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How Castillian made it to the top of the linguistic heap

To Canadians, Spanish is both close and unfamiliar. The language is all around us, yet it is less influential here than anywhere else in the western hemisphere. As Spanish’s cultural influence booms, propelled by economic growth in Latin America and the mounting self-confidence of the 52 million-strong Hispanic minority in the United States, Spanish is in retreat as an academic discipline in Canadian universities. In The Story of Spanish Montreal authors Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow report that 6.4 million Americans study Spanish, as do 5 million Brazilians, 2.1 million French and half a million Germans. Universities such as Arizona State enroll squads of students in degrees in Hispanic literature or linguistics. In Canada, the 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement was supposed to elevate Spanish to this academic big league. Canadians such as myself, who were teaching the discipline at universities overseas, were lured home to handle the anticipated increase in demand. In fact, since Canada embraced free trade with the U.S. and Mexico, with their combined population of more than 150 million Spanish speakers, Simon Fraser University, Carleton University and McMaster University have abolished their undergraduate Spanish degrees. Today, at half a dozen other Canadian universities, Spanish degree programs are fighting for their survival.

Written for a U.S. audience, The Story of Spanish does not address Canada. A table included in the book puts the tally of native speakers here at 909,000, a figure promoted by Hispanic-Canadian lobby groups but that most specialists judge to be about twice the actual number. Canada’s Hispanic community, whose roots lie in the flight of educated Chileans and Argentinians from the right-wing dictatorships of the 1970s, is strikingly different from that of the United States, where the most influential Spanish speakers are the ultra-conservative Miami Cubans. Furthermore, the U.S. South and West belonged to the Spanish empire for centuries, and the Southwest was also Mexican territory for decades, before English was spoken there. Early 20th-century working class Mexican immigrants to the Southwest entered states already inhabited by more than 100,000 “indigenous” Mexican Americans.

Nadeau and Barlow present Spanish as important because it is widely spoken in the United States. The final chapters, which draw on their fieldwork in Arizona, are full of vivid detail, but the authors also drench the book in an assumption that Spanish is worth discussing because Americans are concerned about it. In fact, as they point out, Spanish is important because, with more than 460 million native speakers and official-language status in 20 countries, it has greater global reach than any language other than English. Mandarin has more speakers, but is official in just one country; French is an official language in more countries but has less than one third as many native speakers as Spanish. The global influence wielded by Hispanic cultures, particularly in areas such as popular music, literature and, increasingly, mass media and communications, is second only to that of English. Nadeau and Barlow’s account of how this influence grew, which hops from linguistics to history to literary criticism to sociological analysis, is concise and readable.

Hispanic culture is successful because throughout history it has demonstrated the 21st-century virtue of adaptability. More phonetic and grammatically regular than English or French, the language is easy to learn, particularly in the early stages. Although Spanish is spoken in a multitude of national variants, the prejudices against other people’s accents that can sour transnational interaction in English or French are uncommon in the Hispanic world. While Hispanic cultures have produced their share of intransigent ideologies, speakers of the language have always mingled, cooperated and procreated with people who were racially and culturally different from themselves.

Nadeau and Barlow trace this protean propensity to the court of King Alfonso X, a formidable intellectual who ruled Castile from 1252 to 1284. Working in an environment in which Arabic had been the dominant tongue of most of the Iberian peninsula for the previous 500 years, Alfonso refined the Castilian language by turning his court into a translation workshop where books were translated among Arabic, Latin, Hebrew and Castilian. In addition to polishing written Castilian, this project required cooperation among the Christians, Muslims and Jews who made up Alfonso’s “brain trust”—a term Nadeau and Barlow borrow without attribution from Carlos Fuentes’s description of Alfonso’s court in The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World. Drawing on Mexican linguist Antonio Alatorre, the authors trace the development of Spanish in clear, non-technical language. The linguistic history is leavened with anecdotes about word origins. The biggest surprise is that “Hispania” is Phoenician for “land of the rabbits.”

Nadeau and Barlow’s most original material comes from their fascination with the internal politics of the Royal Academy, which has defined written Spanish since 1713. All Spanish-speaking countries have national academies, which approve local usage and transmit new expressions to Madrid. Even in the United States, the Spanish on the government website, GobiernoUSA.com, adheres to the prescriptions of the North American Academy of the Spanish Language. While Spanglish runs rampant in the barrios, a U.S.-flavoured formal Spanish develops in writing. The story of Spanish is exciting because it continues to unfold. The policies of the academies and U.S. language legislation provide the narrative thread by which the authors illustrate these changes.

The most conspicuous weakness of The Story of Spanish is its unreliability on literary topics. Nadeau and Barlow devote chapters to the two summits of Hispanic literary achievement: the 17th-century Golden Age, when Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote was published and Madrid hosted the greatest theatre culture the world has known, and the boom of the Spanish American novel in the 1960s, which produced writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. The chapter on the boom suffers from muddled information, notably a confused account of magic realism. In the Golden Age chapter, the authors omit important figures and sniff that considering Pedro Calderón de la Barca to be Shakespeare’s equal is “a bit of a stretch.” In fact, many critics regard Calderón, a more prolific, imaginative, philosophically profound playwright than Shakespeare, and a far greater innovator in the use of the stage, to be the Bard’s superior. Elsewhere we are told that Romanticism “arrived late in Latin America, in the 1870s.” But Romanticism reached Argentina in 1830, via France, more than a decade before it arrived in Spain. By 1870, Latin American Romanticism was finished. Nadeau and Barlow go on to confuse late 19th-century Spanish American modernismo with the unrelated movement of Anglo-American Modernism. Their coverage of language is better, although tighter editing would have removed occasional misspellings. The book’s U.S. orientation means that no attention is given to Spanish in the Philippines (where 2 to 3 million speakers remain) or in Africa. The latter omission is surprising given current academic enthusiasm for the literature of Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s only officially Spanish-speaking country, and the recent journalistic attention paid to the fledgling Saharawi Republic in Western Sahara, much of whose leadership, educated in Cuba or Spain, uses Spanish as a lingua franca and emerging co-official language. Spanish may yet extend its brand of cultural adaptability to new territories—even if Canada chooses not to notice.