Author explores the spread of the Spanish language and its impact on the New World

The year 1492 is, of course, remembered for Christopher Columbus’ first Atlantic voyage under the Spanish flag. That same year also marked a meeting between Spain’s Queen Isabella I and Antonio de Nebrija, bishop of Ávila. That’s intriguing because the bishop presented the queen a copy of his book “Gramática de la lengua castellana,” the first grammar book of Spanish or in any European tongue. Isabella purportedly asked why she needed the book since she spoke the language. De Nebrija allegedly replied, “Your majesty, language is the perfect instrument of empire.”

Their encounter, part of the folklore of the Spanish language, is presented in the introduction of the newly published book “Lenguaje: A Cultural History of the Spanish Language of New Mexico” by Albuquerque author Richard J. Griego.

Griego said de Nebrija’s grammar book, and the point he raised with Isabella, make de Nebrija an important historical figure. “He standardized the grammar of the language and essentially set the stage for the globalization of the Spanish language through the conquest of the Americas,” Griego said in a phone interview.

Hence, he said, it solidified Spanish as a dominating colonial force under the rule of the Reyes Católicos (Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II) and in much of the Western Hemisphere.

Richard J. Griego, author of the book “Lenguaje: A Cultural History of the Spanish Language in New Mexico.”

In Griego’s hands, language is a tool for understanding cultural history. “Lenguaje” details the conquering armies of the Iberian Peninsula over centuries that helped shape the Spanish language in today’s New Mexico.

Classical Latin and later Vulgar Latin, Griego writes, gave Spanish its basic grammatical and pronunciation framework. Latin was the language of the Roman Empire, which occupied Spain for some 700 years.

The Visigoths ousted the Romans and ruled Hispania for some 300 years.

Visigoth words were grafted onto early Spanish, words like guerra (war) and espuelas (spurs), for example. Visigoth rule ended in the early 8th century when the moros (Moors or Muslims) invaded the peninsula and remained a political power until the “Reconquest” ultimately booted the Moors from Granada in southern Spain in 1492.

The Moors’ language, Arabic, heavily influenced Spanish. Indeed, Griego writes, 15% of today’s Spanish derives from Arabic. Place names such as Abu al-Qurq translate into Spanish as Albuquerque, and likely meaning “land of the cork trees.” Sindi is Arabic for sandia or watermelon. Another Arabic word is quhwah, café in Spanish, coffee in English.

Spanish incorporated words of the subjugated indigenous Taíno people of the Caribbean – e.g. batata, patata in Spanish, potato in English; from the Taíno iwana comes iguana. Spanish borrowed words from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, such as chilli (chile); ahuacamolli (guacamole); and tecolotl, in Spanish tecolote, and in English owl, according to Griego.

English, he writes, began infiltrating New Mexican Spanish after the Santa Fe Trail opened to trade with the United States in the 1820s.

“Lenguaje” lists some English verbs that were combined with Spanish verb endings. So that the English “to dump” became “dompear” or “dompiar” in New Mexican Spanish. And “to eat lunch” becomes “lonchar” or “lonchear.” Griego finds the creativity of New Mexicans in their Spanish vocabulary.

For example, mano or mana in gender-divided Spanish are shortened forms of hermano and hermana, which translate as brother and sister.

Griego said his book’s target audience is New Mexico Hispanics. “I want them to understand this very complex place we live in. There are many actors in our history. So it’s difficult to untangle,” he said in a phone interview.

Griego cited two of the social myths in the state’s cultural history.

One is the myth of the three cultures – Spanish, Native, Anglo – getting along. Underlying it, he argued, is an assumption of white supremacy.

Another he said, is the deep-seated “Spanish fantasy” myth. “People have characterized themselves as Spanish, not Mexicans. It seems that every Nuevomexicano family has a grandfather or great-grandfather who comes from Spain,” Griego said. “Some characterize themselves as ‘Spanish.’ I characterize them as Nuevomexicanos.”

However, he noted, DNA testing reveals the average Hispanic New Mexican is about 30% Native American. “We were conquistadores but became conquistados (conquered). That adds a wrinkle to our identity,” Griego said.

The 82-year-old Griego said that by focusing on language, one can more easily see the panorama of cultural influences including colonialism, another way of saying “conquest.”

His book, he said, is the culmination of a lot of his thinking about New Mexico. Griego grew up in the Old Town area when it was semi-rural and later moved to the ethnically mixed working-class South Broadway neighborhood.

Griego is professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of New Mexico. In 1968 he established UNM’s College Enrichment Program and later was director of the university’s Chicano Studies Program.

Copies of “Lenguaje” are available at

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