Sr. Chávez objects

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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".)

You wouldn't think that people would get so worked up over the loss of a few "tiny things" that in other contexts they regard as "blemishes", but spelling reform is like that:

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.



  1. Maria said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 8:49 am

    Yes, the "tilde" is also called "orthographic accent". We are taught since childhood that all words have "acentos" (which translates to a stressed syllable), but only some have "tildes", since in Spanish accents (tildes) do not change pronounciation, only stress.

  2. Bobbie said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    By my count, the Spanish alphabet would still have 28 letters. ( The RR and the N with the tilde are still included, I assume.) Is there some reason why the RR would persist but the LL should go away? Does the RR have lobbyists working for its retention?

  3. Roderick said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    @Bobbie, the "RR" has never been a separate letter in Spain, at least not since 1803, when the Real Academia Española published the official alphabet that remained unchanged until this year. Some Latin American countries distinguish between "ere" ("R") and "erre" ("RR") when teaching the alphabet. But the letter "R" has always been "erre", at least officially, and the digraph "RR" is simply a combination of two "erres."

  4. marie-lucie said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    The reform of the alphabet (more than of spelling) seems to concern the order of letters in the alphabet, with CH now placed among the C's and LL among the L's. Since no word begins orthographically with RR, this combination has not had a special place in the alphabet, so there is no need for a change.

  5. alfanje said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 10:13 am

    CH and LL are not considered letters since 1992, which altered the alphabetical order but went down without much fuss. Still they survive in the mind of lots of speakers, who would spell words with "che" and "elle" rather than "ce-hache" and "doble ele". (@Bobbie I think RR -erre doble- never had the status of a letter, maybe because no words start with it; still I have heard some Argentinians call it "erre", for opposition to R "ere". In Spain R is "erre" and RR "erre doble")

    @María, older speakers have been taught that every word have a prosodic accent and some orthographic accents. At some point, the word "tilde" was introduced and the use of "accent" for the diacritics condemned.

  6. Barry said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 10:14 am

    They should just switch to the universal metric alphabet. (Honey, would you lmnopen the door?)

  7. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 10:28 am

    @alfanje: That had been my understanding as well, but obviously people are reacting as though this is a new thing. What's going on? Do these new changes make the splitting-up of CH and of LL even firmer somehow? Or are the new changes simply reminding people of older changes that they still dislike and object to?

    Incidentally, the DRAE still defines "che" as "Nombre de la letra ch" and "elle" as "Nombre de la letra ll". I guess they're descriptivist about some things …

  8. Ray Dillinger said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 10:31 am

    I've always been sort of amazed about languages where there is some authority which most speakers agree has the authority to do things like this. The Royal Spanish Academy is acting in a role of truly incredible privilege here. As an English speaker I simply can't imagine an entity that would be allowed to promulgate linguistic reform of any kind "from the top down" as it were.

    That said, simplifying a writing system if it can be done without loss of utility is hardly ever a bad thing. It's just astonishing that the Spanish-speaking community is so cohesive that there can be a central authority empowered to do so without a widespread consensus existing prior to the official change. It's as though the Academy rather than the speakers owns the language.

  9. Ben C said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    I think this will be a very interesting phenomenon to watch–will the Spanish-speaking community simply ignore the changes? How will internet-based communities, like the Facebook groups mentioned, come into play.

    Recently, of course, US web-users have taken to the streets, so to speak, with anger against the TSA's new patdowns and backscatter scanners. Thus far, little has changed because of it.

    I would posit that, assuming both movements have significant amounts of followers, what happens to one will probably happen to both.

  10. Josh Treleaven said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 10:50 am

    I thought this post was going to be about Sr. Chávez' personal possessions. Or action figures of Chávez.

    [(myl) Consider your personal copy to bear the title "NO DEJEMOS A NUESTRO HERMOSO IDIOMA SER INVADIDO POR REGLAS DE OTRO"]

  11. Thomas Thurman said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 11:48 am

    How common is it for a language to accord digraphs their own place in the alphabet? I know Welsh does this with "ch", "ll", "ff", and possibly a few others.

    Since no word begins orthographically with RR, this combination has not had a special place in the alphabet, so there is no need for a change.

    I can make no sense of your comment. What does a digraph's inclusion within the alphabet have to do with whether it can occur word-initially? (For example, suppose the scholars of the RAE decided that RR was a letter of its own that should be placed at the very start of the alphabet. Then perro would come before pero in the dictionary. The inclusion has altered sorting, even though RR never appears word-initially.)

