Linguist Concepción Company was born in Madrid and became a naturalized Mexican citizen in 1978. She is a member of the Mexican Academy of Language, and as an academic with a foot on both sides of the Atlantic, she has a particular vision of the language that arrived from Europe more than 500 years ago with the conquest of Mexico. It is a version of Spanish shaped by the sea and sailors, she explains, and also by dozens of indigenous languages from all over Latin America. Rather than an imposed language, she considers Mexican Spanish to be proudly itself, and in continuous conflict with indigenous languages.
To mark the 500th anniversary of the fall of the Aztec Empire on August 13, Company spoke with EL PAÍS about the Spanish conquest of Mexico right up to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s demand for an apology from Spain for the events of the past. “It wouldn’t cost Spain anything,” Company believes. “But I believe that both sides are there negotiating, and weighing their votes, and it’s not going to happen.”
Question. What was the linguistic landscape like in Tenochtitlan in 1521?
Answer. Before the fall of Tenochtitlan, a whole multitude of languages were spoken. In present-day Mexico we have 68 linguistic groups, or families, which we call “trunks.” Some are single languages, such as Purepecha, and some are complex linguistic groups, like Zapotec, which incorporates quite a few languages. All of these, and surely more, were spoken at the time of [Spanish conquistador] Hernán Cortés’ arrival. Not all of these languages had the same social function. Nahuatl was the lingua franca, the language of the [Aztec] Empire, but the Nahuatl of Sierra [Norte] de Puebla is distinctive from the Nahuatl of Milpa Alta. There are even variants of Nahuatl that are not mutually intelligible.
Many Mexicans still feel that Spanish is an imposed language, and do not feel that this is their language
Q. And what language arrived?
A. The language of a handful of Spaniards arrived, which was not a homogeneous language, because there were people from Extremadura and Andalusia, and so on. We must remember that the Spaniards who arrived in what is known today as the Republic of Mexico had spent a long time in Cuba or the Dominican Republic. They were linguistically acclimatized to a ‘flat’ kind of Spanish, because they were influenced by many dialects, in a very complex human melting pot. That flattening has Andalusian influences, because there were many Andalusians, and because the zone permitted for embarkation to America was in Seville. In order to embark, permission had to be requested from the Casa de la Contratación [Crown Agency for the Spanish Empire], and it could take months or even years. So Seville in the 16th century was a polyglot capital, because ‘the race to the Indies’ was fought by Andalusians, Castilians, Basques, Catalans, French and Germans. And there were also many Jews and many Muslims, as let us not forget that a few decades earlier the Catholic Monarchs had taken the Kingdom of Granada. We must get rid of the idea that a homogeneous Spanish arrived. What came [to Mexico] was Spanish with many dialects influenced by Andalusia and the Caribbean.
Q. In a recent lecture, you said that the sea molded Mexico’s lexicon. What were you referring to?
A. Totally, we are heirs of the sea. But not only Mexico, much of America was also molded by the sea. Imagine that very intimate coexistence [on the ships that traveled to America], in unimaginable conditions, with horrific diarrhea. These very diverse dialects were coexisting in order to survive. These voyages lasted four to five months, and people adopted and added to the maritime lexicon. For example, the word zafarrancho [havoc, mess] is a maritime word: what the passengers did was to establish their rancho [ranch], the place to store their trunks. And if they were going to be shipwrecked, or there was an enemy ship, they had to break up the rancho to level the ship. The word cobija [blanket], which comes from cubículo [cubicle], is a sailor’s word.
Q. How was Spanish shaped when it met the indigenous languages of Mexico?
A. When you arrive in a new place, you have to dominate it, get to know it, and part of that mechanism of appropriation is to name things. So what did the Spaniards do? The first thing they did was to appropriate and name reality. There were several different strategies. One was to name things by what they heard: they began to incorporate indigenous words into Spanish. The proof that they did not always hear the same thing is that sometimes there are six, seven or eight spellings for the same word. This is a sign that in the indigenous languages – Nahuatl, Mayan, Mixtec, Zapotec – there was already variation. There are about nine spellings of the word ‘[Aztec Emperor] Moctezuma,’ for example, and that also happens with the word pulque [a fermented drink].
