“We don’t inherit language from our ancestors,
we borrow it from our children.”
Loose adaption of a Native American proverb
A tweet from 2012
On December 4, 2012, I was riding the train to work listening to the radio and following my Twitter stream, as I’m wont to do. The topic of the day was the education reform bill with which the Spanish education minister was attempting to change the current unified Catalan school system into one in which children are to be segregated by language—Catalan or Spanish—according to the parents’ preferences.
While the radio chat show guests criticized and debated the topic with more or less vehemence, my Twitter timeline bubbled over with a mixed bag of indignant, funny, and viscerally angry tweets.
And it was while reading the multiple and irate reactions on Twitter that the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” popped into my head. I adapted it to “Keep Calm and Speak Catalan” (in English) and sent it on its Twitter way. It was a declaration of principles, mixed with irony, history, and future that could be interpreted as: we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing as if nothing happened.
A tweet from 1939
I have to confess that even though I had read about the original Keep Calm and Carry On and even though I had seen the original version (and many of the thousand and one adaptations that have been made since, some more successful than others) I wasn’t aware of the exact context, the history, or the mystique behind the poster. So I did some research before making my own poster.
It turns out that the original poster was the third in a series of three whose goal was to boost morale in the UK at the beginning of World War II. The British Ministry of Information printed 2.5 million copies of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster in 1939 to have on hand in the case of an invasion of Great Britain. The idea was to encourage people to keep on with their normal daily lives as if nothing had happened. And since the invasion never happened, the poster was never distributed, and instead the copies were destroyed.
Nobody knew a thing about it until 2000, the year in which two copies appeared in a box in a used bookstore in Northumberland in the north of England. Rediscovering the poster was like dusting off a forgotten piece of British history. It unleashed a torrent of media coverage, followed by its inevitable commercial exploitation. The poster quickly became a global icon.
The austere design of the poster, the confidence exuded by the crown of the Tudor King George VI, the clear, impelling message of the call to action—written with a simple typography—and the fact that the designer is an unknown (a forgotten civil servant) all give it a special mystique.
A message that is a call to action, that everyone can make their own, from a user (Great Britain) that has a considerable social reputation, published on its public (timeline), and that fits in 140 characters? That’s a tweet if ever I saw one.
Soon after I published the tweet, still on the train, I realized that the message “Keep Calm and Speak Catalan” had taken off. It was soon to follow the general path of all those messages that go viral: Twitter and social media, blogs, digital newspapers, radio, television, printed editions of newspapers, and then round again.
The poster “Keep Calm and Speak Catalan” appears on websites in Japan and France, in protest movements in the United States, on websites in favor of Catalan culture and independence in Catalonia, as the avatars of thousands of Facebook and Twitter users, and at its peak had reached almost one million Google results (still nearly 800,000 as I write this article).
But almost at the same time as the tweet was spreading through the internet, it also started appearing in the real world, sometimes in the most unlikely places: as a poster for the Catalan beer maker -Moritz, on t-shirts, posters, refrigerator magnets, pins, towels, mugs, blankets, and even fancy Munich sneakers (a Catalan brand whose shoes are sold worldwide). There was even a “Keep Calm and Speak Catalan Bus Tour” all over Catalonia.
Yes, the tweet got really, really big, both in and beyond the internet until the point in which in a session of the Spanish Congress a week later, during the debate on the very education reform bill that had originated the tweet, two MPs from the Catalan Parliamentary Group ERC brought a copy of the poster with them, and showed it to the Minister of Education from the podium. In that same session, a Catalan MP from an entirely different party (the social-democratic Unió Democràtica) finished his speech to the Minister with an additional definitive, “Keep Calm and Speak Catalan”.
The whole experience was like earning a Masters in Communication in social networking, political communication, and marketing, all in the space of a single week.
Those Catalans are crazy
But why would a tweet that is little more than one more adaption of a British resistance slogan—and that says something so obvious like you should speak your own language—get so much play? Would it have had the same impact if instead of “Speak Catalan” we had put, say, “Speak French”, “Spanish”, “Italian”, or “English”? I assure you, it would not have.
