‘Pure’ Spanish: uniting force or stance of discrimination?

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In one of my first Spanish lectures, my lecturer told us that when she first arrived at Durham she was told to ‘purify’ her Argentinian accent. Fast forward 30 years and she was instead told it would be better if she spoke with her original accent – of course, it was too late.

This discriminatory attitude has existed in the Spanish speaking world ever since the official Spanish grammar was published in 1492. Technically, the correct term for the Spanish that we tend to learn is Castilian (castellano). The publication of this official grammar gave Spain the same kind of linguistic prestige as the other romance languages, matching its powerful imperial expansion under Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. However, it also alienated those who didn’t, and don’t, speak Castilian or with the Castilian accent.

Today the department is called ‘Hispanic Studies’ to acknowledge that language and culture cannot be seen as mutually exclusive.

The Real Academia Española (RAE), which ensures the stability of Castilian, has historically been criticised by Latin American linguistic institutions for being too slow to include regionalisms, demonstrating a certain conservative attitude towards dialects that don’t conform to Castilian’s seemingly high standards.

This is despite the fact that the RAE works with many academies in other hispanophone nations. Although it’s important that the academy maintains Castilian as the most widely spoken language of the Spanish-speaking world, this means that other languages and dialects struggle to gain the same kind of status. The very notion of linguistic purity implies a damaging resistance to dilution, leaving very little room for the incorporation of non-Castilian borrowings.

This discriminatory attitude has existed in the Spanish speaking world ever since the official Spanish grammar was published in 1492.

Castilian’s prominence, as the accent that is traditionally taught, comes from the fact that it’s the easiest for beginners to pick up because all the letters are pronounced, unlike an Andalusian accent in which the -s on the end of words is silent which makes the accent harder to grasp even for native speakers. But because of this, Castilian speakers are under the impression that someone who speaks with the Andalusian accent speaks ‘impure’ Spanish, simply because it’s not the accent they’re used to hearing.

The Spanish film director, Pedro Almodóvar, has tried to address this misconception. Although he tends to base his films in Madrid, the epicentre of the Castilian accent, he frequently includes characters who speak with an Andalusian accent in ‘Todo sobre mi madre’, for example.

Pedro Almodóvar

Image: Carlinda Hellen via Flickr

This is particularly significant considering the huge role that Almodóvar played in La Movida Madrileña, the cultural emancipation that took place after Franco’s dictatorship prohibited all Hispanic languages except Castilian in a bid to unite the country under one language and one culture. Almodóvar’s inclusion of Andalusian accents and shots of its landscape are essential in putting minority accents like Andalusian back on the map.

Almodóvar’s cinematography reminds us that Castilian isn’t the only accent in Spain, nor is it the only language. Catalan, Basque, Galician, Valencian and Aranese also have official status in various autonomous communities.

Almodóvar’s inclusion of Andalusian accents and shots of its landscape are essential in putting minority accents back on the map.

However, they’re spoken by a comparatively tiny percentage of the population, since 98.9% of the population speaks Castilian as their first or second language. This linguistic dominance means that writers from parts of Spain where Castilian isn’t the official language find themselves in an impossible dilemma; writing in their own language severely limits its readership, whilst also raising important linguistic awareness.

Durham has since changed its attitude; today the department is called ‘Hispanic Studies’. A ‘Beginner Catalan’ module has also been available for the last 15 or so years. But minimising prejudices towards any language but the country’s official one is a task that can’t be solved overnight. After all, discrimination towards regional accents remains just as prevalent in Britain today as it does in Spain.

Image: 777546 via Pixabay

4 thoughts on “‘Pure’ Spanish: uniting force or stance of discrimination?

  • It is really sad to read people writing articles with such a big amount of ignorance. In Spain, there are lots of different accents (not only Andalusian) and all of them are perfectly acceptable. The RAE has never focused on accents.

    When someone uses the expression “Almodóvar’s cinematography reminds us” is because it doesn´t know anything about any other Spanish film director and doesn´t know anything about accents in Almodovar´s movies.

