Elisabeth Malkin, "Rebelling Against Spain, This Time With Words", NYT 11/25/2010:
The Royal Spanish Academy is lopping two letters off the Spanish alphabet, reducing it to 27.
Out go “ch” and “ll,” along with lots of annoying accents and hyphens.
The simplified spelling from the academy, a musty Madrid institution that is the chief arbiter of all things grammatical, should be welcome news to the world’s 450 million Spanish-speakers, not to mention anybody struggling to learn the language.
But no. Everyone, it seems, has a bone to pick with the academy — starting with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
If the academy no longer considers “ch” a separate letter, Mr. Chávez chortled to his cabinet, then he would henceforth be known simply as “Ávez.” (In fact, his name will stay the same, though his place in the alphabetic order will change, because “ch” used to be the letter after “c.”)
This being 2010, there are several anti-reform facebook pages, including "Contra la reforma ortográfica de la RAE"; "No me gusta la nueva reforma ortográfica de la RAE ):"; "Me declaro objetor de conciencia de la nueva ortografía de la RAE".
The last of these pages taught me something about Spanish (not that this is hard to do, since I know very little). The message below its profile picture explains the proposed changes:
La 'y griega' será 'ye'. / 'Solo café solo', sin tilde. / 'Guión' y 'truhán', también sin tilde. / '4 o 5' y no '4 ó 5' / 'Irak, Catar y cuórum' y no 'Iraq, Qatar y quórum'
Looking up tilde in the RAE's Diccionario de la Lengua Española, I find that its first meaning is:
Virgulilla o rasgo que se pone sobre algunas abreviaturas, el que lleva la ñ, y cualquier otro signo que sirva para distinguir una letra de otra o denotar su acentuación.
Diacritic or feature that is placed above certain abbreviations, that which is above the ñ, and any other sign that serves to distinguish one letter from another or to indicate its accentuation.
So in Spanish, all accents are tildes. Interestingly, the other meanings given are:
2. amb. p. us. Tacha, nota denigrativa.
3. f. Cosa mínima.
2. Blemish, denigrating note.
3. Tiny thing.
The RAE dictionary says that tilde is from tildar "to brand"; but the OED gives this etymology:
[Sp. tilde, a popular metathetic form of the type *tidlo for tit(u)lo, ad. L. titulus TITLE. Diez cites as a parallel instance cabildo, L. capitulum.]
The English equivalent would thus be tittle (as in "jot and tittle"), "A small stroke or point in writing or printing", whose etymology is given as
[ME. titel, -il, orig. the same word as TITLE, but with a special sense developed in late L. and Romanic (see below), and retaining the short i of L. titulus. The spelling tittle is found 1535; title is occasional after 1600.]
(The "see below reference" lists many "mediaeval and Romanic senses of L. titulus akin to Eng. tittle".)
As far as I can tell, the new edition of the Real Academia Española's Ortografía de la lengua española isn't yet available to the public, so all the fuss must be based on reviews of advance copies.
Another thing I learned is this (from Malkin's NYT article):
There have long been complaints about Spanish spelling. At the first international congress of the Spanish language in Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1997, the Colombian writer and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez declared, “Let’s retire spelling, the terror of all beings from the cradle.” But he admitted that his pleas were little more than “bottles flung to the sea in the hope that they would one day come to the god of all words.”
I presume that this is a plea for something like the do-it-yourself spelling practices of English writers in the 16th and 17th centuries. As I noted a few years ago,
According to the Textbase of Early Tudor English, John Skelton (1460-1529), "poete laureate in the unyversite of Oxenforde" and also poet-laureate to Henry VIII, spelled should in his poems as "shold", "sholde", "should", "shoulde", "shuld", "shulde", and "xuld". In the first of his poems in the LION database, "An Elegy on Henry Fourth Earl of Northumberland", Skelton uses two of these spellings in one line:
41 What shuld I flatter? what shulde I glose or paynt?
and at least one other spelling a few lines later:
67 To the right of his prince which shold not be withstand;
The logical connection between Gabriel García Márquez and the rest of the NYT article is a subtle one. The RAE is certainly not promoting Skelton's approach to spelling — according to Malkin, "The Spanish academy needed 800 pages to explain the new simplified rules." And the Facebook pages and other voices of protest seem to be complaining that the standards are to be changed (thus devaluing existing cultural capital), rather than arguing either for more rigid or less rigid standards.
