Interview with Gonzalo Ortega Ojeda

Gonzalo Ortega OjedaGonzalo Ortega Ojeda was born in Teror, Gran Canaria in 1954. He attended Salesiano primary school and then Pérez Galdós secondary school in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. His university career then began at La Laguna University in Tenerife, where he studied Romance Languages and Literature in the department of Arts and Philosophy. In 1977 he started work as a teacher and researcher at the university, where he remains to this day. He has been a Spanish Language Professor since 2000.

Ortega researches Canarian Dialectology and has published and co-authored several dictionaries on regional Canarian terms, in addition to other theoretical work: Diccionario de canarismos (Dictionary of Canarian terms), Léxico y fraseología de Gran Canaria (Lexicon and phraseology from Gran Canaria), Diccionario de expresiones y refranes del español de Canarias (Dictionary of Spanish words and proverbs from the Canary Islands), Catálogo de los gentilicios canarios (Catalogue of Canarian peoples), La competencia léxica de los hablantes canarios (Linguistic competence of Canarian speakers), La toponimia de Artenara (Gran Canaria) (Place names of Artenara (Gran Canaria)). He has also published material on teaching Canarian Spanish to both native speakers and foreigners, such as La enseñanza de la lengua española en Canarias (Teaching Spanish in the Canary Islands), El español idiomático (Idiomatic Spanish), Dificultades del español (Challenges in Spanish), Los errores sintácticos más comunes del español (Most common Spanish syntax errors), El español en Canarias (Spanish in the Canary Islands) and Lexicología del Español (Lexicology of Spanish) (which has inspired several books and articles).

He is currently undertaking a detailed study on place names in the municipality of Teror with the historians Francisco J. Sánchez Ojeda and Vicente de J. Suárez Grimón. He has been a member of the Academy of the Canarian Language since 2001 and co-authored its Diccionario básico de canarismos (Basic Dictionary of Canarian Terms). He chaired the Academy between 2012 and 2015.

Ortega has published four literary works: Una muchacha de Holguín y otros relatos (A girl from Holguín and other stories) (1999), Cuentos de Vecindad y otras historias (Neighbourhood tales and other stories) (2005), Las tribulaciones caribeñas de Michael Thompson y otros cuentos (The Caribbean tribulations of Michael Thompson and other stories) (2010) and El edificio de los espejos (The glass building) (2014). The four stories were published by the municipal council of Teror.


Read our interview with Gonzalo Ortega Ojeda in Spanish here.


  1. Your field of work focuses on lexicography, what inspired you to work in that field?

Lexicography is a branch of applied linguistics. Dictionaries are reference works for readers across all languages. Our work focuses both on lexicographic theory (meta-lexicography and lexicographic theory) and compiling indexes of dialects for Canarian Spanish. Compiling dictionaries is a herculean task, and the average dictionary user is often unaware of the work involved. Lexicographers take their work very seriously and are meticulous in their approach, and work is pain-staking and thankless. The fear of leaving things unfinished has long weighed heavily on much lexicographical output.


  1. Some of your work focuses on areas such as games and proverbs. How do popular traditions, songs and stories influence linguistic and terminological language research?

Like all varieties of Spanish, the Canarian dialect is wonderfully rich its expressions and proverbs. In 2000, my colleague Isabel González Aguiar and I published Diccionario de expresiones y refranes del español de Canarias (Dictionary of Spanish words and proverbs from the Canary Islands), one of the very few compendia on Spanish regional or national phraseology. Latin American Academies have also been running similar projects. Phraseology, both in its theoretical and practical aspects, is a relatively new discipline with a promising future. It is a part of natural language that is intrinsically linked to nature and culture, yet at the same time it shares many similarities with other languages, such as a preponderance of words relating to the human body.


  1. Another line of your work is research into Canarian dialectology. What is Canarian Spanish?

Canarian Spanish is a sub-variety of what is known as Southern, Atlantic or Latin American Spanish. At least in terms of its pronunciation and grammar, Canarian Spanish is much closer to Latin American Spanish – the Caribbean and West Indies varieties in particular – than Peninsular Spanish. Historically speaking, however, our language was greatly influenced by the Kingdom of Castile’s Atlantic expansion, led by Western Andalusia in the early 16th century, which took place after the Castilian conquest of our islands. The similarities between the respective conquest and colonisation of the Canary Islands and America explain why both varieties of Spanish have many linguistic aspects in common. Words that are specific to Canarian Spanish are the product of a need to describe our nature and culture, and are influenced by Portuguese terms (of which there are reportedly at least 2 000), Americanisms, Guanche words and archaisms.


  1. In which lexical field does Canarian Spanish differ most from Peninsular Spanish?

Each natural language’s vocabulary adapts to the particularities of its physical and cultural environment. In addition to words that were influenced by history, there are a plethora of specific words for flora, fauna, ethnography, agriculture, livestock, fishing, gastronomy, folklore, local sports, recreational activities and so on.


