Scientists discover the oldest Spanish dictionary

One CONICET researcher found fragments of the incunabulum in a library of Princeton University. It was also possible to determine that the author was Alfonso de Palencia, one of the greatest humanists of the 15th century. 

Scientists found the oldest Spanish dictionary. Photo: Princeton University Library (Special Collections) and the 'Real Biblioteca del Escorial' (Royal Collections).

Incunabula are those books that were printed during the middle and the end of the 15th century, between the time when Johannes Gutemberg invented the movable-type printing press and the year 1501. To find a totally unknown incunabulum is so rare that it is estimated to occur once every fifteen years for each language, but whenever this happens, it is a fact of major importance for the field of the history of the book.

In this sense, Cinthia María Hamlin, CONICET researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Bibliográficas y Crítica Textual (CONICET, IIBICRIT) has recently led a very important discovery in the Firestone Library of Princeton University (USA): two pages of what was confirmed as the oldest Spanish vocabulario (dictionary in current terms).

So far the oldest known Spanish to Latin vocabulario was the one made by Antonio de Nebrija, printed between 1494 and 1495. But Hamlin and Juan Héctor Fuentes, Latinist and CONICET researcher at the IIBICRIT, detected that the pages found in the library in Princeton were printed some years before, between 1492 and 1493.

Only two pages of the incunabulum were found -which include the complete Prologo and seventy-seven entries for the letter ‘A’- but Hamlin and Fuentes determined that they matched nearly word for word the corresponding section of a complete anonymous vocabulario (albeit without a prologue) transmitted in a 15th-century manuscript. So far it had not been possible to determine neither its author nor its date of production, which is why it had gone unnoticed. Now that it was verified that it was written before the printing of Nebrija’s Spanish-Latin Vocabulario, it has become more relevant.

“It is worth mentioning that there is a previous vocabulario with terms in Spanish but not in a leading role. The first dictionary that contains words in Spanish is the ‘Universal Vocabulario’’ in Latin and Romance (UV) by Alfonso de Palencia from 1490: in one column is a Latin-Latin dictionary (Latin words defined in the same language), and those definitions are translated into Spanish in the column next to it. But what we found is the first Spanish-Latin vocabulario, in which the terms that are defined are in Spanish, which is also used in the definitions to explain and/or accompany the Latin equivalence. In other words, it is a dictionary on Spanish, whereas UV was a Latin one” explains Hamlin, who also managed to determine that the author of the vocabuario copied in the manuscript, therefore, of the incunabula is Alfonso de Palencia himself, considered as one of the most important humanists of the 15th century. The results of this part of the study will be published in the journal of the Real Academia Española.


Helping luck

The discovery made by Hamlin and Fuentes, like others in different areas of the scientific field, had a fortuitous aspect. In February 2018, Hamlin was working in the Firestone Library at Princeton University. She was revising a copy of a 1515 book when the curator of the library’s Rare Books and Special Collections, Eric White, approached her with a volume of Palencia’s UV. He told her that there were two non-identified pages of a Spanish vocabulario inserted at the beginning and at the end of it. The possibility of identifying the pages excited the researcher who started to work on it when she returned to Buenos Aires.

“Thanks to the collaboration of Eric White and a German researcher of the Gesamtkataloge der Wiegendrucke (large catalog of incunabula and movable types), the scientists first identified the typography of the pages as typical of a Sevillian printing house in the period 1491-1493. It is worth considering that movable types -matrix letters- were remade every two or three years because they wore out quickly, and each foundry was different due to the fact that they were handmade,” explains the researcher.

Once this was determined, the prologue, in which the author dedicates his ‘vocabulista’ (as he calls it) to Isabel la Católica, allowed  Hamlin to further limit the possible date of printing because among the titles he uses to address the famous monarch of Castile is ‘Queen of Granada,’ which conquest took place in January 1492.

