In the midst of the mainly economic difficulties that the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) faced when it began its mandate, in January 2019, Santiago Muñoz Machado categorically stated that “the proper functioning of the RAE is a matter of State.”
Now he points out: “This cultural asset is the most important and, therefore, taking care of the institution that deals with the language is at the same time a matter of State. We cannot imagine in Spain that suddenly the Ministry of Education or Culture or the Interior will be in charge of making a dictionary of the language”.
A dramatically different experience is the one that the Nicaraguan Academy of Languageto which the Government of that country has just removed its legal status.
This cultural asset is the most important and, therefore, taking care of the institution that deals with the language is at the same time a matter of State.
The RAE and the Association of Academies of the Spanish Language (Asale) have publicly rejected the measure, but regarding other actions, Muñoz Machado explains: “Doing something in an imperative or executive way, no, because we are not a public power. But what we can do is protest and mobilize all the cultural forces that we are capable of calling to rebel against such arbitrariness. Yesterday, in the plenary session of the Royal Academy, we agreed to make a manifesto by which we say that we ignore the decision of the Nicaraguan Government. For us, the Nicaraguan Academy of Language will continue to exist, we will support it, we will protect it, we will ensure that its members continue to meet, because what the government decree establishes is the suppression of the legal personality of the organization, but it does not prevent, hopefully, that keep gathering. We will support these meetings and we will continue to consider that it is one more of the member academies of Asale and we will try to complement its resources, for example, helping them to publish their bulletin, their research books on linguistic matters. We do not consider the decision (of the Nicaraguan Government) to be executive in what concerns us.”
The director of the Royal Spanish Academy grants this interview through the screen in the midst of preparations for his next trip to Chile, where he will fulfill various commitments and then continue to Peru. “Before the pandemic catastrophe began, I visited all of Central America and the Caribbean and now I have to do my best to visit as many of the other academies.”
The prominent jurist, writer and academic, born in 1949 in the Andalusian town of Pozoblanco, directs the Legal Spanish Dictionary and the Pan-Hispanic Legal Spanish Dictionary and is the author of a vast body of work that includes books on this specialty, as well as historical studies, and essays and narrative work. In this last aspect, he has just presented in Madrid –during a pleasant conversation with Mario Vargas Llosa– a monumental book dedicated to the author of Don Quixote and entitled, in a simple and forceful way: Cervantes.
When you were elected director of the RAE, in December 2018, you indicated three objectives regarding the institution: good management, growing its prestige and solving its immediate problems, particularly financial ones. How is your evaluation, when you are already in the last year of your mandate?
I am reasonably satisfied with what has happened, because those objectives seem to me to have been met. The Academy is in a good position with respect to its financial needs, in that we have an allocation from the national government that allows us to meet our current operating expenses and, on the other hand, we also have the help, for our programs, of sponsors and patrons. . We have developed in the last three years many new programs, which need to be attended financially.
We also have the help, for our programs, of sponsors and patrons. We have developed in the last three years many new programs, which need to be attended financially.
What stands out from the work of these three years?
There is a traditional line of work that has always been maintained. The Academy, together with the academies of the Spanish-speaking world, establishes the rules of the language, the general regulation of the language, and it does so through three main rules: its dictionary, spelling and grammar, which it continually keeps up to date. But in addition to this work we have developed many projects: a Historical Dictionary of the Spanish language, which the Academy has been trying to establish for almost 100 years; a Pan-Hispanic Dictionary of Legal Spanish; we have updated the Pan-Hispanic Dictionary of doubts; We work on the other projects. And we have joined the world of the digital revolution with great conviction.
Are you going to continue publishing the Dictionary of the Spanish language only digitally?
Yes. Now we are making a native digital edition, a large database to expand what the paper dictionary was, with much more information. I would like, I always repeat it, that on this database that is going to be only online, we would also make paper editions, even if they are summarized. My dream is that in 2026, when the new edition of the Dictionary of the Spanish language is published, we will also make a paper edition, even if it is for collectors or nostalgics.
