Miguel Barnet: The Language We Speak

Cuban writer Miguel Barnet looks at the evolution of the Spanish language in the Caribbean in an article originally published in Granma.

They say that our language “was born” in the territory of ancient Hispania in the 11th century; at least, that’s the period the notes found at the San Millán de la Cogolla Monastery in La Rioja date back to. Castilian or Spanish, like French, Italian, Galician, Portuguese, Catalan and Romanian are Romance languages that emerged from the mixing of the Latin spoken by the Roman conquerors and the languages spoken by the indigenous populations in the occupied territories, like Arabic. 

In 1492, a few months before the Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, Elio Antonio de Lebrija published the first grammar book of the Castilian language, which was also the first one of a Romance language. Our grandparents were skilled at milking cows in Galicia and Asturias, cultivating spinach on Catalonian lands or collecting olives in Andalusia.

The Spanish language that arrived in the Americas was not the language spoken at the Toledo or Madrid courts, but the language spoken in its vast majority by Andalusians and people from the Canary Islands of humble origin. 

From the Caribbean, which were the first lands Castilian arrived at and mixed with the languages of indo-West Indians, it expanded to the rest of the Americas to merge with other indo-American languages and cultures. Shortly after, with the arrival of Africans, unwitting immigrants that were hunted down in their countries of origin, transferred by force and chained to be exploited as slaves, it came in contact with new cultures and languages, to be definitively turned into the Spanish, like we call it in Cuba and in almost all countries in the Americas. Its grammatical structure, that is morphology and syntax, its spelling, was maintained and has been maintained without major changes, but its vocabulary has been enriched outstandingly. 

Today, Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, with almost 500 million speakers, preceded by Mandarin Chinese. It’s the official and national language of 21 nations in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Oceania and also the international language of several international organizations. In spite of all this, it has stopped being one of the official languages of important international organizations over the last few years, which, using “economic problems” as an excuse, have increasingly reduced the number of official and working languages in their meetings to two: English and French, and on many occasions to one, English. And not because some languages are better or worse than others or richer, since all languages are potentially suitable for expressing everything, but because the decision for a language to be national or international is not a linguistic decision, but an eminently political one and many times it depends on the economic power of countries where they’re spoken. 

Why am I saying all this. Just because over the last few weeks, above all after the beginning of the broadcast of the controversial soap opera Aquí estamos (Here we are), the question of language and how we Cubans speak, the use of language in the mass media are on the spot. The way characters appearing on screen speak, mostly youngsters but also adults, has been cause for strong debates in meetings of the Association of Cinema, Radio and Television of the National Association of Writers and Artists. Announcers, actors and actresses, director, officials from the Cuban Radio and Television Institute, writers, journalists, pedagogues, sociologists and linguists, participate in the debates, and it’s that, undoubtedly, we’re talking about a very sensitive issue for our society- the same one that gave access to education and culture to all of its citizens. 

We don’t pronounce the “s”, sometimes we use it where it shouldn’t be, we change the “r” for an “l”, we don’t pronounce “d” between vocals, it’s “complicao instead of complicado”, or at the end of words, “¿verdá?” (instead of verdad). Everything is now normal, and the peninsular “vale” has replaced the US “OK” that lasted so long. And what to say about ear-splitting tags like “more or less”, “that is”, “you know what I mean?”, “do I make myself clear?”, “right?” or “isn’t it?,” among others. Forms of dress or not dressing, to attend public places, cultural centers, including education, the use and abuse of so-called bad words and gestures and raucous cries and are an expression of social behavior problems that are expressed through language. Recall that the language is not just grammar, it is also identity, culture is behavior. 

However, in spite of everything, what concerns us the most is the lexical poverty we observe in many youngsters and adults -the lack of vocabulary, I mean; the reiteration of the same words because they don’t know others, and poor diction. 

Our Cuban variant of the Spanish language is a spicy potato dish in which, among others the Spanish, the indo-West Indian, and the African of Yoruba, Bantu or Carabali origin have combined, just to mention only three African linguistic sources, in view of which we should also assume an objective position, not an embarrassing or discriminatory one. The world “chévere”, very Cuban, is used today in many countries in the Americas, where it arrived by way of Cuban music; however, it’s barely used in Cuba now. “Asere” and “ecobio”, also of African roots, have expanded as ways of addressing people, particularly the first one, among our youngsters since the 1960’s. Today, their use is common in Cuban vocabulary and not necessarily poor Cubans. They’re contributions from other languages that have been gradually incorporated into the Cuban Spanish and that are part of our culture. Words coming from religious systems or fraternity and mutual help societies like the Abakuá Society, but that have acquired a new semantic value, according to the persons using them and the intention with which they do. 

Between all of us, we have gradually elaborated this rich spicy dish throughout the long cooking process identifying us as the Cuban linguistic community. We’re not defending the use or abuse of vernacular words, because “Cuban” means not only what is popular, picturesque, and vulgar; that’s not only a very narrow conception, but a wrong one. Cuban is also what is educated, more elaborate. We don’t aspire either to a way of speaking with vain eloquence, but to a balance that dignifies our way of speaking, of expressing ourselves. The world of words creates the world of values and things. And that the mirror in which we obligatorily look at ourselves every day and also from where people look at us. 

National cornucopia has an emblem: THE LANGUAGE WE SPEAK. Where is the center of the problem? In my opinion, in elementary education, the scepter of which is carried above all by the figure of teachers and the teaching of the mother language, due to the important role it plays, both for the mental development of citizens and their comprehensive training in any field of science, technology and culture. 

Slang is common in young people but not in cultured people, because speakers, as they mature, abandon the youth language that is characteristic of all societies and languages of the world. 

I celebrate the Education Ministry’s willingness to offer more attention to the teaching of spelling in our schools, but at the same time I champion undertaking the teaching of vocabulary and composition with rigor. Grammar and spelling can be learned in 7 or 8 years of teaching, but we learn our vocabulary throughout our life, because new words emerge every day. Our youngsters speak with what they have learned at home, in the neighborhood and, of course, at school. And also with what they have not learned. For that reason, let’s not blame them. They’re the result of our weaknesses. He who feels guilty should rectify it, and he who is free from guilt can cast the first stone.

Taken from Granma Daily

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