  12. Mark F. said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 11:57 am

    I love the line "There have long been complaints about Spanish spelling." I suppose there have long been complaints about all spelling systems, but I'd think Spanish speakers have less to complain about than most.

  13. alfanje said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    @Ran Ari-Gur A new edition of the official "Ortography" is about to be released. The press are focusing and emphasizing different aspects of the drafts, but it seems that some that were already consolidated are still shocking for part of the public. The situation for CH and LL will be the same, so as you say, some people are still opposing old changes… and I'm afraid that some others just discovered them. A pity that we didn't have Facebook groups in 1992…

  14. KCinDC said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

    If they're getting rid of the accent in "truhán" because it's a one-syllable word, why not get rid of the "h" while they're at it?

  15. Cy said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    @Thomas Thurman
    you're correct about the ordering – for rr and r it could be completely arbitrary, but if words in Spanish had RR as an onset, there would be a giant RR in the table of contents, in the index of every book, and an entire volume of every encyclopedia possibly devoted to it. It's like in English – if we suddenly decided that "SH" was a digraph, we'd have to rearrange everything – but if we decided that "LP" was a digraph, it would be orders of magnitude less disruptive, because it doesn't occur at the beginning of words, only in the middle or the end, like "gulp" or "helper." And of course, digraph or not, it's made up of two "mono"-graphs, so there's no logical reason to put it anywhere other than after "r" (or after "L", before "M," and well before "P" for hypothetical "LP").

  16. Henning Makholm said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

    @Ray Dillinger: As far as my (limited) experience goes, English is fairly unique among major national languages in leaving orthographic standardization entirely in the hands of commercial publishers of dictionaries and style guides. Most other languages seem to have some kind of officially recognized body for that kind of thing, if only to define authoritatively which orthography is to be taught (and tested) in public schools.

    I don't think it is common for these bodies to have any direct authority over how non-students (non-civil-servant) language users write or speak, except for the persuasive value of being a generally recognized authority (and thus likely to be deferred to in case of disagreements between writers and editors, say).

  17. Henning Makholm said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    @Thomas Thurman: "How common is it for a language to accord digraphs their own place in the alphabet?"

    Traditional Danish standards specify that "aa" collates as a typographic variant of "å" (which comes at the end of the alphabet) if and only if it represents an "å" phoneme. However, where "aa" represents an "a" sound (mostly in loanwords) or two "a" sounds (in certain uncommon compound words) it collates as a+a.

    Implementers of collating algorithms routinely curse this decision.

    [The letter "å" was imported from Swedish in an orthographic reform in 1948. Previously the vowels sounds it represents were always written "aa", since historically they developed from long "a"s. The reform was, however, made optional for personal (and to some extent geographical) names as a compromise to deal with resistance from people who would otherwise have their legal names changed. The convoluted collation rules were supposed to make sure you could look up somebody in a sorted list of names without knowing whether they had embraced the aa->å change.]

  18. Chano said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

    It's ironic that in a post complaining about supposed attacks to the Spanish language, Mr Chávez commits several mistakes himself:
    – "por que simplemente" instead of "porque simplemente"
    – "mensionan" instead of "mencionan"
    – "retrazo" instead of "retraso"
    – "sobretodo" instead of "sobre todo"
    – "éste cambio" instead of "este cambio"

    Although some of these might be typos, "mensionan" and "retrazo" show a deep confusion about Spanish spelling rules for s/c/z.

    [(myl) The Facebook comment that I cited was by someone identified as "Elena Mujica". As far as I know, Sr. Chávez does not air his opinions on Facebook. Sorry for confusing you — I've adjusted the text to avoid misleading others in the future.]

  19. a George said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

    @Thomas Thurman: the German Sch (a trigraph) was alphabetized by itself and not in letter order

  20. F. Escobar said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

    @Ran Ari-Gur: True about DRAE22, but if you click on the top right corner, you'll see that the forthcoming edition of the DRAE has changed "letra" for "dígrafo."

    I made a comment about this spelling reform on Arnold Zwicky's blog, here. Conclusion: "That for which I find most justifiable grounds for complaint is the very despotism of top-down language change. Spanish needs much more descriptivism in its grammarians, and the most recent flurry of reforms have used the cloak of descriptivism to launch an all-out prescriptivist assault. Centuries of traditions, and a very rich sense of diversity, are being ignored in order to forge a more homogeneous language system. There are benefits to such a thing, but there are also delusions about language and authority that need to be exorcized."

