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Instituto Cervantes Unveils Exhibit Highlighting Nebrija’s Contribution to Filipino Languages

March 7, 2024

The Philippines boasts a surprising linguistic feat: Tagalog’s first grammar predates English’s – an achievement largely attributed to Spanish scholar Elio Antonio de Nebrija.

To celebrate his cultural contributions, Instituto Cervantes will unveil the “Nebrija en Filipinas” exhibit on March 12th at its Intramuros branch. Nebrija’s legacy extends to languages like Tagalog and Cebuano, which had grammars established before many European languages.

Nebrija en Filipinas, tailored for Filipino audiences, is an adaptation of the Nebrija exhibition organized by the National Library of Spain in 2022, commemorating the 500th anniversary of Nebrija’s death. It is curated by Dr. Teresa Jiménez Calvente, with the addition of panels focused on the Philippines composed by Marlon James Sales, of UP Diliman. Through informative panels and displays of books, it will seek to contextualize them within the publication of the first grammars of the Philippine vernacular languages. These linguistic endeavours were directly shaped by Nebrija’s teachings.

Nebrija was a highly reputed scholar during the Renaissance period in Europe. His book Introductiones Latinae, a groundbreaking manual for teaching Latin, not only earned him recognition in Spain but also garnered international fame. He also wrote bilingual dictionaries in Latin-Spanish and a Gramática de la lengua castellana, published in 1492, which is recognized as the first grammar of modern European languages. It became the model for Spanish friars who attempted analyzing the grammars of the new world, both in America and the Philippines.

These missionaries, who had learned Latin from Nebrija’s methods, applied the model, with its theoretical considerations and bilingual translations, in their description of these languages. As a result, Tagalog saw its first grammar book published in 1610 with Francisco Blancas de San José’s Arte y reglas de la lengua tagala. It was followed by similar initiatives with other vernacular languages, among them the Arte de la lengua iloca, composed by the Agustinian Francisco López in 1627, and the Arte de la lengua bisaya de la provincia de Leyte, written by the jesuist Domingo Ezguerra in 1663.

Proud, intelligent, and audacious, Nebrija was a stalwart fighter for pure Latin and always wanted to go down in posterity with the nickname grammaticus (grammarian). When he presented a preview of what would later become his Grammar of the Castilian Language to Queen Isabel la Católica, the sovereign was initially surprised, unable to grasp the utility of a treatise teaching the rules of a language acquired naturally. However, Nebrija successfully persuaded her that languages benefit from both descriptive and normative grammars to prevent them from running amok. The paradoxes of fate have made his Castilian grammar his most renowned work today. Nevertheless, Nebrija deserves to be remembered for many other reasons.

For Nebrija, the revival of Latin was an incentive for other scholarly pursuits. The voyages of the discoverers aroused his curiosity, leading to a fascination with cosmography and a desire to learn about developments from across the Atlantic. In these and other scholarly ventures, Nebrija revealed himself as a full-fledged humanist.

Even after his death, Nebrija’s fame did not diminish. His grammars and lexicons were not only published in Spain but also gained recognition in France, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands. The Latin manual he had written for his students in Salamanca attained exclusive authorization for teaching the discipline, a decree made by King Philip III in 1598. Nebrija’s Latin grammar manual continued to be esteemed, annotated, and adapted based on location and circumstances until the 19th century.

The exhibit Nebrija en Filipinas, which will run until 12 June 2024, is organized by Instituto Cervantes in collaboration with Fundación Antonio Nebrija (Madrid), the Embassy of Spain and AECID, Biblioteca Nacional de España, and the University of Sto. Tomas (Manila). The exhibit will have a second leg from August to October in the Miguel Benavides Library of UST.

For further information about the cultural program of Instituto Cervantes de Manila, please visit their website (https://manila.cervantes.es), or follow Instituto Cervantes on the following social media pages: (Facebook: InstitutoCervantesManila; Instagram: institutocervantesmanila).

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