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The "SPANISH" LANGUAGE: Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries



Films for the Humanities and Sciences, based in Princeton, New Jersey, performs an invaluable service in providing us with a vast array of informative films, useful in teaching and fascinating as documentaries. It has issued a six-part series, "Biography of the Spanish Language." It is not aimed at specialists, who might argue with many of the statements, but at the broad public; indeed, it began as a series of programs for Mexican television and possibly schools. To attract a wide public it uses the tricks of the trade: noisy background music, lighting effects, and slapstick humor. The problem is that these effects tend to drown out the speech, the subject of the series.

It treats language as the expression of a culture and its history, with literature, especially poetry, as its elevated form as opposed to the vernacular. It views Spanish from a Mexican perspective, which is understandable, since Mexico has more inhabitants than any other country. However, it mentions only briefly other Latin American forms of Spanish, with not a word about Catalan or Portuguese. The first film deals with the history of Spanish down to its introduction in the Americas. The conquistadores appear as a violent, rather stupid lot, while Indian life is romanticized. There are pictures of beautiful colonial cities, but no credit is given to the Spanish civil authorities who planned them. The Inquisition is condemned, while the missionaries,are praised. The Jesuits are lauded for having promoted the cause of independence in the colonial period. are there any books on that subject?

The section on modern colloquial Spanish, especially that spoken on television, is discouraging. It is often difficult to understand, even for people from other Spanish-speaking countries. The film makes light of this, but it is a pathetic decline from the beautiful Spanish promoted by the Spanish Academy. Even some Latin American students at Stanford use a slang unknown to me and often to other Latin Americans. Some WAISers defend the variants as the expression of a people, but they seem to have a romantic longing for the good old times when the inhabitants of one valley could not understand those of the next. John Wonder complains about this, and about the machine-gun like speech of young people. Indeed, in the Bogota I first knew, the "Athens of America," the intellectual elite spoke a very beautiful Spanish. Now SCOLA rebroadcasts news programs from Cali. The young women announcers on the program rattle off Spanish is high-pitched voices without the intonation indicating comprehension. The decline of Spanish in Colombia is a tragedy, admittedly insignificant in comparison with the major tragedy of life there.

The influence of politics on language may be baneful in many parts of the Spanish-speaking world. In 1932 I went to Barcelona to study Catalan with Pompeu Fabra, revered as the father of contemporary Catalan studies; a university is named after him. The atmosphere was very pleasant. Then came the Civil War and Franco, who suppressed Catalan autonomy and the Catalan language. The backlash has been distressing. I am probably the only surviving pupil of Pompeu Fabra, and I thought that would earn general respect. Nevertheless, a young Catalan has accused me of insulting his language, while others have charged that I am a victim of Spanish propaganda. This mentality is counterproductive, endangering Barcelona's leading place as a publisher of books in Spanish. One WAISer tells me she has an American friend who speaks very good Spanish and is married to a Barcelona businessman. They live in New York, but he does not want his children to learn Spanish. Does he realize that he is closing the door to opportunities which would open to them in the vast Spanish-speaking world?

Ronald Hilton - 4/15/01


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