    “that writers from parts of Spain where Castilian isn’t the official language”. Could you tell me where are those parts in Spain where “Castilian” is not the official language?

    By the way, do you mind to tell me what is the official language in Italy? Is it Tuscan? and what about France? Parisian? and what about Marrocco? Moroccan? and USA? “Usan”?

    “Franco’s dictatorship prohibited all Hispanic languages” Those languages were never prohibited. It was prohibited, and only for a few years, to study them at the school (exactly the same as for 2020 in Italy with any other language apart of Italian or in France with any other language apart of
    French) It seems that “la señorita Jacob” has been educated with a bit of Anglo-Saxon superiority and she believes in all of the stereotypes about Spain. So, “la señorita Jacob” es una ignorante.

    If la señorita Jacob needs to be given some information about how things really are in Spain I will be pleased to give her some information.

    Have a good day

    Marcos.

    Reply
    • Dear ‘el señor Marcos’

      I think, somehow, that you may have missed the point of this article. Sometimes, those who are apparently educated with a bit of ‘Anglo-Saxon superiority’ attempt to subvert and interrogate the very system which provides them with their education; in doing so they contribute towards an increasingly growing discourse which attempts to reject anglo-normativity, and instead demonstrate that diversity, discussion, and debate are all positive and desirable qualities. This, I believe is exactly what is being done here.

      The RAE may never have ‘focussed’ on accents, but sometimes bias can exist in an unwillingness to stray from the status quo; its refusal to focus on the diversity of accents is, in itself, unhealthy. This is the point Ms Jacob makes here, rather than the vast-oversimplification which you would frame it as.

      When she interrogates Almodóvar’s La Movida Madrileña, her analysis is of a work in isolation; a film should be an accessible social phenomenon, not always an intellectual one. Your expectation that she would have to have seen all of Almodóvar’s films in order to comment on this one is not only unfair, but also arrogant; the critique of literature should be accessible to all, not only to the well-read. Remember: she is analysing this movie, because she has chosen to. On this basis alone, her analysis is justified, and the point you make should be reserved for another debate about sources, not this one.

      Regarding the part of Spain where Castillan is not the official language – only a quick google search showed me that six of the sixteen autonomous communities in Spain have other co-official languages in addition to Castillan. Galician, Basque and Valencian all have their linguistic intricacies; the point being made is that the normalisation of written Castillan means these languages don’t get a fair, or equal amount of visibility. If you’ve ever read any Nabokov, you’ll know that he describes how he often felt hemmed in by English, but commercial forces dictated that he write in it anyway, rather than in the beautiful intricacies of his mother-tongue (Russian). The same point is being made here about Spanish; please do not be so quick to dismiss it.

      Franco’s dictatorship may ‘only’ have prohibited the studying of these languages in schools, but is that any less of a sin for its reductiveness? If education is the basis of the learning of the future generation, then a ban on the education of a language is akin to the ban of a language itself (in principle).

      So Marcos, I understand your points, but please try to re-read this article with a more open mind, and to comment on it in a more respectful manner. To call someone ‘una ignorante’ for their attempt at engaging with a difficult, and under-represented discourse is insulting, not only to the writer, but also to the very cause with which you appear to ally yourself.

      Have a lovely, lovely day

      -an anonymous contributor

      Reply
  • Did Almodovar put Andalusian back on the map? Sorry but it sounds like a joke. Andalusia was the first to go around the world and the first to create a world map. I’m sure you can guess where on the map the Andalusians placed their land Andalucia. Exactly in the CENTER. Andalusia has an enormous cultural importance in the world. Andalusia discovered America and the Andalusian language is the second most widely spoken mother tongue in the world. The grammar of the Andalusian language (1492) is the oldest in Europe and served as the basis for the creation of other grammars such as Italian, French, Portuguese and English, created about ten years after Andalusian.

