Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The pioneer of Spanish grammar

Queen Isabella’s explorations started a process of conquering this hemisphere with the sword; Antonio de Nebrija (1441-1522) solidified that victory with the word.  Little is known about a fascinating man who was probably essential to the consolidation of the Spanish Empire and the homogenization of the Spanish language.  

Queen Isabella (1451-1504) was born at the renaissance of writing, science and exploration -- a time of an explosion of new ideas. 1492 was certainly the most tumultuous year of her reign with the unification of Spain, through the completion of the Reconquista over the Moors, in January the expulsion of the Jews in March, Columbus sailing west in August.    

Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages into a new world of enlightenment. Lost knowledge in the areas of philosophy, mathematics, science and medicine were being rediscovered; Gutenberg’s printing press, invented in the very year of Isabella’s birth, assured that it was no longer just monks who had access to ancient knowledge.  Imagine the proliferation of printed material!  With printing presses popping up all over the place anyone with a minimum of resources could have their ideas printed on a broadsheet and distributed.  

On another front, by the late 1300's, Spanish and Portuguese seafarers understood that the invention of the compass -- shrouded in mystery with both the Chinese and Arabs claiming its origin -- was a valuable tool for navigation and went on to develop shipbuilding and mapmaking abilities superior to other European countries.  The confluence of these three developments, essential for seagoing exploration, profoundly changed western civilization and led to first Spanish and then European economic dominance of the world.  

The allegorical tale of the Tower of Babylon is instructive of the importance of language and the ability to communicate.  Spaniards came from many different areas, each with its own dialect.  When Spanish exploration began a common language was needed to allow sailors and crew, clergy, military commanders to communicate. 

I thought about this three Sundays ago as I walked in the march led by Javier Sicilia along Paseo de la Reforma and had the opportunity to talk with Jean Robert (yes, Robert is his surname), a disciple of Ivan Illich.  I took advantage of the fact that I had a recorder in my pocket, we had time on our hands, no other place to go, and as participants in a silent march, no slogans to shout.  I asked Robert to refresh my memory about Antonio de Nebrija.    

Robert reminded me that Illich, with an interest in the vernacular, had written about Nebrija, defined as the creator of the Spanish language or the first mother tongue that had to be learned.  What follows is some of Nebrija’s story as told to me on August 14 by Jean Robert.

“Nebrija gave rules to Spanish.  In his youth he had watched the explosion of printing.  Each town had a printing press that printed the strangest of things in the most disorderly manner with no uniformity of language, spelling or grammar.  Nebrija thought, ‘This chaos can not continue.’  So, he came up with the idea of instituting a small manual of linguistic engineering; this kind of book is called a grammar.

“But in those times nobody would have thought of using a grammar book to learn the language that they spoke.  They would say, ‘I speak.  I am the master of my language.  I speak as we do in my house.’  

“A grammar book was something used to study a language that is no longer spoken…  like Hebrew, ancient Greek and Latin.  Using this model, Nebrija wrote a Spanish grammar. He even included proper pronunciation and guides to the chaste use of language.  

“Nebrija wanted Queen Isabella to finance this ambitious project.  He requested an audience and said, ‘Majesty, I have something extraordinary to present to you. We can apply it in all your dominions.  It is a grammar like you used to learn Latin but it is to teach Spaniards how to speak correct Spanish.”  The queen laughed uproariously.  ‘I am the queen of this country.  But with the regard to language spoken at home each subject is king in his own house.’   Nebrija went away saddened.   

“A few years later he learned that Christopher Columbus had obtained financing for an even crazier project.  He returned for a second audience with Queen Isabella. 'Majesty, now that you are preparing to civilize half the world, China, Japan, India (or so they thought) you must understand the importance of a unified language.  A country is conquered with a sword but you maintain power with the tongue.'   She agreed and financed the printing of his grammar.

“It is supposed that those aboard ships sent to colonize New Spain were trained to speak Spanish, according to Nebrija’s grammar.  There is no place in Latin America where a Spanish language other than Castillian Spanish is spoken.  In Spain the various dialects have survived. Though early settlers certainly came from all areas of Spain, boarding  ships speaking Catalan, Gallego, and even Basque they disembarked as subjects of the Viceroy of New Spain speaking Spanish.  It was Nebrija’s grand achievement.”

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