The use of “les niñes”
You have been a promoter of clarity in legal language and one of the reasons that brings you to Chile is the creation of a pan-Hispanic network. What will this agreement consist of?
I am going to sign in Santiago the constitution, together with the Spanish Supreme Court and the Supreme Court, among many other institutions, of a kind of confederation of networks with clear legal language. These networks already exist in Chile and in other countries, but we want to confederate to make a pan-Hispanic network. The complaint against jurists, legislators and judges that they write for them and that they have a self-consciously obscure language comes from the Golden Age, at least the fourteenth or fifteenth century. It is still true that laws and court rulings can be clearer, that communications from public authorities to citizens have to be more understandable. It is very important to mobilize so that we can really make effective the right to understand what the public authorities say to citizens, because the exercise of all other rights, of all freedoms, depends on that.
In our country, an instruction from the Undersecretary of Education indicated a few days ago that the correct thing to do was to refer to boys, girls and ‘les niñes’. The Minister of Education supported the publication and dismissed criticism of this form, which was not approved by the RAE. What is his opinion?
The RAE is not the only one that can regulate this, of course. It is the citizens, by using the language, who establish the rules. The RAE always goes a little behind the citizenship. What the RAE can say is that a formula like ‘les niñes’ is not in general use, it is not part of the grammar nor is that way of speaking orthodox and probably in many places they will not understand it. It is rather a political manifestation, an expression that has no practical reality. We verify what kind of Spanish is being used by society at a given moment and with these criteria, which assume in-depth knowledge of the situation, we can conclude that ‘les niñes’ is not used or is used very little in the practice. But if there are groups that want to use it or it seems preferable to them for reasons of any kind, then they are very free to try to impose it. If someone wants to implement it, go ahead, and if they succeed, then we will congratulate them in the future and in that case we will have to change the norms of our rules to incorporate it.
‘Les niñes’ is not used or is rarely used in practice. But if there are groups that want to use it or it seems preferable to them, they are very free to try to impose it.
You took over as director when the RAE was preparing a report on inclusive language in the Spanish Constitution. Weren’t the changes necessary in a Constitution that was 40 years old?
The Academy carried out a study that I myself, as director, presented at the beginning of 2019, in which the conclusion was that the Spanish Constitution is beautifully written with language appropriate to its time and that we did not see the need to modify it for reasons of incorporate inclusive language if that is understood as gender splitting, which was what he was referring to. To the editors of the report, who were three or four prominent linguists from the Academy, it seemed to them that the usual use of the generic masculine was really appropriate according to the guidelines of the Spanish of its time. The Academy, however, is perfectly aware that there are many things in its works that should be improved and adapted to the current times. We are aware of the justice of the claim on sexist language, on the masculinization of many works, of many formulations that we still have in the dictionary, for example, because they come from centuries ago. We have done an enormous job of adaptation, which we have documented and published in our Chronicle of the Spanish language in 2020. We say that the Constitution and the laws must avoid this excessive masculinization in the future, but we also ask that we be careful with regard to handling the language. The demand for equality for women is one of the fairest and most obviously necessary in our times, but language is not to blame for women’s inequality.
What do you think in this sense of incorporating this language in the Chilean Constitution, where the issue is fully valid?
I am very interested in reading, now when I am in Chile, the drafts of the Constitution. Also as a lawyer, because there are many enormously important things that are being done; for example, the recognition of regulatory capacity to many communities and institutions that will henceforth pose an interesting technical question, how to articulate all this set of regulations in a system that is unitary, without conflicts and easy to apply. I am very interested in the experience of the Chilean Constitution because of the procedure that is being followed to elaborate it, because of plural participation, and I am naturally interested, now as director of the Academy, in examining the language that is being used. It is important to bear in mind that the Constitution is a general text, that it must be economical in terms of language, it must seek to modernize it from the point of view of gender and avoid masculine or sexist bias, but at the same time it must seek that the transformation does not make the text dark or too unwieldy. Economy and reasonableness must also prevail.
Article originally published in the newspaper The Mercury.