The Nobel Prize Laureate Who Scorned Spelling Rules

Erasmo Calzadilla

Illustration by Onel.

HAVANA TIMES — The control one class exercises over another isn’t maintained exclusively through explicit forms of repression. A whole network of institutions is responsible for sustaining and consolidating it in the subtlest ways in all spheres of social life. One of the ways where power circulates without raising many suspicions is that of language, orthographic norms in particular.

Schools and other institutions for social control use spelling rules and tests to separate those who have been satisfactorily domesticated from those who are too “rebellious” or “dumb” and resist this process. It doesn’t matter that the latter have a more creative way of expressing themselves or are more rationally coherent, people from the “lower” classes tend to crash head on against the arbitrary norms imposed on language. It is quite telling that Cuba’s blinkered educational bureaucracy should devote so much effort to restoring orthographic discipline in the country.

I have published two posts on the subject: one with a frank tone (which a sociologist friend of mine disapproved of) and one with an ironic style. The latter served to expose the true identity of a number of raving libertarians.

In this third post, I will invoke a literary legend to defend my thesis.

The first International Spanish Language Congress took place in 1997. Botella al mar para el dios de las palabras (“Casting a Bottle to the Sea for the God of Words”) was the terrorist attack launched on the cloistered academic gathering by novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Here are some excerpts from his essay:

“(…) a language [Spanish] that has long outgrown its own skin. Our efforts should not be aimed at making it toe the line, but, on the contrary, at liberating it from its normative straightjacket, so that it may enter the 21st century as though it owned the place.”

“In this connection, I would dare suggest before this wise audience that we simplify our grammar, before our grammar ends up simplifying us. Let us make its norms more human.”

“Let us retire spelling rules, which terrify human beings from the time they are born. Let us bury the hatchet when it comes to the “h”, sign a border agreement between the “g” and the “j” and be more reasonable with written accents. Ultimately, no one is going to confuse a tear one sheds with a tear one makes, or confuse a shot fired from a shot given. What of our “b”, for beauty, and our “v”, for victory, which our Spanish grandparents brought over from the old country like two separate things, and we always feel we have one too many?”

Where the Nobel Prize Laureate Got it Wrong

In 1997, the author of A Hundred Years of Solitude believed we were heading in the direction of a globalized world (in the positive sense of the term). In his message addressed to the god of words, he wrote:

“Freed from their chaperones, languages scatter, mingle and merge, rocketing towards the inevitable destiny of a global language. The Spanish language ought to prepare for a long journey through that borderless future.”

Two decades later, the stage is rather somber by comparison. The civilizing pendulum seems to have swung as far as it goes and is now swinging back the other way. History teaches us what happens to languages in such situations.

Transportation and communication crises tend to isolate and rift regions apart. Social upheaval leads to a relaxation of linguistic norms. Bureaucracy loses control momentarily.

That is the moment when anonymous and “oceanic” popular wisdom takes advantage of to come out of the closet. All of the linguistic contributions and “discoveries” that had remained hidden in the nooks and crannies of the underworld and the narrow streets of alternative worlds emerge from the dark and join the new disorder.

Garcia Marquez was unable to avoid the recurrent and arrogant dream of prosperous civilizations: the dream of a new Babel. Babel is now collapsing for the umpteenth time, but the Nobel Prize laureate’s proposal is as relevant as ever: we must burn spelling rules to the ground.

One thought on “The Nobel Prize Laureate Who Scorned Spelling Rules

  • The more I know about Garcia Marquez, the more I like him. Shakespeare created his own words! Spelling rules are nothing–but one must be careful to avoid confusion. I am a “descriptive grammarian” not a “proscriptive” one. For example, I accept “ain’t” as a word. I find it interesting that this program does not. 🙂

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