A fundamental principle of the survival of the Spaniards was naming things because they had to describe them for the king in the chronicles they wrote home. When writing about what they had done, the very rich world of the Americas appears, full of words from indigenous languages: Chalchihuite, pulque, tomato, chocolate, hundreds of words.
A conquering language can be recognized as such because it is restricted to specific uses: Spanish was used for commerce, for administration and for religion
Another way of naming is to use words from one’s own language. So pimiento [pepper], for example, is a Latin word, from pigmentum, but chili peppers are from the Americas. It was renamed with a Latin word because they did not know what to call it. There is a whole dispute between pigmentum, chili, and aji. Ají is Caribbean, chili is Nahuatl, and pimiento is Latin. All describe and refer to the many species of peppers that exist in the Americas. What is also certain is that at the beginning, at least in the 16th century, the indigenous languages entered Spanish directly, with some very early adaptation, such as the final ‘e’ that Spanish adds to ‘tomato’ [tomate] or ‘chocolate.’ Because they could not pronounce the -tl at the end of tomatl, they called it tomate. That ‘e’ is a way of adapting it to the Spanish language.
Q. You have questioned whether Spanish in Mexico should be understood as an imposition.
A. Yes, from the very beginning. A conquering language can be recognized as such because it is restricted to specific uses: Spanish was used for commerce, for administration and for religion. But some Spaniards learned Nahuatl. In the 16th century, there was a coexistence of three languages: Spanish was the language of conquest; Latin was the language of science (the printing press printed many things in Latin, as it was the language of the academy); and there was the Nahuatl language, which was the language of daily life, spoken by many people. But we must make it very clear that there were also Nahuatl-speaking notary offices, there were Nahuatl administrations and it was independence that put an end to these.
Q. You have said: “Mexican independence [in 1810] is the worst thing that could have happened to indigenous languages.” Why?
A. Yes, that was the final straw. The 19th century was the child of the Enlightenment, without a doubt, and what interested the Enlightenment was the development and progress of mankind. And how was this progress going to happen? It was easier to do it in one language than with many. Nahuatl notaries completely disappeared in the 19th century. Independence meant an inhibition in the use of indigenous languages, because the official discourse inhibited the use of indigenous languages. Nobody is forbidden to speak Nahuatl, but Nahuatl would no longer be useful when going to a notary’s office or to make a will, because there are no longer any Nahuatl notaries. This is a process that has been going on for 300 years, and it is very complex. One other blow to indigenous language was the change of dynasty from the Habsburgs to the Bourbons.
A. Because the Habsburgs always had a policy of separating the Indian villages from the Spanish villages. Divide and conquer. Separate them and then each one is in their corner and I can control them better. But in that separation, there was a great respect for their customs, legislation and indigenous ways of life. The Habsburg dynasty respected the separation of Indian villages and they used intermediaries. Documents show that they were Spanish-speaking Indians, in the sense that they spoke both languages. They spoke Zapotec and Spanish, for example.
When the Bourbons ascended the Spanish throne, they totally centralized the administration. They eliminated the separation of indigenous towns and Spanish towns, and of course imposed Spanish. Remember that they had been living together for 200 years, and that the Indians had also adopted Spanish because it was more fluid and faster for them to communicate in Spanish than to communicate in Nahuatl and to look for an interpreter. That was not because of ‘how nice it sounds.’ It was purely for survival.
What came to Mexico was Spanish with many dialects influenced by Andalusia and the Caribbean
Q. To survive, you have to speak the language of power.
A. Of course, here and anywhere in the world. But what I think is important to say is that little by little the Spanish of Mexico was permeated by indigenous languages. First, it was permeated by the sea, and we still have the sea, although we do not see it in our daily life. And in today’s Mexican Spanish and in a large part of Central America there is a profoundly mestizo Spanish, where we have phrases made and constructed basically with a mixture of Spanish and indigenous languages. There is also a very clear process in Mexican Spanish of substitution with the indigenous lexicon. For example, in Mexico, apapachar is preferred to mimar [indulge, spoil]. Pita or mecate is preferred to cuerda [rope]. Today there is a process of substitution of the Latin lexicon in favor of the indigenous lexicon, and everyday Mexicans do not notice that this has taken place, and that it is a profound fusion.