    Yes, what you call Castilian grammar or Spanish grammar is actually Andalusian grammar. It was created in 1492 by the famous Andalusian Antonio de Lebrija. When Lebrija proposed his grammar to the University of Salamanca, it was rejected and the Andalusian linguist was fired. The reason, as they left WRITTEN in books, was that Lebrija’s grammar was the grammar of the Latin dialect that was spoken in Andalusia, not that of the dialect that was spoken in Castile. They said that “Andalusians speak and WRITE differently from Castilla.” But Lebrija presented his grammar directly to the queen and it was approved for all of Castile despite opposition from Castilian linguists. Then the Andalusian grammar adopted the name of Castilian grammar by extension since the kingdom was called Castilla.

    Among the precepts of the Andalusian grammar of 1492 (renamed Castilian) Lebrija established that the ‘c/z’ should be pronounced as ‘ts’ (exactly as in Andalusia). Today there are 400 million Andalusian speakers and only 20 million Spanish speakers. Today the NORM in all languages ​​is the Andalusian norm ‘c/z’ is pronounced ‘ts’ and the Spanish form (‘c/z’ is pronounced ‘th’) is residual. Andalusians and their descendants (the Canary Islands and Latin America) never make grammatical mistakes. It is logical, the grammar of Spanish is actually the grammar of Andalusian. However, Castilians make many grammatical mistakes because Andalusian grammar does not suit them. The grammars of Catalan, Basque, Galician (unlike Andalusian grammar or other in Europe) are recent. They were made in close times with Franco in power.

    The universals Cervantes (born in Cordoba) and Picasso were Andalusian. Andalusia created the second democratic Constitution in the world (and the first in Europe). Andalusia introduced the number zero in Europe as well as the potato (which took away a lot of hunger in Europe) or tobacco. The whole world eats potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, chocolate, corn, pineapple, beans, avocados, pumpkins, etc. thanks to the Andalusians. Andalusian song and dance (Flamenco) is today a World Heritage Site with many academies around the world. I can continue but it is not necessary. Andalusia, with only 8 million inhabitants, is one of the cultures that has most influenced the Earth.

    Reply
  • It is called Castilian, because it comes from Castile. One of the reasons that the Argentinian lady was considered a slum speaker is because Argentinians, like many Andalusians do not pronounce many s sounds, giving the impression of sloppiness or laziness. This is not correct Castilian. It would be as if an American would just start dropping s sounds for no reason……….Castilian was created in Castile. At the time it was created, arabic and morarabe were spoken in Andalusia. Castilian started to be spoken in Andalusia after the battle of Navas de Tolosa and with the reconquista. It is not true that the new world speaks Andalusian as many Andalusians have retained the lovely th sound that makes correct Castilian so glorious. No one in the new world speaks with th in the ex Spanish colonies. As such, the Latino Spanish is like the inspector cruiseau English thoroughly devoid of the th sound and a bit goofy as a result (sorry). Again, South Americans, specifically, Argentinians tend to also drop s sounds as if they were allergic to them. This is typicial of Andalusians, but the Andalusians (except for the Canaries) do pronounce th.

    Going back to common sense, Castilian was spoken in Castile before it was spoken anywhere else in Spain. It rose to prominence because Castilians are so smart, academic, and tough. They built the university of Salamanca, led the reconquista and took over with their incredible minds and power. It is true that Nebrija was born in the South of Spain and did write a grammatical lexico on Castilian. HE was a very educated Andalusian who had grown up with a family who made sure that he learned proper Castilian. The crown chose to hire him as the official who would write the book. To this day, there are Andalusians who speak perfect Castilian (it is possible), especially if they have studied in Castile. As far as the Andalusians bringing the potato, beans and all of that, this is utter nonsense. Mexico was one of the first places that the Spanish settled and it was the Castilians who settled there. Look at the place names in Mexico like Nueva Leon. Notice that the Mexicans do not drop s sounds like Andalusians. Sorry to debunk you.

    Reply

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