Some twenty years ago, I was driving in Belgium and stopped at a petrol station. You must know that I am inordinately proud of my French, so that, though I was in Flanders, a Dutch speaking region, I asked in French for my car to be refilled. Blank stare! I then told the uniformed employee that I was Spanish and did not know any Flemish. Ah, Monsieur! That is a different matter. “Naturellement, je vous servirai en Français”. That evening, at a dinner in the University of Leuwen, called Louvain by the Francophones. I related this incident to my companion. He was not surprised or shocked. “These questions of national language can be solved easily”, he said. “For example, I was the Librarian of the University when it split along language lines. I am proud to say that we easily agreed on how to separate our holdings of scientific reviews: even volumes would stay in the old French building; odd go to the Flemish”.

The politics of language

If you believe in individual freedom, you may repine at the idea that the language spoken in a region should be a matter of social imposition or public policy; and object even more strongly that it should become the only legal vehicle for the education of the young. This was the position of the revolutionary governments of France: national education became a duty of the state, a policy continued by Napoleon. Not only in France! The great Prussian linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, during his brief period as the Prussian minister of Education in 1808-09, put the education system of his country at the behest of government. It would follow a single pattern in all public schools. The University of Berlin, which he transformed (it bears his name even today), should not be content with teaching the professions but be a place of research for the benefit of society. In short, it was for the state to foster the Bildung, or education of the people, and organize the discovery of new knowledge.

The general movement in favor of state education was reinforced by the romantic idea that language is of the essence of the nation. National education became an instrument of acculturation, clearly so in the United States with the common school movement of the second half of the 19th century. We economists have sanctified public education, despite its evident failures, as a strategic element of economic growth and social mobility. The growth and consolidation of state institutions around the world from the last quarter of the 19th century onward has revived the old mercantilist belief that religion, education, culture, the economy, should be at the service of national and political ideals.

It was because of the upheaval of World War I that language fully became an instrument of political affirmation in Europe. The old-style empires overthrown by the war had been places where many languages were freely spoken, even if the imperial administration used one of them as the means of legal communication. Under the Sultan, people were free to speak and worship as they wished, as long as they paid their taxes. The Tsar and his ministers spoke Russian (and French) but Poles, Baltics, Volga Germans, Turkomans, Sephardim, and Ashkenazim more or less happily conducted their lives in their age-old tongues. The centuries-old Holy Roman Empire officially ended in 1806. In its place sprang the Austrian Empire, transformed in 1867 into the Austrian Empire and Hungarian Kingdom. Hence, Emperor Franz Joseph I, during the long reign that ended with his death in 1916, was titled “Emperor of Austria” (with its dependencies, such as Bohemia,) “and King of Hungary” (with its subject peoples such as the Croats). My point is not heraldic but linguistic. True, the court in Vienna spoke German and the court in Budapest Hungarian, but the languages of the empire and monarchy were manifold. Though there were German and Hungarian nationalist parties, the various subjects of Franz Joseph were not systematically forced to give up their traditional modes of expression. These crazy-quilt constitutional arrangements may look illogical and old hat to modern democrats, and so they must have looked to dear old President Woodrow Wilson when he issued his Fourteen Points program as a justification for entering the war. What could be more logical for an American liberal than self-determination of the peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Empire along linguistic lines? The trouble was that the lines separating Italian, Slav, Rumanian, or Hungarian speakers were often tied in hopeless knots. Wilson did not know the hornets’ nest he was stirring up.

My readers need not reside in Europe to see language used and abused as a political tool. It may not be much of a constitutional question in the United State, but in Canada language is a political problem: the use of Canadian French (somewhat different from that spoken in France) is more a question of national identity than one of spontaneous social habit and convenience. The same sort of linguistic questions agitate nationalists across Europe, among whom are the nationalistic minority in Catalonia: they want the Catalan language to displace Spanish in their region, as a first step to independence.

