The Evolution of Spanish.

Tom Winterbottom reports that “Using digital tools and literature to explore the evolution of the Spanish language, Stanford researcher Cuauhtémoc García-García reveals a new historical perspective on linguistic changes in Latin America and Spain”:

“I wanted to study language evolution through data found in written work to add historical depth to how, where and when languages changed,” he said. “My new data show that Spanish on the Iberian Peninsula was much more resistant to change over time when compared to Spanish in the Americas, where – since colonization – Spanish from Spain has come into contact with local, indigenous and hybrid influences.” […]

Drawing on his past work on changes in Brazilian Portuguese, García-García also noted intriguing differences between the two languages.

“In Brazil, there was a sudden shift in written language that coincided with the country gaining independence from Portugal in 1822 and correlating with increased local autonomy in printing and education,” said García-García, who is a member of the Digital Humanities Focal Group.

In Spanish America, however, rapid transformation of this sort was less common, as the colonies typically had more liberties regarding printing presses and educational institutions. Unlike Portugal, Spain introduced the printing press and universities to its colonies in the Americas in the 16th century, meaning that Spanish was open to local influences and piecemeal evolution over a more gradual period.

In his study, García-García examined the changing use of pronouns in written works. One example aimed to quantify the frequency of the Spanish pronoun vos as compared with , both pronouns meaning “you.”

Their usage varies across time and space. In Argentina, for example, vos is used almost exclusively as the second-person singular pronoun (“you”), as it is in Uruguay, Paraguay, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and to a lesser extent in other Spanish-speaking countries.

García-García found a different story in Chile. Vos was common until the mid-19th century, when it ceded ground to after a campaign led by the Venezuelan intellectual and educator Andrés Bello, who sought to eradicate it from the educational system in his adopted home.

There’s more on Bello’s campaign at the link; I was familiar with vos in Argentina (where I used to live) and Uruguay, but didn’t realize it was so common elsewhere. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Cuauhtémoc García-García” is possibly the ultimate perfect name.

  2. January First-of-May says:

    “Cuauhtémoc García-García” is possibly the ultimate perfect name.

    I probably wouldn’t have said it that way, but I also wanted to mention something similar.

  3. I have nothing to add about Spanish in America and even about remarkable names in this post (though Winterbottom is amusing as well), but I would like to rant about a certain journalistic practice of tagging speech with irrelevant information. Consider

    “In Brazil, there was a sudden shift in written language that coincided with the country gaining independence from Portugal in 1822 and correlating with increased local autonomy in printing and education,” said García-García, who is a member of the Digital Humanities Focal Group.

    OK, it’s interesting to know that Señor García-García is a member of the Digital Humanities Focal Group, but why it should be dropped in here?

  4. D.O.

    It’s a common practice because it provides information compactly. Otherwise that information would need at least a sentence by itself, and possibly a paragraph to say something about the university that the Digital Humanities Focal Group is affiliated with. In print media, there are limits about how long an article can be, and editors will wield the blue pencil like a machete to cut them down to size.

  5. >“Cuauhtémoc García-García” is possibly the ultimate perfect name.

    I had assumed García” derived from the now-obscure stem garcer, making it the ultimate imperfect name.

  6. @ D.O. and John Roth:

    I cover this kind of phenomenon at Journalistic overkill.

    From my observation, too many analyses of journalese stop at snappy headlines.

  7. Haun Saussy says:

    But aren’t these results rather obvious? To paraphrase: “When disconnected from central control, colonial languages tend to veer away from the metropole’s standard language.” An exception to that rule would be more interesting.

  8. Well, the interest isn’t so much in the general rule as in the specifics of the Spanish case.

  9. Haun Saussy, languages of divided communities tend to diverge, colonies or not. On the other hand, it is far from clear which community will be more inclined toward the change. AmEng didn’t simply veered away from BrEng, both variants changed in they own way and AmEng wasn’t an exact replica of the language of the mother-country to begin with.

  10. Actually, the results if I understand them are not obvious at all. The author finds as a fact that written Brazilian Portuguese remained static for close to 300 years and then changed rapidly while written Latin American Spanish evolved more slowly but steadily over the same period. And he has a hypothesis to explain the differing pace of change. I don’t find that obvious and I think it’s interesting, if it turns out to be true.

  11. He actually believes that spoken Brazilian Portuguese also changed over those three hundred years, but this wasn’t reflected in writing because the Portuguese suppressed printing technology. When the Brazilians got independence they also got the right to print what they wanted. This broke the dam wall, as it were, and the changes became apparent all at once.

    In the Spanish colonies printing was allowed during the colonial period, so there the pace of change was more gradual.

  12. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    In Argentina, for example, vos is used almost exclusively as the second-person singular pronoun (“you”), as it is in Uruguay, Paraguay, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and to a lesser extent in other Spanish-speaking countries.

