Whose Spanish?

A New Pan-Hispanic Linguistic Policy?

In the era of globalization, it is impossible to maintain a monocentric model of language. This reality has led the Spanish Royal Academy (Real Academia Española, or RAE) to modulate its ideological approach to describing Spanish. However, this apparent change is merely an attempt to uphold the legitimacy of its hegemony over the Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas. The RAE’s new approach, as expressed in its latest Spanish reference grammar (published in 2009),2 is not based on a monocentric model in which the Spanish language is identified with the European variety of Spanish (or specifically, with the variety spoken in Madrid), as their previous grammars were. It is instead based on a supposedly more open and inclusive pan-Hispanic model that accommodates every distinct variety of Spanish, whether European or American. This ideological change, which gives the RAE the appearance of taking a more progressive stance than its previous monocentric model, has been sanctioned by its so-called "sister Academies" in the Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas. These Academies have subordinated themselves to the RAE and renounced the possibility of developing their own independent linguistic agendas—despite the fact that the future, and possibly even the present, of the Spanish language is in the hands of the Americas.

The delegitimization of the monocentric model has forced the RAE to change its position and turn to a seemingly integrative linguistic policy as the only means of continuing to pursue its hegemonic agenda with regard to Spanish-speaking America. For despite the invaluable help given by the "sister Academies" in the cause of preserving Spain’s dominance, the RAE continues to subject them to neocolonial treatment, denying them access to basic tools essential to promoting their independence, including such a fundamental linguistic resource as the electronic Corpus de Referencia del Español Actual (Corpus of Contemporary Spanish, or CREA).3

The stated goal of the new pan-Hispanic linguistic policy put forward by the RAE and its satellite Academies is to base grammatical descriptions of Spanish on features shared by the majority of Spanish-speaking communities, with differences between Peninsular and American varieties presented separately. This ostensible pan-Hispanicism is no more than a convenient illusion; the RAE’s proposal that it will describe "the linguistic characteristics shared by the entire Spanish-speaking community" represents the newest—though hopefully the last—attempt to articulate an ill-defined linguistic space that can both support the RAE's ideological construction of the "Spanish-speaking community" and allow it to preserve its position of linguistic domination. In effect, the inspecificity of this illusory space allows it to serve the same ideological function as the monocentric conceptualization of Spanish.

The RAE’s idea of "common Spanish" did not arise only in response to the universal discrediting of the policy of imposing academic norms based on an outdated monocentric model of Spanish. It was also driven by the rise of International Spanish, a pluricentric standard that incorporates the linguistic characteristics of different varieties and emphasizes internationally accepted norms, independently from academic norms (Bravo 2009). International Spanish is fundamentally functional in nature; it has emerged in response to the needs of the global media. Its development is therefore shaped by the economic imperative of being able to reach the widest-possible segment of the public to achieve the most commercial gain.

The linguistic policies of the Royal Academy have very little to say about International Spanish, for two reasons. Firstly, International Spanish is based largely on American norms, without favoring any specific country (Bravo 2009). Secondly, one of the essential characteristics of International Spanish is that it inherently promotes the integration of different standards rather than the institutional imposition of a single variety. International Spanish is thus a language of consensus, organized on the basis of its acceptance by its target audience rather than simply being imposed on them as standard academic varieties are. The norms of International Spanish are established according to linguistic criteria, but, unlike the norms touted by the RAE, they are ratified through their acceptance by a global audience. What can a fundamentally political institution like the RAE say when faced with the phenomenon of International Spanish? Because it arose from a need created by the globalization of Spanish communications, the concept of linguistic imposition makes as little sense in that context as the concept of consensus in an institution like the RAE, which was founded with the sole function of dictating linguistic norms for political and economic ends.

Against this backdrop, the RAE is using its conceptualization of a "common Spanish" as the new foundation for its linguistic neocolonialism with respect to Spanish-speaking America. The pan-Hispanic rhetoric it is now hiding behind is a necessary ideological concession, given the delegitimization of the monocentric model that has resulted from extensive sociolinguistic, lexicographic, grammatical, and language-policy research by progressive scholars of Spanish—the majority of it conducted outside of Spain. The work of Morgenthaler (2008) is an important, though fortunately not the only, exception. Morgenthaler applies a pluricentric approach to studying the different varieties of Spanish in Spain and proposes embracing the concept of Spanish as a pluricentric language in order to put an end to the interminable debate about the "unity and diversity" of the language. As usual, official philology treats with scorn any such innovative research on Spanish language policy, just as it has systematically ignored critical historiographic reflections on any other aspect of Hispanic linguistics.

Great care has been taken to prevent the spread of any novel ideas, with the indispensable help of the militant guardians of official philology within Spanish universities and the machinery of repression that is so often used to stifle any form of independent thought in Spanish academia.4 It is an unfortunate truth that such mechanisms of control have turned the concept of academic freedom in Spain into a legal fiction, whose application is subject to the mercy of the departmental cabals who wield the real power in Spanish universities (cf. C. Subirats 2007, 2002). The repressive policies of official philology have not been able to entirely stop progressive researchers from bringing linguistic advances to Spain, but they have succeeded in delaying the spread of new ideas throughout the country, and this delay has allowed an authoritarian and linguistically obsolete ideology to to continue ruling with impunity.

