Philologist and CSIC researcher Javier López Facal. Photo by Alicia Rivera.
“The Royal Academy continuously remakes an archaic dictionary from the 18th century”
Inverview with Philologist and Spanish National Research Council member Javier López Facal
El País: “La Real Academia sigue haciendo un diccionario arcaico, como del siglo XVIII”
Alicia Rivera reporting from Madrid March 4, 2011
When it comes to books, the most pleasant surprises often come when you aren’t expecting too much. A book about dictionaries? Are dictionaries themselves interesting? Doubts aside, three facts pique our curiosity about the book La presunta autoridad de los diccionarios (The Presumed Authority of Dictionaries) recently edited by the CSIC (Spanish National Research Council). One is the title, with the provocative phrase “presumed authority” casting aspersions on something we normally accept without much suspicion. Another is that the book is short, a hundred pages, so there’s no harm in trying it. The third is the author: Javier López Facal, an amenable, sharp, and intelligent author of many books. In this case, our curiosity was rewarded with the enjoyment of a book filled with knowledge and surprise for those who are not dictionary experts as well as a needed sense of humor. López Facal displays authentic erudition without pedantry and covers dictionaries from antiquity to Wikipedia. A hundred pages about dictionaries ultimately feels short.
López Facal, doctor of Greek philology, research professor for the CSIC and expert in political science and administration for I+D, works in the central headquarters of the CSIC in Madrid, in a small office whose only decorations are books, including the dictionaries arranged on their own shelf. He worked for 15 years to produce a Greek-Spanish dictionary.
Q: Do you like dictionaries?
A: Yes. I’m mad about them. Some people have the defect of being verbivores – a word that was made up just recently, I admit – they enjoy words, their origins, uses, meanings…here in this office I have some a few dictionaries, but there are many more in my home.
Q: In your book, you also recommend a dictionary store in Madrid.
A: Yes. It’s the only store in the world exclusively dedicated to dictionaries (to my knowledge) besides a small one in Paris.
Q: How many words does a person usually use to express himself?
A: Three or four thousand, nothing more. You could know 25,000 if you were very cultured. The entire Spanish patrimonial lexicon has a few hundred thousand words, and the words of Spanish speakers all over the world would together come to four or five million.
Q: When were words invented? When did dictionaries emerge?
A: Human beings invented words. Men and women were speaking for thousands of years before there were grammarians and dictionaries. The proto-lexicologists and grammarians are a recent phenomenon. Four to five thousand years ago, there were series of people who worked on words…in Egypt, for example, there are beautiful sculptures of scribes writing. Dictionaries, like many other things (astronomy, physics, medicine) were first made by Greeks when they became self-reflective. The Greeks received influence from nearby countries and created lexicological and grammatical terms. But the the dictionary was invented in many places simultaneously, like the fan, which people everywhere made to overcome the heat or brush away flies.
Q: Words are still constantly coming into being. Who invents them?
A: Everyone does. Some are social leaders like politicians, religious, and artists. Some are at the bottom of the pyramid. It’s a constant process. Ten years ago, we didn’t have the term wiki, and now we have Wikipedia, Wikileaks, et cetera. Wiki is an English acronym (What I Know Is) and functions as a prefix we can combine with many words.
Q: Do you like Wikipedia?
A: Yes. It’s an encyclopedia, and you have to keep in mind that it’s very inconsistent across languages and articles. The German Wiki is generally impeccable, as is the English one. The third that was made was in Catalan, and it comes up a little short. The Spanish one is very uneven. Some articles are very good, and some aren’t…
Q: In your book, when you cite Wikipedia, you indicate the date of the entry.
A: Obviously, you have to do that because they change and the page may no longer have the reference you’re alluding to. You also have to indicate the language of the article because they aren’t all the same. The English Wiki has about 7 million articles, which is more than any encyclopedia in print, including the Britannica.
Q: What would you recommend to people using Wikipedia?
A: The same thing I recommend to those using dictionaries: trust the experts, but you can never trust everything. Wiki is a first guess that answers many questions, but you have to take care because there some bad swings…then again, you can say the same of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Q: Dictionaries, words…do they say something to people who use them, or do you have to go into the language and literature itself to understand the personalities of words?
A: Dictionaries, you’ll realize if you’re attentive to them, have an ideology and culture. You can immediately see that the dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, for example, is archaic, even in the dícese (“it says”) which begins many entries; people don’t talk like that anymore (they say se dice instead). Another dictionary which I think is different and better is that of Manuel Seco. For example, for the word marrón (“brown”), Seco included many habitual usages of the word related to criminal cause, condemnation, years in prison, culpability…from his very first edition in 1999. The RAE dictionary timidly defines “marrón” as “setback” only from the 22nd edition, published in 2001, with many less meanings than are offered by Seco. This is a case of simple imitators facing off with inventors: they always trail behind and arrive late.
Q: No dictionary can have all words and meanings.
A: Clearly not. Dictionaries must be selective. The question is in the criteria for selection. Many Spaniards believe the RAE dictionary is the best there is when it’s actually the worst. It’s worse than its French, Italian, German, and English counterparts. The grammar and database of the RAE aren’t like that: they are probably better than their equivalents in other countries or at least comparable.
Q: Is the RAE database public?
A: Yes. There are about 90 million distinct entries which you can consult on the Internet. Actually, there are two databases: CORDE, which is historical, and Crea, which is contemporary. The Academy has been making Crea for a while with public funding and an excellent team of lexicologists and programmers, such that this base could make an extraordinary dictionary. And yet they continuously remake their dictionary from the 18th century.
Q: If a test-taker used the word marrón in a way recognized by the Seco dictionary but not the RAE’s, would it be considered incorrect Castilian?
A: This is an evil I’ve been fighting for years. I explain in the book that if someone goes into the countryside, sees a plant, and doesn’t find it an a botanical book he consults later, he’s not going to say the plant doesn’t exist; he’ll just say it’s not in the book. No one could say to a Spanish speaker, “that word doesn’t exist.” You could say it’s not in the dictionary, but the one at fault is not the user but the dictionary for not reflecting the lexicon. Many people believe the RAE’s dictionary is like The Ten Commandments, and if you don’t use them, you’re going to hell.”
Q: Do scientific terms cause a special problem? Science moves very quickly, and now scientists all speak English with each other, as they communicated before in Latin.
A: Exactly. In European universities, Latin was spoken before, and now the language of science is English. The truth is that an artificial version of English has been created which allows scientists to understand each other, and I write about this. Regarding scientific dictionaries, it’s difficult to stay up to date when all fields are moving forward, but there are some departments of terminology which function very well, like that of the EU.
Q: Why did the CSIC publish a book about dictionaries as part of the series ¿Qué sabemos de? (What Do We Know About…?), which is almost exclusively dedicated to science?
A: What Do We Know About…? is a series of books aimed at the general public inspired by the set the French National Research Council produced years ago. It covers natural sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology but also human and social sciences, and I was commissioned to write the first book in that sphere.
ISBN Numbers: La presunta autoridad de los diccionarios. Colección ¿Qué sabemos de? Ediciones CSIC (Catarata). ISBN 978-84-00-09228-3 (CSIC). 978-84-8319-561-1 (Catarata)