The New York Times
June 23, 1999


Spanish Academy Allows 'Alcatraz.' But 'Guisqui'?


          MADRID, Spain -- Few places in Madrid are more exclusive than
          an austere mansion on Ruiz de Alarcon Street, just above the
          rambling Prado Museum.

          Loftiness is 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.

          Every Thursday, 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
          since 1713.

          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."

          Preserving the 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.

          "It's wonderful 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
          pan-Hispanic version."

          The drafting 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.

          Protests arrived 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

          "Changes have 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."

          While written 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.

          Salvador said 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."