THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

25 June 2019

¡Authentically Spanish!

A facsimile of the first edition of the Diccionario de autoridades issued by the Spanish Academy in 1726-39 has been added to the open access collection in the Manuscripts Reading Room, in memory of our friend and colleague Julian Conway, former Superintendent of the Room, who died in November last year in Valencia, where he had retired.

Diccionario 1  Diccionario tp
Real Academia Española, Diccionario de autoridades; facsimile reprint (Madrid, 1984) Copy at MSS 463 presented in memory of Julian Conway

The Spanish Academy was the inventor of the inverted question and exclamation mark, although you won’t find them in the Dictionary.

When the Spanish Institute was relaunched in 1991 it chose as part of its logo the tilde (~) (‘wiggle’ to the vulgar). Admittedly, only Spanish has the letter ñ (pronounced enye), but first it’s no longer considered a letter in its own right and second the tilde is used in Portuguese (but not in Catalan) as well as in Spanish.

Diccionario Inst Cervantes
Logo of the Instituto Cervantes,

More distinctively Spanish is the inverted question mark and its cousin the inverted exclamation mark.

As the Diccionario panhispánico de dudas [World Spanish dictionary of doubts] of 2005 puts it:

The signs of interrogation and exclamation serve to represent in writing the interogative or exclamative intonation. They are double signs, and must be placed at the opening and closing of the phrase.
The opening signs (¿ ¡) are characteristic of Spanish and must not be omitted in imitation of other languages which only use the opening sign.
[Los signos de apertura (¿ ¡) son característicos del español y no deben suprimirse por imitación de otras lenguas en las que únicamente se coloca el signo de cierre.]

This gives rise to flamboyant typography such as

¿Qué hora es? ¡Qué alegría verte!
[What time is it? How good to see you!]

Vamos a ver... ¡Caramba!, ¿son ya las tres?
[Now then … Crikey! Is it three o’clock already?]

These signs first appear in the second edition of the Academy’s Spelling Rules, Ortografía de la lengua castellana, in 1754 (C.69.dd.3.), way after the Dictionary of 1726-39. Initially their use was optional, and only became prescriptive in 1884.

So, what more authentically Spanish than these signs?

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections