The not so true Story of Spanish

SoSAs a reader, I love to get lost in a book, but it takes a good author’s confident guidance to make it happen. Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, I’m sorry to say, have failed in this respect. More than to anything else, The Story of Spanish appeals to a side of me that I rather dislike: the red-pen-wielding schoolteacher.

Chapter 1 starts out beautifully: ‘Three millennia ago, when Rome was still a swamp and Athens was barely strong enough to take on Troy …’ It’s the sort of style that bespeaks experience, and experience this husband-and-wife team have. Language journalists like myself, Barlow from Anglophone Canada, Nadeau from Quebec, they published The Story of French a few years ago. Both having studied Spanish, they now take on this most widely spoken of all Romance languages.

The first doubt arises as early as the fifth paragraph. Does the name ‘Spain’ really descend from a Punic word for ‘land of the rabbits’? Hmm … According to other sources, this etymology is possible, but several more have been proposed. One of the alternatives, ‘land where iron is forged’, also based on Punic, sounds at least as plausible. After all, what made Spain a popular destination for conquerors in Antiquity was its metal, a good deal more so than its rabbits.

A book like this, aiming at a wide audience, has no use for endless caveats and shades of doubt. I appreciate that. But the occasional well placed ‘likely’ or ‘according to some’ would have helped the reader to distinguish the rock-hard facts from those more akin to marshmallow. Oddly enough, Nadeau and Barlow start hedging their claims a lot more a bit farther on in the book, occasionally even in places where the need is not so obvious..

Then, there’s the errors, the outright and manifest errors. Classical Latin did have prepositions; Vulgar Latin didn’t introduce them, it just used them somewhat more. The grammarian Marcus Valerius Probus lived in the first, not the fourth century AD. No way does the word brother descend from the Latin frater – this inaccuracy is so glaring that I’ll give the authors the benefit of thinking that it was some editor who muddled their writing, turning a correct statement into a nonsense. But there is more (see the annex).

Even as the flaws pile up, I’m getting more and more annoyed by the all too florid, even corny passages in the book, which sometimes have no discernible meaning in linguistic terms. ‘Spanish became – at once – one of the most organized and systematic tongues in history and a finely honed tool used to express disorder and passion’ is a good example. So is ‘Language shapes how we organize our thoughts, our lives, and our nations – in short, our world.’ That’s superficial trash, if you’ll pardon my French.

I’ve only read the first few chapters so far. And I’m confident that like these, the rest of the book, too, has much to interest me. I love (and speak) Spanish, I love to read about the history of languages. And honestly, I would like nothing better than to take Nadeau and Barlow’s every word at face value. But I no longer can. Trust leaves by horse, and the first few chapters have sent it galloping.



Three more claims where strong caveats would be warranted:
* Proto-Indo-European was spoken in Turkey some 8,000 years ago. (There are several other contenders, in terms both of geography and dating.)
* The word ‘Basque’ is originally Celtic. (More likely, it’s … Basque.)
* ‘It was the Frenchman Hubert Lyautey who said, in 1912, ‘A language is a dialect with an army (…)’. (Other attributions are more likely.)

Definitely incorrect are the following statements:
* Classical Latin was hard for Romans to learn because it had six cases and a free word order. (So does Russian, and no Russian has trouble learning it. The real reason is that Classical Latin was no longer a living spoken language, even back then.)
* Toro for ‘bull’ is a Celtic loan. (Toro comes from the Latin taurus, and I can find no evidence anywhere else that it was borrowed from Celtic.)
* The Gothic word for ‘companion’ was galhaiba. (It was gahlaiba. A minor detail, of course. You see why I dislike the red-pen-wielding schoolteacher? He doesn’t know when to stop.)

5 thoughts on “The not so true Story of Spanish

  1. Strange inconsistencies: in Chapter 17: they discuss the Spanish kings Charles V and his son Felipe II. Why not call them either “Carlos V and Felipe II” (in Spanish) or “Charles V and Philip II” (in English)?


