The Cuban Academy of the Language turns 90

New or already old challenges surround the nonagenarian entity, where a group of intellectuals continue their work passionately, and even furiously, for the language of Cervantes, Quevedo, Martí and Lezama to not become stagnated or jargon.

Foto: Tomada de Radio Habana Cuba

On the second Monday of every month it is usual to see a group of Cuban intellectuals enter in mid-morning the San Gerónimo University School. They attend a regular meeting of the Cuban Academy of the Language which, this year, is celebrating nine decades of existence. It is one of the longest standing cultural institutions with a sustained trajectory in the country that has survived many crises but without ever interrupting its work.

The institution was born in 1926 thanks to the endeavours of several renowned Cuban writers. In the first instant jurist and researcher Fernando Ortiz and philologist and cultural promoter José MaríaChacón y Calvo set themselves the goal of creating it and they had the backing of poet Manuel SerafínPichardo, the Cuban ambassador to Spain at the time. With many difficulties they were able to make a list of personalities which they submitted to the Spanish Royal Academy and the latter gave the green light for a corresponding group to start working in the Largest of the Antilleans. Though the official date of the foundation was May 19, 1926, when it obtained Madrid’s approval, its first meeting in Havana took place on the following October 2.


The already elderly writer and pedagogue Enrique José Varona was elected as the first director. He was the most prestigious of the 18 founding academicians coming from the world of literature, research, diplomacy and journalism. Suffice it to recall among them Rafael Montoro, Antonio Sánchez de Bustamante y Sirvén, Manuel Márquez Sterling, Carlos Loveira and the still young member of the GrupoMinorista, Jorge Mañach.


Since the birth of the Academy is had more intellectual fervour than resources to support itself. During a great deal of its existence it did not have a permanent venue: at the beginning it was in the old building of the Academy of Sciences, then Chacón opened the doors of the Ateneo in El Vedado and before returning to the latter it had an ephemeral passage through the Palace of the Second Corporal until 1950: while there attempts were made to give it stability together with its counterparts, the National Academy of Arts and Letters and the Cuban Academy of History.


In 1969, after the death of Chacón and the disappearance of the Ateneo, it had to meet in the home of its new director, Antonio Iraizoz y de Vilar, who in turn passed away in 1976, therefore for a long time it was established in the home of poet DulceMaríaLoynaz, where it remained for some time after the writer’s death, until one of its members, City Historian Eusebio Leal, offered the most appropriate installations in the San Gerónimo School.


There were times in which the Academy barely met to respond to the lexicography consultations from Madrid or for a solemn meeting to receive a new member or to give the eulogy of an Academy member who had passed away. However, there were stages of more intense work, for example the period in which the director was José MaríaChacón, who encouraged and even financed the Bulletin of the Cuban Academy of the Language. Moreover, Chacón linked the island’s group to the recently born Association of Academies of the Spanish Language and participated – together with some of the members – in the Congresses held in Spanish America.


A slow process of updating and flourishing of the institution began in the 1970s. During the successive headings of Dr. Ernesto Dihigo – who continued some of the researches of his father: eminent linguist Juan Miguel Dihigo -, of DulceMaríaLoynaz and of Salvador Bueno, its ranks were renovated with younger intellectuals and there was an approach to official institutions like the Institute of Literature and Linguistics, the University of Havana and the Culture Ministry, with which it gained greater visibility thanks to the lectures, book presentations and other activities open to the public.


It is necessary to point out that the Academy was born as a non-official cultural institution and it was only in 1951 – during the government of Carlos PríoSocarrás – through the Education Ministry and thanks to Chacón, its existence was legally recognised and it was given the mission of “providing advice about the teaching of Spanish in the schools and to be consulted for the grammar and interpretation when writing laws, decrees and everything that implies the correct use of the language in the official sphere,” though there wasn’t the slightest contribution for its maintenance. In recent years it received the support of the Culture Ministry and later of the Office of the City Historian, though it continues being autonomous and it maintains its correspondent ties with the Royal Academy.


As happens with the mayor part of human institutions, there have been important presences in its ranks as well as exclusions. Suffice it to recall among the first such renowned academicians as writer Enrique Labrador Ruiz, poet Agustín Acosta, essayist and professor RaimundoLazo and grammarian and pedagogue José Adolfo Tortoló; among the second, due some times to personal decisions and on others to rejections or frank forgetfulness those left out were: NicolásGuillén, Mirta Aguirre, AlejoCarpentier, Emilio Ballagas and José Lezama Lima, just to cite some of the most renowned.


At present, the institution has as many seats as the alphabet’s letters – with the exception of the Ch and the Ll(from the Spanish alphabet) – and they are taken by full members, who, as its Statutes establish, must reside in Havana to be able to meet systematically. There is also a large number of corresponding members who live in other areas of the country or are members of sister academies belonging to the Association of Academies of the Spanish Language (ASALE).


In its ranks there are some prestigious linguists who are responsible for tasks like collaborating in dictionaries and other projects sponsored by the ASALE, responding to consultations of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language (RAE) and the participation in commissions or working groups in the country or in the region associated to teaching and the use of the Spanish language. But one must not forget that other members are writers, elected because of the considerable management of the language in their works, whose tasks include the organisation of lecture series about relevant figures, publications and books of Cuban literature, which frequently become authentic postgraduate courses in which a public of a heterogeneous age and origin enrol.


Though for some years it was possible to bring back to life the Bulletin – printed with the support of the Boloña Publishers – and having its own publishing label that has brought to light several volumes, the institution has set itself the goal of having an extensive reach in contemporary society; for this it maintains the programme “Al habla con la Academia” (Speaking with the Academy) in the Habana Radio station, in addition to being in the process of creating a webpage to publicise lectures and articles of its members, as well as responding to the public’s queries.


Little by little the Cuban Academy has been losing its almost secret character. If because of its limited number of highly qualified members it continues having a certain elitist aura, the reach of its work it more palpable, as shown by its participation in commissions with the Education Ministry, some advisory work for the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, the consultations it receives from different official agencies.


New or already old challenges surround the nonagenarian entity, among them the neglect and vices that contaminate the language, not just the one spoken and written in the street, but also the one used by broadcasters, artists, journalists, which become paradigms for the common man, as well as the deficiencies in the teaching of Spanish in the different school levels and the indiscriminate introduction of foreign words in the language – especially Anglicism– not always justified because of scientific or cultural reasons.


But I can testifyto these problems and others that cannot be resolved during the frequently agitated regular meetings of the Cuban Academy, or not always in interviews, lectures and courses; but the fact that they are brought up and that attempts are made to resolve them is already an operation of high intellectual value that someday will have greater recognition.


There, on the third floor of the San Gerónimo School, a group of intellectuals continue their work passionately, and even furiously, for the language of Cervantes, Quevedo, Martí and Lezama to not become stagnated or jargon, but rather that it form part with dignity of the best legacy for the coming generations. (2016)

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