From Medieval to Modern Spelling in Spanish Literature

The Spanish language has radically changed during the last one thousand years. At the beginning of the 11th century A.D., Spanish literature began its journey as Muslims in Iberia wrote “jarchas”- a mixture of Arabic and Latin poetry. Beginning in the 13th century, non-Muslims Christians in Spain and Portugal wrote many works in poetry and prose. In both countries, the language in these early Iberian texts was a synthesis of dialects of earlier conquerors: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Jews and Muslims. Alfonso X, “wise” king of Portugal composed an exhaustive number of poetic literature, but most of these works are in Galician-Portuguese. In the 14th century, writers from Spain composed a majority of its poetry and prose. The spelling of many old Spanish words is erratic and confusing, but I have included a list of medieval-modern translated quotes and words from Old Spanish texts.

Try reading these quotes from two Medieval Spanish texts:

1.Dixo Dina: – Dizen que avia un rrico ome en una cibdat e tenia una mugger muy ‘fermosa e entendida.’ (Calila e Dimna, 15).

Modern spelling: Dijo Digna:- Dicen que había un rico hombre en una ciudad y tenía una mujer muy ‘hermosa y entendida’. Translation: Digna said, “They say there was a rich man in a city, and had a very beautiful and wise wife (woman).”

2.Ya lo vee el Cid que del rrey non avie gracia. Partios de la puerta por Burgos aguijava, lego a Santa Maria luego descalvaga, ‘finco los inojos de coracon rrogava. La oracion fecha luego cavalgava; salio por la puerta e (en) Arlancion passava. (El Poema del Cid, 52-57).

Modern spelling: Ya lo ve el Cid que del rey no había gracia. Partió de la puerta por Burgos aguijaba, llegó a Santa María luego descalbaga, hincó los inojos de corazón rogaba. La oración hecha luego cabalgaba; salió por la puerta y en Arlanción pasaba.

Translation: The Cid knew the king was angry. He turned away from the door, galloped through Burgos, straight to Saint Mary’s cathedral, where he dropped from his horse. He fell on his knees, and prayed from his heart. The moment his prayer was finished, he departed. He left through the gate and crossed the Arlacion (River).

Basic spelling rules from Medieval Spanish are grouped as follows:

v-b: avere-(h)aber,(to have); fablava-hablaba, (spoke) avia-(h)abia, (had);

f-h: fablar-hablar, (to speak); fazer-hacer, (to make, do); fasta-hasta,(until); fijo/a-hijo/a,(son, daughter); fallar-hallar,(to find); fer-ser, (to be); fago-hago, (I make, do);

z-c: fazer-hacer, (to make, do); dezir-decir, (to say); plazer-placer, (to please). (The “z” gives the words a “z” or “ts” sound.)

qu-cu (at the beginning of the word): quando-cuando,(when); qual-cual, (what, which); quanto-cuanto, (quantity); quarto-cuarto, (quarter); quarto-cuatro, (four).

t-d (at the end of the word): maldat-maldad, (evil); verdat-verdad, (truth); cibdat-ciudad, (city); piedat-piedad, (piety).

x-j: dixo-dijo, (said); Ximena-Jimena, (name for a woman); dexo-dejo, (I leave). (The “x” makes a “sh” sound.)

ss-s: passar-pasar,(spend time, pass); vassalos-vasallos (vassals);

rr-r: rrico-rico, (rich), rrey-rey (king). (The two r’s at the beginning of a word make the “trill” sound.)

l-ll: lorar-llorar (cry); lueve-llueve (it’s raining); lover-llover (to rain). The two LL’s together are pronounced like a “y”.

Words that began with “de” were contracted to words that today are separate:

Dello-de ello, deste-de este, della-de ella, dalli-de alli, daquel-de aquel;

m-n before “b” or “p”: lunbra-lumbra, (light); canpos-campos, (fields); nonbre-nombre (name).

u-v: oluidar-olvidar, (to forget); auia-avia,(had); caualgar-cavalgar (to ride a horse).

Other words in Medieval Spanish include:

agora-ahora (now);

omne, ome, ombre-hombre (man);

mugger, muggier-mujer (woman, wife);

do-donde, (where); doquiera-dondequiera (wherever);

ca-causa (because);


nin-ni; (neither).

This list is only a basic guide to spelling words in Medieval Spanish literature. If you read all of the Castilian literature between the 11th through the 15th centuries, you would probably not recognize all words because there is a staggering amount of different spellings. The spelling is erratic. In El Poema del Mio Cid, many words are scattered or missing. There are spaces between words, letters and accents; it is no wonder very few works were compiled during the 11th century. By the 14th and 15th centuries, grammar used in poetry became much more stable, and the words more recognizable. The change in spelling also included minimal changes in pronunciation and grammar. Prose followed a less erratic pattern of disjointed letters, accents, words; its sentences were much more comprehensive.

In the late 15th century, the Renaissance that was born in Italy was adopted by Spanish culture. Many scholars believe this culture phenomenon started in 1492 when Elio Antonio de Nebrija wrote the first Spanish grammar book, La Grammática de la Lengua Castellana, which set standardized rules for Spanish spelling, pronunciation and grammar. At the same time, many literary works were created, such as: Amadís of Gaula, La Celestina, La Jaula de Amor, and poetic compositions of Jorge Manrique, the marqués de Santillana, Íñigo López de Mendoza, and anonymous writers, as well. Popular productions like romances, carols and love songs were also written and sung. A majority of works were written in “Early Modern” Spanish, because there were some words and sounds that had evolved from Medieval Spanish; but that was about to change.

In the 16th century, writers’ words started to resemble the way Spanish words are spelled today. Well-known works like Lazarillo de Tormes were written, which broke the awkward spelling of Spanish vocabulary. In the 17th century, modern Spanish words are fully recognizable in Miguel de Cervantes’ famous work, Don Quijote de la Mancha.

At this time, Spain also colonized parts of the North American and all of Central and South America, except Brazil. Spanish became even more important as a language, not just for Spain but its colonies. Today, Spanish is spoken by 400 million people in over 20 countries. Modern Spanish includes many more words, accents, and dialects from all of these countries that were impacted by Spain.

The 11th century brought spelling changes to the Spanish language. Since the composition of El Poema del Mio Cid to the latest 21st century publications of Spanish and Latin American authors, linguistic alterations have been documented through written literature. That being said, the Spanish language has evolved over time, probably more so than any other Romance language, even perhaps most languages.