It’s always been there, by F. Xavier Vila

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When visitors arrive at any of Catalonia’s airports, they soon realize they are welcome not in two languages, as in most European cities, but in three: English, Spanish, and Catalan. At first glance, they may be tempted to believe that this presence of Catalan is just a benevolent concession to local pride. But during their trip to the hotel, newcomers rapidly perceive that this is not the case. In fact, most written information, from commercial posters to traffic signs, including all place names, street names, and so on, are written at least, and very often exclusively, in Catalan. Of course, at the hotel, they may be served in several languages, most restaurants offer a multilingual menu, and a very large percentage of the music heard on the radio consists of international hits. Spanish–speaking visitors will manage to communicate in this language with virtually everybody they encounter. But if the visitors keep alert and look beyond this initial curtain, they will soon see how a complex, fascinating, linguistic landscape is slowly revealed before their eyes. Catalan is a crucial piece of this idiomatic puzzle.

In fact, if our visitors leave the hotel and start listening to people on the street, they will soon realize that a large percentage of them speak Catalan to each other. Most immigrants from outside Catalonia communicate either in Spanish—in Castilian, as the language has always been called here—or in their own languages, so don’t expect to hear Catalan on every corner in the neighborhoods where Andalusian, Latino, or Moroccan immigrants settled during the last decades. But although locals are at least bilingual and willing to accommodate speakers of other languages, immigration has not led locals to give up Catalan. On the contrary, Catalans use it in all societal domains, from home to the parliament, on the playgrounds, at work, and in the hospitals. Catalan is the main language of instruction in all schools and universities, and it is used by scientists to do research as well as by caretakers to help elderly people. It is the first language used in the Barcelona Football Club stadium, but also in the Liceu, Barcelona’s opera house, and in all museums as well. It is the language of most local theater productions, that of hundreds of music bands, and used by the two most followed radio stations (and by many others). Catalan finds itself among the 20 most used languages on the internet, and there’s a Catalan version of several widespread software applications such as Windows, Office, YouTube, and Twitter. Not everybody in Catalonia masters Catalan: according to data from the official EULP poll (Enquesta d’usos lingüístics de la població [Linguistic usage poll]) in 2008, 94.6 percent of the residents older than 14 years declared they could understand it, while 78.3 percent could speak it, 81.7 percent could read it, and 61.8 percent could write it. But take into account that Catalonia is a society of immigrants. In the sample, as in society as a whole, only 58 percent of the respondents were born in Catalonia, 24 percent elsewhere in Spain—mostly in Castilian–speaking regions—and 17 percent abroad.

Figure 1. Languages used with grandparents, parents, and children in Catalonia

Source: Torres (2011: 85), out of EULP 2008

At any rate, Catalonia is one of Europe’s most deeply bilingual societies, and the local language, in spite of a number of problems, faces no imminent demise. In fact, Catalan is a vibrant language that attracts new users. Half of the almost 5.7 million speakers of the language living in Catalonia proper did not learn the language from their parents, but rather from friends, at school, university, and so on. The fact that 60 percent of all those born elsewhere in Spain and 42 percent of those born abroad declare that they too can speak Catalan bears testimony to the attraction of Catalan (EULP 2008). In fact, most of those who are more integrated use Catalan on an everyday basis, evidenced by the fact that one in every three people who spoke Castilian with their parents uses Catalan with their own offspring, basically in mixed couples (see Figure 1).

The position of Catalan in Catalonia, a language without a state of its own, is unique in many respects. How has Catalan arrived at its current situation? To explain it, a bit of history is necessary. Especially in Europe, linguistically naive people tend to equate languages with sovereign states (e.g., France equals French), and therefore interpret discrepancies to this rule in terms of mixture. In their eyes, if Catalan is different from Spanish it must be a mixture between Spanish and, let’s say, French and/or Italian. Simple as this rule may look, it is fundamentally wrong. Languages were there before any nation state was ever created. German, Italian or, in this case, Catalan, existed before Germany, Italy, or Spain were created. In fact, many states were created on the basis of a language, and not the other way around.

So what is Catalan, then? Catalan is the language that appeared in the territories we now call Catalonia in the early Middle Ages. As a language, it is derived from the Latin spoken in those territories 2,000 years ago, when the Roman Empire imposed it on the natives. In historical terms, then, Catalan is the indigenous language of Catalonia, and it has been used without interruption by virtually all the natives during most of the last millennium, in most social situations. Catalans have spoken Catalan at home and at work, in bars, in courts and in churches; they have sung songs, watched theatre, played sports, and written wills, laws, poetry, and novels in their language. In fact, until the 20th century, the vast majority of Catalans were monolingual Catalan speakers. So, in this crucial respect, the story of Catalan is not fundamentally different from that of many other “normal” languages in Europe.

But there is a fundamental difference between Catalan and other normal languages, and it has to do with its relationship with the State. Catalans started to write down their language more or less at the same time as the Portuguese, Italians, or Castilians. In fact, Catalan as a written language lived a golden age during the 14th and 15th centuries, when it was not only the main official and administrative language of a powerful state—the Crown of Aragon—but also as a literary and scientific language. But Catalan as a cultured language experienced two successive crises. The first one took place at the beginning of the 16th century, when the Crown of Aragon, Castile, Flanders, and Austria became united and formed the Habsburg Empire, the multinational, political entity that was the antecedent of Spain. When the imperial court moved to Castile, intellectuals and writers followed it, and Catalan literary production diminished abruptly in quantity and quality. The second crisis took place after Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands were defeated during the War of Succession (1700–1714). Their territories were annexed to Castile, and their institutions were abolished—from courts and legal systems to universities—and replaced by Castilian ones. The new royal house started a policy of castilianization of Catalans which became a cornerstone of the new Spanish State. Following this policy, Catalan was progressively ousted from all formal positions, including the judiciary system, the administration, and the schools, with the declared goal of reducing it to the status of a spoken vernacular that could be eventually abandoned by its speakers. These goals were almost accomplished by General Franco’s dictatorship (1936/39–1975), which banned Catalan from school and official spheres and spread knowledge of Castilian among all Catalans. Moreover, during this period, hundreds of thousands of Castilian–speaking immigrants settled in Catalonia, making Castilian a widely used language in Catalonia itself for the first time.