  1. How far advanced is research into Guanche, a language spoken by the indigenous Canarian peoples?

Over the past twenty or thirty years there has been considerable interest in pre-hispanic ‘linguistic relics’ in the Canary Islands. In addition to research into the few Guanche voices that are left, we are also researching local place names and surnames, which have left a considerable mark on the Canary Islands. Certain research-related problems remain almost insurmountable, however: the degree to which these relics have been hispanised, the diversity of the current Berber dialect, the shortage of Berber language experts, ideological prejudices and so on.


  1. In early 2015, the Canary Islands’ Parliament and the Academy of the Canarian Language (ACL) signed a cooperation agreement. What influence does such an important institution have on preserving Canarian Spanish?

Under the current agreement, the ACL advises the regional Parliament on all matters falling within its field of expertise and in exchange it receives a small yearly sum which it uses to fund its activities such as its publications, bibliography and conferences. The ACL advises on general aspects of Spanish, since several of its members are Spanish language specialists, and provides guidance on specific issues relating to Canarian Spanish such as in the legal field. The ACL hopes that institutional cooperation will yield positive results in the future.


  1. The Canary Islands and Latin America enjoy a close relationship. Are there any projects or institutions researching linguistic ties?

Although in the past we have occasionally worked with academies in Cuba and Venezuela, our working relationship can be put under strain because all Latin American Academies must have their work approved by the Real Academia Española (RAE), which acts as the official authority. The RAE has indeed raised a number of reservations about ACL’s work. The RAE appears to take the view that any project of this kind may give rise to nationalism or independence movements. Let me be clear: the ACL has never been politically motivated and its members hold a wide variety of political views.


  1. The ACL has compiled a range of linguistic materials. Could you explain how terms are included in the dictionary on the ACL website?

The ACL works in a similar way to the RAE, albeit on a smaller scale. Work is split between designated committees, such as specific committees for lexicography, place names and Canarian literature. The Lexicography committee created the Diccionario básico de canarismos (Basic Dictionary of Canarian terms), which can be publically accessed via the ACL website. We are currently working on the Diccionario general de canarismos (General dictionary of Canarian terms), which will hopefully include a large number of Canarian terms (probably more than 25 million) – not just one-word terms but also expressions. We also try to provide example sentences, etymologies and other relevant information. We work using linguistic differentiation, meaning that we collect terms which, even though they may appear in other variants of Spanish, aren’t widely used. The committee also answers any questions that are sent via our website, which inspired us to publish the manual on Dudas más frecuentes sobre el español de Canarias (Frequently asked questions on Canarian Spanish) in 2015.


  1. The EU gives citizens, lawyers, translators and linguists public access to IATE, in an effort to explain the terms used by the various EU institutions. Do you use it? Do you think it provides enough information on specific projects in the Canary Islands, such as the Canary Islands Special Zone (ZEC), or the outermost regions (OR), which include items covered by the Register of protected designations of origin and protected geographical indications (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indications (PGI)?

I have to confess that I don’t, although I would like to use these IT tools and their functions when conducting linguistic research in the future.


  1. Do you think that the people of the Canary Islands realise how important it is to keep their language alive? Are they interested in their own traditions? What will happen to certain linguistic uses in the future?

Opinions vary. Educated people are often aware of the fact that our Spanish is fine just as it is. People with a lower level of education, however, often think that they don’t speak Spanish properly and they frequently blame their own language limitations on Canarian Spanish. Many people believe that we don’t speak Spanish properly because we don’t speak like the rest of Spain – the language that we hear in the national media. Our standard language, however, is much closer to Peninsular Spanish than to the most widely spoken form of the language, i.e. Latin American Spanish. We shouldn’t forget that linguistic complexities are in fact cultural complexities and that these are often unique. Scientifically speaking, Canarian linguistic peculiarities are as different as those found in any other language. The process of globalisation, which is engulfing western society, is having a homogenising effect on the Canarian language (and may even be jeopardising Canarian culture), although we aren’t going to be losing any sleep over it.


Read our interview with Gonzalo Ortega Ojeda in Spanish here.

Ana-BennasarInterviewer, Ana Bennasar

Born in La Laguna (Tenerife, Spain), she holds a degree in Translation and Interpreting at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria with Spanish, French, English, and Arabic as her main working languages. Since 2010, she has been collaborating as a translator for several international organizations and NGOs to improve her professional skills in the field of translation of texts about human rights, immigration, and international cooperation. Ana is interested in law and finance, especially in regions such as Africa, the Middle East and Europe, and she recently finished a MA in Institutional Translation and obtained the ECQA certificate in terminology management.