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Personal Perspective

Must It Be Either Spanish or English or Something In Between?

May 25, 1997|Rosario Ferre | Rosario Ferre is the author of the novel "The House on the Lagoon" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1995. Her next novel is "Eccentric Neighbors" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), due out this year

NEW YORK — Since Christopher Columbus "discovered" us in 1492, we have been using Spanish to do business, to make love, to communicate our hopes, fears and dreams. Spanish is spoken by 400 million around the globe. In the United States, approximately 17 million speak Spanish.

Today, a battle is being waged over the Spanish language in the United States because of the growing importance of the Latino population, which, by the year 2010, is expected to be the largest minority. There are several issues: the English-only movement, which seeks to make English the law of the land; La Real Academia de la Lengua Espanola (The Royal Academy of the Spanish Tongue), which has sworn to "fix, cleanse and add splendor to Spanish"--fija, limpia, brilla y da esplendor a la lengua, as it proudly proclaims in its motto, and, finally, there is Spanglish, a hybrid that satisfies neither side but is a living language on the streets and in our literature.

The Latino intellectual community has been defending the "purity" of Spanish for nearly a century. Spanish comes from an aristocratic tradition that doesn't look kindly on the adulteration of language. The "purity" of Spanish has to do with "La Reconquista," the struggle of the Visigoth nobility to regain control of the Iberian peninsula and push the Moors out of Spain. Originally, to speak Castilian was to defend Christianity. For these reasons, La Real Academia de la Lengua Espanola has reasserted its mission to purify Spanish.

Academics, linguists and intellectuals are constantly pointing out the dangers of adulterating Spanish, which, they warn, could lead to the Babelization of a tongue that has been spreading across the face of the Earth for 500 years, yet has maintained an amazing coherence of grammar and vocabulary. The surprising thing is not that there are millions of mexicanismos, puertorriquenismos or cubanismos "infecting' the Spanish spoken in Latin America today, but that we can still understand each other when we speak, that we can communicate with our Spanish brothers when we visit the mother country. This has given us political and economic clout.

As an academic and a professor of Spanish literature, I believe that Latinos in America should learn correct Spanish, because we cannot afford to give up the most powerful lien that identifies us as a group with common interests. Language has long been a tool for coalescing power, as Queen Isabel la Catolica and King Fernando de Aragon well knew when they expelled the Moors from Spain.

In modern times, one might say that Spanish is to Latinos what the right to strike was to the working class 50 years ago. It gives Latinos a reason to fight for our differences, it gives us a conscience to defend our difference, and it's this difference that makes us powerful in the face of those who hold more economic and political power. This is why the fight over bilingualism--the right to learn and speak both English and Spanish correctly--has become so important in this country, and why the more conservative wing of our government is in favor of passing an English-only bill.

Yet, as a writer, when I hear the arguments waged in favor of the "purity" of Spanish and the "purity" of English, about the danger of mixing the two in a "carne mechada" stew, shivers run down my spine. First, the term "linguistic purity" reminds me of the German obsession with racial and linguistic correctness.

Second, I always remember Juan de Valdes, 16th-century Spanish linguist and humanist. His motto in the "Dialogo de la lengua," "escribo como hablo," is surprisingly contemporary. Juan de Valdes pointed out that the laws of Spanish should not be derived from musty grammar books consulted in some dim library, but from language spoken in the streets. In his opinion, words, when flowing freely from the mouth, have a way of accommodating themselves in sequences more effective and direct in their ability to communicate than when they are painfully wrought on a page following rules of grammar. This is why the Spanish language is so precise, so adequate for a literature that is never too far removed from the spirit of realism, and why Spanish has always been so creative.

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