Today marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), whose masterpiece, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605), is recognized as the first modern novel in Spanish, and a kind of bridge between the medieval and the modern in the evolution of the language. In a recent interview with the journalist Virginia Bautista, the prominent Mexican author Ignacio Padilla, himself a specialist in Cervantes’s work, describes Don Quixote as “the catalyst for the birth of modern Spanish.”
However, Padilla suggests that “the modernity of Don Quixote is not exactly linguistic, but formal, thematic and metaphysical.” In the novel, Quixote is constantly contrasting medieval with modern Spanish, and the “correct” language of the 16th century with the “vulgar” dialect of his squire, Sancho Panza. In this sense, Cervantes’s great contribution was not so much to the formal structures of the Spanish language as to the metalinguistic reflection that brought that language into modernity.
Indeed, unlike Shakespeare (1564-1616), who introduced some 1,500 words into the English language, Cervantes’s lexical contribution to Spanish was rather limited, amounting to around 100 words, although Padilla points out that in the everyday speech of Mexicans today there are still a number of words that Cervantes introduced, such as “anteojos” (“eyeglasses”) or the expression “luego luego” (literally, “later later”, meaning “right away”). But in spite of his limited contribution to the Spanish lexicon, the invitation offered by Cervantes in Don Quixote to reflect on the language “paved the way for the great writers who created and enriched the Spanish tongue as we know it today.” It was Spain’s Baroque poets who made the truly transformative contribution to modern Spanish, such as Luis de Góngora (1561-1627), Francisco Quevedo (1580-1645), and Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658), in addition to the contribution of the great Mexican poetess Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695), who, according to Padilla, represents “the culmination of the Baroque.”
The Baroque period marked the birth of modern Spanish, laying the foundations on which the language spoken today would be built. “After the revolution of the Baroque fostered by Cervantes,” explains Padilla, “the language began to be consolidated, to reclaim its Arabic influence and its words of Hebrew origin, and to incorporate contributions from the Native American languages, which have enriched it greatly.”
Four hundred years after the death of the author of Don Quixote, Spanish is one of the most important languages in the world, with more than 450 million speakers. The richness of this language owes much to Cervantes, whose invitation to linguistic reflection constituted an important step in the evolution towards modern Spanish.
Translated by Martin Boyd