Q. This has been a major focus of your work. That the Spanish that feels so imposed in Mexico that is actually more Mexican than is recognized.
A. Yes, there is a very deep fusion. However, from the official discourse, and not only now but always, there is an idea that Spanish is an imposed language. You ask a Mexican and he feels conquered, and he feels that it is an imposed language. And you ask him, “What other language do you speak? He says none, that he does not speak any indigenous language. But there has been a process that seemed to happen in the post-post-post-colonization stage. Because there was a very deep process of mixing with Spanish. I will give you another example of substitution. Here we say buena pal petate, mala pal metate [roughly: bad in the kitchen but good in bed]. The adjectives ‘good’ [buena] and ‘bad’ [mala] are from Spanish, and the other words are from indigenous languages, in this case, Nahuatl. Or chapulinear, to speak of a politician. And the word chapulines is preferred to the word saltamontes [all relate to the word for grasshopper], which has been eliminated in favor of indigenous versions. Nevertheless, many Mexicans still feel that Spanish is an imposed language, and do not feel that this is their language. And the official discourse has contributed to this since independence, because they have rescued the indigenous world in a rather impractical way, I would say. They have not rescued anything, nor have they given a better quality of life to the indigenous people.
Q. What do you mean when you say that indigenous languages today are in conflict?
A. It is a sociolinguistic concept to say that two languages are in consensus when with either language you can function in any facet of life, and you can climb the social ladder with either language. Like Hindi or English in India, or Catalan and Spanish in Spain. And they are in conflict when you only have quality of life with one of them. And unfortunately in Mexico, there has never been a relationship of consensus. Spanish and the indigenous languages have always been in conflict. The indigenous people learn Spanish because it will allow them, for example, to increase their salary.
Q. Is Mexico far off from a consensus?
A. Absolutely. We would have to generate quality employment in the areas where the majority of indigenous languages are spoken. This is a socio-linguistic experiment that has already happened in many countries around the world, where you force the factory manager to learn the indigenous language. You generate quality of life. But for now, everything is done in Spanish, even though it is a language that continues to be seen as an imposed language. We have to have some coherence: if we see it as imposed, let’s do something so that the indigenous people can, for example, receive their paycheck in their own language.
Q. What do you think of López Obrador demanding Spain apologize for the conquest of Mexico?
A. It seems to me that it will not cost him anything, although history cannot be taken out of context, and that is what I think is being done. Well, the Spanish conquest was indeed imposed, and it had moments of light and darkness. And I think it would cost the Spanish monarchy nothing to say: ‘yes, we made mistakes.’ But that was another dynasty. Well, nothing would happen if the mistakes of the past were recognized. The world would continue to function in the same way, and Spanish-Mexican cooperation would continue to function in the same way. You could do it and there would be no problem. Although it seems out of context to me… and they ask for it in Spanish.
The truth about Ireland’s monster €240bn debt: it wasn’t the banks
There’s a perception that Ireland’s monster debt – it will be €240 billion by the end of the year, on a per capita basis the third highest in the world, was put there by band of rogue bankers. And that we as a people have been victims of a terrible wrong.
The truth of course is more sticky, more unpalatable than the bar stool narratives we tell ourselves.
Most of the debt – more than €100 billion – arose from a sequence of budget deficits run up in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and linked to then government’s mismanagement of the public finances, a government that we voted into office three times in succession.
The former Fianna Fáil-led administration had spent lavishly in 2000s while using windfall taxes from the property sector to plug the holes in its accounts.
When these taxes dried up, the deficit ballooned. At the height of the crisis in 2009 the deficit was €23 billion. That meant the State was spending €23 billion more than it was taking in by way of taxes and other income.
This necessitated borrowing on a grand scale, which went on – to a varying extent – for a decade until the State ran a budget surplus in 2018.
The original cost of bailing out the banks was €64 billion but this has been clawed back to around €40 billion by way of levies, dividends and share selloffs arising out of the State’s ownership of the banks.
It’s a big number, but less than half the bill foisted upon us from budgetary mismanagement, none of which can be clawed back.
On a per capita basis, the State’s debt figure equates to €46,000 for every man, woman and child in the State and €103,300 for every worker.
