow. In the first few pages of the book, we learn how both authors developed an interest in the Spanish language. Their stories begin in the 1980s, when they became intrigued by the role of politics in Latin American society; the spread of telenovelas, or Spanish-language soap operas, into households in Europe, the Middle East, and southern Asia; and the use of Spanish among Mexican peasants whose mother tongue was Nahuatl. These observations encouraged the couple to learn Spanish and explore its evolution.
Nadeau and Barlow recount the history of Spanish through a series of wars, royal dynasties, revolutions, discoveries, poets, authors, language academies, and linguistic transfers. The book also deals with the many intersections between Spanish vocabulary and those of other languages, such as French and Portuguese. Spanish words like mesón, homenaje, and duque, for example, come from the French maison, hommage, and duc (house, homage, duke), respectively. Because Portuguese and Spanish are so closely related, it is not surprising that many Spanish words, such as esclavo (slave), melaza (molasses), and criollo (Creole) are derived from Portuguese (escravo, melaço, and crioulo).
Of all the monarchs who shaped the Spanish language throughout the centuries, Alfonso X, King of Castile, is particularly significant for his desire to turn Spanish (or should we say Castilian?) into a vehicle of culture, literature, and communication. To this end, the monarch went to great lengths to standardize spelling and grammar. Sentences, once short, became longer, as the language took on more parts of speech (mainly pronouns and conjunctions) and connectors of time, concession, opposition, enumeration. It was also in the days of Alfonso X that subordinate clauses became common in Spanish. This explains why sentences can be extremely long (several ideas can be merged into one sentence). Subordinate Spanish sentences are often divided into short, juxtaposed sentences when translating into languages like English.
This book wouldn’t be complete without shedding light on a linguistic phenomenon familiar to us all: Spanglish. A mixture of Spanish and English, Spanglish is a variant of the many Spanish dialects spoken by Latin Americans. Spanglish involves two phenomena: borrowing and code-switching. Nadeau and Barlow provide a number of examples where these phenomena come into play, such as Vamos a la mareketa en mi troca y la parquiamos un bloque adelante (Let’s go to the market in my truck and park it down the block). In this sentence, the words mareketa, troca, parquiamos, and bloque are direct calques—or borrowings—of English. In standard Spanish, the equivalents of the English words are mercado, caminoneta, estacionamos, and cuadra. Similarly, many Spanglish speakers confuse actualmente with “actually.” In fact, it means “currently” or “nowadays” in standard Spanish. The same holds true for the word constipado: contrary to popular belief, constipado does not mean “constipated”; instead, it means “having a cold.” The true Spanish equivalent of “constipated” is estreñido(a).
Overall, Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow have done a great job at piecing together The Story of Spanish by travelling, consulting with professors, linguists, and specialists, and talking to everyday speakers and students of the language to get their take on Spanish. The exhaustive bibliography and appendices demonstrate the great pains the authors took to make this book complete, comprehensive, and factual. Each chapter opens with an anecdote—sometimes funny, sometimes serious—giving readers a foretaste of the topics to be discussed, while the closing sentences of each chapter foreshadow what to expect in the subsequent chapter.
If you’re interested in discovering how Spanish spread into so many countries in different ways over the course of several centuries, The Story of Spanish will be a worthy read.
Dwain Richardson is a freelance translator, editor, and writer currently based in Montreal, Quebec. He works in a variety of fields, including administration, environment, arts and culture, and international development. In his spare time, Dwain likes to read, sing, travel, and learn new languages.