  21. John said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

    @Chano "Although some of these might be typos, "mensionan" and "retrazo" show a deep confusion about Spanish spelling rules for s/c/z."

    I'm guessing that Ms. Mujica is from a Latin-American country in which the dialect does not have the interdental fricative [z]. For somebody growing up in Venezuela who has never met a person from Madrid, it would probably seem that there is no rule at all as to when to write [s] and when to write [c/z].

  22. Xmun said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

    The good thing about Spanish spelling is that once you know the rules you can pronounce any word you read. The bad thing is that you can't always know the correct spelling of a word you hear.

  23. Xmun said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

    Well, I can pronounce any Spanish word I read in theory, so to speak. I can't get my mouth to produce the rr sound. Or for that matter the German r. I made a mess of my one line in a scene from Wilhelm Tell:

    Herr Gessler, rührt Euch nicht des Kindes Unschuld?

    Dear me, that was fifty-odd years ago and memory still hurts.

  24. Ellen K. said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    @Roderick. Thanks. I was wondering what happened to the rr as a letter. I learned the alphabet (in high school Spanish clase) with rr as a letter. I still have to work at it to pronounce ere and erre differently.

  25. F. Escobar said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    @John: I agree that Ms. Mujica must have grown up somewhere in the Americas, but surely you are being quite benign. Her quoted words are the kind of thing that makes copy editors crack their knuckles (or aim for a new, darker cup of coffee). Some of her mistakes are typically made by people who are far too accustomed to English (no gender, capitalized names of languages), and hence you get wild errors like "el tilde" and "Castellano" (where native speakers, fairly well-versed in grammar, would write "la tilde" and "castellano"). This is very ironic since she is voicing a complaint against "Americanizing" Spanish. Oh, well. I guess I've met a fair number of people who fit the profile.

  26. Bobbie said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

    @Roderick — I learned the Spanish alphabet 50 years ago in the US and assure you that RR **was taught as a freestanding letter! I have seen comments online saying that "in the Americas RR is commonly recognized as a separate letter…." [but the Royal Academy does not recognize it].

  27. Pavel Iosad said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

    @Thomas Thurman:
    The most confusing (to a learner) fact about Welsh orthography in this respect is the status of ng, which is a separate letter (following g in the order), but only as long as it represents the velar nasal, as in dangos 'show', which thus comes before, say, dal 'hold'. However, if it represents a nasal-stop sequence, as in llongyfarchiadau 'congratulations', it's sorted as a n. Since there is no way to tell from the orthography, this is one of the very few points where Welsh orthography does an English on the learner.

    For the record, the Welsh digraphs are ll, ng, ch, dd, th, ph (exceedingly rare) and rh; all except ng are sorted following the first letter in the digraph.

  28. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

    I have a comment on the title of the post. In my experience (having lived in Colombia and Costa Rica, and spent time in several other Latin American countries) it would be regarded as an insult to refer to a politician as Sr. [surname] rather than by his military or academic title if he has one. The President of Venezuela is usually referred to as Comandante (abbreviated Cte.) Chávez, and others may be Coronel, Doctor, Ingeniero, Licenciado etc. I remember the uproar caused by Julio César Turbay Ayala's opponent when he referred to him as Señor Turbay, because Turbay had had to drop out of university before graduating and thus was not entitled to be styled Doctor.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

    When I was taking Spanish in Oaxaca a few years ago, my cultural-exchange partner was a teenager, and he told me that the letter y was called ye in math. Apparently the academies are extending this to all mentions of the letter.

    Few people know (or care) that North America has the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española, which is one of the 22 members of the Asociación de las Academias de la Lengua Española. Judging by their Web site, they're much more interested in the U.S. than in Canada.

  30. Peter Taylor said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

    I was also taught that rr is a letter, in my case by a Spaniard in the 90s, and I'm sure I read in a local newspaper in Guadalajara, Mexico, two weeks ago that the various Academias were meeting and would agree to ditch 'ch', 'll', and 'rr' as letters.

    The RAE's previous advice, as recorded in Appendix 4 of my copy of the Diccionario esencial de la lengua española from 2006, doesn't list 'rr' as a letter but does list it, along with 'qu' and 'gu', as a digraph.

    The most obvious practical effect I can see is on the game of Scrabble. In current Spanish Scrabble there are separate tiles for ñ, ll, ch, and rr, and it is not permitted to use e.g. a 'c' and an 'h' to spell 'echo'. I presume that Mattel will seize the opportunity to release a new version with extra 'l's, 'c's, 'h's, and 'r's.