    • Thank you, Tom, for supporting my stance. I agree with each of your corrections. It’s such a pity that the book is not as good as it could and should have been. At the same time, I feel sort of bad being so critical about Nadeau and Barlow’s work, because I feel they really care about language. But they just don’t haven’t done a good enough job in this case.
      I recently discovered that there are several books about the history of the Spanish language. They’re all in Spanish, but for you and me and hundreds of millions of others, they’re a better option. Perhaps one of them could be translated into English.


  2. On p. 134 they note that “The Papiamentu word danki has no relation to Spanish or Portuguese,” but fail to point out that it is clearly related to the phrase “dank u” in Dutch, which is the official language of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, of which Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao are a part.


  3. Mistranslations in The Story of Spanish:
    p. 23 Marcus is giving a book to his father – Marcus está dando un libro a su padre.
    More likely: Marco le da un libro a su padre.
    p. 223 ‘Principios del derecho de gentes’ as is translated as ‘principles of the laws of the people’ but in fact ‘derecho de gentes’ is the ‘law of nations’ English and “ius gentium” in Latin. And derecho is singular, so it’s “law” not “laws” and “gentes” is plural so if anything, it would be “peoples” not “people” – but it’s called “law of nations” in English.
    p. 204 They translate “o la anarquía os devorará” as “anarchy will devour us.” Actually, “os” mean you, not us (the word for which is “nos”).


  4. My reaction to this book was the same as yours. One of the most noticeable things in the book is how often Spanish words are misspelled: conciencia linguistica (p. 75 – should be conciencia lingüística); probrecito (p. 109 – should be pobrecito); Bonnaire (p. 134 – should be Bonaire, although this is not a Spanish word); Cartagena de la Indias (p. 135 – should be Cartagena de las Indias); camiónes (p. 140 – should be camiones without an accent); maguey (p. 141 – should be magüey); chaláns (p. 153 – should be chalanes); chapetónes (p. 184 – should be chapetones without an accent); p. 214 mestisaje (should be mestizaje). Although not getting the Spanish right might be forgivable in another book, the whole point of this book is the Spanish language, and it deserves better treatment. More disconcerting are the factual errors. For example, on p. 143, the authors suggest that Huehuetenango, Chichicastenango and Momostenango are in southern Mexico, but they are in fact in western Guatemala. On p. 225, they claim that “Nicaraguans – like Argentines and Uruguayans – say vos tenéis cara de triste.” I’m not sure how the vos form of the verb is conjugated in Nicaragua, but in Argentina and Uruguay they say “vos tenés” not “vos tenéis” (tenéis is the form used with vosotros in Spain). On p. 91 they refer to “nuevo cristianos” but the correct grammatical form is “nuevos cristianos.”
    On p. 24 the authors claim that Vulgar Latin speakers created two verbs for “to be.” But that can’t be right. The two verbs esse (= ser) and stare (= estar) existed in Latin, so they weren’t “created” by Vulgar Latin speakers.
    On p. 25 they claim that Spanish hermano (brother) came from the modern Vulgar Latin germanus, which had replaced the older frater (which the British and French both kept, producing brother and frère). But the English word brother doesn’t come from Latin. It is cognate with the word for brother in the other Germanic languages (broder in Dutch, bror in Swedish), which like Latin derive from Indo European. If anything, the authors’ sentence should say that the Latin word frater led to fraternal in English, but it most certainly did not “produce” the English word “brother.”
    The last line of the chart on p. 51 indicates that the Latin word fumus meaning smoke became horno in Spanish, four in French, forno in Italian and forno in Portuguese. In fact, though, these Romance words all mean “stove” and derive from the Latin word “furnus” which also means “stove.” The Latin word fumus meaning smoke became humo in Spanish, fumée in French, and fumo in Italian and Brazilian Portuguese.
    I could go on and on, because I’ve got a lot of “red-pen-wielding” schoolteacher in me!


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