Early Modern Spanish

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Early Modern Spanish
Castellano clásico
Pronunciation [kasteˈʎano ˈklasiko]
Native to Spain
Era 15th-17th century; continues as a liturgical language but with a modernized pronunciation.
Language codes
ISO 639-3 osp
Linguist list
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Early Modern Spanish—also called classical Spanish or Golden Age Spanish, especially in a literary context—is the variant of Spanish used between the end of the fifteenth century and the end of the seventeenth century, marked by a series of phonological and grammatical changes that transformed Old Spanish into Modern Spanish.

Notable changes from Old Spanish to early Modern Spanish include (1) a readjustment of the sibilants (including their devoicing and changes in their place of articulation) and (2) the phonemic merger called yeísmo, in phonology, as well as, in grammar, (3) the rise of new second-person pronouns, (4) the emergence of the "se lo" construction for the sequence of third-person indirect and direct object pronouns, and (5) new restrictions on the order of clitic pronouns.

Early Modern Spanish corresponds to the period of Spanish colonization of the Americas, and thus it forms the historical basis of all varieties of New World Spanish. Meanwhile Judaeo-Spanish preserves some archaisms of Old Spanish that disappeared from the rest of the variants, such as the presence of voiced sibilants or the maintenance of the phonemes /ʃ/ and /ʒ/.

Linguistic description[edit]


From the late sixteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth century, the voiced sibilants lost their voicing and merged with their respective voiceless counterparts /s̪̺/, //, and /ʃ/, resulting in the phonemic inventory shown below:

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
laminal apical
Obstruent voiceless p t k
voiced b d ɡ
Voiceless fricative f s̪̺ ʃ (h)
Nasal m n ɲ
Tap ɾ
Trill r
Approximant lateral l ʎ
central ʝ

Some important observations are that:

  • The phoneme /h/ (from Latin and Old Spanish initial /f/) probably was marginal by the seventeenth century, although even in the twentieth century it existed in some varieties of eastern Andalusia and in areas of Extremadura. (In other dialects, the [h] allophone exists as a result of the debuccalization—"aspiration"—of /s/ or /x/, but it does not constitute an independent phoneme.)
  • In the Americas, the Canary Islands, and almost all of Andalusia, the phoneme // merged with /s̪̺/ (so the resulting phoneme is represented simply as /s/). In the center and north of Spain, the place of articulation of the dental sibilant /s̪̺/ was shifted to interdental, and thus it is better represented phonemically as /θ/. Meanwhile the apicoalveolar sibilant // was preserved without change; it can now be represented phonemically simply as /s/).[1] Some authors use the transcription // for /s̪̺/ and/or use // for //.
  • Many dialects lost the distinction between the phonemes /ʎ/ and /ʝ/ in a merger called yeísmo. Non-yeísta dialects exist both in the Iberian Peninsula and in South America.


  • A readjustment of the second-person pronouns differentiates Modern Spanish from Old Spanish. To eliminate the ambiguity of the form vos, which served for both the second person singular (formal) and the second person plural, two alternative forms were created:
    • The form vuestra merced > vuesarced > usted as a form of respect in the second person singular.
    • The form vosotros (< vos otros) as a usual form of second person plural—although in the Canary Islands, the Americas and in some parts of Andalusia, this form did not take hold, and in these areas the form ustedes came to be used for both formal and informal second person plural.[2]
  • Due to the loss of the phoneme /ʒ/), the medieval forms gelo, gela, gelos, gelas (consisting of an indirect object in sequence with a direct object), were reinterpreted as se lo, se la, se los, se las, as in: digelo 'I gave it to him/her' > early Modern Spanish díselo > Modern Spanish se lo di.
  • With regard to the order of the clitic pronouns, in early Modern Spanish such pronouns were still often suffixed to a finite verb form, although they were beginning to alternate with preverbal forms as in today's Spanish: enfermóse and murióse > se enfermó and se murió.



  • Alvar, Manuel (director), Manual de dialectología hispánica. El Español de España, Ariel Lingüística, Barcelona, 1996 and 2007.
  • Cano, Rafael (coord.): Historia de la lengua española, Ariel Lingüística, Barcelona, 2005.
  • Hualde, José Ignacio (2005): The sounds of Spanish, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Penny, Ralph (1993): Gramática histórica del español, Ariel, Barcelona, ISBN 84-344-8265-7.