“It was Juan Fuentes who arrived to the data that enabled us to identify the text preserved in the pages with the Spanish-Latin vocabulario from the 15th century that remained anonymous and without title in a manuscript of the Escorial. When comparing it with the seventy-seven entries of the second page of the incunabula -the first contained the prologue- we were surprised to verify that the coincidence was absolute. This proved that the manuscript had reached the printing house, albeit partially, and that it was composed before the printing of Nebrija’s vocabulario,” Hamlin describes.

For the researcher, the dedication to Isabel La Católica is a trace of monarchical policy that is present not only in the Spanish-Latin vocabulario but also in Palencia’s UV and in Nebrija’s Spanish-Latin vocabulario.

“Towards the end of the 15th century, Isabel La Católica began to promote educational reform policies to improve the knowledge of Latin and at the same time equate Castilian prestige with the language of Rome. For this reason, it was necessary to promote the production of dictionaries and grammars. In fact, the first Castilian grammar is also from these years and its author is Nebrija. The Crown of Castile sought to accompany on a linguistic level -cultural- the territorial expansion it longed for. Its great milestone was the marriage of Isabel with Fernando el Católico, who would be the king of Aragon and Sicily. In the gradual promotion of a single language -Castilian-, the Catholic Monarchs’ expansionist and unifying policy would have one of its cultural pillars: ‘language was always a companion of the Empire,’ explains Nebrija in his Grammar. The fact that in Latin America our language is Castilian today and not, for instance, Aragonese or Catalan, is partly the result of the language policies that began to take shape at the end of the 15th century,” Hamlin affirms.


Identifying the author: detective work

The second part of the study consisted of identifying the author of the vocabulario. “The style of the prologue, its format and the formulas to address the Queen, and the fact that the two pages of the incunabulum had been inserted in a copy of the UV -in the case of the prologue, surely with the intention of replacing his argumentum, present in other volumes, but not in this one, led me to the hypothesis that the author must have been Alfonso de Palencia, something that I managed to confirm after doing almost detective work,” explains Hamlin.

Hamlin has not only checked the Palencia UV with the vocabulary of the manuscript, but also with the different lexicographic sources with which its authors could have worked, through methodologies drawn from Textual Criticism.

“First, I managed to verify that the lexicographic methodology used in both vocabularios is exactly the same but differs from that used by other contemporary authors such as Nebrija and Santaella. I noticed that certain Latin terms that tend to vary orthographically appeared the same in both vocabularios. On the other hand, the correspondence between the Latin term and the Castilian equivalence of the manuscript and the Palencia UV was 76 per cent. Finally, I exhaustively compared the authority quotes, which in most cases coincided,” the researcher describes.

The authority quotes are quotes from classic texts, such as Virgil’s Aeneid, which were used to exemplify the use of the terms defined in the dictionaries, and are present in a large part of the entries of Palencia’s UV and the vocabulario of the manuscript.

“The aim of this task was first to try to identify the sources used and secondly to analyze its treatment. This allowed me to identify common mistakes in the same quotes, which are not recorded in any of the possible lexicographic sources, which led me to conclude that both vocabularios must necessarily have the same author: Alfonso de Palencia,” Hamlin affirmed.

Alfonso de Palencia died in March 1492, shortly after the conquest of Granada. That might explain why some words had remained undefined in the manuscript. Besides, the importance of its author may be the reason that explains why a work with unfinished details had reached the printing press. It is also possible that when those in charge noticed it was incomplete, they decided to stop printing. However, the fact that the vocabulario might have circulated as a book and the rest of its parts are lost  cannot be dismissed. For Hamlin, what can be conclusively rejected is that the two pages were a mere printing proof, since one appears printed on both sides, which due to technical difficulties involved, was only done for the versions used for booklets -which gathered together  became books-, or for what was known as final proofs.

By Miguel Faigón

Translation: Cintia González


Hamlin, C. M., & Fuentes, J. H. (2020). “Folios de un incunable desconocido y su identificación con anónimo Vocabulario en Romance y en Latín del Escorial (F. II. 10)”. Romance Philology74(1), 93-122.

Hamlin, C.M. (2021). “Alfonso de Palencia: ¿autor del primer vocabulario castellano latín que llegó a la imprenta?”, Boletín de la Real Academia Española, T. 101, en prensa.