Let me explain that Catalonia (whose major city is Barcelona) has never been an independent state. It has been united with the rest of Spain since 1565, when Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon were married—more than a quarter of a century before Europeans had even heard of America. The Spanish language that millions speak today in both hemispheres was a ,latecomer in the landscape of the Iberian Peninsula. On the Atlantic seaboard, Portuguese was spoken; on the shores of the Mediterranean, it was Languedoc (a predecessor of Catalan). Portuguese and Languedoc showed deep similarities. Then Castilian, or Spanish, wedged itself between the two. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the spread of the Castilian territorial possessions (“over which the sun never sets”) made Spanish a world language. It was only after possessions in America, and especially that of Cuba in the Spanish-American War of 1898, that Castilian lost much of its attraction for minorities in Spain. Catalonian nationalist have made a big effort to try to revive Catalan, by making it compulsory in schools, universities, and trade, and presenting the use of Spanish as an imperial imposition. But Spanish is now the language, not of a long disappeared Castilian empire, but that of a kingdom in Europe and eighteen independent republics in America. How did this commonality of language emerge, with no centralized state to impose it?

The answer to that question is apparently easy: the profound effects of three centuries of Castilian lordship over America must surely have extended to the way people spoke. The surprising fact is that the dominance of the Castilian language came only after independence from Spain in the early 1800s.

The transformation of America under Spanish rule

This is not to say that the Spanish conquest and settlement did not have deep, and in a number of fields, regrettable effects on the lives and welfare of the natives, but these effects did not extend immediately to the general use of Castilian. At the more basic level, the so-called “Columbian Exchange” took place, whereby plants and animals passed both ways from one side of the Atlantic to the other. We Europeans gained such staples as potatoes, maize, and cassava; and tasty condiments such as tomatoes, chili peppers, cacao, peanuts, pineapples; and the enjoyment of the ‘weed’, or Cuban tobacco. From Europe, new plants were sent to America, such as wheat, sugar, and coffee; also, animals, as horses, cows, and sheep; and metals such as iron. Castilians brought back precious wood and red cochineal, and more notably gold and silver. The silver mined in Mexico and Peru helped finance Spain’s foreign policy, but turned the metropolis into a case of ‘Dutch Disease’ and resulted in inflation over the whole of Europe.

Another ‘exchange’ was little short of catastrophic: the contagion of diseases against which the natives had developed no resistance: smallpox, measles, scarlet fever, typhus, cholera, and malaria; and the other way, the spread in Europe of the deadliest form of syphilis. The depopulation in America was unbelievably severe. The deadly effects of the epidemics on Indian society were multiplied by social disruption and the imposition of forced labor. It took two centuries after the conquest for the native population to stop falling and reach stable equilibrium. Santiago Muñoz Machado (2017) has summarized the steep fall. By 1570 there may have been no aboriginal population left at all in the Antilles. In Mexico, a population reckoned at 12 to 25 million before the invasion had fallen to 750 thousand by 1630. The 9 million initially living in the Peruvian region may have shrunk to 1.3 million by 1570. Some of these reductions can be explained by violent conquest or labor exploitation, but the main cause was epidemic illness. The lack of hands led to the importation of black slaves, which has also left its mark on the population mix in Iberian America.

The principal aim of the settlers was, of course, laying hands on gold and silver, of which the Crown kept one third. They first grabbed what the locals had treasured over the centuries and, when those hoards had been exhausted, they set themselves to discovering and exploiting mines. So, there soon was a need for laborers in a sharply declining population, not only for mining but also for the rearing of cattle and the cultivation of wheat and sugar—Hernan Cortes, the conqueror of New Spain, as Mexico was then called, was once heard to exclaim, “We are not here to till the land”. True, throughout the three centuries of Spanish lordship the Crown made a big effort to better the condition of the Indians by means of detailed legislation (not punctiliously obeyed by the settlers), but they mainly worried about the salvation of the souls of the subject tribes. The Spanish authorities sent over missionaries of the different religious orders, who not only criticized the methods of exploitation and got the kings to legislate protective measures but also applied themselves to the Herculean task of bringing the Indians into the fold of the Roman Church.

