Photo: Who speaks Spanish best?
Are Spain, Latin America and Hispanic US, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, worlds separated by the same language? Argentinos and uruguayos pronounce ll, y and g as English speakers do the sh in she, and some bolivianos and ecuatorianos pronounce the ll as the l in Leonor, while other Spanish-speakers do as the y in yo-yo. The Mexican c, s and z sound like the English s in Sam, but a Spaniard’s z approximates the th in thanks. The most prominent grammatical variation is the second person plural vosotros, which the Americas transformed to ustedes, except for pompous provincial politicians. And vos for tú. In effect regional differences can be so marked that Mexican movies have been shown subtitled in Buenos Aires.
The inevitable question: Who speaks Spanish best? First we must define best. Are we talking about purity or market share? Going by the latter, standard Spanish, the neutral soap-opera variety is superior. Standard Spanish is a common denominator, devoid of localisms. Hence a soap opera destined to hemispheric audiences has the blond lady of the house announce: “Oh, Dolores, a cataclysmic fate awaits me!” Dolores, her unschooled servant—soon to be blond and rich—replies: “Alas, that’s the predicament of us sorrowful women.”
The question of purity demands further meditation.
Abbreviated History of the Castilian Language
It all started at the outset of our modern era. Roman conquerors imposed on Iberia the imperial language, Latin, a branch of the Indo-European family. Latin was quite stratified. The Latin of poets and orators differed greatly from the vernacular spoken by the vulgus, common folk—not to be confused with the current vulgarian, that bore prone to display money in public. Restricted geographically and socially, Vulgar Latin incorporated the local languages of Iberians, Basques, Celts and Carthaginians. Pre-Roman words still in use include alud, avalanche, jarro, mug, aro, big metal circle, arroyo, stream, izquierda, left, and perro, dog.
The fall of the Roman Empire in the 400s brought the Visigoths’ old Germanic lexical arsenal: bala, bullet, bloquear, to block, burgués, member of the middle class, guerra, war, marchar, to march, and oeste, west. Then came Arabic-speaking Islamic groups from North Africa, los moros. A technological and military force to reckon with, Moors occupied Spain for seven hundred years, relegating Christians to northern mountainous Asturias. Their legacy include: alcohol, algebra (for centuries associated to healing fractured bones), alquimia, tarifa and zenit. Through los moros Castilian also got cero.
In succeeding centuries, Christians responded militarily and linguistically. Protecting the territories reconquered from Islam meant surrounding cities with forts or castillos. The toponym followed naturally, Castilla, the land of castles. In the process Vulgar Latin became the distinct Castilian language, a symbol of the Holly War. The Latin Hispania had morphed to España. However, español, the word for everything Spanish, including the nationality, is a linguistic loan from the Provencal vernacular. The Castilian word for things Spanish was españón. Around the 11th century Castilian speakers simply fell in love with that Provencal troubadours’ espaignol.
13th century King Alphonse the Learned made Castilian the language of the State, and elevated it to literary heights by composing las crónicas, histories of Spain and the world, and the legal code Las Siete Partidas. Furthermore, his famed Toledo Jewish sages translated to Castilian all Arabic scientific treatises. Of course, one thing is to decree a language official and another to formalize it grammatically. Not until the epochal 1492, the year Columbus sailed off to discover the New World, University of Salamanca linguist Antonio Nebrija presented Queen Isabel the first grammar of any modern language, Gramática de la lengua castellana. Devout Catholic Queen Isabel turned to her inseparable confessor and whispered: “Why would I want a work like this? I already know the language.” The Royal confessor retorted energetically that no other weapon was more powerful for the expanding Empire: “After Your Highness has subjected barbarous peoples and nations of varied tongues, with conquest will come the need for them to accept the laws that the conqueror imposes on the conquered…”
The Castilian language traversed the Ocean Sea alongside cross and sword. Two years after Columbus landed in America, Nebrija published a Castilian-Latin glossary. It included an entry from the Arawakan people of the Antilles, canoa, small boat. Soon Castilian and other European languages—not to mention diets—were enriched by tomate, chocolate, aguacate and maiz. Also entered dictionaries the evil spirit of the sea, huracán. In return European conquerors gave indigenous Americans devastating words, smallpox, influenza and the bubonic plague, diseases for which they had no immunities. Entire populations were wiped out, making it necessary to import laborers. The booming and horrific slave market infused Castilian great sounding African words: samba, tango, mambo, marimba, congas and timbale.
The Renaissance and the Enlightenment made Italian and French fashionable. Castilian owes French avant-garde, buró, elite, entrepreneur and perfume, to Italian claroscuro, espagueti, etcétera. The American 20th century thickened dictionaries with scientific, technological and everyday terms, automóbil, peniscilina, radio, televisión, aeropuerto, Internet and el mall. Amherst College lexicographer Ilan Stavans theorizes that so profound is the fusion that in effect we are witnessing the birth of a new language, Spanglish. The fact is languages need other languages to grow and survive, the moment a language stops receiving foreign influences it begins to die.
Back to the Original Question
What about the trumpeted superiority of Valladolid and Colombian Spanish? Last year, presenting a new grammar, a collaborative effort by all Spanish Speaking countries, José Manuel Blecua, member of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, dismissed the notion of superiority as myth: “No language is better than the next. Nowhere is Spanish the best.” Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez sort of concurred allegedly responding to a journalist in Madrid: “I can’t say who best speaks Spanish because there are many varieties. What I can say is that the worst Spanish is spoken here in Madrid.”
Raul Guerrero is a novelist and essayist, author of the novel INSOLENCE and more recently La dudosa fuga de la cronista LIBERTINA. He directs SalonEspanol.com.