The tweet only worked because its target was a language that has been relegated to minority status and which finds itself in a struggle for recognition both in its own social and geographic sphere as well as in the global village in which we live. Advocating speaking a language that already enjoyed full health as well as the prestige and status as a global tool for communication would have come off as exclusive and authoritarian, even colonial. Recent history has some examples, like “Soyez propre, parlez Français” [Be clean, speak French], the French campaign to belittle the other “regional” languages in France. And “Hable en cristiano” [Speak in Christian], Spain’s own effort to position Spanish above the other languages spoken in the Spanish State.
In the United States, Great Britain, or Italy, such a message would probably have been criticized by its own speakers. In Québec, Scotland, Ireland, and Flanders, it would not have.
My tweet, therefore, found fertile ground and a complicit audience, conscious that its language and culture live in a constant socio–political state of emergency which make something that is normal in any other corner of the world—that is, speaking, studying, and expressing oneself in the language of one’s own country—something that needs constant justification. But that’s nothing new.
I was born in 1965 in a Catalan-speaking family. I spent my whole childhood in a small town called Tàrrega, of about 10,000 inhabitants in the hinterlands of Catalonia where almost everyone else was Catalan–speaking as well. In my class of 40 kids at school, there was a single Spanish speaker, and all of us spoke to him in Spanish. At home, with my friends, and when we played outside, everything was in Catalan, but our movies, TV, and comic books were in Spanish. At recess, things were more complicated: games and sports were in Spanish but role playing—say, Zorro or Batman—was in Spanish just the way they were in the movies or on television.
School was even more curious. While our books and school materials were all in Spanish, the younger teachers, from the town or close by, held their classes in Catalan without thinking twice about it (math, history, even Spanish language classes). The older teachers, even though they were also Catalans, changed to Spanish out of habit at the beginning of class, and switched back to Catalan at the end.
I remember perfectly well the language textbook from second grade that showed a map of Spain with the Spanish language and its three “dialects”: Catalan, Basque, and Galician!
Little by little, with the arrival of democracy to Spain in 1975, Catalan found its natural space in the classroom and in high school; my classes were given in either Catalan or Spanish according to nothing more than the preference of each teacher. But now at least, we had Catalan language class, in which we learned that there are dialects of Classic Latin, like Spanish, Galician, and Portuguese, and dialects of Modern Latin, like Catalan, French, or Italian.
In high school, I studied other subjects, including French, Catalan, and Spanish, and I ended up taking the same university placement test that all of the students in the rest of the Spanish State took, as well as Catalan language and literature. And I passed them all, without any trouble. So a boy from a Spanish-speaking area of Spain, say, Seville, and I had the same possibilities of getting into university. The only difference was that I knew one language more.
I started college in 1983 and again the linguistic criteria for each class was the same: preference of the professor. In Catalan, I took algebra, probability, and statistics, computer theory, graph and combinatorial theory and lots more classes related with computer science. The bibliography, however, was all in English, and while I studied the material, I learned, almost without realizing it, this new language.
It was also in 1983 that the Government of Catalonia—with exclusive jurisdiction over educational matters—decided that all Catalan children would be educated in Catalan, regardless of their maternal language, so that they would not be segregated by mother tongue or origin. The Law of Linguistic Normalization, whose fundamental pillar was linguistic immersion, was passed. Students are immersed in the language that is used as the language of instruction—Catalan—and they also learn Spanish, a third language like English, and optionally, even a fourth.
This model has guaranteed that all Catalan students, regardless of their mother tongue, have, at the end of high school, the same level of Catalan that they do in Spanish, and that the level of Spanish of the Catalan students is comparable to the level of the rest of the students in the Spanish–speaking areas of Spain. The Catalan linguistic model has been recognized by the European Union for its success in the area of teaching in multilingual communities.
Problem? What problem?
