spanish English

Do Americans have an inferiority complex? (Part two)

As part of Spanish English month, guest blogger Joseph D. Persico, an EFL teacher based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, returns to the thorny question of authentic Spanish and English.


In Mexico I lived with a man named Alberto who claimed that his Spanish should be called español, not castellano. According to him, people in Mexico stopped speaking castellano about 212 years ago. Alberto told me this about 12 years ago. By contrast, many people in Argentina insist that they speak castellano, and that real español is spoken in countries like Spain or Colombia.

People in both countries may be surprised to know that the 14th edition of the dictionary published by the Spanish Royal Academy was entitled Diccionario de la lengua castellana, while the 15th edition, published in 1925, saw its name officially changed to Diccionario de la lengua española. Both names, in fact, refer to the same language; Castilian simply takes its name from the original region in Spain where Latin turned into Spanish: Castilla.

Last week I mentioned that people in Argentina tend to think that the English spoken in the United States isn’t exactly “the real thing”. People in the U.S., for their part, will frequently make the distinction between what they call Castilian Spanish and regular Mexican Spanish, while even sometimes thinking that British English (they’re undoubtedly thinking of Received Pronunciation) sounds more proper than their own!

All these assumptions about what “real” language is indicate one thing: people’s intuition works fine —though we shouldn’t always rely on it! It makes sense, of course. We, in the Americas, may not be sure if we speak proper Spanish or English because … we’re not in Spain or England!

The concept of dialects is familiar to most people. We are aware that we speak a brand of our own language, and intuition would have us believe that somebody somewhere is speaking the official version of our language; perhaps in London, or perhaps in Madrid? In my last post I mentioned three differences that linguists use to distinguish two dialects of a language. But, here, I want to reproduce samples of (relatively) old English and Spanish that I hope will help make my point about why there is no need for us Americans to think our dialects lack the authenticity of their cousins back in Europe.

First, from Bill Shakespeare:

O all that borrowed motion seemingly ow’d,
Would yet again betray the fore-betray’d,
And new pervert a reconciled maid!*

Did you native English speakers all understand that? Does it sound like the English you use today? Of course not! (For that matter, does it sound like the English that E.F.L. learners should be studying? No way, José! But, believe it or not, people in Argentina have to read this stuff if they want to become Engish teachers.)

Second, a quote from Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra:

¡Oh princesa Dulcinea, señora deste cautivo corazón!, mucho agravio me habedes fecho en despedirme y reprocharme con el riguroso afincamiento de mandarme no parecer ante la vuestra fermosura.**

Did you native Spanish speakers understand all that? Does it sound like the Spanish you use today? Of course not! (For that matter, does it sound like the Spanish that S.F.L. learners should be studying? No way, José! But, believe it or not, people in the U.S. have to read this stuff if they want to become Spanish teachers.)

So, now for my theory: if the Spanish of modern day Mexico City, Buenos Aires or Madrid doesn’t look much like the language of Cervantes, no one can claim to be speaking more authentic Spanish than anybody else! And, of course, the same applies to the English of New York, Sydney and London relative to the English of Shakespeare.

A Lover’s Complaint, poem attributed to William Shakespeare.
** From Don Quixote (Volume 1/Chapter II) by Miguel de Cervantes.

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Joseph D. Persico

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