    Is that really true? You (Hat) have lived in Argentina, and I haven’t, so you certainly know better than I do. In any case, although I’ve been in Argentina several times I don’t remember noticing how much vos was used. However, I did notice how it was used in Uruguay in a short visit in 1993, and I had the impression that vos was only used between close friends and relatives, and that was the usual singular, used much more than usted, the usual singular in Chile between people who don’t know one another well, or at all. You can hear used to strangers by shop assistants in the expensive boutiques for women’s clothes in Providencia, Santiago, but in general it’s unusual. (Ustedes seems to be the universal plural everywhere I’ve been except Spain.)

  13. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    The author finds as a fact that written Brazilian Portuguese remained static for close to 300 years and then changed rapidly while written Latin American Spanish evolved more slowly but steadily over the same period. And he has a hypothesis to explain the differing pace of change. I don’t find that obvious and I think it’s interesting, if it turns out to be true.

    As interesting to me is the way spoken Brazilian Portuguese has become much more intelligible, and more like spoken Latin-American Spanish, than Portuguese Portuguese.

  14. Is that really true? You (Hat) have lived in Argentina, and I haven’t, so you certainly know better than I do.

    It was certainly true when I lived there, but that was half a century ago now.

  15. Stu Clayton says:

    And besides the Peróns are dead.

  16. Argentina is famous for the use of “vos”. I don’t think that’s changed since Languagehat lived there.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    And besides the Peróns are dead.

    And Franco is still dead.

  18. In another country.

  19. Mike Roberts says:

    D.O.

    AmEng wasn’t an exact replica of the language of the mother-country to begin with.

    It wasn’t? I genuinely thought it was. I mean the vast majority of the Jamestown and Plymouth colonists sailed to those places from England, did they not? They were speakers of English English who traveled across the pond. I’m just trying to understand your thinking on that. Please go easy on me. I might be missing something obvious.

    Athel Cornish-Bowden

    As interesting to me is the way spoken Brazilian Portuguese has become much more intelligible, and more like spoken Latin-American Spanish, than Portuguese Portuguese.

    Are you sure it isn’t a case of European Portuguese becoming much less intelligible, and less like spoken Latin-American Spanish, than Brazilian Portuguese? A lot of people assume that the colonial variety is the one that has changed more than the variety of the mother country. I know they do some things in European Portuguese that are almost certainly innovations, e.g., devoicing or eliding (deleting) certain unstressed vowels that Brazilian Portuguese doesn’t devoice or elide. Another one is changing post-vocalic s to ʃ. These are innovations that take Euro Portuguese further away from all types of Spanish that I’m familiar with. But surely both varieties are equally susceptible to Spanish influence when you look at where they’re spoken.

  20. I mean the vast majority of the Jamestown and Plymouth colonists sailed to those places from England, did they not?

    Well, sure. But the English they spoke was not yet influenced by the speech of the capital that eventually become standard British English, but was instead independently derived from earlier forms of English. It was likewise not yet a faux pas to speak the English of one’s county of origin: Sir Francis Drake, for example, spoke broad Devon his whole life. For example, fall (the season) was a dialectal form that survived in America but was lost in Britain.

  21. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    “As interesting to me is the way spoken Brazilian Portuguese has become much more intelligible, and more like spoken Latin-American Spanish, than Portuguese Portuguese.”

    Are you sure it isn’t a case of European Portuguese becoming much less intelligible, and less like spoken Latin-American Spanish, than Brazilian Portuguese?

    No, I’m not sure, and I ought to have thought of this interpretation myself. Your analysis seems very plausible.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    Athel: A lot of people assume that the colonial variety is the one that has changed more than the variety of the mother country.

    This is also a common assumption of people in France with respect to the Canadian French varieties, which in fact are still close to the (rapidly disappearing) provincial speech varieties brought by their ancestors.

    In general, this assumption is also true of speakers in a capital city with respect to country speech. In fact, many sociolinguistic studies have shown that the reverse is true: in rural areas ,which do not attract many strangers, people tend to keep speaking as they always have, but in large cities which bring in people from many different areas, speakers have to adapt to each other, and the result of the social “melting pot” is a new speech variety which may become the “standard” version, which is assumed to have always existed!

  23. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I think we all tend to underestimate how much languages change even during our lifetimes. I’m quite conscious now when I go to England that I speak the way people spoke 30 years ago, and my wife has the same impression when she’s in Chile (though in her case her Spanish has been strongly influenced by Spanish Spanish).

    Yesterday we heard a programme about Albert Camus that included a fragment of his Nobel acceptance speech in Stockholm, and I thought, no one talks like that today. An exaggeration, in fact, as plenty of highly educated and especially upper-class people do speak like that, but it didn’t fit my image of him of a working-class immigrant from Oran. No doubt he consciously worked on his accent when he started mixing with the literary people in France, but still. No suggestion of the South of France either, despite living in Lourmarin (a village I know well, as we have friends who live there).

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