The Chilean Academy of the Spanish Language: the institutionalization of a discourse community

Darío Rojas
University of Chile

Library of the Instituto de Chile. Source

Library of the Instituto de Chile. Source

In the present entry, I will make an initial case for the thesis that the Academia Chilena de la Lengua (Chilean Academy of the Spanish Language, from this point forward “Chilean Academy”), founded in 1885, has as its precursor a discourse community which, from the beginnings of the second half of the 19th century, interacted by means of various types of metalinguistic discourses (primarily dictionaries). Through these discourses, the members of this discourse community reproduced and transmitted a historically contextualized version of the standard language ideology (Milroy & Milroy 1999) applied to the Spanish language. This ideology developed naturally amid the political processes of constructing the nation-state of Chile, initiated in the first half of the century.

Historical context

The Spanish language was an element of primary importance in the construction of the Chilean nation-state. This can be seen, of course, on a practical level (language planning activities designed to satisfy certain political needs; see Arnoux & Del Valle 2013: 128), but also and above all on a symbolic level, that is, the construction of certain social representations, through metalinguistic reflection, of what is considered legitimate. In other words, “the political in language” (Del Valle 2014) is starkly revealed in 19th century Chile. It should be taken into account that in Latin America “during the 19th century there was little division between the work of intellectuals and the work of politicians” (Jaksić & Posada Carbó 2011: 35). The development of “scientific” and professionalized linguistics, already consolidated in Europe from the beginning of the century, would not have repercussions in Chile until almost the beginning of the following century, such that it was commonplace that those who dedicated themselves to matters of linguistics during this time were politicians, lawyers, or priests. Perhaps the best illustration of the connection between language and politics in this context corresponds to the linguistic work of the Venezuelan Andrés Bello (Arnoux 2008; Jaksić 1999), who became one of the principal architects of the nation-state’s institutional structures following his arrival in Chile in 1829.

In this context, an important aspect of the manifestations of language politics corresponds to the institutionalization of the state’s and the governing elite’s interventions in linguistic matters. Some aspects of this process include the creation of the Spanish language course in the Chilean educational system in 1893 which replaced the Latin course, or the creation of the Philology and Modern Languages lectures in the Pedagogical Institute of the University of Chile in 1889 (Poblete 2003). Another such example, is, of course, the establishment of the Chilean Academy in 1885, whose general aspects I will summarize below.

The Establishment of the Chilean Academy

The establishment of the Chilean Academy (under the name Academia Chilena correspondiente de la Española) can largely be considered a direct result of the Royal Spanish Academy’s efforts to establish an international network of subsidiary or “associated” academies (academias correspondientes) which would operate accoridng to the same logic and language-ideological practices as itself, and which would allow the Spanish Academy to preserve “the right to manage the language within an institutional framework controlled by the Spanish corporation” (Arnoux & Del Valle 2013: 133).

The initiative to create subsidiary academies began in 1870 and had its first successes in Colombia (1871), Ecuador (1874), México (1875), El Salvador (1876) and Venezuela (1883). The official justification for their establishment was to strengthen the unity of the Spanish language, which was one of the primary elements of the “national” Hispanic spirit, understood as the basis for a supranational community: the hispanidad or hispanofonía. Up to the present day, in the official historical accounts of the academies, it can be appreciated that the Spanish Academy itself considers this initiative to be one of its greatest successes and contributions to Hispanic culture, in addition to being a precursor to modern pan-Hispanic language policy (García de la Concha 2014: 218-226).

In the Chilean Academy’s official historical accounts (Amunátegui Reyes 1937; Amunátegui Reyes 1943; Araneda 1976), the authors also coincide in highlighting the Spanish Academy’s initiative as a first milestone in the Chilean Academy’s eventual establishment. This is especially evident in Amunátegui Reyes’ account (director of the institution at the time the account was written), in which he writes: “if, when describing the life of an illustrious person, it is customary to recall who his parents were, I do not esteem it out of place, in writing the history of the Chilean Academy’s establishment, to recall some historical information regarding the distinguished Spanish corporation which created our own” (1937: 1), and then goes on to dedicate six pages to the topic (“Origin, development, and importance of the Spanish Academy”).

