Jorge Duany on Linguistic Uniformity

In his article “Órale, manito” (El Nuevo Día, 15 June 2010) anthropologist Jorge Duany explains the latest attempts of certain institutions to create uniformity among Spanish-speakers in the media. In this case, the former President of the television network Telemundo James McNamara explained that his company had hired dialogue or diction coaches to teach his actors how to speak like Mexican broadcasters so that they could “neutralize” national and regional accents in spoken Spanish. It was expected that Hispanic artists hired in television programs, especially soap operas, would “improve their diction” by speaking like Mexicans. Such corporate policy is based on the idea that 80% of Telemundo’s potential audience is of Mexican descent.

Duany offers a hilarious list of rules—specifically written for Puerto Rican speakers of Spanish—that play with our pronunciation tendencies, especially where s’s, l’s, an double r’s are concerned; correct velocity of expression; and suggests new slang options and lexical choices. The ones I found to be particularly and pointedly humorous are 1) avoidance of words of African origin such as bembé, candungo, changuería, cocolo, fufú, gongolí, jurutungo, mofongo, monga, ñame or titingó; and 2) avoidance of typical contemporary phrases in what he calls our “argot criollo” [Creole slang] like the exclamations “ea, rayete” and “¡wepa!” as well as the use of “¿viste?” at the end of sentences. He sums up the list by saying that “In conclusion, [one must] adopt a standard Spanish that no one speaks.”

Leaving humor aside, Duany’s article emphasizes the problematic nature of the attempt to create uniformity or, as the Telemundo spokesperson suggested, to “Mexicanize” Spanish. He raises the important question: Who determines the educated norm for the spoken language of a [particular] country? Moreover, the anthropologist underlines, to impose a specific dialect (be it Castilian, Mexican, or other) is neither linguistically nor pedagogically sound. And in this case, Duany states, the reasons are strictly commercial.  

Duany concludes by saying, “Just like there is no ‘Latin’ musical genre—but rather a wide spectrum of  rhythms, spanning from ranchera and cumbia to bolero and bachata, passing through salsa and reggaetón—there is not a single, unique way to speak ‘correct’ Spanish. To ‘Mexicanize’ the accents of actors and broadcasters in Hispanic television is to strip away the richness of the linguistic diversity of the population of Latin American descent living in the United States.” He adds that it will be a sad day when, in order to get a job, we weaken a language that is so rich precisely because, “in spite of its local variations, it allows us to understand one another perfectly from Spain to the United States, and from the Río Bravo to Tierra del Fuego.”

Professor of Anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras, Duany is author of numerous articles and books such as How the United States Racializes Latinos: White Hegemony and Its Consequences (edited with José A. Cobas and Joe R. Feagin, 2009), A Transnational Migrant Crossroads: The Circulation of People and Money in Puerto Rico (2007), and The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island and in the United States (2002), among others.

[A specific link to this article is not available, but the newspaper’s page is http://www.elnuevodia.com/. We will work on finding an alternative link to Duany’s full article.]

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