There’s Still Hope for the Letter “Y”

Source: La i griega aún tiene esperanzas, El País

There’s Still Hope for the Letter “Y”
Spain weeps over the Y and Latin America the V: the new orthography sets off a debate about uniformity and diversity.
JAVIER RODRÍGUEZ MARCOS 09/11/2010
The Spanish arrived in America with the Y out front. On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus disembarked on the island of Guanahani, and according to the diary of Admiral Bartolomé de las Casas, he did so bearing a standard with the initials of the Catholic monarchs: the F of Fernando and the Y of Ysabel.

The Royal Spanish Academy published its first orthography in 1741, but its title was Orthographía, not Orthografía, because the rules in force today were by and large not set until 1815. That is to say, Ysabel was late in becoming Isabel, and in so doing losing the wordplay between the initials of her name and her famous emblem: the yoke.

Last week, centuries after Columbus’s expedition and faithful to the Pan-Hispanic politics of recent years, representatives of 11 of the 22 universities in the Association of Spanish Language Academies met in San Millán de la Cogolla (La Rioja, Spain) to complete the new edition of the Orthography. If ratified by the full association during its meeting on November 28th in Guadalajara, Mexico, this December it would replace the previous edition published in 1999.

One of the biggest innovations in the new Orthography is the proposal of a single name for every letter: Y would be ye, striking i griega [“Greek I”] from the books. B would be be and V uve, replacing the names be baja and be corta (“short B”) for V. The academies have continued pushing for unity in a language that’s already relatively unitary – the two sides of the Atlantic already have more than 80% of their vocabulary in common – but the mere announcement of the Y-B-V proposal has caused a Transatlantic controversy that rages most fiercely of all on the Internet. The Spanish are weeping for their i griega while the Latin Americans shed tears for be corta.

Humberto López Morales of the Puerto Rican Academy, responsible for the Dictionary of Americanisms, and as general secretary of the Association of Spanish Language Academies a non-voting member of the orthographic commission, explained the trade-offs leading to the changes in his dispatch from the RAE (Royal Spanish Academy): “They debated a long time…a long, long, long time…and they reached this agreement: to accept uve (V), mostly used in Spain, in exchange for also taking ye (Y), which is predominant in some parts of Latin America.” López Morales recalled that the most ardent defense of the ye came from the Mexican Academy, whose demographic weight is unquestionable: it has the most Spanish speakers in the world (104 of an estimated total of 450 million, more than double the second place country, the United Stations at 45 million).

Orthography was decided by a show of hands? “I’m not sure if it’s the best process,” he responded, “But that’s how it went.” Was it necessary to retire the i griega and the be baja/corta? “Truthfully, it wasn’t, but it is convenient. It’s much better for the speakers of the Hispanic world to use specific words for things if they can. We’d like to have uniform spelling for the entire range of the language.”

Following the Caribbean usage, López Morales has always said i griega, but he thinks there has been too much commotion over something that “isn’t that important,” though he thinks it’s very positive for the public to discuss these things: “There were the same ferocious discussions inside the RAE.” Generally, he says, between linguists and writers.

The Puerto Rican academic born in Cuba thinks there is “no danger” of unity morphing into uniformity: “the more united and standardized the Spanish we all speak together, the better we understand each other. Without a doubt, variety is richness, but it’s best to have a common language first and variants below that.”

The academic orthography has chapters that legislate and point out the hated removals and chapters that suggest and orient. Humberto López Morales insists that the change in the name of the letters is only a proposal: “If it doesn’t succeed, the next edition will have to step back from that. But the worst proposal is the one that isn’t made. It’s almost a duty for the academies to set out these kinds of ideas.”

Are people offended because of their customs more than their common sense? Are the angry responses of some merely resistance to change? If spelling is full of fossils – Orthographía, Christo, obscuro – and survivors – septiembre, psiquiatra – then lexicon is pure defiance: a verb like explosionar (explode) screeches in the ears of those who grew up with explotar, which was itself considered barbaric for decades compared to the über-Castilian estallar. “The argument that every change in human history has provoked resistance is correct, but that doesn’t mean there was no reason for that resistance,” says Juan Antonio González Iglesias, poet and Latin professor at The University of Salamanca. “The words that seem normal to us were written by the victors of every little culture war.”