In the creation of the Chilean chapter, the Colombian José María Samper played a fundamental role. In 1885, Samper penned a letter to his Chilean friend Miguel Luis Amunátegui Aldunate, urging him to found a subsidiary academy in Chile together with other Chilean associate members (miembros correspondientes) of the Spanish Academy. The suggestion quickly bore fruit. The inaugural session of the Chilean Academy took place on the 5th of June, 1885, and on November 12th of the same year, the Spanish Academy granted its authorization for the official installation of the Chilean corporation. Nevertheless, the political occurrences that resulted in the Chilean Civil War of 1891 caused an abrupt and lengthy pause in the Chilean Academy’s activities, which were only to be resumed in 1914, the year of its “re-establishment.” An external agent once again played an important role in this event: the renowned Spanish philologist and historian Ramón Menéndez Pidal, member of the Spanish Academy and future director of the corporation in Madrid. It is worth mentioning that this long pause in no way signified a transformation of the intellectual spirit and political-linguistic agenda of the Chilean Academy, which continued to faithfully comply with its role as an affiliate of its Spanish “mother.”

I believe that the profound success of the Spanish Academy’s initiative in Chile cannot be fully understood without considering the “climate of opinion” in Chile prior to 1885 regarding the language, which was indeed compatible with the vision and thought of the Spanish institution. It thus seems to me important to investigate what occurred in the period prior to the Chilean Academy’s founding, its pre-institutional historical antecedents. Araneda (1976: 9-11) has mentioned various initiatives to create similar institutions beginning in 1811, but I do not refer to this kind of antecedent; rather, what I wish to highlight is that an institution like the Chilean Academy can have a discourse community as its antecedent, a sort of pre- (or para-) institutional antecedent, which is what I will attempt to demonstrate in the following sections. As may be obvious, this idea is inspired by Del Valle’s (2007) interpretation of the present-day discursive activity of the Royal Spanish Academy.

Discourse Community and the Spanish language in 19th century Chile

I understand the concept of discourse community in the sense of John Swales (1990) and as it has been applied by Richard J. Watts (2008) in the case of the British grammarians of the 18th century. Watts understands this concept as denoting “a set of individuals who can be interpreted as constituting a community on the basis of the ways in which their oral or written discourse practices reveal common interests, goals and beliefs”, and that “might be defined as an embryonic institution” (Watts 2008: 41). Watts highlights that, in contrast to communities of practice, discourse communities do not necessarily require geographic and temporal coexistence among its members, as their primary mode of interaction is precisely through discourses, which transcend time and space.

In the specific case which I am dealing with here, the discourse community is made up of a series of intellectuals of the Chilean, Spanish-speaking elite who published metalinguistic works with a normative purpose beginning in the decade of the 1830s. Andrés Bello can be considered to be one of the first participants in this community. I wish to highlight that I am not proposing that this discourse community ceased to exist with the Chilean Academy’s founding in 1885; rather, beginning at that time the two entities experienced significant overlap and interaction. Despite their close relationship, it can be demonstrated that the discourse community and the Academy did not completely coincide, as there were cases in which the participants in the community were not part of the process of institutionalization (because they died prior to this date, as did Bello, or for other reasons).

Zorobabel Rodríguez. Source

Zorobabel Rodríguez. Source

I do not, on this occasion, have the space necessary to analyze in detail the discourses produced by the multitude of individuals who could be considered part of this community. In lieu of this analysis, I allow myself to refer the reader to previous studies in which my colleagues and I have analyzed some of these cases corresponding to the second half of the 19th century (Avilés & Rojas 2014; Bustos, Valladares & Rojas 2015; Geraghty 2016; Rojas 2014, 2015a, 2015b; Rojas & Avilés 2015). Here, I will limit myself to illustrating the “spirit of the group” with a prototypical case, as is the lawyer, journalist, writer, and Member of Parliament Zorobabel Rodríguez (1839-1901), a militant member of the Chilean Conservative Party.

In 1875 (a decade before the Academy’s founding) Rodríguez published his only linguistic work: the Diccionario de chilenismos, a text with a normative purpose and pedagogic aim. In it, he comments on close to 1100 words and expressions, above all referring to their normative status (which is to say, whether or not they correspond to “correct” use). In 1883, Rodríguez was named associate member of the Royal Spanish Academy, for which reason he is numbered among the founding members of the Chilean Academy. In fact, he was named Permanent Secretary of the first board of directors.

