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Confusion & Competition: Linguistic Transition in 'Las cien novelas de Juan Bocacio'

The earliest Castilian translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron, Las cien novelas de Juan Bocacio, enjoyed a substantial printed tradition whereby five editions were produced between 1496 and 1550 (Seville 1496, Toledo 1524, Valladolid 1539, Medina del Campo 1543 and Valladolid 1550 – hereafter referred to as S, T, V1, M, and V2, respectively). This text is linguistically significant as it exemplifies the transitionary period from Old Spanish to Classical Spanish that characterised the end of the fifteenth and start of the sixteenth centuries. Thus, what we find across the five witnesses are instances of competing linguistic forms and confusion (misreading or erroneous correction stemming from the prior use of an unfamiliar term or linguistic form).

Despite the printed tradition spanning fifty-four years and four printers’s workshops, each boasting that their novelas are ‘newly printed, corrected and amended’,[i] there is very little textual intervention, leading to an accumulation of common errors. The most substantial changes between the editions, then, are the linguistic modernisations and adjustments implemented by the printers, who had a clear financial motivation, as no printer would risk producing a book that appeared antiquated because this would deter potential buyers.

However, it must be noted that in no edition are any of these changes consistent; any competition between forms is never fully resolved. In fact, there are some novelle in which very little linguistic modernisation takes place at all, and other instances where there has been over-correction or erroneous correction which leads to, at worst, completely nonsensical passages. Thus, it will become clear that linguistic developments over this period were by no means linear, and often caused confusion among those who produced written texts. For our purposes here, I have selected one example of phonetic, morphological and lexical variation to highlight the instability of this period of linguistic transition.

Phonetic Variation

Figure 1

I will start with an example of phonetic variation, which is frequently found in the vowels in the root of certain verbs. The vowels that are the most unstable across the roots of a wide range of verbs and grammatical contexts are /e/ and /i/ in atonic (non-stressed) position, especially in -ir verbs, most frequently in the preterite and imperfect subjunctive tenses, but also in the gerund, present participle and constructions retaining the infinitive ending. I will use venir [to come] as an example, referring to fig. 1.

Venir experiences vocalic instability in the root of its gerund, third-person plural preterite, and all its imperfect subjunctive forms. This instability can occasionally cause confusion with certain verbs, such as vivir [to live], which is often spelled with initial b- in this text. The past participle and imperfect subjunctive inflections of this verb, when found with root /e/, is identical to the same forms of the verb beber [to drink], which, when misunderstood, has the potential to cause significant confusion for the reader.

Morphological Variation

Figure 2

Now let us move on to morphological variation. In S the monosyllabic verbs ser [to be] and ver [to see] tend to preserve the /e/ in the root in the gerund, thus ‘seyendo’ and ‘veyendo’, and over the course of the printed tradition, there is a transition to the more modern forms omitting root /e/, ‘siendo’ and ‘viendo’.

In some cases, the tendency for the reprints to preserve or omit root /e/ is restricted to particular novelle (e.g. XV, XVI and XLI), as shown in fig. 2. The evidence presented shows that, while there is a tendency towards modernising these verbs overall, it is not consistent, which in turn indicates that even well into the sixteenth century, the competition was still unresolved.

Lexical Variation

Figure 3

Finally, we find variation in the lexical choices made by each of the printers. As we are dealing with a text that was not originally written in Spanish, but a translation from Italian, it stands to reason that we find far more Italianisms than we might usually expect. However, due to the languages being similar and undergoing comparable developments from Latin, it is not always possible to definitively determine whether the use of a particular term in the text is an Italianism. In this section I will present an example that undergoes some variation which could be an example of an Italianism.

The Italian term vergogna [shame] and its morphological variants (e.g. vergognoso, vergognare) are translated in S in two ways: one where the palatal nasal /ɲ/ is retained (thus ‘vergoña’, ‘vergueña’, ‘vergoñoso’ and ‘avergoñar’) or, more commonly and in-line with the Modern Spanish vergüenza, we find ‘verguença’, ‘vergonçoso’ and ‘avergonçar’ (see fig. 3).

What this shows us is that in S there is significant competition between these forms, and the weighting of the competition differs according to the morphological variant – whether it is a noun, adjective, adverb or verb – but the reprints, especially M and V2, show a rare consistency in opting for the term that would become accepted in Modern Spanish. What is tricky to work out, however, is whether we are dealing with a simple archaism or an Italianism. According to the Corominas and Pascual Diccionario crítico etimológico, these forms competed over the entirety of the Middle Ages, and they note that ‘vergoña’ and ‘vergueña’ are more antiquated.[ii] Thus, it is difficult to define this as a strict Italianism (indeed – this term does not appear in Terlingen’s Los italianismos en español),[iii] but rather as an archaism influenced by the similarity between the archaic and Italian forms.

This overview has presented only a small sample of changes. Nonetheless, it has shown that the linguistic variation found across the printed tradition of this text reveals much about the period and challenges assumptions made about the commercial practice of printing and the attitudes adopted by printers as far as modernisation is concerned. We have seen in no uncertain terms that modernisation was not always the goal with these printers. Indeed, in the sixteenth-century reprints we often find linguistic regression and archaism.

This text is essentially a melting pot of linguistic variation, attesting to fundamental changes to the Spanish language, and would provide ample material for a case-study on any of the linguistic phenomena listed above, as well as many more.

Figure 4

Emily Di Dodo completed her BA and MSt in Medieval and Modern Languages (Italian and Spanish) at the University of Oxford. She is now in the fourth year of her DPhil, working on a critical edition of the medieval Castilian translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Her research interests include medieval philology, textual criticism, reception studies, translation theory, and Spanish and Italian medieval and early modern literature. You can find her on Twitter at @emilydidodo.


[i] ‘nueuamente impressas, corregidas y enmendadas’. My translation. [ii] Joan Corominas and José A. Pascual, Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico, volumen V (Madrid: Gredos, 1984), pp. 788-789, s.v. ‘vergüenza’. [iii] J. H. Terlingen, Los italianismos en español desde la formación del idioma hasta principios del siglo xvii (Amsterdam: N.V. Noord-Hollansche Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1943).


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