The problem with Spanish

Lately I have taken to translating my shorter books into Spanish… and that in turn has gotten me thinking about the blasted thing.

As is the case with all languages, it has some things I like, and some I don’t. I love the fact that it makes sense from a phonetic perspective and that it doesn’t share English’s well known allergy to anything remotely resembling a subordinate clause, but verbs and accents drive me crazy, as does the rampant abuse of innocent adjectives. Still, my main objection is not so much to the language itself as to the way in which the powers that be have allowed a bunch of snobs not just to hijack it, but also to try and fossilize it. I am talking here about that hallowed institution known as the ‘Real Academia de la Lengua Española’  (Royal Academy of the Spanish Tongue).

Sure, all languages have their snobs who seem to be determined to tell others how to speak. As far as they are concerned just being able to communicate is nowhere near enough, in fact it doesn’t even seem to be  a major consideration, but even though those snobs seem to be required by law,  in the case of Spanish -and French- there is actually a centralized power that controls which words are worthy of being added to The Dictionary, and which words are not… and that power seems to be not just allergic to borrowing from other languages, but also to anything remotely resembling modernity. The purity of the blood may have gone out of fashion, but you are going to have to pry the purity of the tongue out of those particular PTB’s  cold, dead hands.

The way they see it, language worked just fine in the good old days, and there’s no reason why they should have to keep up with the times, or put up with the demands of this newfangled century, goddamnit. As for the fact that some words they look down on are an integral part of the everyday language of hundreds of millions of speakers, well, there’s no reason the speakers should be taken into account, whose language do those ordinary folks think it is anyway?

Okay, so maybe I am over-dramatizing a little, and there are other aspects that have to be taken into account, like the fact that, given the complexities it entails, editing a dictionary takes time… an awful lot of time. In fact a quick trip to the site will reveal that The Dictionary was last updated in 2001, which given the impact of technology on language since is pretty close to the dark ages (and that particular problem is then compounded by the fact that that 2001 date is in itself misleading, as words that had recently come into use in 2001 are not included). That means that anything remotely related to the internet is listed as a proposed addition to a future edition, and that’s only if you are lucky.

Of course, out in the real world people are not exactly waiting for the academy to make up its collective mind or to catch up with the times. In fact Spanish speakers demonstrate the same ability everyone else does to keep up on their own, so that the only thing the ‘proper forms’ do is separate the educated from the uneducated by providing snobs with a yardstick they can use to beat everyone else on the head with. It is only publishers, editors and teachers insist on going by their dictums (or dicta, if you insist on the proper latinate form)… the question is, should they? Personally I believe it’s time for speakers to start thinking about a revolution, and tell their snobbish overlords what they can do with themselves.

No, language does not belong to the snobs… in fact the snobs are the ones who insist on holding language back, and the bottom line is that, as long as we understand each other, we should be just fine.

When it comes to English the situation is nowhere near that dire, as there is no such centralized authority, and there is a greater respect for the different local varieties, but that doesn’t mean that there is much interest in  the upper echelons of the literate world to question the power of the almighty dictionary, and while I will be the first to admit that dictionaries can be extremely useful, the use we make of them, and the power we grant them, is part of the problem.

Long before the advent of dictionaries Shakespeare coined hundreds if not well over a thousand words (the official count stands at around 1,700, but some of those have been called into question). That is one of the things he is revered for, but the thing is that, if dictionaries had been around in those days, they would have denied him that freedom.

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