Don Quijote de la Mancha: the language

2023-03-12 @Literature

Finished Miguel de Cervantes' beautiful epic (El Ingenioso Hidalgo) Don Quijote de la Mancha in gradual increments under three months: complete version, original Castilian Spanish. Appealed to a dictionary somewhat more often than usual, mainly for the period terminology, the idioms and descriptions of peculiar apparatus.

Common diction had since undergone much transformation. However, most discrepancies I quickly ascertained: the small set demanding initial dictionary reference would effectively reoccur throughout at high frequency. That is to say, any extra work in no way compromised enjoyable cadence.

In hindsight, having already perused initial fragments over the years and fully reaffirmed over these few months, it’s a very accessible book for a non-native speaker with exposure to some Spanish-language literature. I found the early 17th-century early-modern Castilian of Cervantes no tougher than most Renaissance English I’ve read. Though can’t speak for the fairness of comparison, being that I’ve mostly read Renaissance drama and poetry: not picturesque prose.

Concerning poetry, bits of verse (sonnets, epithets, songs, reveries) are scattered throughout the novel: lots and lots. Some I naturally found more difficult to appreciate, but the same will be said of contemporary Spanish-language poetry. Inevitable, but hardly consequential.

The interesting element pertains to the antique language register throughout certain dialogue, mainly Quijote’s and only selectively: which I believe closer approximates the older, medieval Spanish and used for humorous and satirical aim to underpin Quijote’s madness (and the defunct exercise of errant knighthood which Quijote set to resuscitate).

Whatever the extent, soon enough I no longer discerned the two registers juxtaposed side-by-side, perhaps because Quijote limited that particular device to specific formalities, comprised of fairly basic and recurring syntax, which, again, didn’t present much difficulty once assimilated.

I should mention that knowledge of Portuguese didn’t hurt: many of the language constructs, especially of the antique register (if I properly diagnosed) closer approximated the forms used in modern Portuguese (or Portuguese in general). I identified tons of vocabulary of common vernacular in Portuguese that, while antiquated in modern Spanish, saw colloquial use at Cervantes' time. Is it fair to conclude the two languages were morphologically even more related then than now?

In all, Don Quijote being a classic picturesque novel and an early specimen of the romance prose tradition (Cervantes among the pioneers), the reading experience hadn’t felt unreasonably challenging. It might only appear such for the sheer length, verbosity and repetition: some per tradition, some for added satirical impact, some to aid the episodic development. It’s a mighty long book.

Concentrating purely on prose complexity, I find the modernist writings of Julio Cortázar vastly more difficult to synthesize. Heck, unless memory deceives, and however appalling the comparison, I think I found the tiny Pedro Páramo more of a reading challenge.

Most even the English-language modernist writings I find measures more challenging than the Renaissance romantic prose, focusing on presentational complexity. The immortal Joyce goes without saying. Alternatively, the 19th-century Moby Dick demanded of me far more sweat and tears than Quijote.

Comparing apples to apples, however - that is, picturesque novels with picturesque novels, naturally an English speaker would struggle less with Dickens than Spanish-language Cervantes. But let’s not digress.

To summarize: Don Quijote never intended to present complexity, but to entertain, to educate, to facilitate particular agenda. Beautiful, poetic, and unambiguously clear, the prose is no product of avant-garde. The idiomatic discrepancies you can quickly assimilate with mostly initial, then occasional dictionary aid. Portuguese facilitates the task further yet. :)

Questions, comments? Connect.