The real owners of a language are those who speak it


Granma | 12 October, 2016

Darío Villanueva, director of the Spanish Royal Academy (RAE) and president of the Association of Spanish Language Academies (ASALE). Photo:

Darío Villanueva, director of the Spanish Royal Academy (RAE) and president of the Association of Spanish Language Academies (ASALE) recently concluded a visit to the island on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the founding of Cuba’s Academy of Language (ACUL). Villanueva, who has been awarded honorary doctorates by eight universities around the world, is a professor of Comparative Literature and Theory at the University of Santiago de Compostela, and author of numerous books on literary research – to cite only a few of his accomplishments – was recognized as a corresponding member of the Cuban Academy.

During his brief stay, Villanueva agreed to answer a few questions for Granma, of interest not only to language experts but to all who are part of the broad Spanish-speaking community of which we are members. Here is what he had to say.

What responsibilities do you have as director of an eminent institution like the RAE?

The greatest responsibility is that regarding everything to do with the Americas, and other countries where Spanish is spoken, because although the RAE was the first created 300 years ago, today it just one more academy. There are 22 other academies that have the same objective, and given the statutes of the ASALE, the president of the RAE is the president of this association. The greatest responsibility of the RAE director is being president of the ASALE.

You explained that not all languages have an academy, that is wasn’t indispensable. Nonetheless, the Spanish Academy has very precise objectives…

Yes, since the 19th century, after the independence of American republics, the RAE sought to establish ties with all these countries to promote the creation of academies, with the purpose of maintaining the unity of the language. The problem that was seen as a threat in the 19th century was the breaking of political unity, that the language would evolve differently in each country, and a unitary Spanish would be lost. It was thought, with good reason in my opinion, that the best way to resolve these threats was to create other academies, to work together on the basis of equality among all.

You said that there are those who say that the RAE limits itself, asking for more normative regulations, while others consider it very drastic. Is there an intermediate point?

Yes, the one in which we have managed to maintain and position ourselves, because the Academies are always going to be behind the language created and used by speakers. The authentic owners of a language are those who speak it. So academies cannot present themselves in the role of language leaders, but rather as registrars of the language, to collect, systemize, and help the language that is in fact being spoken.

What are the ongoing challenges, and newer ones, facing the RAE?

Fundamentally, at this time, 303 years since our founding, the greatest challenge is the extraordinary transformation society is undergoing as a result of technology, the new means of communication that exist, which are many and very powerful. Our challenge is to make an Academy that serves ‘digital natives,’ the younger generations already born, who move in the digital environment.

How much influence do the Academy’s opinions have?

I believe that, yes, the Academy has a certain strength in orienting and directing speakers, about how to resolve their doubts, and find the best solution dealing with phenomena such as Anglicisms, that are becoming so common at this time, but, take note, I believe there are details, facts, objectives that demonstrate that this influence does truly exist. It’s in the Spanish Language Dictionary, DLE, that we offer free of charge online, that can be consulted from any place on the earth, at any time of day, every day of the year. This past month of May, there were 73,300,000 visits. I don’t think the DLE could have ever before had this much influence, as it does so now, in this way of using the language, because this online dictionary can be accessed from a computer, but also from a cell phone, a tablet. So everyone can carry the dictionary in their pocket and consult it in whatever circumstances that may arise.

In addition to assuming this responsibility, you are a professor. What value do you see in a well prepared faculty, something we do not always have?

This is decisive. All societies are, in one way or another, a reflection of the education that they have been able to provide youth; socialization requires education, and this education must have its objectives very clearly defined, and must be provided all the resources that the state can make available. The figure of the teacher is key to this. Teachers are absolutely decisive, an extraordinary influence on youth, and we need teachers who have this vocation, who are committed, knowledgeable. And secondly, knowledge is not more important than dedication. Teaching must be a profession very much based on vocation, in which the teacher knows that he/she is serving the nation as a whole, society as a whole.

Is there a strategy for high school study plans in different countries to avoid making the study of one’s native language excessively academic?

Generally speaking, I couldn’t say. But the position of teachers is fundamental, it is what can make the subject being explained – in this case Spanish – a very academic subject or something much more vital. I believe that the good teacher is the one who goes the second route. Without ignoring the academic, giving the subject life, so that students make it their own. This can be difficult, for example, in the case of mathematics or other subjects. It isn’t so much in the case with language, because all of the students possess the language, all have the right to intervene in language issues, talk about it.

Some programs combine language and literature in a single class. Do you consider this a good approach or not? What does the Academy propose in this sense.

I believe the two are very close; literature is an expression of language. Language and literature should be taught separately because both have sufficient weight. Combined, one of them is going to end up losing, and although I am a professor of literature, I believe language comes first. The teaching of language needs to come at the beginning, and with maximum intensity. But I believe education in literature is extraordinarily valuable because literature, first of all, helps to understand language better, and how to use it better – and informs (students) about many things, not only objective things about different countries in the world, but about the reality of the human condition. Literature is the great school of humanism and humanity, and educates the aesthetic sense of people. Citizens must know their language well, be as cultured as we can be, and have an aesthetic sense of things; this enriches us very, very much.

It was no surprise to me that your remarks on the occasion of your admission to the Cuban Academy focused on the character of Don Quixote. What language concerns would Alonso Quijano have today?

