Athel Cornish-Bowden asks, in a comment under the post on English spelling reform, if Spanish spelling has remained constant over hundreds of years, as his Spanish host claimed a few weeks ago. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. We have to distinguish between changes in the spelling, and changes in the pronunciation which may or may not be recognised by the spelling.
If I may return briefly to English, we can read Shakespeare relatively easily, because modern editions adopt modern spelling, while leaving the words themselves unchanged. The same is true of Spanish – Golden Age playwrights such as Lope de Vega are published with modern spellings, and they are fairly straightforward for us to read.
English has changed its vowel system drastically since the Norman Conquest, while the consonants have remained remarkably stable. This is why most of the difficulties with English spelling are to do with representations of vowels: Middle English had two phonemes written as <ea> /ε:/ and <ee> /e:/. These have merged in many cases into /i:/, but some <ea> words have shortened to become /e/.
Spanish, on the other hand, has kept the same vowel system (i.e. phonology) since the Middle Ages, but its consonant system has undergone some radical phonetic changes as well as some less radical phonological ones. The spelling has changed to some extent to reflect this. There is evidence to suggest that in Cervantes’ time, the letter ‘x’ represented the sound /ʃ/ – as it does in Catalan and Portuguese today. This is reflected in the way that French has borrowed Quixote – spelling and pronouncing it Quichotte. Medieval Spanish also had a phoneme /ʒ/ (written as ‘j’), which devoiced to /ʃ/ some time before the end of the sixteenth century. In the course of the 17th Century, the point of articulation of this merged consonant (/ʃ/ from /ʒ/ and original /ʃ/) moved back from palato-alveolar, or even perhaps palatal, to velar, becoming /x/. Because the change did not affect the distribution of the phoneme, merely its phonetic nature, it was unnecessary to amend the spelling, but eventually, because there were now two possible spellings for /x/, the letter ‘j’ became the norm in Spain, while elsewhere, ‘x’ remained (cf the Spanish spelling Méjico versus the Mexican spelling México, both pronounced /ˈmexiko/). There have been other changes, but this is enough to show that Athel’s host was not quite right in his assumptions.