  31. Xmun said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

    My copy of the DLE of the REA (2001 edn) lists all 21 "academias correspondentes" in the prelims, in chronological order of foundation, the North American academy being the last, founded in New York on 5th November 1973. Since there is also an "Academia mexicana", I take it that "norteamericana" is here, as so often elsewhere, to be taken as a synonym of "estadounidense".

  32. Bob Violence said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

    How common is it for a language to accord digraphs their own place in the alphabet?

    Examples not mentioned yet:

    Albanian (dh, gj, ll, nj, rr, sh, th, xh, zh)
    Czech (ch)
    Filipino (ng and formerly ch, ll and rr)
    Hungarian (cs, dz, gy, ly, ny, sz, ty, zs, plus the trigraph dzs)
    Maltese (għ, ie)
    Māori (ng, wh)
    Montenegrin (dž, lj, nj)
    Slovak (ch, dz, dž)
    Somali (dh, kh, sh)

    Dutch "ij" is still considered a letter in some quarters, although this apparently isn't official.

  33. gribley said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 10:45 pm

    Bob V. — I recall seeing "ij" alphabetized as a single letter in Dutch phone books c. 1993. I suspect that the use of computers has a substantial role in breaking up these digraphs, as i+j is easier to input on most keyboards than ij or IJ as a Unicode entity. A bit of a shame, since I think the connected y-with-umlaut look adds some charm to written Dutch, but I suppose that's really no different than any ligature in English.

  34. John Maline said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 11:10 pm

    Unsurprisingly, the NY Times ran an article about the change in 1994…

    I learned the news maybe 3 months ago when browsing through a grammar book (Barron's Spanish Grammar, 2nd ed). I felt a bit of my childhood disappear. Seventh grade in Seña Lamm's class…

  35. Xmun said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

    Maori place names beginning with Ng or Wh are filed in ordinary alphabetical order among the Ns and Ws in The Reed Dictionary of New Zealand Place Names, and common words are similarly treated in the Orsman's Dictionary of New Zealand English ad in the Reed Book of Maori Proverbs. However, it's true that Ng and Wh are given separate treatment in some other works, e.g. in both the Reed and the Williams Maori dictionaries and in a collection of "sayings of the ancestors" (Nga Pepeha a nga Tipuna).

  36. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    November 28, 2010 @ 11:50 pm

    Regarding <r> vs. <rr>:

    (Note: throughout this comment, for simplicity's sake, I'll use /r/ for the tapped phoneme in "pero" and /rr/ for the trilled phoneme in "perro")

    I suspect that part of the reason the Academy never treated <rr> as a distinct letter is that <r> is often pronounced /r/ and often /rr/. The phoneme /r/ is impossible at the beginning of a word or after /l/ or /n/ or /s/, and accordingly, /rr/ is always written <r> in those contexts. This makes it a bit harder to think of the two as completely unrelated in the way that <l> and <ll> or <c>/<h> and <ch> are. (Obviously plenty of Latin Americans are happy to use "ere" and "erre" to distinguish the two, even though <r> is often pronounced like "erre", but still, you can see where the Academy was coming from.)

  37. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 12:10 am

    @MYL: The DRAE says tildar is from Latin titulare (long a), so it doesn't disagree very much with the OED.

  38. Geoxus said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 12:46 am

    As far as I understood it, "che" and "elle" were still letters and the RAE just made a compromise for alphabetical listings. It had not officially "degraded" them to digraphs till now. I'm Chilean, and here people have long passed over the "che" and "elle" silliness. Here only old people and the deluded primary teachers insist on treating "ll" and "ch" as letters. I guess most of us are taught that way but don't really assimilate it. Most of us would would spell out "chinchilla" as "ce, hache, i, ene, ce, hace, i, doble ele, a", and "Chile" is always "Ce, hache, i, e, ele, e". We use generally the word "doble" simply to indicate a repeated letter, not necessarily a digraph ("doble ele" for "ll", "doble erre" or "doble ere" for "rr", "doble n" or "ene ene" for "nn" as in "perenne"), but also for the "w" letter "doble ve".

    I mostly welcome any simplifying reform (not that Spanish orthography is terribly difficult either), but my truhán has two syllables so I refuse giving up my acento (though people here prefer to call it "tilde").

