Three hundred years of fine writing

Spain’s Royal Academy of Language is celebrating its tercentenary In 1713, a group of Spaniards took it upon themselves to compile a dictionary

A copy of the first Castilian grammar book, compiled by the Royal Academy of Spanish Language and published for the first time in 1771.
A copy of the first Castilian grammar book, compiled by the Royal Academy of Spanish Language and published for the first time in 1771. SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ

Three hundred years ago, as Spain’s fortunes worsened and the country sank further into decline, mired in European wars and losing control of its empire in the Americas, a group of literary-minded men, led by the Marquis of Villena, decided that if nothing else the country must preserve its literary and linguistic achievements. The first step in this process, they decided, would be to follow the lead of France, Italy, and Portugal in establishing a body that would oversee the rules of the language.

At this point, despite its tremendous literary heritage, Spain, or Spanish, still lacked something as basic as a dictionary. So, on August 3, 1713, at their customary gathering to discuss the arts, Villena and his friends decided that they would compile the authoritative lexicon of the Spanish language, a step that would lead to the creation of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, the august body that three centuries later still has the last word on the acceptable use of a tongue spoken by more than 400 million people.

The task they had set themselves might well be described as Quixotic, but they went about it with vigor and in just 26 years, according to Fernando Lázaro Carreter, a member of the RAE since 1972 and its director for six years, they had completed their task. This was no mean feat: it had taken the French Academy 65 years to finish a much less ambitious project. The first dictionary of Spanish consisted of six large tomes, with a total of 4,000 pages.

José Manuel Blecua, the RAE’s current head, describes the collation of 42,000 words as its “greatest success,” although over the course of the next century it would go on to produce several other notable works, such as a dictionary that included quotes from major writers, as well as spelling and grammar guides and a pocket dictionary.

Manuscripts, legacies, and love letters

Donated libraries. Spain's Royal Academy of Language (RAE) has been given several academic collections of immense value, such as those of Antonio Rodríguez Moñino and María Brey, which include engravings, incunabula, and manuscripts. The RAE is also the custodian of the collection of poet and a former director of the institution, Dámaso Alonso, as well as that of novelist Eulalia Galvarriato. The most recent collection it has inherited is that of José Luis Borau.

Manuscripts. Some of the originals of the greatest works in Spanish literature are to be found at the RAE, including Libro de Buen Amor by Juan Ruiz, Arcipreste de Hita; El Buscón by Quevedo and Don Juan by José Zorrilla, along with a manuuscript by Gonzalo de Berceo.

Epistles. There are collections of letters from Juan Valera and Dámaso Alsonso. The raciest are those exchanged by Benito Pérez Galdós and Emilia Pardo-Bazán, which have recently been published by Turner.

“The current dictionary is a direct descendent of the 1780 edition,” says the RAE’s secretary, Darío Villanueva. In 2014, the RAE will publish its 23rd edition, which Villanueva describes as “the end of a cycle,” bearing in mind the impact of new technology on the way the language is spoken.

The Council of Castile, the body that administered the country and the empire, initially prevented the Crown from giving its royal blessing to the creation of the first dictionary, but eventually, Phillip V, who emerged victorious from the War of Succession in 1714, gave the project his stamp of approval in October of that year.

Once its statutes were established, the newly authorized RAE incorporated 24 members. “The founders were regarded as little more than a bunch of radicals, reformists who wanted Spain to embrace Europe and to weaken the hold of the Church, and for the country to take a more critical look at itself,” says Víctor García de la Concha, another former director who is currently finishing a history of the RAE.

“Shortly after, although it seemed longer to them,” says García de la Concha, “these men, who had no professional training, or any kind of archives, created a dictionary.” Their spirit of sacrifice is remembered by Villanueva, who says that in 1726 the Marquis of Villena noted that Fernando del Bustillo, one of the compilers, had spend 50 days in bed suffering from gout. “He cannot even stand up, and what is more, his mule has died, and he requests help to buy another that will allow him to come to our Thursday meetings.”

