The latest version of the official dictionary of standard Spanish is about to be published. El Diccionario de la Real Academia Española is now being prepared for publication, and is due to hit the bookshelves within the next few weeks. You might think that the publication of a dictionary would be of interest to no one but school students, scrabble players, pedants, and people who’ve never got the hang of spell checkers, but the new edition of the dictionary is causing a bit of controversy in Catalonia.
The dictionary lists those words deemed to form a part of the standard written form of the Spanish language and defines their meanings. I’ve got a copy of a previous edition, which is useful for looking up words that you find in El País newspaper but that no one ever uses in conversation. So then as a diligent little Spanish language learner you learned them, and used them in conversation, only to be rewarded with a peculiar look from your Spanish friends who were wondering why you’d just swallowed a pretentiousness pill. Spanish newspapers like their fancy words.
The dictionary is a dictionary of the officially recognised language. So it doesn’t include a lot of words which people use all the time, but which are considered slang, dialect, or foreign borrowings. And this can be a problem, especially because foreign borrowings are not always easily recognisable after being filtered through a Spanish accent. Not long after moving to Spain when I was still struggling with the language, one friend asked if I wanted to visit the “poof” with her. I wasn’t sure whether to be thrilled at the prospect of meeting other gay life, or alarmed that my new friend was going to require a crash course in “words likely to irritate your new gay friend”. But she meant “el pub”. It just comes out as “poof” in a Spanish accent. But el pub isn’t a word you’ll find in el Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, or at least it wasn’t in it back in the Jurassic when I still went to pubs.
The Diccionario is a dictionary for people writing newspaper editorials and rulings on planning applications. Its contents are determined by the members of la Real Academia Española, whose membership is chosen from leading Spanish language writers and academics. The Academia is very much an establishment body, and has been criticised for its conservatism and its elevation of the Spanish of northern Castile, the historic heartland of the language, over varieties of the language found elsewhere – a complaint which is frequently voiced in Latin America. The members of the Academia come from the ‘great and good’ in the world of Spanish writing and linguistics, and the self-selecting membership is heavily weighted in favour of those considered the establishment.
The Academia has the officially recognised role of the referees of Spanish language usage. Its dictionaries are deemed to set the official and legal norms for the Spanish language. It has no real equivalent in the UK, English language dictionaries (or dictionaries of Scots or Gaelic) are descriptive, not prescriptive, and have no legal force.
The Academia’s dictionary is the dictionary that Spanish lawyers and judges refer to when a legal ruling depends, as legal rulings often do, on the precise meaning or range of meanings of a particular word. And that’s why the Catalans are a bit alarmed by the latest edition of the Diccionario. It makes changes to the Spanish definitions of a range of words and terms, including soberanía (sovereignty), nacionalidad (nationality), estado (state), referéndum (do you really need that one translated? I mean, seriously?), autodeterminación (self-determination. I’ll give you that one. Autodeterminación always makes me think of the look on someone’s face when they have their first driving lesson) amongst others.
It is however the new definition of referendum which has raised eyebrows in Catalonia. The previous definition gave the meaning as “the legal process by which laws or administrative acts which are proposed to be ratified by the people are submitted to a vote”. The new edition gives the definition: “the legal process by which laws or political decisions with a decisive or consultative character are submitted to the vote.”
According to the Catalan newspaper Vilaweb, lawyers they have consulted believe that the new definition will make it somewhat easier for the Spanish Government to challenge the Catalan referendum in the courts.
Meanwhile, under the heading “sovereignty”, the previous definition of “national sovereignty” – given as “[the sovereignty] which rests in the people and is expressed through their constitutional and representative bodies” disappears from the new dictionary. Again, in the opinion of lawyers consulted by Vilaweb, this will also make it easier for the Spanish Government to mount a legal challenge to Catalan national sovereignty.
It is unclear when these new changes were proposed. The inner workings of the Real Academia are not open to the general public. The last edition of the dictionary was published in 2001, and work on the new edition has been going on ever since. But Catalans are used to the underhand dealings of the Spanish establishment, and many of them believe that these changes were introduced as a response to the growing demands in Catalonia for self-determination.
The Spanish right has a history of playing legal word games. The Partido Popular and its allies have mounted a number of legal attacks on Catalonia and her language, including passing laws in Aragon to redefine the Catalan spoken there as “dialects of Eastern Aragonese”, and ensuring that the Spanish Constitution lists the Catalan of the Valencian Community as a distinct language called Valencian. Given this history, you can understand why suspicions have been raised by the new Spanish dictionary.
Meanwhile, the latest poll shows that 59.7% of Catalans are in favour of independence, with only 30.3% opposed – the remainder being don’t knows or won’t votes. The panic in Madrid is growing.
Scotland too must beware of word games. The word games Unionists play may not have legal force, but manipulating language is as much a part of the Scottish campaign as it is in Catalonia. The word “foreign” has been redefined by them to mean some unspecified bad thing – according to Magrit Curran it apparently means she’d be estranged from her own children. We see the same games in proposals which have been aired by figures within Labour, which involve stripping powers from Holyrood and giving them to Labour run local authorities under the guise of “greater devolution”.
We have already seen Unionists attempt to define “independence” as something which the Scottish Government is not offering – Unionist politicians regularly claim that independence within a currency union is not “real independence”. But of course independence means that the people of Scotland are able to choose our own path – and if we choose a currency union we remain independent. It’s our choice. With independence Scotland has the ability to make different choices if times and circumstances change.
The Unionists want us to believe that we already have “real independence” as part of “the most successful Union of nations in history”. The Unionist definition of “real independence” means we surrender control to Westminster. The “most successful union of nations in history” has produced a Scotland which Unionists joyfully claim is unable to make its own way in the world, and which is chained to a radiator in a Westminster basement.
Independence is what an independent nation wants it to mean – it doesn’t mean what those who fight against independence want it to mean in order to scare us away from it. Independence means Scotland and Catalonia can make their own definitions. That’s what we’re voting on in September.