The feat of the Real Academia Española’s first dictionary (part 1)

The Diccionario de la lengua castellana (1726-1739), later known as Diccionario de autoridades, was the first modern Spanish lexicographical work. The Real Academia Española (RAE) was founded in 1713 under the royal auspices and the first generation of academics decided to record the Spanish vocabulary following the example of the language academies in Paris and Florence. They considered that the Spanish language had achieved its zenith in the 17th century, so it was time to preserve it for future generations. This was a huge challenge, considering that the only Spanish precedent, the Tesoro de la lengua castellana, o española (1611) by Sebastián de Covarrubias, one of the first monolingual dictionaries in a vernacular language, was around one hundred years old. They did their job altruistically, “for the honour of serving the Nation”. The founder and first director, Juan Manuel Fernández Pacheco, Marquis of Villena and Duke of Escalona was an inspiring figure and played a major role in the institution. The purpose of the academy was reflected in its motto “Limpia, fija y da esplendor” ([It] cleans, [it] fixes, and [it] gives splendour).


The structure of this dictionary was inspired by other predecessors stated in the work. Covarrubias’s Tesoro served as a guide, but other European dictionaries were also taken into account: in particular the Vocabolario of the Accademia della Crusca (1691 ed., first published in 1612) and also the Dictionnaire of the Académie française (1694 & 1714 eds.) among others. Lázaro Carreter studied the minutes of the Academia meetings, tracing the history of the dictionary and of the beginnings of the institution itself. Although equivalent to the French academy, the Real Academia Española had its own character and followed its own path.

The plan was very ambitious, bringing together all Spanish vocabulary, excluding words considered “indecent”, and covering different levels of usage. Interestingly, the academics were gathering regional voices and arcaisms, and thus disagreed with most of the dictionaries (including the previously mentioned French and Italian ones) that strictly sought the purity of the language. They recorded around 1400 “provincial” words, following the example set by Covarrubias in including sayings and proverbs. For this task, contributors from the different regions were required, but their output and speed of work were irregular.  Those in charge of Aragon did the job very well, hence why they clearly represent the highest percentage of regional voices in the dictionary. Interestingly, a modest quantity of American words were also included. Furthermore, they also gathered quotations from authorities, giving examples of vocabulary use, making their job harder, but notably enriching the work. This aspect had also featured in Crusca’s dictionary, and the Académie française tried to followed the hard work done by the Italians, but soon gave up, changing their original plan – something later criticised by Voltaire with this statement: “A dictionary without citations is a skeleton”. Something less important, but still worth mentioning, is the addition of crime slang words taken from a vocabulary covering the germanía jargon.

The most quoted authors were Francisco de Quevedo and Miguel de Cervantes, but this doesn’t mean that they were only using authorities from the Spanish Golden Age. In their search for citations to prove the use of words, they needed not only literary sources, but treatises in different matters, even legal texts; and exceptionally for some medical and scientific terms, works in Spanish by foreign authors.

Orthography was also seriously taken into account, but the lack of a clear plan was quite a problem. In the early stages, the aim was to transcribe the words according to their origin, sticking to an etymological concept, but this could have ended with unusual spellings of words, so it was not practical, as Lázaro Carreter declares. In 1724, after some discussion, the team decided to change their policy and consider not only etymology, but also use (or pronunciation). Finally, pronunciation was considered the priority. That was the general rule, open to discussion depending on special cases. These drastic changes were not exceptional at that time and they also happened in the first two dictionaries of the Académie française.

According to Lázaro Carreter, the dictionary marked an important point in the history of Spanish orthography. It attained a wider audience than previous attempts to set rules in the field, and was a step forward in moving away from the previous chaotic state of orthography.

[Go to part 2]

Manuel del Campo

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