Spanish - the new global conqueror

As a conference in Mexico City celebrates the new 'lingua franca', novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez reflects on its power and influence

When I was 12 I was about to be knocked over by a bicycle. A priest who was passing saved me with a shout: "Watch out!" The cyclist fell to the ground. The priest, without stopping, said: "Did you see the power of the word?" I learned it that day. Now we know, furthermore, that the Maya Indians knew it since the times of Christ, and with such rigour that they had a special god for words.

This power was never as great as it is today. Humanity will enter the third millennium under the empire of words. It is not the case that the image is displacing them or can extinguish them. On the contrary, it is empowering them: never in the world were there so many words with such a range, authority and free will as in the immense Babel of life today. Invented words, mistreated or sanctified by the press, by undervalued books, by advertising hoardings; spoken and sung on the radio, television, cinema, the telephone, public loudspeakers; shouted in crude daubs on the walls of the street, or whispered into the ear in the shadows of love. No: the great loser is silence. Things have so many names in so many languages that it is no longer easy to know what they are called in any. Idioms spin free from their protective guardians, get mixed up and confused and are hurled towards the irresistible fate of a global language.

The Spanish language must prepare itself for a great task in this future without frontiers. It is a historic right. Not because of its economic preponderance, like other languages to date, but for its vitality, its creative dynamic, its vast cultural experience, its speed and its power of expansion, covering 19 million square kilometres and 400 million speakers by the end of this century. A master of Spanish letters in the United States has rightly said that his hours in class help him interpret between Latin Americans of various countries. It is striking that the verb "pasar" (to pass) has 54 meanings, while in Ecuador there are 105 names for the male sexual organ, while the word "condoliente" (in other words sharing suffering, expressing condolence) which is self-explanatory and which we need so much, has not yet been invented.

A young French journalist is dazzled by the poetic discoveries he finds in every step of our domestic life. That a little boy, kept awake by the intermittent, sad baa-ing of a lamb said: "It's like a lighthouse." That a campfollower of the Colombian Guajira region refused an infusion of lemon-balm because it tasted of Good Friday. That Don Sebastian de Covarrubias, in his memorable dictionary, wrote with his own hand that yellow is the colour of lovers, making the masculine "el color" feminine - "la color". Haven't we often taken coffee that tastes of window, bread that tastes of corner, cherry that tastes of kiss?

These are ample proof of a language that has long been too fat for its skin. Our contribution must not be to tighten its belt, but to free it from its iron rules so that it enters the coming century like Peter into his house. In this sense I venture to suggest to this wise audience that we simplify the grammar before the grammar ends up making us simple. Let us humanise its rules, let us learn that indigenous languages to which we owe so much can still teach and enrich us, let us assimilate well and quickly technical and scientific neologisms before they infiltrate us indigestibly, let us negotiate in good faith with barbaric gerunds, endemic "thats", and parasitical "whiches". Let's pension off spelling, terror of the human being from the cradle: let's bury the prehistoric "h", let's sign a limitation treaty with "g" and "j", and use more reason in written accents. And what about our "b" for "burro" (ass) and our "v" for "vaca" (cow) which our Spanish grandparents brought us as if they were two separate consonants, so there's always one too many?

These are random questions, of course, like bottles thrown into the sea in the hope that they will reach the god of words. It could be that for these daring and extravagant nonsenses, both he and all of us will end up regretting, rightly, that I wasn't knocked over by that providential bicycle when I was 12.

First delivered to the First International Congress of the Spanish Language in Mexico City on Monday.

Translation by Elizabeth Nash.

And for multilingual readers of the 'The Independent', here is the author's speech in its original form

A mis 12 anos de edad estuve a punto de ser atropellado por una bicicleta. Un senor cura que pasaba me salv con un grito: "Cuidado!". El ciclista cay a tierra.

El senor cura, sin detenerse, me dijo: "Ya vio lo que es el poder de la palabra?" Ese da lo supe. Ahora sabemos, adems, que los mayas lo saban desde los tiempos de Cristo, y con tanto rigor que tenan un dios especial para las palabras. Nunca como hoy ha sido tan grande ese poder.

La humanidad entrar en el tercer milenio bajo el imperio de las palabras. No es cierto que la imagen este desplazndolas ni que pueda extinguirlas.

Al contrario, est potencindolas: nunca hubo en el mundo tantas palabras con tanto alcance, autoridad y albedro como en la inmensa Babel de la vida actual.

Palabras inventadas, maltratadas o sacralizadas por la prensa, por los libros desechables, por los carteles de publicidad; habladas y cantadas por la radio, la televisin, el cine, el telefono, los altavoces pblicos; gritadas a brocha gorda en las paredes de la calle o susurradas al odo en las penumbras del amor. No: el gran derrotado es el silencio. Las cosas tienen ahora tantos nombres en tantas lenguas que ya no es fcil saber cmo se llaman en ninguna. Los idiomas se dispersan sueltos de madrina, se mezclan y confunden, disparados hacia el destino ineluctable de un lenguaje global . . .

Llama la atencin que el verbo pasar tenga 54 significados, mientras en la Repblica de Ecuador tienen 105 nombres para el rgano sexual masculino, y en cambio la palabra condoliente, que se explica por s sola, y que tanta falta nos hace, an no se ha inventado.

A un joven periodista frances lo deslumbran los hallazgos poeticos que encuentra a cada paso en nuestra vida domestica. Que un nino desvelado por el balido intermitente y triste de un cordero dijo: "Parece un faro".

Que una vivandera de la Guajira colombiana rechaz un cocimiento de toronjil porque le supo a Viernes Santo. Que don Sebastin de Covarrubias, en su diccionario memorable, nos dej escrito de su puno y letra que el amarillo es "la color" de los enamorados.

Cuntas veces no hemos probado nosotros mismos un cafe que sabe a ventana, un pan que sabe a rincn, una cereza que sabe a beso?

Son pruebas al canto de la inteligencia de una lengua que desde hace tiempo no cabe en su pellejo. Pero nuestra contribucin no debera ser la de meterla en cintura, sino al contrario, liberarla de sus fierros normativos para que entre en el siglo venturo como Pedro por su casa.

En ese sentido me atrevera a sugerir ante esta sabia audiencia que simplifiquemos la gramtica antes de que la gramtica termine por simplificarnos a nosotros . . .

Jubilemos la ortografa, terror del ser humano desde la cuna: enterremos las haches rupestres, firmemos un tratado de lmites entre la ge y jota, y pongamos ms uso de razn en los acentos escritos... Y que de nuestra be de burro y nuestra ve de vaca, que los abuelos espanoles nos trajeron como si fueran dos y siempre sobra una?

Son preguntas al azar, por supuesto, como botellas arrojadas a la mar con la esperanza de que le lleguen al dios de las palabras.

A no ser que por estas osadas y desatinos, tanto el como todos nosotros terminemos por lamentar, con razn y derecho, que no me hubiera atropellado a tiempo aquella bicicleta providencial de mis 12 anos.

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