And the cost of servicing it has cost us €60 billion over the past decade: equivalent to three years of health spending. Make no mistake the State is paying for its boom time folly.
So it behoves us to sit up and listen when the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council (Ifac) sounds a note of caution about the Government’s budgetary strategy, particularly when it claims we’re sailing close to unsustainable debt trajectory.
And not to dismiss the council’s critique, as some do, as an act of fiscal pedantry, far removed from the realpolitik of government.
While the €4.2 billion spending hike earmarked for Budget 2022 is broadly welcomed, the council takes issue with the Government’s medium-term budgetary strategy, which envisages a series of much bigger budget deficits out to 2025 and nearly €19 billion in additional borrowing.
This will leave the State with a bigger and less manageable debt up the line and therefore more exposed to the next crisis. There was now a one in four chance of the national debt moving on to an unsustainable trajectory in the years ahead, it said.
The council also warned that borrowing and ramping up spending during a strong recovery could “backfire” triggering an acceleration in prices if capacity constraints, most notably in the construction sector, bite.
You would think that as a country with a big debt, the chief threat here is rising interest rates, something that is likely to arise if the current pick-up in inflation proves longer than expected.
Ifac has stress-tested the Irish economy against possible interest rate hikes and growth shocks, finding the latter poses a greater problem.
While a big 2 percentage point shock to the Government’s borrowing costs would add just 0.4 percentage points to the debt ratio in three years it would barely raise annual funding costs. This is largely because the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) bond issuance is long-dated and, in the main, fixed rate.
In contrast a typical growth shock of 3.6 per cent for two years could add over 20 percentage points to the debt ratio in three years. “With high debt ratios to begin with, this could snowball and make it difficult to pull down debt ratios in later years,” it said.
Two years ago, NTMA chief Conor O’Kelly was asked what the chief financial risks facing the agency were and if it had a Brexit contingency plan.
He said the agency operated on “permanent contingency” basis . As a small, highly-indebted economy, which relies on international investors for 90 per cent of its borrowings, he said Ireland and the NTMA needed to be in a permanent state of crisis readiness.
The reality is that the next shock, the next thing that will hit our funding market, will probably be something that we have not yet thought of and is not on the front page of every newspaper in the world, O’Kelly said. Nine months later, the Covid crisis hit and the global economy fell off a cliff and the NTMA’s borrowing plans were out the window.
This goes to the heart of Ifac’s commentary: it’s not a case of wondering if there will be another recession or if there will be another financial shock, that’s a given, they’re coming on average every 10 years.
Downturns are part of the natural cycle, financial shocks are part of the global economy. The question is, will you be in a position to borrow and spend your way out of it.
Berlin house seizure referendum approaches decision day
In her apartment in suburban Berlin, Regina Lehmann despairs at the letter from her landlord, a big real estate group: the rent is going up.
Effective November 1, the increase of 12.34 euros ($14.54) on her monthly rent of 623.44 euros will be “difficult” to finance with her only income a disability pension, Lehmann tells AFP.
Almost 700 of her neighbours in the popular Berlin neighbourhood of Spandau will suffer the same fate, boosting their rent by up to eight percent.
Increases like these are at the root of a popular initiative to “expropriate” real estate companies such as Adler, which owns Lehmann’s flat,
that will culminate in a local referendum on September 26, the same day as national and municipal elections.
Residents in the capital have become increasingly frustrated with rising housing costs, as the city’s attractiveness to outsiders has grown in recent years.
And beyond Berlin, the cost of housing has become a hot topic on the campaign trail in the contest to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor.
Back in Lehmann’s living room, surrounded by pictures of her family, Lehmann says she simply “won’t pay” the rise.
“I think, if we pay, after a while they’ll just increase the rent again,” she says.
Rent campaigners secured the referendum in Berlin after collecting 346,000 signatures in support of their proposition — well above the number needed.
They are pushing to “expropriate” homes from real estate companies with more than 3,000 properties.
The result of the poll will not be binding, but advocates hope to force city government to respond to soaring rents, with the cost of housing going up by 85 percent between 2007 and 2019.
The rise has been painful for residents in the capital where 80 percent of people are renters, and 19.3 percent of people live under the country’s poverty line, compared to 15.9 percent in the country as a whole.