    [(myl) The 1999 edition of the RAE's Ortografía de la lengua española, quoted above, seems quite forthright in officially "downgrading" ch and ll to digraphs, and in dating the change to 1994.]

  39. Freddy Hill said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 2:47 am

    Microsoft Windows supports many Spanish "locales." One of the locale attributes is the sort (or collation) order. Already in Windows 95, Microsoft supported two flavors of the locale for Spain: "Spanish (Traditional Sort)" and "Spanish (Spain – Modern Sort)." Modern Sort is, I believe, identical to English sort (and Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, etc), and is the basis for the reform. Other Spanish locales have also used the Modern Sort for many years (including Venezuela, Mr Chavez!). Interestingly, "Spanish (Mexico)" is the only locale that uses Traditional Sort outside Spain.

    The complexities inherent in the software support for multiple sorting orders for different languages are an important driver for this reform. Digraphs in particular are a minor pain in the neck because the programmer has to look at the letter after the current letter to determine the sorting order.

  40. Alon Lischinsky said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 7:17 am


    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

    Not really. García Márquez preferred lyricism to clarity in his 1997 intervention, but the overall point was the need for a more "rational" spelling (i.e., with a higher orthographical-phonological correspondence rate). In fact, the RAE standards have varied significantly throughout the years, periodically switching back and forth between basically phonological and etymological criteria. For most of the 19th and part of the 20th century, alternative standards devised by Latin American scholars (especially Andrés Bello) enjoyed widespread use. They tended to do away with etymological ⟨h⟩, abandon letters representing more than one phoneme (⟨c⟩, ⟨g⟩, ⟨y⟩), and simplify the use of diacritics.


    The good thing about Spanish spelling is that once you know the rules you can pronounce any word you read

    Not really. Certain rules are often confusing even for native speakers (such as the cluster ⟨br⟩ representing /bɾ/ when within a single syllable, but /br/ when the consonants are respectively the coda and onset of consecutive syllables). Most of my classmates and teachers in school (NE Argentina) used to say /su.βɾa.ʒaɾ/ for ⟨subrayar⟩ ("to underline"), and I didn't learn that the standard expects /sub.ra.ʒaɾ/ until I was in college.

  41. jo said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 8:21 am

    Given the unreliability of much of what's being reported, does anyone know if the reported respellings of loanwords below are actually planned (or, for that matter, actually new recomendations)?

    Catar y cuórum' y no 'Iraq, Qatar y quórum

    I don't know Spanish but I guess this aims for greater consistency in representing sounds that Spanish speakers pronounce as /k/ with orthographic 'c' even in loanwords. But if so, why change 'Iraq' to 'Irak' and not 'Irac'? I have to admit that Irac looks very weird to me, whereas French, German and others already use the spelling Irak, so it doesn't seem to bad. (After further checking, I discovered that Welsh (at least) does use the spelling Irac.)

  42. Geoxus said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 10:11 am

    Take a look at what the current DRAE says.

    El abecedario español está hoy formado por las veintinueve letras siguientes: a, b, c, ch, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, ll, m, n, ñ, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z

    The Spanish alphabet nowadays is composed of the following letters: a, b, c, ch, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, ll, m, n, ñ, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z

    Esta reforma afecta únicamente al proceso de ordenación alfabética de las palabras, no a la composición del abecedario, del que los dígrafos ch y ll siguen formando parte.

    This reform affects only the process of alphabetical sorting of words, not the composition of the alphabet, which still contains the digraphs ch and ll.

    So it seems that for the RAE ch and ll were still digraphs and letters.

  43. Geoxus said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 10:23 am

    I don't know why RAE prefers "k" over "q" fot Irak. No Spanish word I know ends in either "k" or "c", but we do use final "c" for loandwords in some extremely rare cases like "bloc" (original "block", notepad or sketchpad).

  44. Ryan Taylor said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    It's really too bad that English doesn't have a more consistent spelling. For most, it doesn't make that big a difference (well, besides hours of classes in primary school that could be spent on something more interesting) but many dyslexics' problems would effectively disappear in the wake of a reform.

  45. Rick S said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    I took a look at the online archive of crossword puzzles for the Spanish daily El Mundo. Interestingly, I found that "ch", "ll", and "rr" each consistently occupy two boxes in the answer grids there, which conflicts with them being treated as distinct letters of the alphabet. I wonder if this convention applies to Spanish language crosswords generally. Maybe some crucigramistas from South America could expand on this?