Marguerite Crayencour changed her last name to an anagram, Yourcenar. She did it, she said, “out of pleasure in the letter Y.” This year marks the thirtieth since she was the first woman to enter the French Academy. In memory, González Iglesias directed a conference about the writer at his university on July. For him, there is a “tremendous” change in the “miniscule” matter of Y. “Calling the Y ‘Greek I’ indicated that I is the ‘Roman I.’ It told us that our alphabet, which is Phoenician, was culturally consolidated by Greek and Rome,” he says. But he goes farther than that: “We’re separating ourselves from the rest of the Western languages, where this letter still has a similar name. As it did in Latin. This is cultural deterioration.”

González Iglesias noted that the continental currency has “Euro” written in Greek on the bills in homage to the ancient culture that created the word “Europe,” not the current Greece of the European Union. He also recalls that for the Pythagoreans, the two branches of the Y symbolize the easy road and the difficult one, and says, “It seems to me that the RAE has taken the easier one.”

The Salamancan professor jabs that it would have been better for the Spaniards to accept be baja in order to preserve i griega. Nor is he convinced about the change from quórum to cuórum: “Quorum is a learned word, a political and judicial term that uneducated people have no need to use. Since the common man doesn’t use it, there was no need to simplify it.”

For his part, Javier Marías, writer and member of the RAE, wants to see the new Orthography prepared by his colleagues before giving his opinion – “they are very wise people who want to make changes that won’t be excessive or traumatic” – but he also says, “I’ll continue to write as I please.” Creator’s privileges. “Some have complained that instead of writing espurio for “spurious,” I use espúreo, a spelling that the RAE hasn’t accepted for years. It just seems more authentic to me. I find the word ‘espurioespúrea.” He recalls that Juan Ramón Jiménez [Spanish poet and 1956 laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature] wrote jeneral instead of general. “The Academy doesn’t impose anything, although it has great authority and the people pay attention to its rulings,” he continued. As it were, he’ll continue writing “knave” as truhán with an accent: “I don’t believe it’s pronounced the same way as Juan, nor that guión (script) is pronounced like the second syllable of avión (airplane).” His proposal: permit both options, as football can be written as either fútbol or futbol. With respect to Qatar, which will be Catar, he affirms that there are orthographical extravagances in every language, “such as the x in the French bijoux ” (jewellery).

For Humberto López Morales, who insists on many of the proposals of the new text, what’s important is for spelling to cohere to its own rules: “Taking the accent out of solo is the most logical thing in the world from the perspective of Spanish grammar. There aren’t any expressions where it would be ambiguous now. And that’s the right context for resolving these questions.” The authorities, that is to say the writers, are some of the sources used by the grammarians. Although they tend to be, as Marías says, “hypercorrect,” the future of the i griega, in part, is in their hands.

The Changes
The names of the letters. The letters whose names vary by region would be unified.
Clarification of letters that no longer exist. The “ch” and “ll” [removed along with ‘rr’ in 1994] would continue to be formally excluded from the alphabet. The number of letters would remain 27.
Solo and demonstrative pronouns. The RAE recommends not putting accents on demonstrative pronouns or the adverb sólo, since the risk of confusing the former with antecedents for a name or adjective and the latter with the adjectival solo are very rare.
Guión without an accent. Words like guion [script], hui [I sank], riais [you all laugh], Sion [Zion], and truhan [knave] would be considered monosyllabic, and hence would not carry accent marks.
-“4 o 5,” not “4 ó 5.” Until now, the conjunction “o” [or] was written with an accent when placed between digits [i.e. “4 or 5 million”]. No longer.
Catar, not Qatar. The accepted spellings would be Irak, Catar, and cuórum, not Iraq, Qatar, and quórum.

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