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Penny's history of the Spanish language is a useful guide if, and only if, you have an extensive theoretical knowledge of the Spanish language. If I had not taken phonetics and linguistics as an undergraduate, I would have been lost by the time chapter two rolled around. Even so, I have never taken Latin, and would have liked a brief introduction to Latin pronunciation, which would have helped my appreciation of the phonological change immensely.
I am only saying all of this to emphasize that a casual reader interested in the formation of the Spanish language might feel disappointed with this book, as it is an internal (rather than an external) history of the language. That is to say, it is almost exclusively a linguistic history of the language, not a cultural one.
That being said, if you have this previous knowledge, this history manages to be both very detailed and reasonably concise. Even so, due to its highly technical nature, chapters two and three (phonology and morpho-syntax, respectively) may require several readings for full comprehension. This also leads to a major improvement found in the second edition of the text: a glossary on technical terms used throughout. I originally read this in the first edition, which does not have said glossary, and often found myself irritated by the extensive, unexplained linguistic jargon.
Even so, I still have one major complaint about the text, primarily concerned with word definitions in modern Spanish. Throughout the book, Penny shows certain words that have evolved from one language or another into Spanish, as well as a definition of that word. However, it seems he oftentimes only translates the original meaning of the word, rather than giving its definition in modern, spoken Spanish, which seems a bit misleading. For example, the word "chaparro" from the basque language is defined only as "dwarf-oak," though in modern Spanish it is primarily an adjective meaning "short." This is just one of many examples.
Along the same line, oftentimes more than one word with the same meaning will be given, but with no indication as to which word (if any) is still used in modern Spanish, and, if so, where. For example, the word "mint" is given two definitions. One is "menta," the word commonly used today. The other one is "ceca," which is rather obscure and rarely used. However, no indication is given as to the modern usefulness of these words- they are both simply presented as post-medieval Spanish words.
Similarly, the word "testuz" is given as a Mozarabic word meaning "forehead." However, this word is not used anywhere in modern Spanish, to my knowledge. For someone with an extensive knowledge of historical Spanish vocabulary this may not be a problem, but it could certainly be confusing for a student. While Penny does indicate which words were only used in medieval Spanish, he gives no sign of which post-medieval words are still in use today.
Overall, this is an effective history of Spanish, and the second edition is much more user friendly than the first. However, improvements could still be made to make it easier going for readers who don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of phonetics, linguistics, and Latin.