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THE SPANISH SUPERLATIVE-AN ILLUSION

Grammarians are notorious for their tendency to concoct unwarranted rules, likewise for their stubborn reluctance to abandon a rule which they have accepted from a source which they regard as an authority, although the rule may consist of empty words and have no basis in fact or reason. Like the scholastics of the Middle Ages, they are prone to revel in the discussion of non-existent matters and questions.

Among well-explained but non-existent questions of this kind one of the simplest and most frequently occurring is the Spanish superlative. I use the word in the sense which it has in the Germanic languages, namely, a form expressing the highest degree of a quality found in three or more units, as distinct from the comparative which concerns only two. In Spanish the comparative degree alone fulfills the functions of both comparative and superlative without making any distinction between them in form, so that the presence or absence of the definite article does not in any way affect the meaning.

Strange to say, this fact has been generally recognized as regards adverbs, but very nearly all our Spanish grammars in English carry the traditional rule regarding adjectives, namely, that the definite article plus the comparative forms the superlative, a distinct degree of comparison.1 Several foreign grammarians have stated the facts of the case rather well, but seem to have made no impression on our fairly numerous writers of Spanish grammars. Hanssen, in his Gramática histórica de la lengua castellana (1913) says in paragraph 480 that the Romance languages have no superlative, a broad statement which some might like to question, and he supports his declaration with references to other writers. Lenz, in his work, La oración y sus partes (Madrid, 1920), states on page 182:

en castellano habrá que declarar que el superlativo no existe. Si las gramáticas hablan de tal forma, es simplemente una reminisciencia de la gramática latina.

The history of our commonly accepted belief is easy to trace. Its beginning is to be found in the unwarranted extension by Bello of a

1 Since the writing of this paper there has appeared Marden and Tarr's Spanish Grammar (Ginn, 1926) which states the facts correctly. I am also informed that Knapp's Spanish Grammar (Boston, 1910), of which no copy is immediately available to me, does not share the common misconception.

remark made by Salvá. Thanks to the authority acquired by Bello, this extension has since been copied by many foreign writers of Spanish grammars, of whom Ramsey has probably been the most influential. The fact that it was exactly parallel to the French rule made it seem perfectly logical and unquestionable.

Salvá, one of the first modern rationalistic Spanish grammarians who sought to rid the grammar of his language of the cumbersome paraphernalia inherited from Latin and Greek scholars, was fully aware of the absence of any true superlative in Spanish, as may be seen by a rapid examination of two or three passages in his grammar. Indeed, it was so obvious to him that he considered it needless to mention it. In the fourteenth edition of Salvá's grammar, pages 27-29, he uses the following words (and spelling):

Los adjetivos que espresan sencillamente una calidad sin aumento, diminucion ni comparacion, son denominados positivos, y de ellos se forman los comparativos, añadiéndoles las partículas mas o menos; y los superlativos con la partícula mui u otra espresion adverbial cuales son sobre manera, en alto grado, etc.: lijero, mas lijero, mui o en gran manera lijero. El superlativo se forma tambien añadiendo al positivo la termanicion -ísimo.

Later (page 133, third paragraph) he remarks incidentally that in Spanish there are many expressions composed of the definite article plus the comparative which are equivalent in a way to the superlative, but he still has in mind, apparently, the absolute superlative, the only variety he has mentioned.

This is the remark which Bello takes up and raises to the status of a rule. (It is noteworthy that the Academy has not seen fit to include the rule in its grammar, the only superlative which it recognizes being the absolute superlative.) On the basis of this remark Bello proceeds to distinguish between the absolute superlative and that which he calls partitivo or de régimen, because he finds it regularly followed by a de phrase, expressed or understood. Now with such a complement it is inevitable that a superlative or a comparative should either one be preceded by the definite article, and in failing to cite other types of superlative phrases Bello shows clearly his own inability to comprehend the nature of the true superlative, although he could have found innumerable examples. If he had understood it he would have recognized that el mejor means either "the better" or "the best," and that the article functions in either case purely as an article without altering the degree of comparison. Similarly, he

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would have recognized the true superlative meaning in innumerable phrases which have no article, such as cuando estoy más triste (“when I am the saddest"), or ¿Cuál sería mejor? ("Which would be the best?").

