News from Zacatecas

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
30 January, 2017
Editorial: 67
Fecha de publicación original: 15 abril, 1997

Date of publication: 15/4/1997. Editorial 67.

Words fly, writing remains

Experts, literati and academics attending the Ist International Congress on the Spanish Language in the Mexican town of Zacatecas, missed out on an important piece of news. It was not, of course, the existence of cyberspace. In fact, they took advantage of the high-profile occasion to issue an important alarm cry: the need to design a strategy for assuring a place for Spanish on the digital planet. This warning came amidst a profusion of idle talk about the risks our language faces, besieged as it is by a world increasingly blanketed in the English imposed by new technology. What the experts, literati and academics failed to point out, leaving it (literally) in the inkwell, is that up to now there has never been more written Spanish produced, nor has this production ever been at the disposal of such vast audiences as those swarming around cyberspace. And this, when there are still so comparatively few of us, and the party isn’t even in full swing yet. However, to have got it right they would have needed to adopt a less elitist approach to their vocations as linguistic high priests, and, on the other hand, also humbly point out that the written language no longer belongs primarily to those from the ill-named culture industry (publishers, news writers, bookshops, language schools etc.) and perhaps never will again. Cyberspace has turned their world upside-down and the language has, at least to begin with, been left at the disposal of a specimen hitherto unknown in philological treatises: the internaut. Tens of thousands of people have rediscovered a taste for writing (which is not to say that what they write is in good taste), for letter-writing and for making themselves or their businesses or institutions known via the written word on the Net. Seen from this point of view the language is undoubtedly experiencing one of its liveliest periods ever. The fact that academics, writers or so-called “opinion makers” are not decisively involved in this process — or that, indeed, they are even viewing it with a certain amount of suspicion– does not mean it does not exist, in fact, quite the contrary, and despite them (the debates of the Congress can be read in the Spanish printed media that can be consulted in several newsagent’s on the Net, e.g. El Quiosco).

That’s the good news. The other side of the coin is that this hitherto unsurpassed blossoming of the written language (which is also becoming more spoken, visual and symbolic) is being sustained fundamentally by internauts who could be called, although not very strictly so in some cases, “bilingual”. In other words, those most inclined to open the door to anglicisms and the daily contamination of technological language. Nevertheless, while this is important, it does not pose the most serious threat. After all, what they are doing in the streets of cyberspace is a gigantic digestion of the global language comparable to that which takes place in the streets, neighbourhoods or among social groups of the real world where new expressions are coined and certain linguistic fashions imposed. The real danger is more serious than this, and it’s here that the call for a strategy for the stimulation of the development of the language in cyberspace takes on its due importance, although it might be better to shelve some of the phraseology and concentrate on what this plan, which has been throbbing in the background for at least a couple of years, might entail.

Spanish, like the other non-English languages, will shortly face a crucial challenge on the Internet. The number of internauts who have been using it thanks to their bilingualism might possibly reach a ceiling. From then on, the Net will have to continue to grow on the basis of the waves of new users who will logically seek resources in their one and only language. If, by that time, the volume of information in Spanish is not enough to maintain their interest, curiosity, work and exploitation of the new medium, two basic things might occur (although the range of possibilities is much greater). Firstly, there may be a noticeable drop in the number of users as they become disconcerted, depressed and disappointed by the Net’s apparent lack of any obvious usefulness for serving their interests. Secondly, their needs may be satisfied by USA Inc. In other words, if the production of written (and spoken) content in Spanish does not reach a certain critical mass, able to attract these new waves of internauts, then “they” will do the writing for us, as “they” have already done in so many other fields of cultural production before. By “they”, of course, I refer to the US industry for information, leisure, culture and employment within the telematic networks. In the second case, the worries of the experts, literati and academics would be perfectly justified because we will be subjected to bombardment by the linguistic fashions which that industry imposes, with everything from the hygienic (sterile) neutrality of its automatic translators in the world of cyberspace to search engines designed to strengthen the commercial thrust of their companies in an environment which is much more contained and precise than the real world. By the same token, the same picture could be painted for Catalan (and I imagine that the position of Galician and Basque would not be very different).

This is the grand paradox of our languages in the era of cyberspace: while, on the one hand, they are undergoing their greatest process ever of democratisation and cross-fertilisation, on the other, the risk of their becoming impoverished is greater as well. This is not because we will speak the language “badly”, or because we won’t speak it enough, but rather because we will speak it as a result of the content which others put into the Net for us, as is already happening in the real world where the omnipresence of the US culture industry is so evident.

Faced with the prospect of this eventual invasion, the message of warning from Zacatecas is that the best course of action is to defend our own identity. However, I think, along with other eminent philosophers such as Di Stefano, Kubala and Cruyff, that the best means of defence is attack. And cyberspace offers a golden opportunity to put this maxim into practice. At the meeting in Mexico the experts saw the Internet as another of the territories under siege from globalisation and the predominance of English. In fact, they saw it in the same light as they see the real world they live in, where the laws of US industry impose themselves with the implicit or open complicity of governments who accept and finance it, providing it with extraordinary facilities for its implantation and growth. Thus, for many of these experts the Internet is Microsoft, The New York Times, CNN or, to a lesser extent, El Pais or the Boletin Oficial del Estado. They don’t seem to see those 8,000,000 Spanish internauts (I don’t have reliable figures for Latin America and the USA) who have rediscovered their voices in digital public spaces and express themselves on the web, in distribution lists, via e-mail or any of the other viable means of expression which telematics affords.

Of course, the risks of losing linguistic identity are considerable. But, this is fundamentally because governments talk for the sake of appearances and when they have to put their money where their mouth is, they decide that the best investments they can make in the leisure industry are monstrosities like Port Aventura, a theme park along Disney lines into which millions of pesetas have been poured. For this reason it is not enough to draw up lines of defence, as was suggested in Zacatecas, just to “strengthen our own culture industry”, meaning those made up of the press, books, radio, television, cinema and new technology. Within this broad range, what predominates is pyramidal, hierarchical industry based on large investments and dominated by corporate style culture. That is to say, the same industry which has stimulated –for reasons which sometimes go beyond their good intentions which one could assume they have — the cultural colonisation of the USA by rewarding everything that comes from there, from the news to the most insignificant cultural bits and pieces.

The line of attack, and not of defence, should entail a real stimulus for the growing presence of our languages in the Net, by providing the necessary conditions for public administration, the private sector, and social organisations to have the opportunity to access the Net and develop their own content. In the most recent survey conducted by the Estudio General de Medios (General Media Survey, conducted every quarter in Spain), although the results are not necessarily very reliable due to their methodology, an interesting piece of information emerged: 58 of the 100 most visited webs in Spain are Spanish. This percentage must grow if we want our languages to become the driving force of a new industry with its own identity. This all depends on Spanish internauts and the facilities they encounter for extending the “digital tapestry”. Should the contrary occur, we know well enough what the consequences will be.


Language experts meeting in Zacatecas manifested their concern on various issues related to cyberspace:

1.- The so-called globalisation of the market is in reality North Americanisation.

2.- The standardisation of content, attitudes and language reaching us from new power centres seems to be unstoppable at this point in time.

3.- This process impoverishes language and thought by imposing foreign cultural patterns on them.

4.- The challenge lies in strengthening our own cultural industry.

Translation: Briget King.