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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential background reading, 16 Sept. 2013
Steve Keen "therealus" (Herts, UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Story of Spanish (Hardcover)
Whilst Ralph Penny's History of the Spanish Language answered a few questions, it left many unaddressed, and created a whole lot more. As I observed in my review, as good as it is, it isn't a "history" as I would understand it: it deals with the changes to the Spanish language, from the Romans to present day, but doesn't contextualise that well within the underlying story of the Spanish and Hispanic peoples and how their language came to be made and remade. Instead his focus is more on the way in which words evolved from a detailed morphological perspective, with numerous tables illustrating these transformations, and as such is a fairly technical overview.

Nadeau and Barlow, on the other hand, in The Story of Spanish, concentrate far more on the social, historical, political and economic context. For example, whilst Penny makes plenty of references to El Poema de Mio Cid as a source of knowledge of the development of the language, Nadeau and Barlow explain who El Cid was and how the legend itself was handed down through oral tradition. Another key observation they make is that the myth of the Reconquista, the seven-century struggle that effectively formed the crucible for Castellano, was a concoction brewed up by the Franks, the German-French rulers of medieval France, in order to create a buffer zone between themselves and the Moorish rulers of southern Spain, Al-Andalus. This included the creation of a myth around the supposed remains of Santiago at Santiago de Compostela (other sources attest to the temporal absurdity of their claim to authenticity) which established a pilgrimage along a trail the faithful would defend to the death. They also promulgated the fiction of a unified Visigoth kingdom prior to the Moors' arrival, which the Reconquista sought to "re-establish".

In a more contemporary vein, the authors discuss the rising significance of the Hispanic nations in Latin America, the potential harm to both the US and its Hispanic citizens, legal and illegal, of anti-illegal immigrant measures by some states, recent attempts to document a standardised General Spanish as a reference point for hispanohablantes around the world, and the reasons so many people are now learning the language. (Like many, I thought it would be useful for work as I often travelled to the US and, on one such occasion, found myself the only person in a gas station near Atlanta not speaking Spanish.)

Like Penny, they identify Alfolso X, King of Castile between 1252 and 1284, as the original driving force for the standardisation of Spanish, based on his realisation of the need for a unifying language for the Reconquista. But they go further, discussing the role of Antonio de Nebrija's Spanish Grammar, presented to Isabel la Catolica in Salamanca, the later contributions of the Real Academia Española and its offshoots, and of Maria Moliner and her Diccionario de Uso del Español, who despite nomination was passed over by the Real Academia in favour of a lesser, male, candidate, thus postponing the appointment of its first female academician. In their account of the voyages of discovery they give examples of words acquired by the Spanish voyagers, which have also been adopted by other languages, such as canoa and barbacoa.

One of the faults they suffer from throughout is overconfidence. They state without qualification that "compostela" derives from "field of stars", where it is equally, if not more, likely that it derives from the vulgar Latin for "burial ground". They unquestioningly attribute to French general Hubert Lyautey the aphorism "A language is a dialect with an army, navy and air force", when doubt has been cast on its origins. They suggest that, like English, Spanish is morpho-syntactically analytic, with free morphemes predominating and meaning derived from syntax, when in fact Penny places Spanish much closer to the synthetic, like Latin, with bound morphemes and meaning derived from morphology (you won't, incidentally, find this kind of vocabulary in their book): his example is "mordió el perro al gato", the dog bit the cat, which in Spanish could be said in two or three different formats using the same words, in English in only one unless you happen to be a diminutive Jedi knight. And I'd guess my three tutors, two in Seville, one in Granada, would be surprised to read the assertion that it is in northern Spain that c and z are pronounced "th" after the way they hammered that pronunciation into me.

Linguistically also the ex-English teacher in me furrowed his brow and flourished a metaphorical red pen a few times. As is becoming more common, and here maybe I'm swimming against the tide, they employ copious superfluous prepositions (outside "of", for example) and just plain wrong prepositions (it's "different from", not "different than"). I'd maintain that the plural of lingua franca is linguas franca (as in courts martial). And in Spanish it's "¿como te vas?", not "¿como te va?", although like "Londinum" that is likely just a typo.

There are, according to the authors' sources, 18 million people currently learning Spanish as a foreign language, six million of them in the United States, 93,000 in Canada and 102,000 in the UK, most of whom will be Anglophone, and many of whom, like me, will welcome this book as essential background reading to their endeavours. But more general readers will also find the book enjoyable. Nadeau and Barlow tell a compelling, captivating story which complements Penny's more academic treatment and as such is neither more nor less valuable, but of a different kind of value.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Uneven but much of interest, 16 Nov. 2014
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This review is from: The Story of Spanish (Paperback)
Well worth reading if the subject interests you, particularly informative about historical figures and influences and today's co-operative arrangements between Spanish-speaking countries. Not without its irritating sides, though, and every reader is going to grumble at this or that bit of content or expression.
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The Story of Spanish by Julie Barlow (Hardcover - 7 May 2013)
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