Thursday, August 08, 2013

Rigidity Of Language: Spain's Royal Academy

1713 was the year when modern Spain came into existence. While it can be fatuous to ignore previous history and assign special status to a given year or a given event as a starting-point, there is some justification for elevating 1713 to such a status and for suggesting that everything since can be attributed to what happened in that year - the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht which brought an end to the War of the Spanish Succession.

It is true to say that the war did continue. The following year was when Barcelona finally fell and removed the last resistance to King Philip V and the Bourbon dynasty that remains to this day, but 1713 marked an historical line in the sand, to one side of which was the impulse towards creating a centralised and unified Spain, suppressing and indeed abolishing the Crown of Aragon and establishing Castellano as the sole language of government and the rules and laws of Castile as the rules and laws of this one Spain.

The language thing is rarely far from the surface in today's Spain, and 1713 was significant for a specific development that truly established Castellano. This was the founding of the Real Academia Española, the Royal Spanish Academy, the arbiter and regulator of matters pertaining to the use of Spanish.

The academy came into being in August of that year, the brainchild of the Marquis of Vilena. It might have been thought that Philip, naturally drawn to anything with a centralising, unifying and Castilian style, would have been sufficiently impressed to have given the academy his immediate blessing. He did bless it, fourteen months later, but there had been initial opposition to the academy in Castilian circles that stemmed from an impression of the founders as being less than wholly supportive of the Church.

Though there was now an academy, modelled after those in Italy and France, something was lacking. There was no dictionary, and so Vilena embarked on the process of producing the first and definitive guide to the Spanish language.

It was to be many years before it appeared. It did, after all, amount to over 4,000 pages once it was finally produced, so it wasn't a task that could have been undertaken rapidly. These 4,000 pages with 42,000 words were spread over six volumes, the "Dictionary of Authorities" being completed in 1739 and a more user-friendly, slimmer, one-volume tome - the concise dictionary - being published in 1780.

The academy, despite having a clear role in defining Castilian-Spanish culture, has traditionally tried to place itself above politics, but politics have intervened, and it isn't difficult to guess when these interventions might have taken place: under that good old Absolutist, Ferdinand VII, and under both dictators, Primo de Rivera and Franco, the latter demanding the expulsion of members considered to be less than fascistic politically correct.

The twenty-third edition of the dictionary is due to be published and it, as with previous editions, will doubtless generate controversy. Criticism of the dictionary has focused on its conservative nature and on its, well, Spanishness to the exclusion of international Spanish usage. But the academy is a conservative body, one that strives to maintain the purity of the Spanish language, a principle it espoused in 1713. It offers a different take on language to that which rules English or rather, which doesn't rule English; there is no equivalent organisation that regulates English.

If Spanish has its academy and its dictionary, what of the language that the events of 1713 conspired to undermine? Since then Catalan has gone through periods of proscription, renaissance, more proscription and the second renaissance following Franco's death. But the problem with Catalan, and so therefore unlike Castellano, is that there is no one Catalan.

The Institute for Catalan Studies' philology section was founded in 1911. Its first president was the Mallorcan, Antoni Maria Alcover. The institute worked on a dictionary and in 1932 the General Dictionary of the Catalan Language was published. It was presented as a standard for all the Catalan-speaking regions, including Valencia, but Valencia has its own academy of language, albeit that it wasn't created until 1998. In the Balearics, the university arbitrates and has established variants which are taken as standard in the islands but which differ to the standard laid down by the institute.

There again, this does perhaps reflect an inherent flexibility in language, which is really as it should be and how it is with English, but isn't with Castellano, the rigidity and conservatism of rules for which can, one feels, be taken as a metaphor for Spain as a nation. 

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