First words: In Search of the Roots of the Spanish Language

My husband thought I should see the very first words ever written in the Spanish language, so we made a short trip to the Monastery of San Millán de Yuso in La Rioja. I must confess that what we saw was not the original Emilian Codex, the manuscript widely touted as bearing the first words ever written in Spanish, but rather a beautiful reproduction. The original document is kept under lock and key in the Royal Academy of History in Madrid. Nor was it in the present monastery we visited that an anonymous eleventh-century monk laboriously penned the annotations now known as the Emilian Glosses in the margins of a Latin codex, but in a smaller monastery that was subsumed in a later expansion.

Linguistics scholars have also thrown cold water on the monastery’s fervent claim that the Emilian Glosses represent the first written words in the Spanish language. A team headed by Gonzalo Santonja, Director of the Instituto de la Lengua de Castilla y León, has recently determined that the charter of the nearby monastery of Santa María de Valpuesta, which also contains phrases in the local vernacular, predates the Emilian Glosses by two centuries. But Santonja qualifies the primacy of the Valpuesta documents with a weighty reflection applicable to the consolidation of any modern language, observing that “Spanish was born in the street, not in a monastery or underneath a rock.” He also shrugs off assertions that any monastery in particular is the definitive birthplace of the Spanish language as “pure rubbish.”

The search for the first written words of what could be truly considered Spanish is a difficult quest for a number of reasons and lies in the study of what Gonzalo Santonja describes as the slow “dissolution of Latin and the formation of Proto-Romance [linguistic] structures.” Most scholars agree that not only were the “first words” I saw in reproduction in the Monastery of Yuso written two hundred years too late to be considered the first words written in Spanish, but that they cannot be properly classified as Spanish at all. Of the approximately one-thousand glosses contained in the margins of the Emilian Codex, over one-hundred were written in an early form of Castilian or Navarro-Aragonese heavily influenced by the local dialect, a vernacular language which could be categorized as Proto-Iberian Romance. The two glosses in Basque do retain the distinction of being the earliest written words in that language discovered to date.

Far from being disappointed that the monk’s notes were not considered by the experts to be true Spanish, I was delighted to learn that they were painstaking translations of Latin into the local language. It has been assumed by experts that these translations were made for the purpose of explaining the meaning of the original text to local people who had no grasp of Latin. The two translations into Basque suggest that the monk who undertook these translations might have been a native of the Basque country. King Alfonso IV of Castile and León did resettle areas recently wrested from Moorish control with Christians from the northern regions of his territories during the period in which glosses were made, and the granting of charters to religious orders for new monasteries was a part of this strategy of consolidation. Although historians reject the possibility that Basque was ever a dominant language in villages surrounding the Monastery of San Millán, Basque names and cultural practices are still prevalent in the zone today.

Although the notations in vernacular contained in the Valpuesta charter documents significantly predate the Emilian Glosses, they consist of a scattering of vernacular terms throughout an otherwise Latin text. The translations found in the margins of the San Millán documents, however, show the development of a distinct grammatical structure. Comparing the Latin to the translations into the vernacular, one sees a move away from declination and the emergence of prepositional forms. The following list contrasts the prepositional forms found in the glosses with the corresponding forms in Aragonese, Spanish, and Latin:

de los (delo) / de los, d’os / de los / DE ILLOS
ela / a, l’ /la / ILLA
ena, enos / en a, en os/ en la, en los / IN ILLAM, IN ILLOS
fere / fer /hacer / FACERE
siéculo / sieglo /  siglo / SAECULU
yet / ye / es / EST*

The longest translation contained in the Emilian Codex is the following prayer:

Translation into the vernacular:

Con o aiutorio de nuestro
dueno Christo, dueno
salbatore, qual dueno
get ena honore et qual
duenno tienet ela
mandatione con o
patre con o spiritu sancto
en os sieculos de lo siecu
los. Facanos Deus Omnipotes
tal serbitio fere ke
denante ela sua face
gaudioso segamus. Amen

A version of the same in modern Spanish:
Con la ayuda de nuestro
Señor Don Cristo Don
Salvador, Señor
que está en el honor y
Señor que tiene el
mandato con el
Padre con el Espíritu Santo
en los siglos de los siglos.
Háganos Dios omnipotente
hacer tal servicio que
delante de su faz
gozosos seamos. Amén.

Although you won’t find the first words written in the Spanish language at the Monastery of Yuso, it is well worth a visit. The magnificent library is not part of the tour, but visitors are able to enter several smaller rooms that house a collection of enormous choir books, illuminated glossaries, and a chest encrusted with marvelously carved ivory tablets that supposedly bears the relics of San Millán. During our visit, the guide assured me that what appeared to me to be recently restored frescoes in the rococo vestry had never been retouched. She claimed that the absorptive qualities of the room’s alabaster floors had perfectly preserved the pigments.

The sprawling monastery complex is currently shared by a luxurious four-star “Parador” hotel, a small community of Augustinian Recollect friars, the government of La Rioja’s interpretive center, and the Fundación San Millán de la Cogolla. The surrounding countryside offers other opportunities to study small Romanesque churches. Saint Esteban in Zorraquín has a particularly lovely façade. Both the Valpuesta and Silos monasteries are within driving distance, as is Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Although La Rioja is famous for its wines, it is also produces wonderful cheeses. A visitor to San Millán should make certain to buy a “Camerano” goat cheese produced in the nearby Sierra de los Cameros and try some of the local vegetable and bean dishes.

*information from the article: Glosas Emilianenses – Wikipedia, la enciclopedia libre. For those interested in knowing what the spoken vernacular of the Emilian Glosses sounded like, this Wiki article  also contains a short recording of the prayer transcribed above.