Top of page

Spanish: Keeping it Pure or Tilting at Windmills?

Share this post:

It has been said that “he who controls the definition controls the argument.” It is perhaps for that reason that we strive to find authoritative sources that provide the definitive meaning of a word.

In the realm of the Spanish language, it is an accepted practice to consult the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (DRAE) [Dictionary of the Royal Academy of Spain].  In fact, Spanish-speaking jurisdictions look to the DRAE to define terms within their legal writings and arguments — as shown in various official statements in the following countries:

  • Argentina (Judicial Decision by the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation)
  • Guatemala (Legislative Study on the Amendment of Article 206 of the Constitution of the Republic)
  • Mexico (Judicial Decision by the Supreme Court of Justice concerning a motion of unconstitutionality)
  • Spain (Judicial Decision between concerning a jurisdictional conflict between the Criminal Division of the Fourth Territorial Military Tribunal of Corunna and the Court of Instruction in El Ferrol).

    Portraits of Don Quixote de la Mancha and other main characters from the story (Gucht, Michael van der, 1660-1725), Illus. in: The history of the most ingenious knight Don Quixote de la Mancha / London : R. Chiswell, 1700, (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-92870)

Certainly, this does not preclude the use of other dictionaries, particularly specialized dictionaries.  My point is to highlight the fact that its status is not one that is deemed purely ordinary.  Furthermore, its use and acceptance outside of the Iberian Peninsula are noteworthy if we compare it to what happened in the United States, where Noah Webster, an American lexicographer, published An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828.  In the case of Spanish-speaking countries of the world, there has not really been full parting from their motherland where language is concerned.

Historical Highlights

The Royal Academy of Spain “was founded in 1713 on the initiative of the Marquis of Villena, Juan Manuel Fernández PachecoPhillip V of Spain approved its constitution on October 3, 1714 and placed it under his ‘shelter and Royal  Protection.'” (Click here for a look inside the facilities of the Royal Academy of Spain.)  Its purpose was to “set the voices and words of the Castilian language in their greatest propriety, elegance, and purity.” This aim was represented with an insignia consisting of a crucible upon a fire with the motto “[It] cleans, sets, and gives splendor” and by its commitment to the purpose of “combating all that may alter the elegance and purity of the language, and to fix it in the state of completeness achieved in the sixteenth century”–the era of Cervantes and the Quixote.

Certainly, even with fervent commitment, this is not possible: language is not static; it is dynamic.  It is a thing that is ever changing and evolving.  So even the noblest of sentiments couldn’t produce such a rarity as a pure language.

Today, the language has evolved; and thanks to international relations and the bond of a common language, there are 22 academies that form part of the federation known as the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española [Association of Spanish Language Academies] — this includes each one of the Spanish-speaking countries (with the exception of Equatorial Guinea), the U.S., and the Philippines.  This federation monitors and regulates the evolution of the language and issues normative instruments concerning its usage.  Its regulation is to be seen as one of recommended adherence rather than mandatory.  In its early days, the Royal Academy of Spain was seen as an autocratic institution; however, since the establishment of the Association of Academies, there seems to be greater harmony between the grammatical and orthographic edicts of the Royal Academy and the Spanish-speaking world.  Even still, there is opposition.

Below is a timeline of important dates and actions:

1713–The Royal Academy of Spain is created.

1770–A relationship between the Royal Academy of Spain and Mexico is established.

1835–The “Academy of the Language” is founded in Mexico.

1854–Then President Antonio López de Santa-Anna ratifies the creation of the Academy of the Language in Mexico.

1859–By Royal Decree, the Kingdom of Spain approves the bylaws of the Royal Academy of Spain.

1950–Then Mexican President Miguel Alemán asks the Academy of the Language of Mexico to issue invitations to bring together all the academies of the Spanish Language, including the Royal Academy of Spain.

1951–The first congress of the Academies of the Spanish language is hosted in Mexico City.

1960–The third congress of the Academies of the Spanish Language is held in Bogotá, Colombia, which results in the signing of a Multilateral Agreement (the Bogotá Convention) and the establishment of the Association of Spanish Language Academies.

1977–The bylaws of the Royal Academy of Spain are amended.  A particularly noteworthy modification is the amendment to the first article providing for the relationship between the Royal Academy of Spain and the Academies of the Spanish Language.

1980–The bylaws of the Royal Academy of Spain are further amended to increase the number of academicians.

1993–A new set of bylaws is issued and the original bylaws of 1859 are repealed.

1995–The new bylaws are further amended.

2005–The Royal Academy of Spain further amends its bylaws.

2005–The Association of Spanish Language Academies issues its Diccionario panhispánico de dudas (Panhispanic Dictionary of Doubts), which is a style manual for the usage and grammar of Spanish.

2010–The Association of Academies decided to remove the digraphs (two letter characters) “ch” and “ll,” which resulted in a new 27-character Spanish alphabet:  a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, ñ, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z.

All of this work is clearly taken very seriously, but maybe it is just tilting at windmills?

Update: This was originally published as a guest post by Francisco Macías. The author information has been updated to reflect that Francisco is now an In Custodia Legis blogger.

Comments (4)

  1. Great information can be used as a teaching tool. Will pass it on.Thanks .

  2. Since I started my academic training as a Spanish-language major, many years before I became a professional in the Law Library of Congress, I find this information fascinating. My sincerfe thanks to the guest

  3. The DRAE shall be in charge of incorporating year by year the new words, which is taking place… But what about the question: “how many words and which ones are being used right now in the current Spanish?”… The thing is, there’s no way to take a snapshot of the language in use at a particular point of time…
    I rised the question on a blog I’m running to teach Spanish to German speaking people ( but so far nobody could give me a reasonable answer… Maybe you just can’t

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.