Can a Barcelona truck driver be expected to speak like a Buenos Aires banker? Can rules be imposed on a language spoken by 400 million people stretching from Madrid to Manila?
The academic overseers of the language of Cervantes have taken
an ambitious stab at it, unveiling their first Spanish grammar
guidelines in nearly 80 years.
The fruit of their toil is a nearly 4,000-page tome in two
volumes presented Thursday, with yet another to come out next year.
It was produced by the Spanish Royal Academy and 21 sister
organizations in Latin America and other countries where Spanish is
spoken, such as the United States and the Philippines, and has
taken them 11 years to compile.
The book is billed as a sort of linguistic map that
painstakingly documents today's Spanish in all its richness - there
are nearly 20 ways to say ballpoint pen, for instance - and how it
varies from country to country, or within one, or from one social
class to another.
Indeed, while English speakers face the perennial
'you-say-tomayto, I-say-tomahto' dilemma, Spanish is also chock
full of differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and the ways
sentences are constructed.
The biggest change from the existing grammar, which dates back
to 1931, is that the new book reflects how the language is spoken
where most Spanish-speakers actually live: Latin America.
In Puerto Rico, for example, it acknowledges the fact that
subject and verb in a question are often switched around to an
order resembling that of English. So the question "Adonde vas
tu?" - where are you going? - becomes "Adonde tu vas?" in the
"Here are all the voices, all the ways of speaking, coming
together in a grand polyphony," Victor Garcia de la Concha,
president of the Spanish language academy, said at Thursday's
ceremony. "This book comes from the people, and it is to the
people that it reaches out."
The new grammar shies from setting cut-and-dry dogma on what is
correct and what is not, making instead recommendations as to what
the language gurus generally accept to be proper Spanish. The
Puerto Rican twist, for instance, is respected as a localism but
not something textbook traditional.
These gurus say languages are living things that embrace new
words - often English intruders like Internet - and there is no use
in trying to control them completely.
"Rules are set by speakers. What the academy does is observe
and document," Garcia de la Concha said at a news conference
At Thursday's presentation, King Juan Carlos grew visibly
emotional as he took delivery of a copy of the book. "I am moved
by and proud of what we all do for our language," he said.
The task undertaken by the academics was so gargantuan that the
final product not only is spread into three volumes, but also comes
in two smaller sizes: a 750-page manual geared toward students and
teachers of Spanish, and a simplified 250-page version aimed at the
general public. The jumbo version costs euro120 ($180).
One of the main reasons it took so long to overhaul the 1931
grammar book is that the job required computerized linguistic data
bases and these were not available until about 20 years ago, said
Ignacio Bosque, a Spanish Royal Academy member who coordinated the project.
Even so, despite its nearly 4,000 pages, the book is far from
"It attempts to reflect the most important aspects because
including everything is impossible," Bosque said. "The language
does not fit in just a few pages."