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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 06-04-2019 10:56

Trying to sort out the language from the place

Political correctness got short shrift in Córdoba a week ago. Not even the debate was PC.

Language is in a state of flux. That was the general rule at the gathering of the tongue congress last weekend in Córdoba where it was largely agreed that Spanish is in permanent change, like most modern linguas, but here it should remain Castilian. Which might make you say flip the flux and just speak clearly. Yet the flux has been with us for centuries.

That was happening in Córdoba city, on the premises of the national university, with faces of some importance, such as those of the King and Queen of Spain at the opening, and then many leading writers from the Spanish, sorry, Castilian-speaking world. This was the VIII International Congress of the Spanish Language. The last to be held in Argentina was the III Congress in 2004, in Rosario. That was when the late Néstor Kirchner kept the crowned heads and everybody else waiting, presumably to make the point that he was head honcho in the former Spanish (correct) colony. The next congress will be held in Arequipa, Peru, which was given advance publicity by Peruvian writer, sometime politician and Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa.

Vargas Llosa, who celebrated his 83rd birthday in Córdoba, opened the congressional sessions after the political figures – read Mauricio Macri and the king of Spain, Felipe VI – had overcome the opening formalities on Friday, March 29. And typically (again) Vargas Llosa opened with a blast at some thing or somebody. The target this time out was President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, who had written to Pope Francis in Rome and the King of Spain to demand that they apologise to the Americas for the destruction and death caused in the conquest of the region, as from some five centuries ago. Vargas Llosa’s irritation was aimed at the Mexican leader, because the Peruvian thought it was ridiculous. “For 200 years or more most countries in the region have been running their own affairs,” he said. “Why should the conquering countries be asked for some form of historical redress now?” Well, apologising to old enemies or subjects was quite the political thing to do in the 1990s. Not a very up-to-date argument.

The Peruvian bestseller was also fierce about gender inclusive language that’s now in fashion. In Spanish the new style, which some cultural groups and, we are told, occasional public offices are implementing to be politically correct, requires the substitution of the ‘o’ and ‘a’ at the end of gender references to male or female. Thus, in Spanish, you will hear of people addressed in speech and writing with an ‘e’ at the end of a personal reference. Hence ‘chicos’ or ‘chicas’ become ‘chiques’ or, with a coy adjustment that looks uncertain, it could become ‘chic@s,’ or whatever other alteration you have come across.

When seen in use this ‘inclusive’ language, intended to avoid discrimination, carries a reminder of the 1980s when ‘political correctness’ came into society in Europe from US university campuses. It was a redirection of speech that aimed to avoid misuse of language that had – and still has – derogatory or blatant forms used against women, overweight or over-thin, gays, lesbians, etc. Back in those times, when insulting speech was used too frequently, men had to stop using low expressions in reference to women and vice-versa. College students could be expelled in the US for foul usage or even taken to court. After some time the repression became less virulent but left behind more gentle styles that were welcome.

However, the next stage was that some of the constructions to avoid reprehension or severe criticism went so far as to be ridiculous or funny enough to become theatrical. Thus somebody who had poor eyesight could be described as “visually challenged,” a person with difficulties in seducing a member of the other sex might be described as “sexually challenged,” a person of limited height could be “metrically challenged” or even “transport challenged,” if one did not own a car. One of the most contrived I can remember was, “abattoir challenged” for a particular vegetarian in our group who refused to go near a piece of meat. The joke wore off after a while...

Political correctness got short shrift in Córdoba a week ago. Not even the debate was PC. At one point there was only one woman, Argentine essayist Ivonne Bordelois, with five men on a panel. Translator Jorge Fondebrider managed to introduce some provocative humour into the debate, but their time was short.

So now the name alteration, to avoid singling out one sex or the other, is an ‘inclusive’ definition and Vargas Llosa thought of it as: “A form of feminism that is an enemy of culture. The so-called inclusive language is a kind of aberration within the language.” In general terms Vargas Llosa thinks the language, Spanish and/or Castilian, are doing very well, thank you.

Finally, I rather liked the usually vigorous language of Mempo Giardinelli, from Chaco province, an author who was awarded the prestigious Romulo Gallegos prize back in 1993. He has devoted much of his life to organising writing and reading and teaching in the outback, as well as in the provincial capital. He used to write occasional columns for the Buenos Aires Herald, which Michael Soltys had to translate into English. Giardinelli emphasized his view that “Spanish (español) does not exist… American Castillian is the common language of the continent, in all its variations. In my Chaco home there are three local native idioms, apart from Guaraní. Add to that we have Swedes, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Bulgarians, Italians, Poles, Czechs, who learn Castilian and contribute a wealthy mix to a relatively small province. They don’t speak Spanish. They try to learn the language of the region, which is an American Castilian.”

It is not possible to look at the huge variety in these gatherings, of course. Organisers can only advise people by using lists of participants, but can offer little more. Bear in mind, three days of meetings dealing with the controversy within a language are impossible to consider as a whole.

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Andrew Graham-Yooll

Andrew Graham-Yooll

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1994-2007).

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