  46. Army1987 said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    @Josh Treleaven:
    The first reading doesn't work for me (it'd need the genitive), but the second does; even more likely, it could refer to members of a class of objects named after Chávez.

  47. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    Anyone care to comment on lower-case ff proper names? Prominent neuropsychologist Dominic ffytche, for example. Is this misapplied Welsh? Confined to High-U English?

    I see that LL nibbled around the edges back in 2005, but never took the topic on fully.

  48. Xmun said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

    ffoulkes, ffytche et al. are using the old form of capital F as it used to be written in secretary hand. (So I understand it, and I have learned to read secretary hand; indeed, I once edited a manuscript of the early seventeenth century written in a combination of secretary and italic.)

  49. Mary Kuhner said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

    I will guess that IJ is still one letter for at least some Dutch speakers, as while in Holland a few years ago I noticed at least two signs that ran vertically, one letter per box, and put IJ in a single box.

  50. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

    Van Dale Groot woordenboek der nederlaandse taal, the Dutch Oxford, alphabetizes ij-words between ig and ik, not separately, but says, ij — character consisting of two i's, of which the second is lengthened. So it's a single character consisting of two i's. Go figure.

    The spelling section notes that ij is mainly used in strong verbs and to render foreign words having a long i (Bible, mile, wine, etc.)

  51. Troy S. said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

    This topic led me to a pretty fascinating Wikipedia entry on how letters evolve from ligatures. I'm sure everybody knows that the w started out as a literal double u, but maybe it's less commonly known that the & is the Latin "et" or the German ß is a ligature of the old long s followed by a short s, or the Spanish ñ started out as a double n. There are many more. It's interesting how the mechanical exigencies of typeface and the printing press have shaped orthography.

  52. Robert Ayers said,

    November 30, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

    alfanje notes that ch was demoted from letter-hood circa 1992.

    The introduction to the book "501 Spanish Verbs" includes this: "The Association of Spanish Language Academies met in Madrid for its 10th Annual Congress on April 27, 1994 and voted to eliminate CH and L as separate letters of the Spanish alphabet. … The vote was 17 in favor, 1 opposed, and 3 abstentions. Ecuador voted :no" and Panama, Nicaragua and Uruguay abstained."

    The remark in "501 Spanish Verbs" gives as a source the New York Times of May 1 1994.

    [(myl) This was covered at some length in the body of the post, and in several earlier comments.[

  53. Anthony said,

    December 1, 2010 @ 2:25 am

    The most bothersome of the changes proposed isn't the elimination of the digraphs as official letters; it's the formalizing of the barbaric "ye" for "i griega". Apparently, it has become common in Mexico to call the 28th letter "ye" instead of "i griega", probably due to American (estadounidense) influence.

    One wonders what the point of having an official organization of prescriptivists is if they're going to go descriptivist on us.

  54. Mike said,

    December 2, 2010 @ 8:49 am

    I think it's a bit presumptuous to assume that every change that 'barbarically' simplifies language is influenced by the USA just because the laws that govern US language use are so Wild West. That would be like claiming, I don't know, that because Germany is relatively financially responsible, that every attempt to introduce financial responsibility is just German influence.
    Unfortunately for Anthony and everyone else who spent years in school learning that 'y' comes from the Greek ypsilon, there are millions of other people who are mainly interested in using the language to communicate. The forces of utility and legacy have been locked in battle for longer than any of us have been around, and they will continue to be longer than any of us survive, likely even longer than civilisation persists in its current form.

  55. Alex said,

    December 2, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

    One of the things I always liked about Spanish is that, compared to my native language (English), its alphabet is much closer to representing its phonemes. So I'm sad to see Spanish pushed away from that for the sake of easier alphabetization in EU filing cabinets– especially since several non-Latin alphabet countries have since joined the EU. And why was ñ spared? It's not a digraph, but it's still a barrier to uniform Latinate alphabetization.

    Having separate letters reminds learners of Spanish that there really is a phonemic difference between llama and lama, for instance. tʃ is a phoneme that isn't well represented by the combination of the hard or soft Spanish ce and the hache, which has no sound at all!

    Furthermore, for bilingual Spanish-Quechua speakers (virtually all literate Quechua speakers learned to write Spanish first), the che is the orthographic basis for 3 Quechua phonemes spelled ch, chh, and ch'. (ll and ñ are also phonemic in Quechua.) Having learned those letters first in Spanish helps when learning to write Quechua. I hope Quechua, at least, retains its complex letters and doesn't follow Spanish.

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