Campaigners lay the blame at the door of major real estate groups, such as Adler, which owns 20,000 properties in Berlin.
In Lehmann’s Spandau district, activists argue Adler’s attempt to hike rents is illegal, exceeding a legal reference index linked to the average rent in each area.
The property group, in response, describes an “improved environment” around the lodgings that gives it grounds to charge more.
Supporters of expropriation have upped the tempo of their campaign in recent weeks to win over undecided voters, hanging posters and organising demonstrations across the city.
Many Berliners experienced rent increases after the German constitutional court struck down a rent cap which had been introduced by the city earlier this year, and a poll by the Tagesspiegel daily showed 47 percent of residents supported the radical proposal put forward in the referendum.
“We have to fight for our rights,” says Catia Santos, 41, who recently attended a rent protest with her partner.
“Recently my rent has gone up by 100 euros, even though I am not earning any more than before.”
On Friday, just over a week before the vote, the city of Berlin announced the purchase of 14,750 residential properties for 2.4 billion euros from German real estate giants Deutsche Wohnen and Vonovia, a deal forged under pressure to find an answer to rising rents.
Forcibly taking ownership of privately owned accommodation has largely been rejected by national and local politicians in favour of plans to speed up the building of new homes.
“The best protection for renters is and always will be having enough places to live in,” Armin Laschet, the conservative candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor, told a real estate conference in Berlin in June.
The social-democrat favourite in the local Berlin elections, Franziska Giffey, also declared her opposition to the proposal, saying it could “damage” the city’s reputation.
But her party’s candidate to be chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has called for a “rent moratorium” to stabilise prices.
Only the far-left Die Linke and some individual Green candidates have come out in favour of expropriation, with some even displaying the rent campaigners’ logo on their election materials.
President’s decision to decline invite to centenary an ‘own goal’, says Senator
President Michael D Higgins’s decision to decline an invite to a centenary church religious commemoration of partition and the establishment of Northern Ireland has been branded an “own goal” by Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell.
The move was “uncharacteristic” of the President, who has “always been the man to step forward for reconciliation and to do his bit to try to bring this country together”, said Mr Craughwell on Saturday.
The event in Co Armagh next month is not a celebration, but a commemoration, he said, adding that the declination has brought about a “deep sense of disappointment” in some unionists.
“I think we have missed an opportunity to extend the hand of friendship to the more moderate unionists and we have actually enraged the more radical unionists,” he told RTÉ’s Saturday with Katie Hannon radio programme.
Mr Higgins was invited to a “service of reflection and hope”, the Senator noted, adding: “Any of us sitting in this country today, north or south, would want to reflect on the history of this country with the hope that we might have for the future of the new Ireland- an Ireland that would embrace all traditions.”
Mr Higgins’s statement politicised the situation, which was “so uncharacteristic of the President it is difficult to accept”, he added.
Mr Craughwell was one of six Independent Senators who signed a letter to the President on Thursday voicing concerns that he had declined the invitation.
In their letter, the Independent Senators said: “We earnestly suggest, if possible that you should reconsider the matter with a view to attending the event as we believe your attendance has significant potential to advance the cause of reconciliation between the different traditions in Northern Ireland and on this island.”
Mr Craughwell said there will be “extreme unionists who make serious mileage out of this and the more moderate ones will be deeply hurt”.
Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane told the programme he could not see “any circumstance” where the President of Ireland would mark, commemorate or celebrate partition.
Mr Cullinane said there is a “fine line between commemoration and celebration”, and he said partition of the island is not a historical event but contemporary, as the country “is still divided and our country is still partitioned”.
Social Democrat co-leader Róisín Shortall said she agrees with the actions of the President, who was “completely within his right” to decline the invitation.
“The partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland is not something that most people would consider good developments or something that we should celebrate in any way,” she said.
There would be a “very different discussion” to be had, with other concerns expressed, said Ms Shortall, if the President had accepted the invitation to the event with its current title, which stated it would “mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”.
Minister of State for the Department of Health Mary Butler said the discussion around the issue has been “a little bit unhelpful” as it overshadowed the President’s visit to the Vatican.
“Unfortunately something that was really positive turned into a negative … The President of our country is entitled to make a decision on any invitation he receives,” she said.
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