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A Universal Spanish


November 16, 2001
Copyright © 2001
THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved. \


Are you struggling to roll your rr's as you order arroz con pollo in your freshly learned Spanish? Are you confused by words that have one meaning with Cubans and another with Nicaraguans? Good news has arrived from the the Second International Congress of the Spanish Language, recently held in Valladolid, Spain.

The four-day congress served as a forum for about 300 academicians, writers, intellectuals and journalists to discuss the complexities of the fourth most-spoken language in a world with 5,000 tongues -- the official language of 20 countries.

Attendees analyzed the influence of movies, music and the media on the dissemination of Spanish. One finding: People often are moved to learn Spanish after listening to songs with Spanish lyrics. Certainly Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan and Julio Iglesias have inspired many a South Floridian to register for Spanish classes at local community schools.

After English, Spanish is the most-spoken language in the United States, where 35 million people use it, according to the Census Bureau. Moreover, the census shows a 57.9 percent increase in Hispanics last decade, making them the minority group with the highest growth in the country. Not surprisingly, President Bush addressed the nation in Spanish during a weekly radio speech in May, an unprecedented event.

The power of the language to unify was one of the most interesting topics at the Valladolid congress. On a popular level, Venezuelan, Mexican and Colombian telenovelas have helped to disseminate Spanish. Years ago, those shows used many local expressions; but as their markets widened, they switched to standard Spanish.

Academicians agreed that 99 percent of the vocabulary used in the Americas is common to everyone, and that only 1 percent is considered to be local dialect.

A language born of Latin, which crossed the seas while evolving and became enriched with the languages of natives and Africans, Spanish is making a round trip. Like a boomerang, the Castilian Spanish spoken in the Americas returns to the Mother Country to assert itself. Many Spaniards grant that they are careless with the language, while Hispanic Americans tend to protect it.

Addressing the congress, Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes defined Spanish as ``an impure language'' and cautioned against ``the loss of the differences.'' Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa said that the language's diversity is its greatest wealth.

Unity is one thing; uniformity, another. Just as the congress stressed its determination to do everything possible to protect the language, we must make an effort to conserve it without stagnating or corrupting it, being flexible enough to accept terms that enrich it.

Apparently, that's the road the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language ( is taking with the new dictionary that it introduced during the congress. There, for the first time, the Spanish academies of Hispanic America had an opportunity to look at idioms and language twists that -- if commonly used -- they might approve.

With this testimony, 88,431 new words were included in the dictionary, and more than 6,000 archaisms were eliminated.

The academy seems to have crafted a guidebook for the 400 million people who communicate in Spanish -- a truly universal language.

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