The latest official update to the Real Academia Española‘s Diccionario de la Lengua Española (Dictionary of the Spanish Language), now in its 23rd edition, includes 62 additional words.
Among the additions are more than a dozen words of English origin – by far the most numerous among the various extranjerismos.
Adding anglicismos to the preeminent dictionary of the Spanish language is, naturally, a precarious undertaking. The decision to include or exclude a particular English derivation must balance the Diccionario’s functions as an authoritative regulator of Spanish usage, on the one hand, and, on the other, as a responsive reflection of how people really use the language.
The dictionary straddles the roles of lexical bailiff and lexical barometer. To achieve this balance, the RAE relies on the deliberations of a select group of influential Spanish authors and linguistic scholars – the academy of its title.
Together, they negotiate the RAE’s policy and practice within the remit of its founding motto: ‘Limpia, fija y da esplendor’.
When dealing with words coming in from a foreign language, carrying out this three-part mission of purifying, establishing, and rendering Spanish all the more splendid can be a ticklish task indeed.
‘[Although] the Academia is not closed to the incorporation of extranjerismos’, Darío Villanueva, Director of the RAE, commented on the official launch of the Diccionario’s latest edition, ‘it would be a worry if there was an excessive reiteration of English words without them being necessary.’
Among the members of the Real Academia Española, José María Merino, for one, urges caution when determining which English terms the official Diccionario should admit or exclude. I spoke with him recently about his perspectives on how to distinguish between ‘excessive reiteration’ and the ‘necessary use’ of anglicismos in Spanish.
Merino is only in favour, in principle, of including English derivations that do not already have an existing Spanish counterpart.
The advent of inventions that first gain widespread identification in English or anglicised terms offers clear candidates for inclusion. In this regard, Merino points to the long established use of English terminology like raíl, tren, or radio in Spanish.
Beyond technological innovations, particular customs can give rise to calques on foreign vocabulary. English words like sandwich, gol (goal), and ticket entered the Real Academia’s dictionaries a hundred years ago.
Anglicismos are clearly not a new phenomenon. ‘But when the object or activity already has its definition or term in Spanish, why introduce it in English?’ Merino reflects.
Vocabulary related to bullying, for instance, has proliferated in news reports, debates, and awareness campaigns in recent years, and Spanish-speakers have tended to adopt and adapt the English words, creating the verb bullear or bulearand embracing the verbal substantive bullying.
Aside from the potential confusion with the Spanish verb bullir and the problem of knowing how to pronounce the double ‘ll’, this lexical borrowing is simply unnecessary, because Spanish already offers an array of adequate alternatives.
Acorralar, acosar, asediar, cercar, intimidar, and sitiar, Merino proposes, are all verbs that could apply to forms of bullying, which is, of course, neither a new nor an exclusively English phenomenon.
Merino also notes the example of the English verb ‘spoil’ and the related noun ‘spoiler’ in the sense of revealing the ending of a story, the punchline of a joke, or the solution to a mystery in such a way as to ruin their impact.
This usage has been creeping into Spanish as a direct borrowing and as a modified verb, espoilear. Again, relevant forms and acceptations of destripar, despachurrar, and desvelar have already, for centuries, provided a means to put into words the disclosure that robs a story of its effect.
Lexical equivalence, of course, can be a highly subjective matter of personal taste and opinion. A foreign word can carry shades of meaning that its native counterpart lacks. For this reason, between English and Spanish, the borrowing has never been solely one-way.
Even Shakespeare reached into his repertoire of Spanish lexical resources to keep his language fresh and varied. Thus alligator (el lagarto), casa and diablo, among others, find their way into his plays. And what would the English language do without words like breeze, cafeteria, canyon, cockroach, lasso, macho, patio, and plaza? All of these familiar words in the English vocabulary, and hundreds more, derive from Spanish.
The borrowing in both directions reflects the interrelationship that has always existed between modern Spanish and modern English. The RAE’s concerns regarding an excessive importation of anglicismos, however, relate to a more recent phenomenon: the current status of English as a prevailing, global lingua franca, especially on-line. ‘¿Por qué smart TV y no televisión inteligente?’ Merino ponders.
A living language is, after all, the most democratic of human institutions, but democracies need not slip into anarchy.
A language can flourish when its users acknowledge certain standards governing usage and look to leading wordsmiths for guidance, as parameters and precedents to follow or flout.
This allows linguistic creativity to occur in a manner that is at once natural and knowledgeable, and the use of anglicismos is no exception in this regard.
The prevalence of anglicismos in today’s Spanish is a sign of the times. The challenge for the Real Academia Española is to maintain a dictionary that simultaneously regulates, referees, registers, and responds to changes in the Spanish.
This article first appeared in La Revista, published by the British Spanish Society.
Dr Tyler Fisher is Queen Sofia Research Fellow and Lecturer in Spanish at Exeter College, University of Oxford.