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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

Transmission, Contact, Leveling, and Innovation: A Historical Perspective on Accusative/Dative Opposition in Spanish



Chantal Melis and Marcela Flores


Languages, as we know, are always changing. Over time some innovations manage to get incorporated into the language system as a whole, whereas other changes spread across distinct areas of the speech community and produce regional varieties, which are typical of all languages (Penny 2004). Within this scenario of dynamic instability, linguistic elements differ in terms of their relative propensity for change, although none have been found to be truly immutable (Nichols 2003).

In the present work, we focus on a series of grammatical changes associated with different periods of Spanish history, and yet interrelated to the extent that the category affected by the successive innovations is the opposition between accusative and dative case inherited from Latin.

The phenomena to be examined are:

  1. a-marked animate direct objects (Romance origin)
    • Vi aacc mi amigo vs. Vi Ø la carta
    • ‘I saw my friend’ vs. ‘I saw the letter’
  2. leísmo = the use of the dative pronoun le for animate direct objects (early Spanish)
    • Ledat vi vs. Loacc vi
    • ‘I saw him’ vs. ‘I saw him’
  3. doubling of the stressed personal pronouns (renaissance Spanish)
    • Loacc vi a élacc and Ledat hablé a éldat
    • ‘I saw him’ and ‘I talked to him’
  4. doubling of the dative nominals (modern Spanish)
    • Ledat mandé una carta a mi amigodat vs. Mandé una carta a mi amigodat
    • ‘I sent a letter to my friend’ vs. ‘I sent a letter to my friend’

Our study of these phenomena will evidence the sensitivity of Spanish to the familiar Hierarchy of Topicality (Givón 1976) and will simultaneously bring to the fore how this internal property has operated in detriment of the case distinction (Melis & Flores 2009). We will furthermore be concerned with the dialectal variation hinging on leísmo, whose origin has been traced back to the contact of Spanish with Basque (Fernández-Ordóñez 2001). At present, in very broad terms, the phenomenon of leísmo pits the Old World (presence in Peninsular Spanish) against the New World (absence in American Spanish). We will invoke a scenario of ‘leveling’ through dialect contact (Trudgill 1986) during the early phase of colonization to explain the cause of the linguistic split, and will argue that reflexes of the split can be detected in the ongoing process of diffusion of the doubled dative nominals (Flores & Melis 2004).

In our concluding remarks, looking towards the future, we shall try to imagine what could happen to the case distinction in the newly emerging varieties of U.S. Spanish.


Fernández-Ordóñez, Inés. 2001. “Hacia una dialectología histórica. Reflexiones sobre la historia del leísmo, el laísmo y el loísmo”. Boletín de la Real Academia Española 81: 389–464.

Flores, Marcela & Chantal Melis. 2004. “La variación diatópica en el uso del OI duplicado”. Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica 52(2): 329–354.

Givón, Talmy. 1976. “Topic, pronoun and grammatical agreement”. In Ch. Li (ed.), Subject and Topic, 151–188. New York: Academic Press.

Melis, Chantal & Flores, Marcela. 2009. “On the interplay between forces of erosion and forces of repair in language change”. A case study. Folia Linguistica Historica 30: 271–310.

Nichols, Johanna. 2003. “Diversity and stability in language”. In B. D. Joseph & R. D. Janda (eds.), The handbook of Historical Linguistics, 283–310. Oxford: Blackwell

Penny, Ralph. 2004. Variation and change in Spanish. Cambridge: CUP.

Trudgill, Peter. 1986. Dialects in contact. Oxford: Blackwell.

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