Although the new pan-Hispanic rhetoric is more aligned with the linguistic approach of progressive scholars than its previous anachronistic stance based on monocentrism, the RAE has not fundamentally changed; it maintains an authoritarian political agenda and a reactionary and destructive attitude towards new scientific advances in Spanish-language linguistics. Despite the apparent ideological about-face, the praxis of official Spanish philology is still weighed down by the historical curse of expansionism and colonialism (Zimmermann 2008); by the belief that Spain is morally and linguistically superior to Latin America (a burden of bigotry dating back to imperial times that, in more recent history, was manifested in the ideology of Ramiro de Maeztu, the intellectual founder of the fascist National-Catholic movement, whose ideas were not repudiated even in the Spanish political "transition" following the end of the Franco dictatorship (E. Subirats 2009)); by the ideology of language purity and a contempt for linguistic diversity; and, finally, by a repressive, inquisitorial tradition (Ramírez 2007) that has left it unable to engage in meaningful dialogue or to take advantage of diversity to further intellectual and scientific development.

The efforts of the official institutions that shape language policy in Spain, namely the RAE and, to some extent, the Cervantes Institute (Instituto Cervantes), have always promoted the reification of the Spanish-speaking community with the goal of turning it into a marketplace where the hegemony of capital from Spain is legitimized and considered natural (del Valle 2007b, Arnoux 2008). Because the concept of "the Spanish language" has been so politicized in the discourse of such institutions, it is necessary to define clearly what one means by the term in a given context.

The Infoling editors assert that Spanish is a pluricentric language made up of a dynamic mix of varieties from Spain and Latin America; it is a multipolar language in which all varieties, whether American or European, act as sources of linguistic characteristics and norms; and it is a constantly changing language whose unity as a medium of communication cannot be crystallized around any one of those sources (Lara 2007). Spanish is not a concentric language; it does not revolve around a standard spoken in Spain's capital and surrounded by supposedly derivative Peninsular and Latin American dialectal varieties (Lara 2007). Differences across varieties of Spanish do not pose a "danger of fragmentation" to some hypothetical linguistic "uniformity"; rather, linguistic variations constitute the very building blocks of the communicative processes in which the language is used (Woolard 2007).

2. The Politicization of Language and Technological Backwardness

Given the strategic importance of systems for electronic information storage and exchange, the development of automatic text processing systems, especially automatic semantic processing systems, should be the highest priority in the commercial application of Spanish-language linguistics. In this age of global electronic communication, the economic dimensions of Spanish linguistics should not be limited to the industry of teaching Spanish as a Foreign Language and the dissemination of cultural products.

The RAE will never be able to truly accept the fact that Spanish is a pluricentric and multipolar language, because accepting this new conception of Spanish, which is based on linguistic approaches grounded in communicative realities, would put into question the very need for an Academy for the Spanish language (Zimmermann 2008). In order to survive, the RAE can only maintain—for as long as it continues to exist—a reactionary ideological stance that requires a defensive and even outright destructive attitude towards the development of modern, innovative, and independent linguistic approaches in Spain. Official philology is therefore detrimental to the development of Spanish linguistics, not only because it always puts its own political and ideological agenda before that of any scientific undertaking, but also because apparent changes in its policies, such as its new pan-Hispanicism, are never more than a cover for its true aim, which is always the same: to find new ideological justifications, such as the invention of a "common Spanish", for maintaining its hegemony within the Spanish-language community. In other words, the RAE adapts its discourse to the needs of the moment in order to preserve its authoritarian and hegemonic policies with respect to Spanish-speaking America.

The fundamentally political nature of the RAE's thinly-disguised agenda of linguistic interventionism has economic implications. This institutional focus on using the Spanish language and Spanish linguistics to further a narrow set of political and economic goals results in policies and paradigms that obstruct both theoretical progress and technological advancement by making it difficult to carry out competitive initiatives that use new technologies for Spanish natural language processing to pursue theoretical research and the development of computational applications.

It is precisely because of the RAE's political orientation that it has no qualms about denying both the research and business communities access to basic tools essential to the advancement of Spanish linguistics, such as the collection of texts in the CREA—which was created entirely using public funds. The RAE prohibits both the free distribution and the commercialization of the CREA, and it prohibits any public access at all to the tagged version of the corpus that the RAE uses internally. This sort of obstructionism makes it clear that the fundamental aim of the RAE is not to promote the development of Spanish linguistics in its various aspects—academic and commercial—but to control the Spanish language in order to use it as a political instrument for preserving Spain's hegemony over Spanish-speaking America and for legitimizing the intervention of Spanish capital in the Americas.


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Valle, José del (ed.) 2007b. La RAE y el español total: ¿esfera pública o comunidad discursiva? La lengua, ¿patria común? Ideas e ideologías del español, ed. by José del Valle, 81-96.
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1 This text will be published as an article entitled "Gramáticas del desastre" in Esclarecimiento en una Edad de Destrucción, edited by Christopher Britt and Eduardo Subirats.
2 It is notable that the Nueva gramática de la lengua española (A New Grammar of the Spanish Language) does not, in over 4,000 pages, contain a single bibliographical citation, nor a general list of references. We therefore consider it a fundamentally political document rather than a work of research on the Spanish language. The RAE's contempt for the most basic ethical principles of scientific investigation has incurred the indignation of Spanish-language linguists and led to an internet campaign, the "Campaña por la defensa de la ética científica en la lingüística hispánica" ("Campaign to Defend Scientific Ethics in Spanish Linguistics"), which demands that the RAE respect intellectual property and cite the bibliographical resources it used in compiling its reference grammar.
3 Cf. Corpus de Referencia del Español Actual.
4 Cf. Ramírez (2007) for a historical analysis of the crisis that heralded the end of free and creative thinking in Spanish universities.