On the origin of languages

From The Economist:

In a church hewn out of a mountainside, just over a thousand years or so ago, a monk was struggling with a passage in Latin. He did what others like him have done, writing the tricky bits in his own language between the lines of text and at the edges. What makes these marginalia more than marginal is that they are considered the first words ever written in Spanish.

The “Emilian glosses” were written at the monastery of Suso, which was founded by St Aemilianus (Millán, in Spanish) in the La Rioja region of Spain. Known as la cuna del castellano, “the cradle of Castilian”, it is a unesco world heritage site and a great tourist draw. In 1977 Spain celebrated 1,000 years of the Spanish language there.

Everyone loves a superhero origin story. Spanish is now the world’s third-biggest language, with over 500m speakers, and it all began with a monk scrawling on his homework. But as with the radioactive bite that put the Spider into Spider-Man, there is more than a little mythmaking going on here.

First, while “Castilian” and “Spanish” are synonymous for most Spanish-speakers, philologists argue that what the anonymous monk wrote is closer to the Aragonese than to the Castilian variety of Romance (the name for the range of dialects that continued their wayward development when Rome retreated from most of Europe after the fifth century ad). In any case, the Suso monk’s scribblings have been pipped by the discovery in nearby Burgos province of writings that may be two centuries older.

Even those are not the origin of Spanish. The very idea treats languages like a person, with a name, birth date and birthplace. But languages are not like an individual. They are much more like a species, gradually diverging from another over many years. It would be as accurate to describe such jottings as degenerate Latin as it is to call them early Spanish—but that would probably not draw as many tourists.

Most accurate would be to call the monk’s prose an intermediate form: words like sieculos (centuries) in the text are almost perfectly halfway between Latin’s saecula and modern Spanish’s siglos. In its way, the church in which the glosses were written is a mirror of such evolution. It includes arches in Visigothic, Mozarabic (Moorish-influenced) and more recent styles, added as it was expanded. As many visitors to an ancient site find, it can be hard to date buildings in use for centuries. Little of the original remains; all is layers upon layers.

The desire to create heroic origins of languages is an urge to impose order on chaos. Students of other European languages are offered “Beowulf” or “La Chanson de Roland” as the earliest exemplars of English or French, which gives the grand story a comprehensible beginning. But literature, by its nature, requires the language to exist before poems and epics could be written. Imagining that a piece of writing represents the beginning of a language is like thinking the first picture of a baby is the beginning of its life.

A better analogy is that the first written records of a language are like the first fossil traces of a distinct species. But even this should not be mistaken for the moment at which the species emerged. After all, the neat nodes on a palaeobiologist’s tree of life are just simplifications of a messy continuum.

The urge to put dates on the founding of languages seems universal. Google “Basque Europe’s oldest language” to see how many people think this language (which evolved gradually from some now-unknown ancestor) is somehow older than Spanish, though Basque has no clear birthday, either. By quite a coincidence, the first known words written in Old Basque—just six of them—also appear in the Emilian glosses, though the site makes much less of this fact. Or to take a more modern example, a book on American English called “The Forgotten Founding Father” aims to give Noah Webster’s modest early-19th-century reforms, such as respelling “center”, the heroic role humans seem destined to seek in the birth of their cultures.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Philologists are everywhere on TPV today.

6 thoughts on “On the origin of languages”

  1. Two thoughts:
    1- however it might have been pronounced, the written “spanish” of the 11th century is still readable by a layperson with no training in Old Spanish. So it’s no great feat to read EL CANTAR DEL MIO CID from that era. You get the hang of it pretty quickly. A sample can be found here with a link at the end to an audio clip of the best guess of the original verbalization;


    2- PRIME VIDEO has an excellent video series covering the life and times of El Cid. A couple (short) seasons so far.

  2. About your point 2, the Amazon series. Do you really recommend it? I only saw the trailer, and I felt it was going to be trash, in fact, I sent a link to the trailer in one of my Whatsapp groups and we had a few laughs about it, and that’s not usually something I do, I don’t pay attention to series or movies.

    The public here is overseas, so it’s going to be difficult for you, but if you have the opportunity, I recommend visiting that region of La Rioja where the monastery is, it’s beautiful, although I’m biased, I have the monastery pending to visit, when I visited the region more than 15 (really?! So much?) years ago, the road we had to take was being repaired, and I remember enjoying driving along a twisty road, with a lot of curves and slopes and almost no traffic, the ocassional hole and stops waiting for men working on the road to give as the go ahead. When we finally reached the monastery, it was closed to visits (Monday, the usual day the museums close). My boyfriend refused to repeat the 20 km or so of meandering road another day (as much as I enjoy driving on that kind of roads when I’m not in a hurry and don’t have the presure of another car behind me, he hates them) so instead we went through more tame roads to the north of La Rioja, where the winecellars are, another enjoyable activity in that region.

    • Well, it has one advantage over a lot of european dramas: minimal gratuitous nudity. 😀

      More seriously, it minimizes the soap opera aspects with season one focusing more on the legend and Ruy’s early years. Politics and personal rivalries. If you have PRIME its free and you can always quit if it doesn’t grab you. I binged the first season in one sitting.

      IMDB user reviews:


      • Thanks, I might try it after all, I don’t watch much TV, I might spend two or three weeks without sitting in front of the TV at all, and then one weekend I binge watch one show or 3 or 4 films… It might encourage me to put on the top of my pile the book Sidi, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, a historical novel about a small part of El Cid’s life, it’s been in my TBR for some time, but there are so many books in that pile, that it’s going to be some time yet to get to it.

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