I will now highlight some key aspects of Rodríguez’ metalinguistic discourses, which indicate the existence of the discourse community in question. Firstly, that Rodríguez’ work was a dictionary provides a good example of the community’s preferred mechanism of discursive interaction: the lexicographical genre. Nevertheless, it should not be thought that these works constituted “dictionaries” as we know them today; rather, each article corresponded to a monograph, which could extend from a couple lines to more than one page, in which the author commented on issues of a diverse nature (both linguistic and encyclopedic). These monographs were headed by a lemma which indicated the topic of the commentary, and which allowed them to be ordered alphabetically, facilitating their consultation. This textual mechanism is explained, of course, by the didactic aim which the author attributed to his work.

The lexicographical genre was also chosen by the Salesian priest Camilo Ortúzar for his Diccionario manual de locuciones viciosas (1893), and by future members of the Chilean Academy, such as the historian and politician Miguel Luis Amunátegui Aldunate (Apuntaciones lexicográficas, 1886), the Catholic priest Manuel Antonio Román (Diccionario de chilenismos, 1905-1918), and the lawyer and politician Aníbal Echeverría y Reyes (Voces usadas en Chile, 1900). Valentín Gormaz’ Correcciones lexigráficas sobre la lengua castellana en Chile (1860) can also be considered to be of this genre, as well as the work’s critical commentaries written by Andrés Bello (cf. Rojas 2015b). In 1866, Ramón Sotomayor Valdés (also a founding member of the Chilean Academy) indicated that the dictionary was an ideal tool for the standardization of language in Hispanic America (cf. Rojas 2014).

Secondly, the members of this community shared a set of goals regarding the Spanish language, among which the preservation of language unity and the perfection of linguistic education in the country stand out. The issue of language unity was, in reality, one of the principal concerns of the majority of Hispanic American intellectuals throughout the century and in the various countries. This topic appears already in the prologue of Andrés Bello’s Gramática de la lengua castellana (published in 1847) and would become the cause of many famous debates such as the one which took place between the Colombian philologist Rufino José Cuervo and the Spanish writer Juan Valera (cf. Del Valle 2002). This concern was, of course, ultimately a political issue: Bello indicates that a break in linguistic unity could hamper “the spread of enlightenment, the execution of laws, the administration of the State, and national unity” ([1847] 1997: 102). The same attitude of alarm (with some nuances) can be seen in various figures from the second half of the 19th century who would later become members of the Chilean Academy, such as Ramón Sotomayor Valdés, Adolfo Valderrama, Miguel L. Amunátegui Aldunate, Miguel L. Amunátegui Reyes, Aníbal Echeverría y Reyes, and Manuel A. Román (cf. Flores 2016, for a general overview of this topic).

One of the strategies that could slow or stop the linguistic fragmentation of America would consist of the dissemination of a standard norm through the school system, a system whose implementation held an important place in the construction of the Chilean state (Serrano 2010). This explains why the primary space for the circulation of normative discourses was the teaching of the mother tongue at the institutional level. In this way, the homogenization of linguistic practices would have the greatest possible resonance. In various passages of his work, Zorobabel Rodríguez highlights the educational aims which motivated its writing. He indicates the linguistic “incorrectness” of the Chileans is primarily due to the “great void that exists in the instruction of Spanish grammar […] or in the methods or in the texts with which it is taught” (Rodríguez 1875: 7). It is precisely to filling this void that Rodríguez hopes to contribute with his dictionary. Linguistic education, of course, went hand-in-hand with the preservation of the unity of the language.

Finally, the discourse community of which Rodriguez forms part shares a series of beliefs about what the Spanish language ought to be, which determine the characteristics of the standard that would guarantee linguistic unity. (For a detailed analysis of Rodríguez’ normative linguistic beliefs, see Avilés & Rojas 2014.) One of the principles of this norm is that it should fundamentally be based on the speech of educated people. This idea, which harks back to Quintilian’s principle of consensus eruditorum, was disseminated in Chile, first by Andrés Bello for whom the linguistic model should be “the universal and authentic usage of educated persons” ([1847] 1997: 102). Rodríguez, for his part, expresses a generally negative attitude toward the language use of the uneducated (el vulgo, the masses), and he clearly indicates such use as a type of antimodel of language conduct. There are even passages in Rodríguez’ work in which the exaltation of the speech of the educated and cultured class appears explicitly: “viejísimo is how it ought to be said, for having been thus established by the use of learned men, which is the arbiter of language” (Rodríguez 1875: 476). The same sentiment can be appreciated in Aníbal Echeverría y Reyes, for whom “the masses will never be able to define the language” (1900: xv), or in Camilo Ortúzar, who attributes to the speech of the learned and educated the condition of being “lord and master in matters of language” (1893: xix; cf. Geraghty 2016: 37).

