In the NYT today, a story (by Elisabeth Malkin) about the Spanish Academy’s forthcoming spelling reforms and the reactions worldwide to them, focusing especially on objections from Spanish-speaking nations in the Americas to what is seen a dictate coming from abroad (headline: Rebelling Against Spain, This Time With Words). And a certain amount of silliness over one much-discussed aspect of the reforms, the elimination of CH and LL as separate letters of the alphabet, with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela weighing in on the issue:

If the academy no longer considers “ch” a separate letter, Mr. Chávez chortled to his cabinet, then he would henceforth be known simply as “Ávez.” (In fact, his name will stay the same, though his place in the alphabetic order will change, because “ch” used to be the letter after “c.”)

The elimination of the digraphs CH and LL as letters of the alphabet won’t change the spelling of any word, just the order of words in alphabetic lists — though that will entail a massive re-working of dictionaries (for new editions) and armies of copyeditors to ensure consistency in them and in other alphabetical lists. (Other reforms will entail re-spellings.)

Here’s the current Spanish alphabet, with 29 letters:

The revision will reduce the number of letters to 27; palatal Ñ will remain a separate letter.

For contrast, look at the current Welsh alphabet, with 28 letters:

Here there are plenty of digraphs — CH DD FF NG LL PH RH and TH — most of them representing “mutated” forms of basic phonemes; CH, for instance, represents the fricative /x/, a mutation of /k/. (One exception is FF, which represents /f/; the letter F represents /v/.)

The letters K Q V X and Z from the Latin alphabet are not used, since there are other spellings for borrowed words that have these letters in their spellings in source languages; for instance, K and CK from other languages, where they are pronounced with a /k/, are spelled with C, which represents /k/ in Welsh orthography, and PH from other languages, where it’s pronounced with /f/, is spelled with FF, as in FFÔN ‘phone’.

For consonants, the only real complexity is that there are two spellings for /f/: FF for a basic /f/ and PH for /f/ as a mutated form of /p/. (Vowels are another story.)

Actually, a pretty straightforward system, though it looks odd to people used to other spelling systems based on the Latin alphabet.

10 Responses to “Alphabets”

  1. jbl Says:

    For what it’s worth, I was taught in junior high Spanish an alphabet containing 28 (or 30) letters. I believe my Spanish/English dictionary followed that ordering, but perhaps I am misremembering. The letter that is not in your chart was the rr – words did not start with that digraph but we were taught that pero (but) and el perro (dog) were both four letter words. (Also, k and w, we were told, were not really part of the alphabet except for use in imported words.)
    Things may have changed since then, or my memory may have mutated; this was around 48-49 years ago (in northern Utah, far from the border – the pronunciation taught was Mexican as opposed to Castilian, with regards to soft c, z and ll).

  2. F. Escobar C. Says:

    Chávez was, predictably, aiming for the spotlight with his comment on the CH. In fact, the melting of those two digraphs into the single initial letters of each has been long under way in Spanish. None of the Spanish dictionaries around me right now (DRAE, DUE, Larousse, CLAVE, etc.) has separate entries for CH and LL; that has been the norm for years now.

    People have been somewhat idly and romantically complaining about the names adjudicated to different letters (Spain doesn’t use “ye” for Y, but has now been enjoined to use it; great swathes of the Americas don’t use “uve” for v, but have now been admonished to use it). Some quite arbitrary elisions of accent marks have ignited debates, as have some transliteration decisions that ignore legitimate reasons for having those distinctions (e.g., transliterations of Arabic terms used to distinguish between q and k, and now the academies want a single letter for what is voiced as a single sound in Spanish).

    That for which I find most justifiable grounds for complaint is the very despotism of top-down language change. Spanish needs much more descriptivism in its grammarians, and the most recent flurry of reforms have used the cloak of descriptivism to launch an all-out prescriptivist assault. Centuries of traditions, and a very rich sense of diversity, are being ignored in order to forge a more homogeneous language system. There are benefits to such a thing, but there are also delusions about language and authority that need to be exorcised.

  3. irrationalpoint Says:

    F. Escobar C. beat me to it. The alphabet change strikes me as a little old fashioned, in that those changes have been under way in my speech community for some time. So no one I know is criticising the change to the alphabet. The NYTimes article actually seemed to me to be pretty naive, in that it doesn’t distinguish between criticism of top-down prescriptivism in general, and criticism of this particular reform, which seems an important distinctions for the reasons F. Escobar C. outlined.


  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    More extensive discussion on Language Log, with comments:

    ML, 11/28/10: Sr. Chávez objects (link)

    Apparently the downgrading of CH and LL was established over 15 years ago.

  5. Hazel Says:

    There is no W in Spanish…

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes, there is a W in the Spanish alphabet, but it’s used only for words borrowed from languages whose writing systems have a W — like English, as in the illustration.

  6. ÆØÅ « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] place in alphabetizing. Something similar is true in Spanish and Welsh orthography (some details here). But in other orthographies, like German and French, extra symbols are treated as variants of the […]

  7. SANDRA A Says:

    i thought there was a RR?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Some authorities used to classify R amd RR as “separate letters” (because they represent distinct phonemes), but as far as I know, RR was always treated as R + R for the purposes of alphabetization (so that …RR… comes before …RS…).

  8. Calville Dunnon Says:

    I am an American living in the DR, they seem to have a distinct different twist on the Spanish language, like the difference between the US and GBritain English. I think its ok for each country to develop its own distinct language, while understanding the broader language base. Changing the Spanish letters ch and ll will prove very costly for the poorer countries, so they will just ignore the change and continue to be different for different reasons.

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