Spanish Academy Allows 'Alcatraz.' But 'Guisqui'?
By MARLISE SIMONS
-- Few places in Madrid are more exclusive than
an austere mansion on Ruiz de Alarcon Street, just above the
rambling Prado Museum.
exuded from its marble halls, plush salons and shelves
stacked with outsized books clad in fading vellum. All the portraits are of
famous writers, here Lope de Vega, there Cervantes. This, the inner
sanctum of the Spanish Royal Academy, is seldom seen by ordinary
But for all its
elitist aura, it is the people's business that goes on here, the
business of the 400 million or so speakers of Spanish, which developed a
millennium ago on the high plains of Castile and now ranks among the
world's most widely spoken languages.
the 46-member Academy meets to "cleanse, fix and
give splendor" to the Spanish language, as its motto promises, and to
carry out its mandate to give awards, settle points of grammar and
spelling and prepare the latest authoritative dictionary. It has done so
But if the Academy
once ruled with absolute authority over the vast
Spanish empire, the Americas now have their own language academies
that propose home-grown changes. Disputes have even led to threats of
linguistic schisms. So, with 9 out of 10 Spanish speakers now living
outside Spain, the Royal Spanish Academy has learned to consult and
"The stern matriarch
in Madrid has become more like a benign
grandmother," said an Argentine diplomat here. "She keeps an eye on her
adventurous offspring, but she gives advice, not orders."
unity of the language through a universal spelling is
currently the institution's first objective, said Victor Garcia de la Concha,
director of the Academy.
that our language, which is so dispersed, has kept a single
set of spelling rules," he said. "In fact, it's a miracle." It has been helped,
he said, by the fact that "Spanish has one of the most phonetic spellings
of the great languages."
Among the other
most widely spoken languages, Hindi and Arabic have
become diverse and English spelling is not uniform, the director lamented.
His voice rose as he pondered danger.
"If you allow
lots of variants or reforms, you create division, even chaos!"
he exclaimed. "Spelling is a very serious matter. It's the instrument to
defend the unity of the language."
On a recent Thursday,
the Academy had barely opened its session with
the traditional invocation "Come, Holy Spirit" in Latin when the gathering
around the great oval table was confronted with different views over the
use of accents in Spain and in Latin America.
On the agenda
was a new guide to spelling, to replace a 1958 version
later this year. There were questions: should a word like guion (meaning,
among other things, screenplay) have an accent on the second syllable?
Usage said yes. But some Latin American linguists had argued that they
pronounced the word as one syllable, so no accent was required.
"Any change will
be discussed and approved word for word together
with the other 21 academies," said Gregorio Salvador, a member of the
spelling commission. "So the new guide will not be a Spanish but a
committee, he said, had been mindful of criticisms from the
Americas, among them that the Madrid Academy is too Spain-centric.
At one point in the draft text, the Academy used the phrase driver's
license, which in Spain is permiso de conducir.
from the Americas noting that in Peru and Ecuador it
was called a brevete and elsewhere a licencia. The example was
This search for
consensus among 22 academies (two are in countries
where Spanish is not the first language, the United States and the
Philippines) may seem cumbersome, but Salvador sees safety in
become very rare now," he said. "If someone proposes a
change and others are against, it does not happen. We need at least a
three-quarter majority to make important decisions. Keeping unity is
even more important than accuracy."
Spanish may be closely monitored, the spoken language
continues to diversify. In Spain, Catalan, Basque, and Galician all affect
Castilian. In the Americas, the distinct speech of, say, Mexicans,
Argentines, Cubans or Chileans can quickly be spotted.
it was the accent of the Andalusians, the easygoing
southerners who lengthen their vowels and swallow their consonants, that
was first exported to Spain's colonies and set the tone for the softer
Spanish of the Caribbean. In the New World, Spanish was enriched by
the vocabulary of the continent's Indians and by waves of immigrants.
It took time
and pressure for the remote Academy in Madrid to adjust
and accept widely-used Indian words. But its latest official dictionary,
published in 1992, added hundreds of words from the Quechua language
of Peru, from Araucano of Chile, from Guarani of Paraguay, and from
Nahua of Mexico.
Some Nahua words,
of course, were adopted long ago, even in English:
xocoatl became chocolate; ahuacatl turned into aguacate and avocado;
tomatl is now the ubiquitous tomato.
The Academy director
insists that protecting the language does not mean
closing it off. Outside words have always percolated into the Latin dialect
that became Castilian: In the Middle Ages, it absorbed some 5,000
Arabic words from the Moorish rulers (many starting with al, like
alcatraz), followed by myriad Italian and French words.
"Now we are getting
hundreds of Anglicisms, but the language will
absorb and digest them," he said. He cited mitin (meeting), futbol, and, of
course, there is guisqui (whisky).
But will they
enter the Academy dictionary? "It may take a little while,"
the director said with a laugh, adding that the Academy did not believe in
the line taken in France, which a few years ago tried to legislate against
"Nobody can seal
a language anyway," he mused. "The Romans already
said that in matters of language, usage is more powerful than Caesar."