Quixote is an ambivalent character, moreover he is a man who is deranged, as a result of reading books of epic tales; but on the other hand, he is a person who reasons very well, when he talks about life. I like to think that in these moments of lucidity, Alonso Quijano would agree with us about the importance of study, and correct usage of the language. He would also agree on the value of language unity among all Spanish speakers. It is very significant that Cervantes asked for an assignment in America. He wanted to go to America, and it wasn’t granted, and he was very frustrated by that, it would have been another story, right? Perhaps if he had come to America at the end of the 16th century, he might have written Quixote, or he might not have written Quixote, or he might have written a Quixote different from the one we know.

Could new technologies, and their predominance in the modern world, damage the language of Cervantes? How could they improve it?

What is happening to us now is not occurring for the first time – although perhaps what is happening now is of greater intensity than ever before. In the past, technology was making repeated contributions, in some cases affecting the means of communication. For example, in the 19th century, the telegraph was an extraordinary instrument of communication, and when people wrote telegrams, they used a code that was different from normal writing, and since you were charged by the word, you left out all the words that weren’t absolutely necessary, and nevertheless, that did not destroy the language. I would like to believe that What’s App, sms, the language of social media … offer new possibilities for communication, but they are not going to undermine language, especially if the educational system continues to give the teaching of language all its attention.

Pedro Salinas said, “There are many disabled speakers, many who are lame, one-armed, crippled in expression.” How do you feel when you come across people who don’t know how to express themselves?

I feel sadness for these people, because they are denied one of the most beautiful, most useful, and efficient things that exists, which is language. A person who doesn’t handle their language well is a person who in some way is without weapons with which to defend themselves in life, on any level, defend themselves before administration, but also on the personal level, without the capacity to express oneself adequately, it is much harder to communicate love and other different feelings we have. Sadness because I think such a person is impoverished. Since I believe we all have the right to the maximum, sadness overcomes me.

If the unity of our language is, perhaps, the main objective of ASALE, what strategies are required to achieve this?

Fundamentally working jointly on the level of collaboration and dialogue amongst all, on the major codes that conform a language, which are grammar, spelling, and lexicon, or vocabulary. This is the major objective: that the different academies work on shoulder to shoulder, toward the same end: unitary spelling and grammar, which we already have, and a lexicon within which there is much diversity, of course. Take note! The unity we talk about does not mean uniformity; it means recognition of the differences in accents, in words, but with insistence on a common trunk, which is what facilitates our comprehension of each other, between those on one side of the Atlantic and the other.

Collaboration between the various language academies and the RAE is expressed in the co-authoring of dictionaries – the Pan-Hispanic, those of the Spanish language, spelling and grammar. What does this mean?

It means shared responsibility among all, that also implies the recognition that Spanish does not have a center, with the rest of the territories being in the periphery. Spanish is a pluri-centric language; it has many centers of diffusion, but these centers are harmonized, coordinated, and the result is a unitary language in which unity also means respect for diversity.

ASALE has a motto: One lineage, one language, one destiny. How does ASALE concretize this destiny?

Fundamentally by meeting this objective of unity, ASALE’s motto should not be interpreted literally, above all in the sense that transcends linguistics. We are absolutely sovereign and independent countries; each one with its position in the world, its principles and direction, but the language is what unites us, and all are working shoulder to shoulder to support the maintenance of unity, and we believe this is of great value, we believe that the fact that our countries speak the same language, that allows us to communicate, is a gift that other communities of the world would like to have themselves.

And the Dictionary of Americanisms?

This has been an extraordinary advance. It was begun in 2010, and is a dictionary that holds terms used specifically in the Americas, given that there is not enough space for all to be included in the general dictionary. The DEL has many Americanisms; there are 93,000 sayings or words that appear in that dictionary, and 26,000 terms with American acceptances, but the dictionary is limited in its scope, and many American words were left without a place in the general dictionary, and this is what the Dictionary of Americanisms is meant to resolve.

What commitment do you believe individuals have to our language?

Each one of us should be conscious of this patrimony that belongs to us all individually, that is the language we use, but at the same time, it is a patrimony that we share with others. We live in the language we speak, but thanks to this language we can live alongside others, and in the case of Spanish we can live alongside no more, and no less, than 500 million persons. There are other languages, very respectable and worthy, that have a much smaller range. All Spanish speakers should be conscious of the richness of our language, and do everything possible to keep it united and preserve it.

And teachers, academics…?

I believe we academics can do many things for the language, but we have less importance in this field than teachers and the educational system. Education is absolutely fundamental to the language; teachers must feel a sense of ownership of our language, like the rest of the speakers, but we must also feel the enormous responsibility that we have to ensure that our students respect, love, and correctly use the language we all share.

How do you visualize the health and the future of Spanish?

I believe our language is in a moment of great strength and expansion, not only demographically, that is quantitatively, but also qualitatively. It is a language supported by one of the world’s richest cultures – one that is not unitary, but rather a mix of a very syncretic, combined, mestizo cultural diversity; one which in art, literature, music, and film is itself making extraordinary contributions, as well. Therefore, I am very optimistic about the position of Spanish. At this time, it is the world’s second language in terms of numbers of native speakers, the third on Internet, and third in the business world… I would insist on the cultural, a language that expresses a group of cultures which share many things, and are of extraordinary richness.



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