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Antonio de Nebrija, the Greatest Figure in the History of the Spanish Language

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Does Antonio de Nebrija ring a bell to you? If the answer is no, don’t worry. In fact, the majority of the Spanish population has never heard about him, despite being a key figure in the history of our language. Unfortunately, there is very little emphasis on this humanist in textbooks or educational curriculums.

Who was Antonio de Nebrija and why he is so important?

Antonio Martínez de Cala was born in the old Nebrissa Veneria (currently named Nebrija), in the province of Seville circa 1440. After studying in the University of Salamanca, he decided to move to Italy when he turned 19. His objective was to learn about the Latin and Italian culture. After joining the University of Bologna, he returned to Spain, where he spread the Renaissance ideas that were flourishing in Europe at that time. Because of this, Antonio de Nebrija is considered as the first Hispanic humanist.

Antonio de Nebrija had nothing to envy of other contemporary figures such as Leonardo da Vinci. Antonio proved to be a tireless scholar who worked as a linguist, translator, historian, poet, royal chronicler, educator, editor and publisher. But his job didn’t finish there! Nebrija also took interest in other fields such as law, medicine or astronomy. Definitely, a man ahead of his time whose legacy had an enormous influence not only in Spain but also in Europe and America.

A masterpiece: Gramatica de la Lengua Castellana

The year 1492 is key to understand the Spanish history. It marked the beginning of a new era with Colombus’ discovery of America. This was also the year when Gramatica de la Lengua Castellana (in English, ‘Grammar of the Castillian Language’) was published. This was the first work dedicated to the Spanish language and its rules, and the first grammar of a modern European language to be published. An impressive achievement, right?

Well, that’s not what the Spanish Monarchs thought. Even though Nebrija had the best intentions with his Gramática, he received a lot of criticism. But this didn’t stop him.

Antonio continued being a scholar who supported objective knowledge regardless of its origin, language or any other cultural condition. Nebrija had no prejudices. For example, he was the second writer in the world in claiming copyright for his own works.

Almost condemned to death by the Spanish Inquisition

We already know that Antonio de Nebrija was a brave academic who defied the medieval mindset of his time.

His job as a translator posed a problem when he published De literis hebraicis (1515). The latter contained phonetic transcriptions from Hebrew to Latin and viceversa. During the writing process, Nebrija received support by linguists of Jewish origin, which was seen as a threat by the Spanish Inquisition. Under the pretext of heressy, Nebrija was condemned by the Catholic institution. Fortunately, he was saved by the cardinal Cisneros.

But, far from being intimidated, Nebrija published Apology, a provocative work against censorship and in favour of freedom of speech.

Antonio de Nebrija, the legend

Without a doubt, Nebrija was (and still is) a universal genius whose legacy is still valid in the 21st century. Clearly, the essence of his thinking was one: to understand individuals and study languages as phenomena that are constantly evolving.

In Spain we can find several educational and cultural institutions that were named after Antonio de Nebrija. One of the most important ones is Nebrija University, a private university founded in 1995.

A monument in honour of Nebrija in the National Library of Spain

You can find more interesting facts on the Culture section of this website. And if you want to continue learning about Hispanic culture and language, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram!

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