Montreal-based husband-and-wife journalists Jean-BenoÆt Nadeau and Julie Barlow have done it again, following their comprehensive book The Story of French (2006) with an equally thorough effort, The Story of Spanish.
Worthy of TV's The Amazing Race, they present an entertaining -- if arduous -- journey through 3,000 years, five empires and three continents, detailing how the Spanish (Castilian) language developed, and who and what influenced it.
Power, ideas and words crisscross the Atlantic, Nadeau and Barlow explain. Spanish is both actor in and the product of forces like politics, religion, art, economics and technology. Passion, tragedy, suspense and surprise propel their story.
They call their approach "anthropological" and "biography." What they have produced is part history, part language textbook and part telenovela.
It's just not a breezy read.
Those familiar with their study on French will recognize the same format: first the maps (more of them this time but, again, not referenced in the text); chapters that focus on events and personalities and that flow chronologically (more of them this time and, happily, shorter); then statistical tables on present-day language usage; and, finally, a rich bibliography.
Additionally, this newer work includes a guide to Spanish pronunciation and a list of Hispanic Nobel Prize winners. Comparative word tables also punctuate the earliest of the 33 chapters.
Because the text is so particular and the authors so confident of their readers' prior knowledge (terms like syncretism, autarky, neologism and diacritical marks are not defined), this study will appeal mostly to history buffs, seasoned language students and persistent Hispanophiles.
However, because the chapters are topically discrete, each can be read as a separate essay. From this perspective, parts of The Story of Spanish may appeal to any reader. Choices include the history of Muslim Spain, the role of language academies, and the global popularity of the 1960s "Latin American boom" authors, such as Colombian Gabriel Garca M°rquez and Mexican Carlos Fuentes.
A chapter on the Spanish settlement of Mexico, including today's American Southwest, offers a look at ranching and cowboy culture. Free ranges for cattle and sheep originated in northern Spain in the Middle Ages, Nadeau and Barlow write.
The Spanish used ranching to develop vast territories of Mexico that lacked roads and waterways. The earliest New World cowboys, the pioneers of cowboy ways, were indigenous peoples.
The authors sprinkle all kinds of fascinating, unconnected observations throughout the text.
-- Spain's Charles V (1516-56) made the first plan to dig a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. From the mid-16th to mid-19th centuries, Spanish dollars were the foundation of the world's monetary system.
-- Tango's broad popularity was sparked in Paris by young Argentines studying there in the late 19th century. Before then, it was marginalized to the Buenos Aires' slums.
-- Today, 10 per cent of Spanish speakers live in Spain; 11 per cent live in the United States.
Nadeau and Barlow identify themes emerging from the story of Spanish.
First, through the conscious efforts of individuals and institutions, Spanish developed into a neat, orderly language.
Second, through conquest, settlement, emigration and even the expulsion of Spanish speakers, the language spread readily. Spanish is now an official language in 21 countries. When, at times, some of these countries have destabilized, others have provided haven to Spanish speakers.
Third, there is a deep presence of Spanish wherever it is spoken. The number and density of native speakers have spawned a strong cultural market for Spanish worldwide.
With 500 million speakers, Spanish is the world's second or third language. It is either the first or second tongue of about a million Canadians.
By 2050, 25 per cent of the world's Hispanic population will be living in the U.S.
The Story of Spanish is relevant and topical. In a sense, it's everyone's story, a case of "mi casa es su casa."
Gail Perry is a Winnipeg writer and student of French and Spanish. She recently walked across northern Spain via the Camino de Santiago.