The Authority of the Real Academia Española in Global Spanish
Updated: Feb 7, 2021
The Spanish language is one of the most studied languages worldwide and one of the languages with the most native speakers in the world. However, the spread of the language did not happen overnight and without any shed of blood. On the contrary, during the colonial era, the Kingdom of Spain used Castilian Spanish in its colonies to facilitate their influence but also in order to evangelize the countries they were colonizing.
In the process of decolonization, many former colonies had to deal with all of the “residues” that the colonizers had left behind in their culture, political structure, and, most importantly, language. However, on some occasions, due to the entire (or partial) elimination of ethnic groups, some languages went extinct, such as with the case of some native Southern American languages. Nowadays, more than 500 years after the “discovery of the New World”, Spanish is still the lingua franca throughout Latin America.
This article will take into consideration cases regarding the Spanish language, more specifically the Castilian Spanish. Although officially the languages of Spain - other than Castellano- are Catalan, Euskera, and Gallego, every time the word “Spanish” will be used in this article, it will be referring to the Castilian variation.
The use of language as a tool of domination was so solid that even the Philippines, one of the few former Spanish colonies that do not use Spanish as the official language, has a very strong Spanish influence in their official language Tagalog. The influence is not only in the vast amount of loanwords but also in morphology, syntax, semantics, and phonology. In many cases, native speakers do not realize that some words are borrowed from Spanish as they are spelled using Tagalog conventions.
According to “Spanish in the World 2019”, a yearbook of the Instituto Cervantes, almost 22 million people study Spanish from 110 different countries and it is the second language in the world with the most native speakers (in 2019, 7,6% of the global population is hispanohablante). Furthermore, the yearbook shows that Spanish is the third most used language on the internet.
The Real Academia Española (RAE) was created in 1713 with the intent of creating a “dictionary copious and exact, in which it could be shown the greatness and power of the Language”.* Nowadays, the mission of the RAE is stated in Article 1 of its charter and it is to “supervise [that] the changes that the Spanish language experiments and its constant adjustments to the necessities of its speakers don’t break the essential unity that holds the Hispanic world”. In a sense, its scope is to police in order to preserve the “purity” of the language and mediate the differences with the Hispanic world.
The term purity used in the previous paragraph does not refer to the partially quoted article of the Charter but to the founding motto of the Royal Academy which is “Limpia, Fija y da Esplendor”, clarifying - in few words- its mission of cleansing the language in order to give it splendor.
Despite the noble intent of the Royal Spanish Academy in wanting to protect the integrity of its language, it has to be pointed out that “Spanish” is not only spoken in the Iberian Peninsula but also throughout the Caribbeans and Americas, amongst other places. However, RAE has been accused of trying to make Castilian Spanish the linguistic homeland of the language as it is where its purest form is spoken. On multiple occasions, during interviews, García de la Concha, former director of the RAE and now director of the Instituto Cervantes, synonymized the “Castilian Language” with “Spanish”.
In the last decades, the Spanish Academy tried to tighten its collaborations with the 21 American academies in order to develop linguistic policies “on an equal footing”. The Association of Academies of the Spanish Language (ASALE) is an example of such cooperation. In 2005, the RAE and ASALE published the “Diccionario panhispánico de dudas”, a dictionary put forward to solve “doubts” about the Spanish language by providing the linguistic norms. However, the aforementioned dictionary, much like other policies, is contested as there is still a linguistic identity that is being put forward that is strongly Eurocentric.
In the research carried out by Darren Paffey on the globalization of standard Spanish, the author discusses how the role of the Royal Spanish Academy is of a primus inter pares in relation to the other language academies; a relation that is usually one of a prime minister with other ministers, in which although there is mutual recognition of power, the prime minister ( in this case the RAE) is still the one leading the way. This behavior can be seen in the past relations of the RAE and the ASALE in which the former, until 2007, had more decisional powers than the other academies, as it can be seen in the detailed research of Kristen Süselbeck.
Despite its conservative roots, it is quite clear from the official interactions undertaken by the Royal Academy over the last decades, that they accepted their role in mediating Castilian Spanish with the Amerindian variations. However, as it has been pointed out in this article and many research papers on the matter, the RAE still plays a dominant role over the other academies and the perception of Spanish. For instance, when presenting a new dictionary and stating the opening of Spanish to the Amerindian variations, it is implied that it is the “Global Castilian” opening up to new words as the words have been used regularly outside of Spain.
Nevertheless, as it has been shown in other researches, RAE is moving at a snail’s pace when having to approve Amerindian language variations. In addition, some of the words that are part of the Latino culture, such as traditional food, are missing from the Dictionary.
On the other hand, the Spanish institution that promotes the teaching and study of the Spanish language, Instituto Cervantes, has been more open to change, although some resistance has been shown when analyzing some of the exams. In order to reduce the Eurocentric view of the exams, in 2016, the Cervantes Institute, with the University of Salamanca, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and the University of Buenos Aires, launched a parallel exam to the traditional DELE (Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera) which is called SIELE (Servicio Internacional de la Evaluación de la Lengua Española). According to the description on the SIELE website, “these institutions guarantee the standards for quality and good practices in the creation of the tests and the use of diverse linguistic varieties in the Hispanic world”. The new type of exam reflects an inclusive approach to the teaching and examination of the Spanish language, strengthening the cooperation between the Madrid-based institute and other Hispanic institutions. Nevertheless, it has to be pointed out that the SIELE did not replace the traditional DELE, but it is instead a similar exam with less Castilian influence.
*Translated by me, the original version is “Diccionario copioso y exacto, en que se viesse la grandéza y poder de la Léngua”, from: Real Academia Española, Prologo, “Diccionario de Autoridades”, Madrid, 1726.
Instituto Cervantes, "El Español: una lengua viva”, Informe 2019.
Mignolo, Walter D., “On the Colonization of Amerindian Languages and Memories: Renaissance Theories of Writing and the Discontinuity of the Classical Tradition”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 34, No. 2,1992.
Paffey, Darren, Language Ideologies and the Globalization of “Standard” Spanish, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012.
Riegelhaupt, F., Carrasco, R. L., Brandt, E., “Spanish: A Language of Indigenous Peoples of the Americas”, in J. Reyhner, O. Trujillo, R. L. Carrasco & L. Lockard (eds.), Nurturing Native Languages, Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University, 2003.
Schieffelin, Bambi B, Kathryn Ann Woolard, and Paul V Kroskrity., Language Ideologies : Practice and Theory, Oxford Studies in Anthropological Linguistics, 16. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Süselbeck, K., F. Lebsanft, C. Polzin-Haumann, and W. Mihatsch. Las Relaciones Institucionales Entre Las Academias de La Lengua Española y Su Colaboración En La Elaboración de La Norma Lingüística de 1950 Hasta Hoy. Universität Augsburg, 2013.
Zamora Vicente, Alfonso, Historia de la Real Academia Española, Madrid: Real Academia Española, Fundación María Cristina Masaveu Peterson, 2015.