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Inés Fernández-Ordóñez, academic: “Politicians use ‘councilwoman’. The prosecutor wants to call herself prosecutor”

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On the N-607 I take the detour to the Autonomous University, Avenida de Kant. Then, Einstein Street, Freud Street… Overwhelmed, I meet Inés Fernández-Ordóñez (1961), one of the seven academics of the language. He explains to me that the main avenue of the campus is called Francisco Tomás y Valiente because they murdered him there, in his office. She remembers it perfectly, she was pregnant. An ETA member entered her office and shot him at point-blank range.

Inés Fernández-Ordóñez, philologist and linguist. She specializes in medieval texts, particularly Alfonso X The Wise, and rural Spanish dialectology. Inés is a close, generous and wise person.

800 years have passed since the birth of Alfonso X The Wise. They were turbulent times full of intrigues, betrayals, murders…

His project, in a certain way, preluded the absolute monarchy that was later implemented from the Catholic Monarchs, and of course, that produced a severe conflict with the nobility, but also with the Church. He had an advanced or precursory policy and it came into conflict with his time.

How did you get to Alfonso X?

A manuscript appeared in Salamanca and my thesis director, Diego Catalán, grandson of the philologist and historian, Menéndez Pidal, and the writer and researcher of Spanish literature, María Goyri, who had worked all his life in the textual tradition of Alfonso The Wise One proposed that I study that manuscript as a thesis topic. I was lucky that that manuscript preserved an unknown version of the Estoria of Spain –known for being the first book in the extensive history of Spain that was not a mere translation from Latin, which the king had composed in the last two years of his reign when he was in Seville, completely isolated in the civil war with his son and the rest of the kingdom.

I am now preparing a complete edition of the History of Spain for the RAE Classical Library. The critical text is finished, but I need a half-sabbatical to finish the notes and introduction. It’s a monk’s job.

The History of Spain It is written, in part, to legitimize power and highlight the hegemonic role of Castile.

Yes. Alfonso When there are stories about Spain that say “from Atapuerca to the year 2000”, that model that identifies Spain with Iberian prehistory is a model that was created in Alfonso X the Wise.

The History of Spain It tells the story of a territory that is the Iberian Peninsula and of all those who live in it, but the kingdom of Castile and León is presented as the legitimate depositary of the rights to govern the whole. Since the Middle Ages, there was an alternative discourse that came from Navarra and Aragon, but that discourse failed to catch on.

At what point did the Romance language become called Spanish?

The first mention of “Castilian language” is by Alfonso Now it seems normal to us.

And, after Alfonso X, there are no more until the 15th century. Meanwhile, allusions to the language of Aragon, Catalan, and Navarrese begin to appear. The varieties that have a name based on a later territorial name are Galician and Portuguese. We have to wait until the 15th century.

“Until 1925, the language dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy was called the dictionary of the Castilian language”

And at what point is it called Spanish?

There is a classic article that says “Spanish, foreign name.” Spanish is what those from the south of France called the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula, which was Hispania.

There is an isolated case in the works of Alfonso It is not generalized in Spain either, it is generalized in Europe to refer to what the Spanish speak. That is to say, the Spanish demonym as an inhabitant of the Iberian Peninsula was perfectly established, what was not established was calling the language of Castile Spanish.

But notice that until 1925, the language dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy was called the dictionary of the Spanish language. Only at the proposal of Ramón Menéndez Pidal, the Academy agreed to change it to a dictionary of the Spanish language.

The ovation he received after his entrance speech at the Royal Academy of Language in 2008 is exciting.

Well, you know, those who go are your friends… The worst thing was getting there, because I was precisely the youngest, a woman and also a philologist. I felt very pressured. I wanted to make a speech that was intellectually a contribution and the whole speech was completely new research.

What I defend is that Menéndez-Pidal’s Castilianist hypothesis is true for some things, but not for many others. The linguistic solutions that have triumphed in Spanish from a historical point of view often have a western origin from the Iberian Peninsula and others, an eastern one. And the Aragonese and Navarrese contribution to the formation of Spanish has never been sufficiently highlighted. For example, the use of compound verb tenses, which is only found in European languages, enters through Aragón.

