Thursday, April 2, 2015

Cleans, casts and shines in one go

My nephew told me that his new car was sick. I commiserated. No, he said, "It's really sick." Apparently sick now means good as well as, well, sick. That's the trouble with language. If you don't keep an eye on it the slippery little blighter can get away from you in no time.

Mandarin Chinese is the number one world language but what's the second and third most spoken language depends on how you tot up your figures. English, Spanish and Hindi are the contenders. There's no doubt though that Spanish, Castillian Spanish, is an important worldwide language.

Back in 1713 the Marquess of Villena (his title comes from the Alicante town) was worried that Castillian was changing for the worse. He thought that the way to stop everything getting out of hand was to have some august body to safeguard the language. So he set one up. A year later King Felipe IV gave Villena's organisation his regal blessing and the Royal Spanish Academy or La Real Academia Española, (RAE), was born.

The original aim of the RAE was to "correctly fix the elegance and purity of the words and sound of the Castillian language.” Nowadays the Academy regards its job as being to “watch over the changes happening to the Spanish language as it adapts to the needs of Spanish speakers to ensure that the essential unity of the language is not lost throughout the Hispanic world.” In the 18th Century that meant agreeing spellings and definitions whilst stopping too much French from entering the language. In the 21st Century, where over 20 countries and territories speak Spanish, it means trying to balance the new words and structures being added to the language everyday with an attempt to ensure that anyone who writes, reads or speaks Spanish will understand and be understood wherever Spanish is used. In the 18th Century words took years to spread. Now, with the Internet, a new word can reach a global audience overnight. Oh, and of course it's now English, not French, polluting the language.

The Real Academia Española has always been based in Madrid. Traditionally its members have been writers with a smattering of politicians. Nowadays members also include scientists, architects, film-makers and the like. Each member occupies a chair identified by a letter. Originally it was a capital letter but lower case letters were added later. The letters Ñ, W and Y have never been used and the letters v, w, x, y and z have not yet been allocated. Of the 54 possible seats 46 are taken. Until 1978 there were no women in the Academy and even today there are only 5 women amongst the 46 members.

So how exactly does the Academy protect the language? Well basically through four publications. The best known and maybe most important is the Dictionary of the Spanish Language The other three are a Dictionary of Panhispanic Doubts, a Grammar and a Spelling Manual. The content of these publications, at least from the Spanish peninsula, is decided in regular meetings by members of the RAE. The real work is done by employees of the organisation and by computer systems which trawl Spanish language publications looking for new words, usage and structures. Their work is submitted to sub committees which formulate proposals for changes to the main publications but it is the academics who have the final say on any amendment.

If it all sounds like a long winded and conservative process then consider that there are twenty two academies spread across the Spanish speaking world all of whom are joined together in an association. It is that association which hammers out the final versions of those four key publications.

Can you imagine the meetings?

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