Another fundamental belief is that the standard corresponded to the codifications of the Royal Spanish Academy, especially the Diccionario de la lengua castellana. The language codexes of the Spanish Academy were considered by these authors as an objective incarnation of the ideal model of language, thus giving the Spanish corporation an almost indisputable authority with regards to determining correct and incorrect language use. In principle – that is, if the word had no other merits – a word which did not appear in the dictionary of the Spanish Academy did not form part of the standard. Normally, this belief would be intermixed with another: that the standard should follow the patterns of the metropolitan Castilian dialect, which reveals the relative preservation of the symbolic hierarchical relationships of the colonial era. Accordingly, both of these beliefs are seen in Rodríguez, for example when he indicates that “from mordaza should be formed enmordazar, which is what is said in Spain and what is dictated by the [Spanish] Academy’s Dictionary” (Rodríguez 1875: 27). The ideas indicated above (among others) can be seen reiterated with very few nuances in the works of the other members of this discourse community.


Verifying the presence of the three characteristics explained above (preference for a determined discourse genre for the circulation of knowledge within the group, existence of common goals and ideals, presence of beliefs constitutive of an ideology shared by the group) allows me to sustain that this group of Chilean, Spanish-speaking intellectuals forms a discourse community. It is also possible to demonstrate (although it has not been demonstrated here) the presence of other defining characteristics of this type of community, indicated by Swales. One of these is the existence of mechanisms of intercommunication among its members, which is directly related to the lexicographical genre. The reparos, or dictionaries’ critical commentaries, clearly show the exchanges and debates which took place between these individuals (see Rojas & Avilés 2012 and 2015, for examples related to Echeverría y Reyes and Rodríguez, respectively). Another such characteristic is shared terminology, which in this case corresponds to a series of evaluative words applied to linguistic conduct (correcto/incorrecto ‘correct/incorrect’, casticidad ‘purity’, corrupción ‘corruption’), along with metaphorical expressions which project political and moral spheres over the domain of language use (cf. Geraghty 2016 for the example of Camilo Ortúzar).

This discourse community shaped and strengthened a climate of opinion based on standard language ideology which existed in various parts of Latin America during the 19th century. It seems to me that it is this intellectual climate which then facilitates the institutionalization of this community in the form of the Chilean Academy. We can speak, then, of a type of intellectual “infrastructure” which appeared in Chile during this century, and which the Spanish Academy took advantage of and co-opted toward the end of the century in support of its efforts to create a network of affiliated member corporations; that is to say, the Spanish initiative enters into a synergistic relationship with the language-ideological infrastructure of the Chilean intelligentsia.

The Chilean institution, above all after its “resurrection” in 1914, continued reproducing, in its essential elements, the vision and thought described above, without replacing the discourse community, but rather superimposing itself upon it. Bear in mind that the almost quarter century pause in the Chilean Academy’s activities (between c. 1890 and 1914) has as its counterpart the discourse community which remained very active during those years; that is to say, the Academy persisted in a latent state during this period. On the other hand, by the time the year 1914 arrived, another important (and in terms of underlying ideas, to a certain extent divergent) institutionalization had occurred: the “scientification” of the study of language at the University of Chile, primarily through the influence of Rudolf Lenz and Friedrich Hanssen, a process which occurred in the final decade of the 19th century. The interrelation, conflict, or lack thereof between the two processes will have to be the topic of another study.


This research was financially supported by the research grant FONDECYT-Regular 1150127, CONICYT (Chile), and by the Concurso de Pasantías de Investigación 2013, Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities, University of Chile. I especially thank Megan Geraghty for providing the English translation of the original version of this text. We provide English translations for all Spanish quotations.


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How to cite this post

Rojas, Darío. 2016. The Chilean Academy of the Spanish Language: the institutionalization of a discourse community. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, America, Chile, History, Language teaching, Lexicography, Linguistics, Spanish

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