The Myth of Linguistic Purity

Martin Boyd

In an article published in the last issue of the ATA Chronicle, Nataly Kelly raises some interesting questions about the professional impartiality of translators and interpreters. In particular, she points out that many of us cling to dubious beliefs on linguistic matters, such as the belief that one regional variant of a language is “better” than another, or that every language should be kept “pure”, free from foreign influences. Among people with little knowledge about the nature and functions of language, the existence of such beliefs is perhaps understandable; but among linguists such ideas would suggest a lack of professionalism and an ignorance of our own discipline that should worry us.

In the field of linguistics, notions such as the “purity of the language” and the “correct use” or “misuse” of words are recognized as erroneous because they are subjective concepts, often with ideological nuances, aimed at undervaluing, repressing or restricting certain language communities.

Nevertheless, it isn’t hard to find translators, interpreters and even linguistics professors who adhere to such beliefs without further reflection. One example of these is Marina Orellana, an outstanding Chilean translator, who in her book Buenas y malas palabras (“Good and Bad Words”) sets out to dictate the rules for the “correct” use of the Spanish language. I don’t mean to suggest that we aren’t in need of good linguistic guides to instruct us in the more accepted conventions of a particular language community; however, a title like “Good and Bad Words” surely begs the question: “good and bad… according to whom?” According to her book the answer is Marina Orellana herself, who seems to have proclaimed herself a missionary on a noble crusade to protect the purity of the Spanish language against contamination by the infidels. And in the introduction to the book it is made clear that for the author the vilest infidel threatening the language of Cervantes is, of course, English.

If you find the tone of the previous paragraph exaggerated, simply count the number of appearances of the word “contaminación” (“contamination”) in the book’s short introduction; in only two pages of text this tendentious word is used with reference to the harmful effect of English on Spanish no less than six times. Although it is true that the author avoids using the word “purity”, the basis of her argument is clear enough: a strong desire to submit her language to a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Professor Orellana offers several examples of this “contamination” of the Spanish language by the English virus. One of these is the word “chequeo”, whose use is unforgivable according to the author due to its originating from the English verb “to check”. This objection seems to suggest that any word seeking entry into the Spanish lexicon must be subjected to a rigorous inspection process (effectively a kind of customs clearance) and rejected as “contaminating” if its ethnic origins are found to be undesirable. The author attempts to hide her disdain for the English language behind the argument that “chequeo” is not a word “within everyone’s reach”, but this same argument is refuted in a footnote that admits the sad truth that “chequeo” now appears in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (widely considered the most authoritative Spanish language dictionary), and thus it is in fact within the “reach” of anyone with access to a dictionary.

The repugnance expressed by the author for the contaminating effect of the anglovirus is so overwhelming that she claims it is “almost preferable to attempt a translation, even if it is not very successful, than to contaminate the language” with English words like “boom” or “marketing”. In other words, a clumsy and inaccurate Spanish word is better than one of English origin that expresses the intended meaning exactly. Her suggestion that the inelegant phrase “el más grande éxito editorial” (lit. “the biggest publishing success”) is preferable to the use of the term “best seller” (which, incidentally, also appears in the aforementioned Spanish dictionary) reveals the truth that Orellana’s indignation with the English contamination is not based on considerations of aesthetics or clarity, but on an almost fetishistic obsession with “purity”.

It hardly needs mentioning that “purity” in any language is neither possible nor desirable, as without the facility that languages have for borrowing words from each other no modern language would exist, or that the lexicons of both English and Spanish are largely made up of words from other languages (from ancient Greek or Latin to Italian, Arabic, Japanese, Nahuatl, Quechua and Ojibwe), without which our capacity for expression would be reduced to a few grunts. It is true that words borrowed from other languages sometimes seem to serve to impoverish a language rather than enrich it, and as translators we need always to be conscious of the ideological implications of choosing a word borrowed from English when there is a more widely accepted word in Spanish with the same meaning. On the other hand, if we opt for a circumlocution like “desarrollar una red de contactos sociales y de negocios” (lit. “developing a network of social and business contacts”) to avoid the use of the loan word “networking”, we might need to reflect on whether we are actually seeking to repress the natural evolution of the language with our efforts to protect it from the anglovirus.

With this critique of the position that Marina Orellana appears to take in her book Buenas y malas palabras it is not my intention to undervalue her work as a translator and mentor of many other English-Spanish translators. In particular, her Glosario Internacional para el Traductor represents a great contribution to the profession and has been a great support for translators working in the English-Spanish language pair. Nevertheless, I feel that her desire to protect the “purity” of the language is representative of a mistaken idea of the nature of languages, which are entities with lives of their own and with no interest in our efforts to control them or contain them. As Nataly Kelly points out, a translator being outraged at the evidence of the evolution of our language is as absurd as a botanist chastising a plant for changing its colour. If the change offends us, we should reflect on the ideological presuppositions underlying our reaction.

5 thoughts on “The Myth of Linguistic Purity

  1. Great article, Martin. It occurs to me that efforts to maintain linguistic “purity” reflect a xenophobic desire to mask the reality of exchange between cultures. “Networking” is such a North American concept, and importing the English word straight into Spanish is a good way of flagging its origins; trying to replace it with a circumlocution in Spanish robs Spanish-speakers of relevant information on its cultural background. If English-speakers insisted on calling the tortilla a “single-layered corn-based flatbread”, we could suppress the sign of its origins, but wouldn’t this also be suppressing a part of its identity?

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  3. So I was talking with someone about a similar project, Anglish, which purports to remove non-germanic words from English, producing a more “pure” English. I’m not necessarily a proponent of it, but I find the idea interesting. I was wondering if you know of a project like the one above, but that digs even further into history and tries to strip out older influences like Arabic from Spanish? I know enough Spanish to know how much of a challenge that would be, but I’m curious if anyone is making an attempt at it that you’re aware of.

  4. Hi Terence, I’m not aware of any project to produce a Spanish without words of Arabic origin, but given the fact that Arabic is the second biggest source of Spanish words after Latin it would certainly leave the language greatly impoverished. I hadn’t heard of the “Anglish” project before, but I think the result of removing all non-Germanic words from the English language would probably just be Old English (Anglo Saxon), and as such totally incomprehensible to modern English speakers. Without the huge contribution of Latin/French words from the Norman invasion, your comment above, for example, would have to do without “proponent”, “idea”, and “interesting”, just to name a few. I agree that projects like these are indeed interesting, but only insofar as their impossibility highlights the diverse range of foreign influences on any language. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Agreed. From a vocab standpoint Norman French contributes just slightly more to English than Old English, from my understanding. So in a sense Anglish would be even more impoverished than a de-Arabicised Spanish. And it seems to be with the examples I’ve seen in practice.

    That said, the grammar, spelling, and structure of English is different enough that removing non-germanic sources from English would be different from Old English in a number of ways. But in the end it’s a strictly academic pursuit. I can’t imagine anything usable coming from it without reintroducing some irreplaceable loan words in the process. Interesting to think about, nevertheless.

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