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SPANISH LANGUAGE: Legislation concerning the Americas

From Vitoria, the capital of the Basque country, Luis Sanzo González sends us this valuable reference with his own very pertinent comments: Harry duBignon Howard, Luis makes the following points:

  1. Under the Catholic Monarchs, the policy of imposing Castillian was extended to the colonized territories.
  2. Given the diversity of native languages, this could not be implemented at once, so in 1570 Philip II authorized bilingualism.
  3. In 1596, Philip II kept Castilian as the language of administration and of the elites, with the native languages used for evangelization and in daily life. A similar policy was followed in the Basque provinces, as Mikel Asurmendi has explained in his recent book As a result of tbis policy, Castilianization stopped in rural areas.
  4. The accession of the Bourbons brought centralization, and in 1770 Carlos III issued a decree decaring that Castilian is the language of empire and ordering the elimination of other languages by administrative, judicioary and ecclesiatical authorities ["authorities" is a vague term. In the Church, it might mean bishops but not ordinary priests. It is unlikely the friars paid attention to the decree.]
  5. After independence, the new governments used Spanish to promote national cohesion and industrialization. In view of the failure of this policy, beginning in the 50s and 60s (this happened earlier in the Philippines). native self-awareness developed, and linguistic claims served as a basis for the total defense of native cultures, with the Mayas in Mexico, the Aymara in Bolivia and the Quechua in Ecuador. In other cases, the result has been marginalization and political repression. [ I discussed this in a 1938 article, as also the failed attempt in Argentina to make "el idioms nacional de los argentinos", based on lunfardo (the slang of the port district of La Boca) the country's official language]. Luis adds that there are other factors, and he calls attention to ( for information on the situation in various countries. The situation was like the one under the monarchy, but without the authority of the crown. The aim remained to keep control over the masses. [In a way, the "Royal" Spanish Academy has assumed the royal role. this may explain the hostility to it among many intellectuals.]
  6. Only recently have the natives received some support or at least tolerance at the national level, e.g bilingualism in Honduras, constitutional protection for the native languages in Colombia, and co-official status in Guatemala. [In view of the numerous native languages in Guatemala, the result must be confusion.]

Luis says that Juan Carlos may have forgotten the imposition of Castilian at the end of the eighteenth century. This debate has had little impact in Spanish America, now independent, but in Spain, especially in Catalonia, it has. However, Juan Carlos has broken with the Bourbon tradition, adopting constitutionally a policy of recognizing various "Spanish" languages, it they wish to use this word. At the same time, Luis expresses concern that the kingˇs speech reflects the "neo-imperialist" vision which is clearly in the air. The solution is to recognize the equality of all languages in Spain and as far as possible to promote bilingualism in America. [Luis must mean Spanish America. There is virtually no similar movement in Brazil.]

My comment: I want to thank Luis for his excellent statement, which I trust I have summarized adequately. I wish to put in a good word for King Juan Carlos. Some of the messages I have received describe him as an idiot. I would rather compare him with my old Oxford master, Salvador de Madariaga, who became more and more conservative as time went on. Things rose to a crisis when he published his big biography of Bolivar, in which he charged the Libertador with having destroyed a great empire and having replaced it with chaos. Don Salvador was astounded and crushed when he was buried under an avalanche of hysterical denunciations, especially from Venezuelans. Oxford, above the fray, gave him an honorary doctorate. Don Salvador was an extremely intelligent and very scholarly person, but he did not understand how Spanish Americans, especially Venezuelans, feel. Likewise, King Juan Carlos is not an idiot, nor probably is the person who wrote the speech. Although the king's daughter and son-in-law have been given the title Duques de Mallorca, and he knows Catalonia, he does no understand how Catalans feel. Some Catalans do not understand how he feels.

Ronald Hilton - 5/1/01