[Update — The 1999 edition of the RAE's Ortografía de la lengua española explains (p. 1) that
En realidad, ch y ll son dígrafos, signos ortográficos compuestos de dos letras. Desde la cuarta edición del Diccionario académico (1803) vienen, sin embargo, considerándose convencionalmente letras — cuarta y decimocuarta, respectivamente, del abecedario español –, por el hecho de que cada uno de ellos representa un solo fonema.
In reality, ch and ll are digraphs, orthographic signs composed of two letters. As of the fourth edition of the academy's Dictionary (1803), they were nevertheless conventionally considered letters — the fourth and the fourteenth, respectively, of the Spanish alphabet –, due to the fact that each of them represents a single phoneme.
A petición de diversos organismos internacionales, la Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española accordó en su X Congreso (Madrid, 1994) reordenar esos dígrafos en el lugar que el alfabeto latino universal les asigna. Así pues, en el Diccionario, las palabras que comienzan por ch se registrarán en la letra C entra las que empiezan por ce y ci; las que comienzan por ll, en la letra L entre las que empiezan por li y lo. En el resto de al ordenación alfabética, las palabras que contengan ch y ll en otra posiciones distintas a la inicial pasarán a ocupar el lugar que en la secuencia del alfabeto universal les corresponde.
At the request of various international organizations, the Association of Academies of the Spanish Language agreed at its tenth Congress (Madrid, 1994) to re-order these digraphs in the place that the universal Latin alphabet assigns to them. Therefore in the Dictionary the words that begin with ch are listed in the letter C between those that begin with ce and ci; those that begin with ll, in the letter L between those that begin with li and lo. In other aspects of alphabetic ordering, words that contain ch and ll in non-initial positions shift to occupy the place that the universal alphabet assigns to them.
As several commenters observe below, this means that both Sr. Chávez and Ms. Malkin are confused about what the new RAE reforms actually prescribe, since the banishment of ch and ll is already more then 15 years old. It's interesting this has gone unnoticed, until now, by people as presumably well informed as the president of Venezuela and the main (?) Latin American correspondent of the New York Times.
And they're not the only ones! Malkin quotes Ilan Stavans, "a Mexican who is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College":
“It’s kind of a magic realist moment. They decide that 2 of 29 letters will disappear [...]. All the dictionaries will have to be remade, which is good for selling the Royal Academy’s dictionary, which they keep producing as though it’s the Bible.”
Apparently the effective power of the RAE is less than one might think. Or is it just that 1994 was before the internet?
Of course, Chávez has both Bolivarian and anti-Yanqui motivations for making jokes about the RAE's proposal. Here's a Facebook comment (by someone identified as "Elena Mujica") illustrating the latter dimension:
A mi parecer, lo que estos señores desean hacer es "gringarizar" el idioma Castellano, por que simplemente en el inglés no existe el tilde, casi no hay una pronunciación acentuada o tildada en una sílaba y al momento de deletrear una palabra, ellos mensionan cada letra sin importar q esa palabra empieze con dos consonantes, como ejemplo las palabras chair o school. Nosotros diriamos "ch" no "c" "h" como en el inglés se hace… realmente me parece un retrazo total, una comidilla mal hecha y sobretodo un insulto a nuestro idioma, ya que, para nosotros existe un sonido determinado para cada consonante y por consiguiente para cada sílaba. Sugiero a la persona que haya pensado en éste cambio que por favor, recapacite y que emplee su tiempo en algo realmente importante, como en incorporar nuevas palabras que en realidad se necesiten. YO ESTOY ROTUNDAMENTE EN CONTRA DE ESTA "PSEUDO REFORMA"… NO DEJEMOS A NUESTRO HERMOSO IDIOMA SER INVADIDO POR REGLAS DE OTRO.
In my opinion, what these gentlemen want to do is to "gringo-ize" the Castilian language, simply because in English there is no pronunciation marked with an accent or tilde when you spell a word, they mension [sic] each letter never mind if the word begins with two consonants, for example chair or school. [etc. etc.] DO NOT ALLOW OUR BEAUTIFUL LANGUAGE TO BE INVADED BY FOREIGN RULES.