If you have ever taken Latin or Spanish in high school or college, you probably used a grammar book to help you learn the language. You also may have wondered how your Latin or Spanish grammar book was organized, so that you could learn it more easily. More than five-hundred years ago, Elio Antonio de Nebrija was an educator from Spain whose scholarly contributions to both languages has unofficially made him the father of Latin and Spanish grammars.
Nebrija’s greatest contribution to Iberia and the rest of Europe was the first Latin grammar book,Introductiones Latinae, written in Spanish in 1481. In 1492, Nebrija also composed a Spanish into Latin dictionary. In 1495, he outdid himself by publishing the reverse: a Latin into Spanish dictionary. They were the first Latin grammar and dictionaries printed in Europe, which was revolutionary because every book printed before was written completely in Latin. So Iberia’s Spanish, and possibly Portuguese people could read Latin by translating it from Spanish.
Before Nebrija published his works, Latin was the language used by the Roman Empire many centuries earlier. Over a long period of time, countries that had been conquered by the Empire, such as Spain, France, Italy, Romania and Portugal spoken Classical Latin for written communication and “Vulgar” Latin for oral communication. As the centuries wore on, dialects of Latin were being spoken in each of these countries and became independent Romance languages. However, the formal Classical Latin of the Roman Empire survived in written manuscripts that included classical Roman Literature, formal speeches and sermons about morality by the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1492, Nebrija wrote the first grammar of a modern European language to be published- La Grammatica de la Lengua Castellana (Grammar of the Spanish Language). To the rest of Europe, a grammar book in its country’s own language was unheard of. Nebrija actually published this book for Isabela, the Queen of Spain, so that she could use it as a tool to centralize all of the other languages from different parts of Spain into one language-Castilian, for one empire. It was also not just for the entire Iberian Peninsula, but the future Spanish-American colonies, which was prophesized by Nebrija himself:
It was prophetic, in that throughout the conquest of the Americas, and the centuries of colonialism, language was used by the Spanish as a tool for conquest: to consolidate political power, to spread the Catholic faith, and to unify the empire. (Zhenja La Rosa, Language and Empire: The Vision of Nebrija).
Nebrija divided his Grammatica into four parts: spelling, speaking, meaning of words and their origins, and grammar and parts of speech. Nebrija included a fifth part about methods of teaching the “Castilian” (Spanish) language. All of these linguistic elements are used in today’s foreign language books, not just in the Castillian language. Nebrija even published his final book, Reglas de Ortografía Española, to focus more broadly on the rules for pronouncing and spelling of Spanish words.
After Nebrija’s works were published, Castillians (Spaniards) enjoyed a revival in classical Roman literature. They traveled to Italy where Nebrija studied and were exposed to the Italian Renaissance. As a result, Spain culture experienced its own Renaissance; Spain’s number of literary publications by Spanish authors exploded, so much so that this period was known as Spain’s “Golden Age” of Literature (El Siglo de Oro). Books, poetry, theater, and short stories were busily being printed in the Castilian language. Among the first popular works were two that were written in narrative prose: La Celestina (1499) and Lazarrillo de Tormes (1554). In 1605, the first part of the world’s first and, arguably, greatest novel, Don Quijote de la Mancha, written by Miguel de Cervantes, was published by popular demand.
Elio Antonio de Nebrija’s publications on the Latin and Spanish languages were groundbreaking. Just as his first instruction book for Latin was his most important tool for Medieval Europeans to read Latin, today, the influence of his first Spanish grammar book has been indispensable. Without this linguistic contribution, the rest of the world would not be able to communicate with roughly 400-500 million people in twenty-one countries whose native language is Spanish.