MADRID - Can a Barcelona truck driver be expected to speak like a Buenos Aires banker? Can rules be imposed on a language spoken by 400 million people stretching from Madrid to Manila?
The academic overseers of the language of Cervantes have taken an ambitious stab at it, releasing their first Spanish grammar guidelines in nearly 80 years.
The fruit of their toil is a nearly 4,000-page tome in two volumes presented yesterday, with yet another to come out next year.
It was produced by the Spanish Royal Academy and 21 sister organizations in Latin America and other countries where Spanish is spoken, such as the United States and the Philippines, and has taken 11 years to compile.
The book is billed as a sort of linguistic map that painstakingly documents today's Spanish in all its richness - there are nearly 20 ways to say ballpoint pen, for instance - and how it varies from country to country, or within one, or from one social class to another.
Indeed, while English speakers face the perennial 'you-say-tomayto, I-say-tomahto' dilemma, Spanish is also chock full of differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and the ways sentences are constructed.
The biggest change from the existing grammar, which dates back to 1931, is that the new book reflects how the language is spoken where most Spanish-speakers actually live: Latin America.
In Puerto Rico, for example, it acknowledges the fact that subject and verb in a question are often switched around to an order resembling that of English. So the question "Adonde vas tu?" - where are you going? - becomes "Adonde tu vas?" in the U.S. territory.
"Here are all the voices, all the ways of speaking, coming together in a grand polyphony," Victor Garcia de la Concha, president of the Spanish language academy, said at yesterday's ceremony. "This book comes from the people, and it is to the people that it reaches out."
The new grammar shies from setting cut-and-dry dogma on what is correct and what is not, making instead recommendations as to what the language gurus generally accept to be proper Spanish. The Puerto Rican twist, for instance, is respected as a localism but not something textbook traditional.
After all, languages are living things that embrace new phenomena and words - often English intruders such as Internet - and there is no use in trying to control them completely.
"Rules are set by speakers. What the academy does is observe and document," Garcia de la Concha said at a news conference Wednesday night.
The guidelines mark a major change because until now grammar rules in countries outside Spain were never acknowledged, said linguistic researcher Rocio Mandujano, of the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. "We know now that we are not speaking poorly. It's only a different grammar," she said.