Language, History, and Politics

When is a language really a language, and not just a set of dialects?  That is a difficult question to answer, and the Spanish language is a perfect case in point.  Though most people in non-Spanish speaking cultures are unaware of it, this Romance language has historically been plagued by infighting and antagonisms which arose on the Iberian Peninsula itself and have subsequently spilled over into the former colonies of Spain (where the presence of other, indigenous languages added even greater dynamic to the linguistic imbroglio).

Consider the mere juxtaposition of the terms “Spanish” and “Castilian:” for some they are synonyms, whereas for others they are markedly different.

From a historical perspective, the rise of Castile as the dominant (both politically and socially) part of Spain following “unification” at the end of the 15th century had a huge effect on the “Spanish” language: the Castilian dialect was held up as the national standard, bringing other dialects such as Andalucian, for example, into scorn and ridicule–at least within the peninsula.  Attempts to Castilianize the speech of Peninsulars and colonists alike met with mixed results, homogenizing the language to a significant–though not conclusive–degree.

In the Americas, regions which were under more effective and immediate control from Spanish authorities were more thoroughly instilled with the Castilian dialect being held up as “proper” back on the Peninsula, whereas regions where the colonial yoke was only loosely fastened maintained traits from other, non-Castilian dialects.  Complicating matters further in the Americas, the presence of indigenous languages and their use by large swaths of the population diluted the “purity” of the Spanish language being endowed by the Castilian overlords.

To this day, both within Spain and outside it, reference to Castilian as a synonym for Spanish can evoke heated reactions.  Nation builders in the Americas struggled to choose one over the other during the 19th century, quarreling over which allowed them a greater berth from the perceived negativity of cultural association with the former colonial masters–the same constitution may substitute the one for the other depending on which year it was edited, for example.

To end with the words of famed Mexican writer Octavio Paz:

“I consider myself a citizen of the Spanish language rather than Mexico; that’s why it bothers me to hear speak of the Castilian language, because Castilian belongs to the Castilians and I am not one of them; I am a Mexican and as such I speak Spanish and not Castilian.”

A complicated matter, worthy of a future post…stay tuned.