All in all, Catalan might have collapsed under such formidable pressures. But it didn’t. Even during the darkest periods of repression, not only was the language spoken in everyday life by virtually all Catalans, but writers and intellectuals kept producing appreciable works with the hope that better times would eventually arrive. And they did after the dictator died.

Once democracy was established in Spain, Catalans managed to get some degree of autonomy in 1979 and started to reconstruct their society. A central element in this process was the normalization of the Catalan language. This process included two main activities. On the one hand, specific efforts had to be made to help the adult population—which had been deprived of a Catalan education—achieve language competence, which meant massive language literacy campaigns for almost all native speakers, and Catalan–as–a–second–language courses for Castilian–speaking immigrants. On the other hand, Catalan had to be (re)introduced in all those spheres of life from which it had been banned by the Spanish authorities. Catalan was therefore: (1) adopted again as the main language of administration in local and national institutions; (2) reinstated in schools and universities as the main language of instruction; (3) adopted as the vehicular language in a number of new mass–media; and (4) promoted in all spheres of life in general.

More than three decades after the dictator’s death, the process has not been simple at all, and in several respects, it is still ongoing. Catalan is today a vibrant language, but it is not without major challenges. Let’s summarize them in two parts: the societal and the political ones.

On the societal front, although Catalan has recovered significantly, it is still in many respects convalescing from three hundred years of repression. For example, since 2011 virtually all newspapers edited in Catalonia appear either solely in Catalan or in two otherwise -identical versions, one in Catalan and another one in Castilian. Local magazines are published mostly in Catalan. More than 10,000 different books are published every year in Catalan—including both local and international bestsellers—which is a greater number, for instance, than books published in Hebrew, Greek, or Finnish. But more newspapers and books are still sold in Castilian in Catalonia, not only because of monolingual immigrants, but also because even today, many adult locals feel more comfortable writing or reading in the language in which they were educated. The more than 1.5 million immigrants from all over the world who settled down in Catalonia in the first decade of the 2000s did not simplify the matter. The fact that Catalans readily switch to Castilian to speak to immigrants makes linguistic integration still more difficult.

Societal challenges are infinitely complicated due to the narrow margin of autonomy of Catalan institutions, and to the continuous political interference of the Spanish central authorities. At the end of the day, neither the Spanish State nor its Castilian national majority have ever accepted that Spain could become (again) a federal state where the different languages were dealt with on equal terms. On the contrary, during the last decades the central authorities have made every legal and political effort to ensure that Castilian always keeps an upper hand and all other languages are demoted. To offer one example, there are some areas outside of Catalonia proper, such as the Franja, where historically Catalan has been the dominant language but where it has received hardly any legal recognition at all. In Catalonia, the electoral system has made that degree of contempt impossible, but the efforts to keep Catalan in a secondary position have been constant. In this sense, the reaction to the 2006 new Statute of Autonomy is quite illustrative. After much controversy with the Spanish government, a Statute was passed in a referendum that made knowledge of Catalan mandatory for citizens of Catalonia, in order to put it on an equal footing with Castilian, which is mandatory for all Spanish citizens according to the 1978 Constitution. But in 2010, the Constitutional Court ruled that Castilian would be compulsory in Catalonia, but Catalan would not. And on the basis of this sentence, two years later the Spanish minister of education inflamed Catalonia when boasting in the parliament that it was his goal to hispanicize (“españolizar”) Catalan students. He presented a bill that not only invaded Catalonia’s jurisdiction in education, but allowed for Catalan children to be educated monolingually in Castilian, a position perceived as colonial and completely unacceptable to most Catalans.

In this context, are languages a major element for social mobilization in Catalonia right now? Yes and no. On the one hand, the defense of Catalan garners widespread cross–community support within Catalan society. One does not need to be a Catalan speaker to support the promotion of Catalan, among other things, because it is regarded as linguistic capital that plays an important role in the job market. Learning Catalan is a good investment in terms of social mobility, and promoting it is a good collective investment in terms of social cohesion and national identity. On the contrary, active mobilization in favor of Castilian, a global language that is known by everyone and which is imposed by the Spanish constitution, is more marginal. It is basically supported by a small, highly politicized—and usually Spanish immigrant—minority. It should not be forgotten that the leaders of the two major pro–independence parties have personally stated that in an independent Catalonia, Castilian would enjoy an official status. So, all in all, while languages are a fundamental element to understand Catalan society, they are not, at this moment, the pivotal element of the process of independence.


F. Xavier Vila

Associate professor at the University of Barcelona.
Vila obtained an Extraordinary Degree Award in Catalan Philology in Barcelona and a Ph.D. in Linguistics at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He was the first director of the CRUSCAT Research Network on sociolinguistics and is the current director of the University Centre for Sociolinguistics and Communication at the University of Barcelona (CUSC-UB). He has published a wide range of books and specialized articles in the areas of sociolinguistics, demolinguistics, and language policy, among them
Survival and Development of Language Communities. Prospects and challenges (Multilingual Matters, 2012).

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