For much of the time that the Marquis of Villena and his friends were compiling the dictionary, they had to work from home. It was not until 1754 that Phillip VI finally agreed to give them offices in the royal treasury. Many traditions maintained by the RAE date to these early days: it still meets on Thursdays and has secret votes. The RAE’s emblem also dates back to its origins: a fiery crucible with the motto: “It cleanses, sets, and casts splendour,” which although criticized by some, was chosen over an image of a bee hovering above a bed of flowers with the motto: “It approves and reproves.”

The tradition of new members giving an acceptance speech dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, says Pedro Álvarez de Miranda, who has compiled a collection of inaugural discoures. “This was prompted by a desire on the part of the RAE to become better known. Until that point, newcomers simply sat in on the Thursday sessions. From 1847 onward, the RAE decided to become a more formal organization, so as well as an acceptance speech, there was also a question and answer session. Some new arrivals decided to give their speech in prose, others in rhyme,” says Álvarez de Miranda, among them José Zorilla and José García Nieto; others declined to give a speech, such as Miguel de Unamuno or Antonio Machado: “He was elected in 1921, and started work on a speech, but never finished it; it’s hard to imagine him in a morning suit.”

The founders were regarded as little more than a bunch of radicals”

But few members’ acceptance speeches have had the impact of Jacinto Benavente’s: “He said that joining the RAE, rather than giving him immortality, hastened his death. He told the assembled members that he did not want to join them. In the end they made him an honorary academic,” says Álvarez de Miranda.

Once elected, members stay in the RAE for life, something that has prompted some to find ingenious ways out of their obligations, such as actor Fernando Fernán-Gómez, who offered his seat to Victor García de la Concha, the head of the Cervantes Institute, saying: “My legs have won the battle, and I can no longer attend sessions.”

The RAE has fought hard to maintain the tradition of lifetime membership, although on occasions it has had to accept defeat. Carmen Iglesias, one of the RAE’s few women members and curator of an exhibition that opens in September charting the Academy’s three centuries of history, says: “Political power has only intervened under authoritarian regimes.”

The first time this happened was under Fernando VII, who ordered the expulsion of members he believed were pro-French; or 1920s dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera, who set up regional academies, and tried to stop Niceto Alcalá-Zamora; or Franco, who in 1941 sent a list of members he wanted removed.

The current dictionary is a direct descendent of the 1780 version

“The RAE had the dignity to resist pressure from the Franco regime over the appointment of replacements for five members who had gone to live abroad after the Spanish Civil War,” says Álvarez de Miranda. This policy was vindicated when, on May 3, 1976, Salvador de Madariaga, one of the five exiled members, read his acceptance speech 40 years after he was appointed.

The RAE has always been a bastion of male supremacy, and largely remains so. Women were not admitted until 1978, when poet Carmen Conde joined. At present there are just nine female members, the most recent being Aurora Egido.

“This reflects the traditions of society, where women are still largely discriminated against,” says Álvarez de Miranda. Among the women excluded from the RAE are 19th century writer Emilia Pardo-Bazán and María Moliner, who compiled her own dictionary, which remains in use to this day, but who was narrowly defeated in a vote that led to the entry of Emilio Alarcos. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this was an injustice, but it was a shame that they didn’t apply separately for membership. If she hadn’t become ill in her later years, I think Moliner’s supporters would have convinced her to run again,” says Álvarez de Miranda, who points out that the French Academy of Language didn’t admit its first woman until 1981, when Marguerite Yourcenar joined.

Looking back over the last three centuries, the RAE can rightly consider that it has fulfilled its mission, even managing to avoid the pitfalls presented by the independence of the Spanish-speaking colonies in the second decade of the 19th century.

Victor García de la Concha says that in the wake of the independence movement that swept Latin America: “There was an attempt to break the unity of the language by defining the Spanish spoken in the Americas as different to that spoken in Spain.” He says that one of the RAE’s greatest achievements was fending off that threat by extending the hand of friendship to the new nations of the Americas, and by helping to set up their own language academies, a strategy that underpins the RAE’s pan-Hispanic policy of today.

“We have to protect the language as a space within which dialogue can take place,” says García de la Concha. For a time, language was the only bridge between the old power and its former colonies.

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