Protectors of the Spanish language consider new words for their dictionary


More than 150 academics, novelists, poets, scientists and other language experts met in San Juan, Puerto Rico, this month to debate and discuss the future of Spanish, Carolina Miranda reports for the Los Angeles Times.

Among the issues: whether words such as “selfie” will be admitted into the Dictionary of the Royal Academy, which is like the Oxford English Dictionary, but for the Spanish language).

The meeting, known as the VII International Congress for the Spanish Language, included among its attendees Chilean author Jorge Edwards, Puerto Rican essayist Luis Rafael Sanchez, Cuban crime novelist Leonardo Padura and King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain, and various Latin American leaders.

Held every three years, the meeting is essentially a conference about etymology. But it is fascinating.

Spanish is a language that unites about 500 million people around the world, including millions in the United States. Part of the role of these sessions, organized in part by the Real Academia Espanola (Royal Spanish Academy) in Madrid, is to find etymological common ground among vastly different peoples in vastly different parts of the world.

Felipe noted the growing influence of Spanish in the U.S. and approvingly observed that the three-day conference was held in Puerto Rico. “This is the first time that a pan-Hispanic conference in this series inaugurated in 1997 has been held in a country so closely linked to the United States, as a whole,” the king said. (Puerto Rico, though, is a U.S. commonwealth and its people are citizens.)

By 2050, Felipe said, citing estimates by the Spain-based Instituto Cervantes, the U.S. could be the largest Spanish-speaking nation on Earth. “Spanish has stopped being a marginalized language of immigrants and has integrated itself as a social language and one of culture in American society,” he said.

English, meanwhile, continues to integrate into Spanish. It’s a topic of careful consideration for the academy and its partner institutions in Latin America. The last time the Diccionario was issued, in 2014, it included words such as hacker, dron (drone) and tuitear (to tweet).

It also included Botox and Pilates — though not cuchibarbie, a Colombian slang that refers to a woman who has had a lot of plastic surgery. Nor did it include Spanglish slang that is part of daily life in a place like Los Angeles. In L.A., for example, you drive a troca (truck) to go hanguear (hang out) and Googelear the latest hot restaurants.

Dario Villanueva, who heads the academy, told the Associated Press that perhaps a better word for “selfie” might be auto-foto.

Like other academies that are guardians of language, like the French Academy, there is always some grumbling about Spanish tradition being lost to English slang when it comes to the inclusion of English root words in the dictionary.

But David Pharies, an associate dean at the University of Florida and author of “A Brief History of the Spanish Language,” says efforts to preserve language can be futile.

“There is a long history of linguistic institutions such as the Spanish Royal Academy trying to ‘police’ their languages’ vocabularies or grammatical norms,” he said in an email. “In general, it can be affirmed that over the long term all such efforts are doomed to failure, since a subset of today’s innovations form the basis of tomorrow’s norms. … Sooner or later, language guardians are forced to abandon conservative positions in the face of relentless changes in usage.”

So it is with Spanish. A descendant of “vulgar Latin” — the informal, spoken versions of Latin that flourished in parts of the Roman Empire — it already has significant traces of other tongues.

“Arabic contributed a number of words to the language as a result of the Muslim presence on the Iberian Peninsula from 711-1492,” Pharies wrote. “Arabic did not affect the grammar of the Spanish, but its political presence had important historical effects that helped determine the nature of Spanish.”

Over the years, the Americas have contributed increasing numbers of words to Spanish, as a result, the academy’s dictionary.

Fewer than 10 percent of the world’s Spanish speakers live in Spain. Many contributions from North and South America are drawn from indigenous words. Tomate, the Spanish word for tomato, for example, comes from tomatl, the Nahuatl (Aztec) word for the fruit.

The last time the academy dictionary was published, it contained more than 28,000 words of American origin — double the number in the previous edition.

The dictionary contains the popular Mexican slang guey, which literally means “ox,” but generally means “fool” — depending on context and intonation. And last week the academy added a Latin Americanism to its pages: puertorriquenidad, which translates roughly to “Puerto Rican-ness.”

So far, however, the more anglicized Nuyorican (New Yorker of Puerto Rican roots) remains off the books. That, however, may just be a matter of time.

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