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Spain is in a war of words against the English language

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Translation by:

Charlotte Walmsley

Tower of BabelCulture

English dominates the worlds of business, advertising and social media. Anglicisms are spreading like wildfire through French, Spanish and Italian, and not everyone is happy with it. In the modern war of words, the English language has launched a full-scale linguistic offensive. [OPINION]

In Spain, dropping foreign words into conversation is not necessarily a sign of intelligence. It's an odd experience when you are chatting with other native Spanish speakers and you unwittingly use anglicisms like "brainstorming", "target" and "fashion", despite having perfectly acceptable Spanish equivalents at your disposal. Of course, one of your friends will think that you are showing off and just want to brag when, in reality, you are revealing your inability to master either language. 

European languages are constantly in flux. Freedom of movement has brought with it linguistic as well as social change and, as a result, our way of speaking is evolving at the speed of light. As Spaniards, we spend our entire lives grappling with the language of Virginia Woolf and yet we use foreign terminology without even breaking a sweat. English has an undisputed monopoly over our newly acquired vocabulary as the lingua franca of science, advertising and social media. Sometimes these terms are used for convenience, and sometimes for no real reason at all. The Real Academia Española (RAE), whose motto has been to "neaten, fix and give splendour" to the Spanish language since 1713, does not like these new linguistic changes one bit. 

The 46 academics of this centuries-old Madrid-based institution, of whom only 8 are women, have taken a clear stance on this issue: we only have one mother tongue and we must protect it. "English is taking over advertising from outside and from within, and this is all because we have been made to believe that it sounds better than Spanish." So, what's their plan of counter-attack? An audiovisual campaign that hits consumers right where it hurts: their ignorance. Two fake products were launched with adverts in English, inviting consumers to order them online for free. One advert promoted glasses with a "blinding effect" and the other, a perfume with a "pig scent." As was to be expected, many fell for this trap, blinded by the products' showy presentation. But whose fault was it? The consumer for their foolishness, or the seller for their abuse of their power?

The RAE campaign lead by the Grey Spain agency, which ingeniously criticises the "invasion" of anglicisms in the labour market.

There are no borders in the European Union but there are indeed 24 official languages, the defence of which has been no mean feat in the 21st century. Take for example the attention-grabbing campaign led by the CSA (Conseil Supérieur de L’Audiovisuel) in France, which addresses French speakers who use (and abuse) franglais and text speak, ordering them to: "Say it in French. Our language is beautiful. Use it."

"Why can't you choose between speaking French or English? I'm bored of talking to you."

In Italy, there's an initiative called #Dilloinitaliano (#SayItInItalian), led by blogger Annamaría Testa, that calls upon the government, public administration and the media to "speak a bit more Italian, please." In Germany, the opposite is happening. Not only do they love anglicisms, they have started creating their own: adapting words to sound English, even if they do not already exist. From the word "pullover", meaning "sweater", they have created a new term for a sleeveless sweater: the "pullunder." From the word "hand", they revolutionised the world of telephonic communication with "handy", meaning "mobile". We Spaniards are also experts in this field: we created "footing" (jogging), "puenting" (bungee-jumping) and "alto standing" (high standing). 

"So trendy, so cool, so ridiculous" 

While no-one would deny that languages should maintain their own personality and idiosyncrasies, this negative view of language evolution could seem a little alarmist and exaggerative. We should not forget that languages are living things that frequently cross borders, much like people. At times, we will inevitably start using a new word, leading to the disappearance of another. Maybe the vocabulary that is considered to be an intrusion today, will be considered an innovation tomorrow. Take for example, the Spanish word "bulevar" that derives from "boulevard", "estatus" from "status" and many other words that have simply been added to the dictionary as new synonyms, such as "ballet" as a synonym of "classical dance."

However, while the RAE is battling against the perceived invasion of anglicisms that replace and marginalise terms that already exist, the Spanish language has been appropriating vocabulary from its neighbours throughout history. Yet, to its delight, it has not only not disappeared; it has become the second most spoken language in the world. Nevertheless, we have German to thank for the word "aspirin", Greek for "atmosphere", and Arabic for our beloved "olé!"

We also have to remember of course that Spanish words crop up in other languages. Many Spanish terms have infiltrated the English-speaking vernacular: "aficionado", "cojones", "to go solo", "mi casa es su casa", "qué será será", "macho", "guerrilla", "going mano a mano", and "mañana." As for French speakers, they have become accustomed to expressions such as: "siestas", "chorizo", "basta", "gazpacho", "la plancha", "tapas", "fiesta", "macho", and "faire la ola" (making waves). Italians use "golpe", "desaparecidos", "goleador", "la movida" and "al buen retiro" (which refers to a secret spot where lovers meet!).

We should let languages change and evolve naturally, allowing them to forge their own paths. We should live and let live or, as they say in Poland, "życie jak w Madrycie" (live like those in Madrid do).


This article is part of our Tower of Babel series, looking at the vagaries of European languages.

Story by

Ana Valiente

Spanish freelance journalist based in Madrid. Currently exploring the boundless world of documentary filmmaking.

Translated from La ineludible irrupción de las palabras