This missionary effort posed the problem of the language in which to preach to the various local tribes. The friars baptized until their arms ached but they were not sure that the natives understood the intent of the ceremony. Speaking to them in Spanish was no use. Interpreters misunderstood the concepts of Christian theology. The friars then made the effort of learning the lingua franca of the different regions, the main ones being n‡uatl in Mexico and quéchua in Peru. But many went further and became experts in countless local languages and customs. Thus, a surprising consequence of the immense effort of the religious orders to Christianize the Indians was that Spanish was not forced on native Indians. It was only in 1755, two and a half centuries after the discovery, that Castilian became the official language of Spanish America, by a decree of King Charles III.

After Independence

The independence of the Spanish lands beyond the seas was gained in a long civil war lasting from 1808 to 1825. It was in fact a war waged by the criollos, the white Spaniards born and bred in America, against the Spanish Crown. The Indian tribes more often than not sided with the King of Spain. The borders of those new republics were by and large those of the vice-royalties and captaincies of colonial times, so that they did not coincide with the linguistic territories of the various tribes and only Spanish could function as the means of communication in the new nations. All this contributed to the unexpected result that it became the policy of each of the several republics to install Spanish as their national language.

The great inspirer of the proper use of Spanish in America was the Venezuelan Andrés Bello (1781-1865). He published a Grammar of the Castilian language for the use of Americans in 1847, full of examples from classical Spanish, which is the grammar I use when assailed by some doubt, because of its clarity and purity. He also wrote singlehandedly the Civil Code of Chile by appealing to the traditional laws of Castile, ascending as far as the Siete Partidas (1256-1265). The Chilean Code had wide influence on the other new republics and definitely established the legal connection with Spanish laws.

Instead of slowly drifting away from the common language, usage in Spain and the new republics moved towards unity in grammar and syntax and acceptance of a varied vocabulary, with no regard to identity politics. In 1714, King Philip V had established a “Royal Spanish Academy” in Madrid a private corporation to oversee and reflect the popular use of the Spanish tongue. During the 19th century, similar institutions were created in all the American Republics. After long negotiations, all these Academies now jointly publish a common dictionary and grammar incorporated in all the Spanish-speaking lands.

“When people are allowed to speak the language they prefer without political preconditions, they tend to seek mutual understanding.”

When people are allowed to speak the language they prefer without political preconditions, they tend to seek mutual understanding. This is what has happened with English, too, giving the lie to Oscar Wilde’s quip that England and America have everything in common except, of course, language. I am ever thankful that I can read the poetry and novels of five continents because the people have chosen to be creative in English.

Politically correct

Today, political interference with the use of language is back, both in English and Spanish though under a different form. Totalitarians have given up Marxism and communism, in view of the mountains of dead these creeds have bought on the world. Now, it is the oppression of patriarchal capitalism that has to be denounced and fought against, in the name of aggressive feminism.

For more on these topics, see “The Revival of Nationalism”, by Pedro Schwartz, Library of Economics and Liberty, November 3, 2014; and the EconTalk podcast episodes John McWhorter on the Evolution of Language and Words on the Move and Jordan Peterson on 12 Rules for Life. See also Language and Social Justice, by Bart Wilson, EconLog, November 18, 2013.

I have been following with great interest the battle waged by Professor Jordan Peterson in Canada and the United States against the imposition of personal pronouns to address trans-sexual students, if they demand not to be classified in the traditional binary address mode of he and her. He has announced that he will refuse to use artificially constructed words as ‘zshe’ and ‘zher’ and more than twenty other sex-neutral modes of appellation. He will resist even if the law demands that he should, as has happened in Ontario and may soon happen in New York. Peterson thinks these impositions are the tip of the neo-Marxist war waged by leftist groups that are taking over the English departments of Harvard and other Ivy League Universities. He advises students not to take degrees in ‘Women’s Studies’ or ‘Ethnic Studies’, because he sees these post-modern approaches as displacing the traditional critical-rationalism of university life in favor of the pursuit of a philosophy of relativism and power. He should not be left alone in his championing of freedom in our use of language.


*Pedro Schwartz is “Rafael del Pino” Research Professor of economics at Universidad Camilo José in Madrid. A member of the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in Madrid, he is a frequent contributor to the European media on the current financial and social scene. He currently serves as President of the Mont Pelerin Society.

For more articles by Pedro Schwartz, see the Archive.