If you’re interested in Spanish, perhaps as a language learner, or maybe you’re working with a translation team building a website in Spanish, or employing a translation agency to sort through your Spanish documentation translations, you’ve definitely come to the right place to learn more about how written and spoken Spanish have evolved over the years.
Spanish is the second most common spoken language on the planet after Mandarin Chinese. This is a fact Spanish document translation services have to deal with on a daily basis, as Spanish accents, lexicon, slang terms, and other linguistic factors can vary substantially from region to region.
We talked to Naomi Shin, an Associate Professor of Hispanic Linguistics at the University of New Mexico, and got into the linguistic weeds about how the Spanish language has changed over time, with some fascinating comparisons between English and Spanish popping up as well.
GlobalVision: For Spanish language learners, people dealing with English Spanish translations and Spanish documentation translation, or anyone interested in how languages evolve, how have changes between written and spoken Spanish been managed over the decades, and centuries?
Naomi Shin: Great question. Unlike English, the Spanish language has a language academy called the Real Academia Española opens in a new window [RAE], which was founded in 1713. Today the RAE is a Pan-Hispanic institution, with member academies throughout the Spanish-speaking world, including the United States. The U.S. academy is called the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española opens in a new window [ANLE, established in NYC in 1973].
The RAE published the Orthographía in 1741 and was “written in the spirit of Nebrija’s dictum that Spanish speakers ‘should strive to write as we pronounce and pronounce as we write’.” (Nadeau & Barlow 2013, p. 199). The academy produced several versions of their orthography, and by the 7th edition it was titled Ortografía (ph –> f). The academy continued to make spelling changes to reflect how people actually spoke, including th –> t (theater –> teatro), ch –> c in examples like patriarcha –> patriarca, and chi –> qui (chímica –> química). In 1803 the academy set the sound-form correspondences for the letters x, j, and g. (Nadeau & Barlow 2013, p. 200).
GlobalVision: How should professionals working for a Spanish translation agency, people learning Spanish for travel or work, or even native speakers approach changes to written Spanish?
Naomi Shin: Although some might see the RAE as very traditional — and sometimes it does represent traditional and conservative views on language — the spelling reforms I’ve [just] described make a lot of sense to linguists.
We know that languages change over time and there is nothing we can do to stop them. So, if the way we speak [inevitably] changes over time, why should we try to halt changes in our writing system?
In fact, writing systems are always developed after spoken language and never vice versa. Consider, for example, what happened to English. The Great Vowel Shift opens in a new window of Early Modern English resulted in major changes in how we pronounce what we call ‘tense’ vowels, which were the vowels that had been the long vowels. For example, the sound ‘e’ raised and ended up being pronounced ‘ee’. This is why ‘geese’ and ‘meat’ are spelled with ‘e’, but here the ‘e’ corresponds to the sound that is [i] in the phonetic alphabet (geese).
Here’s a figure representing the Great Vowel Shift from Joan Bybee’s (2015) book Language Change:
[Companies working with English Spanish translations or any documentation translation involving English should note that the Great Vowel Shift messed up the agreement between English orthography and the sounds English orthography were meant to represent.]
Thankfully, Spanish has done a better job with its orthography, and there’s more of a match between the spelling and the way we talk.
GlobalVision: What are some of the modern impacts between how Spanish is written and spoken that language learners, anyone building a website in Spanish, or anyone interested in English Spanish translations should be aware of?
Naomi Shin: As I mentioned, languages are ALWAYS changing. So, here’s a case where sometimes grammarians and academies try to stem the tide of natural language change, or in some cases just suppress the forms used by many people:
The Instituto Cervantes [a Spanish non-profit promoting Spanish around the globe] has a page called the MUSEO DE LOS HORRORES opens in a new window where they describe the so-called horrors that Spanish speakers often make.
An example is the use of de que when only que is expected (known as dequeísmo), or not using de when de que is in fact expected (known as queísmo).
But consider queísmo – in fact, it is more common to get examples that do not follow the rule than examples that DO follow it (e.g. Kanwit 2015), so much so that even students enrolled in Hispanic Linguistics courses have difficulty deciding if an example represents queísmo or not.
At this point, queísmo is so common that of course it’ll show up in writing. Same thing for forms like dijistes, vinistes, which in fact make a lot of sense since the 2nd person singular tú forms of all verb tenses — besides the preterit — end in -s (bailas, bailabas, bailaras, bailarás, etc.). And these forms are used all over the Spanish-speaking world. [According to the Instituto Cervantes, these linguistic “vulgarisms” are now being “reflected in the written language, especially in the press.”]
GlobalVision: How can Spanish speakers, Spanish students, and Spanish document translation services sort through what is considered “correct” Spanish, and what is not?
Naomi Shin: So, you can clearly see that any form that is very common in our speech will very likely make it into our writing. I see no problem with that. In fact, from a linguist’s point of view, these so-called ‘horrors’ or ‘errors’ are just cases of either natural language change or are dialect variations that the academy or the grammarians try to eradicate under the guise of ‘correctness.’ But sociolinguists have shown time and time again that the forms that come to be seen as more ‘correct’ are the forms that are used by the upper classes, the people in power. This results in what Kim Potowski and I (Potowski & Shin 2018) refer to as the ‘ciclo del prestigio lingüístico’ [cycle of linguistic prestige]:
In summary, dialect variation is normal and the forms that get chosen to be the ‘standard’ are not linguistically superior to the forms that don’t get chosen. Instead, sociopolitical factors like classism and racism are the underlying factors that determine whose way of talking ends up in the dictionaries and the grammar books.
Also, and importantly, languages change and their writing systems will also reflect such changes. I love this [PBS] quote from sociolinguist Walt Wolfram:
“Change is one of the inevitable facts in the life of any language. The only language not in a perpetual state of flux is a dead language.”
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