Menéndez Pidal was conditioned by the scarcity of data and his time. And how do you think our era affects you?

Menéndez Pidal above all favored literary sources as a way of reconstructing the history of the Spanish language. Nowadays we do not give so much importance to literature, but we believe that if you want to do Language History, you have to consider all types of sources and all types of texts.

A language more open to influences, without weighing their quality?

We do not consider that the influences represent contamination. We do not adopt a purist attitude towards the language. We consider that if something is said it means that it can be said and that speakers can use it. And they actually use it.

There is no ideal model.

I don’t believe it. Linguistic models are exactly the same as models of social behavior and, from this point of view, they are arbitrary models that depend on each society.

What do you think of inclusive language? What is the difference between language and speech?

I think it is part, above all, of a political discourse. The language is also full of redundancies. Therefore, repeating the masculine and feminine is part of the speaker’s discursive possibility, it is not a grammatical issue.

Language is the ability to speak that all human beings have and then each language has a grammar and that grammar offers possibilities. Within these possibilities, you can get a different type of speech. Saying “the students” and “the students” is a procedure that is generally understood as emphatic.

It is as if at the beginning of a conference you say “ladies and gentlemen”, you are doubling as deference, as courtesy, but it is not obligatory. It is part of a discourse that you want to construct. From the point of view in which there is a discourse that you construct, you cannot recommend something, because that is an ideological control. You have to decide the discourse you want to construct and people cannot be penalized for using language according to normal grammar.

“We consider that if something is said, it can be said and that speakers can use it”

President or president?

This is lexically conditioned: “Lover but not lover”, “client but client”, “patient but not patient”. It is a flexible possibility that exists, but in the end it depends on whether it is consolidated or not. Let’s compare the “prosecutor” with “councilman” and “councilwoman.” Whether one or the other option is consolidated depends on whether speakers use it or not. It is precisely politicians who use “president” and “councilwoman.” The prosecutor wants to call herself a prosecutor.


My daughter is a doctor. 75% of new medical promotions are women and prefer to be called “doctor.”

You have been teaching for thirty years. Have you noticed a lexical impoverishment in the new generations?

It’s awful. I don’t think it’s just due to school, I think the reason is more social. They are children who don’t read. In our time of narrative fiction we read novels, today’s kids watch series. In a series you have the fiction, but you don’t have the elaborate language, and it shows.

It’s not spelling mistakes, it’s the inability to formulate. There is always a minority that is not like that, but the group has serious difficulties of expression in the formal language, in the standard language.

Maybe we should think that they have other technological skills that we don’t have. I don’t like to be apocalyptic, maybe we will go to a different model.

Also three decades ago you began making recordings of rural speech within the COSER project (Oral and Sound Corpus of Spanish). Have you noticed many changes?

Undoubtedly, the media, urbanization, and schools have greatly changed the rural world. Above all, it is noticeable if one compares the data from the ALPI (Linguistic Atlas of the Iberian Peninsula), almost all taken before the Civil War, with the data that I have collected and that is linked to the “daughter of the ALPI” generation.

I interview them when they are very old because sociolinguists have been able to demonstrate that one sets one’s ideals for many things at a young age. You set certain aesthetic and behavioral models, and then you can have a certain adaptation, but there are many things that you will never modify.

What is the value of the ALPI?

The ALPI is a mine, we continue fighting to finish putting the data into an interactive database, but we have run out of money… It has a very great value for the history of the language and that is why I also wanted to base my speech on entry into the ALPI materials to vindicate the figure of Navarro Tomás (philologist, intellectual of the Second Republic and director of the National Library of Spain), and to vindicate that project that was unfortunately interrupted by the Civil War.

Keep in mind that this is the first time that dialect interviews have been carried out with a modern perspective and in a systematic way, before the exodus to the cities, before industrial development, before the development of communications, before the generalization of teaching, because before Civil War half of the population was illiterate. It really is a part of our culture, it covers an era that no longer exists.

How do you balance work and family?

When my daughters were little, with a lot of difficulty, effort and help at home. My husband is a surgeon, he leaves at 7 in the morning and returns at 9 when he is not on duty. Now they are older.

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