Bello's statements are found in two places in the Bello-Cuervo Gramática Castellana (20th ed., 1921), and in not criticizing them Cuervo seems to concur in them. In paragraph 220 he distinguishes between the two kinds of superlative. In 1025 he discusses true superlatives, "de régimen,” “. . . denominados partitivos porque rigen expresa o tácitamente un complemento formado de ordinario con la preposición de, y significan, no sólo, como aquéllos (i.e. the absolute superlative), un alto grado de la calidad respectiva, sino el más alto de todos, dentro de aquella clase o colección de cosas en que consideramos el objeto: 'Demóstenes fue el más elocuente de los griegos.'

Los superlativos partitivos o de régimen son casi siempre frases que principian por el artículo definido, el cual, combinándose con los comparativos los vuelve superlativos: ‘La más constante mujer' . . . .”

In the last sentence it will be observed that Bello qualifies his rule, for he says that these superlatives "are almost always phrases beginning with the definite article," thus reflecting a slight feeling of uncertainty which our grammarians have seen fit, for the most part, to ignore. His uncertainty would doubtless have been greatly increased if he had taken the trouble to express his examples in slightly different words, e.g., "Demóstenes fué aquél de los griegos que fué más elocuente; la mujer que es más constante, etc." These versions show precisely the same superlative sense, but without the article, thereby completely nullifying his rule.

This misconception on Bello's part is of no consequence to the native, being at most a technical term added unnecessarily to the grammar of the language, or a subtlety which could have no effect on one's speech. But for the foreigner it has caused considerable inconvenience, for it has given rise to a false rule, one, moreover, which immediately calls for the formulation of a number of exceptions. A very small amount of study is required to discover that the positive value of the rule is exactly offset by the negative value of the exceptions.

There is, however, one type of phrase which may seem not to be covered by the foregoing. I refer to phrases such as Este es Broadway, calle la más larga del mundo. As a matter of fact, it is fully

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as correct to say la calle más larga del mundo, many writers preferring the latter form. So the former must be considered as a minor peculiarity of word-order rather than as an example of a rule. If, however, there should be felt a need for a rule governing the use of the article with the Spanish adjective it might be expressed as follows: The article is used with the Spanish comparative-superlative only when it is essential (not merely optional) in the corresponding English, e.g., Escogi el que era mas barato, "I chose the one which was (the) cheaper (or, cheapest)," the English article being optional. But compare the following in which the English article is essential: Escogí el más barato de los libros, "I chose the cheaper (or, cheapest) of the books."

If teachers of Spanish will bear this fact in mind they will avoid some awkward explanations, and for their students they will save some time which could be used to better advantage than in trying to master a worse-than-useless rule.

WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

E. F. PARKER

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BRIEF ARTICLES AND ANNOUNCEMENTS

THE TENTH ANNUAL MEETING

The tenth annual meeting of the American Association of the Teachers of Spanish will be held at El Paso, Texas, December 20 and 21, 1926.

The following list of addresses is not complete, and is subject to change: "Eighteenth-Century Cuadros de Costumbres," Professor C. M. Montgomery, University of Texas

"Spanish as a Factor in Education," Professor F. O. Reed, University of Arizona

Address, Professor Charles B. Qualia

Presidential Address, Professor W. S. Hendrix, Ohio State University "The Future of the Study of Spanish in United States," Professor E. C. Hills, University of California

Address, Professor Lilia M. Casís, University of Texas

"Relation between the Political and Literary History of Spanish-American Countries," Professor Alfred Coester, Stanford University

Address, Professor Henry Gratton Doyle, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Address, Professor John D. Fitz-Gerald, University of Illinois

"The Spanish of the Southwestern Part of the United States," Professor S. Lyman Mitchell, New Mexico Military Institute

Address, Mrs. Phebe Bogan, Tucson, Arizona

"The Newer Objective Examinations in Spanish," Mr. G. W. H. Shield, Supervisor of Modern Languages, Los Angeles City Schools

REPORTS OF COMMITTEES

REPORT OF COMMITTEE ON NOMINATIONS

The Committee on Nominations submits the following list of nominees for the offices indicated, according to the provisions of the Constitution of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish:

For President for 1927-LAWRENCE A. WILKINS, Director of Foreign Languages, New York City.

For First Vice-President for 1927-29-ARTHUR L. OWEN, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas.

For Second Vice-President for 1927-28-BENICIA BATIONE, Denver University, Denver, Colorado.

For Third Vice-President for 1927-MICHAEL S. DONLAN, High School of Commerce, Boston, Massachusetts.

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