If the real, measurable situation is that all Catalan students, regardless of their maternal language, are equally good at Spanish as anyone else—and in addition they know Catalan—where is the linguistic problem? Why do we have to change a model that has been working perfectly well for 30 years and which has been recognized by the European educational community?
I believe that when Groucho Marx said “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies”, he was thinking about Spain.
The Spanish State, conscious of the strong feelings of identity that language evokes in people, has always looked upon the non-Castilian languages and cultures of the State as a historic anomaly instead of considering them a common cultural patrimony that should be preserved and protected.
Take a look at just this one example (out of a multitude) from an extract from the “Secret instructions” that the attorney for the Council of Castile, don José Rodrigo Villalpando, wrote to the magistrates in Catalonia, way back on January 29, 1716:
“. . . but since every Nation feels like its particular language is a gift of Nature, it makes them tricky to conquer and you need some time to do it, and even more when the people are, as in the case of the Catalans, tenacious, arrogant, and a lover of things from their own country, and for this reason, it’s convenient to give careful thought out and concealed instructions and advice, so that the objective is obtained without being noticed . . .”
However, this centralizing vocation has always come up against steadfast Catalan opposition, particularly in the last few years. Indeed, secessionism has risen in Catalonia and currently is polling at 57 percent in favor (January 21, 2013). On September 11, 2012, on Catalonia’s National Day, 1.5 million people (out of a total population of 7 million) marched in favor of the independence of Catalonia and to be the next state in Europe.
This demonstration had consequences at the Spanish level as well as the Catalan. How could so many people come out all of a sudden when other year’s demonstrations only garnered 60,000 attendees? Where did this movement come from?
The Spanish Minister of Education was convinced that he knew: 30 years of indoctrination of Catalan children—with a “twisted” account of history full of “false” myths about Catalonia’s glorious past—had begun to bear fruit, and it was time to put an end to it. To hammer home his message in the Spanish Congress of Deputies, he declared that it was his and the government’s intention to “hispanicize” Catalan schoolchildren.
The Spanish Minister of Education’s reform bill revolves around the supposed right of parents to choose the language in which their children would be educated. For the Minister, the law should allow Spanish-speaking parents in Catalonia to be able to choose Spanish as the language of instruction for their child, and to study Catalan as if it were a foreign language.
Can the preferences of the parents override the criteria of pedagogues, teachers, and institutions on what should be studied and what their children will learn? In Spain, it seems so.
Despite being absolutely opposed to the Minister’s unique way of thinking and his diagnosis of the situation, I couldn’t agree more with his analysis. It was McLuhan who said the medium is the message, and the act of teaching in one language or another, the act of putting the focus on a territory or another, and the act of giving more importance to one historical episode or another changes the vision we have of reality. Spain’s history, which the minister worries so much about, does not come out the same when explained in Catalan, in English, or in Spanish, and it’s not the same if the story is told from Catalonia, from Latin America, or from Portugal.
The minister deliberately forgets that a single, objective “history” does not exist; the only histories that exist are biased ones written by the victors. And not even these are constant since the way they are seen and interpreted changes with the times. Or does the minister not remember when Catalan was a “dialect” of Spanish in those textbooks?
Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter, I assure you.
Many media interpreted “Keep Calm and Speak Catalan” as a reaction to the Spanish government’s attitude toward the Catalan education system. That’s a part of it, but there is much more. Whoever thinks that my tweet and the reaction to it were simply the product of the collective reaction to the Spanish minister’s law—one in a long line of such initiatives—is wrong indeed.
The success of the message only became possible because it resonated with thousands of sympathetic Catalans who, upon retweeting, wearing the t-shirt, or putting on the sneakers, made the message their own and then passed it on, conscious of the need to react clearly, intelligently, and definitively to the constant and recurring supremacist will of Spanish over Catalan. Unfortunately, the success of my tweets is proof that such a will exists.
My Catalan-speaking parents were never allowed to learn how to write Catalan at school and the love letters they sent to each other had to be written in a language that was not their own. Imagine sending a postcard to a loved one in the language of your neighboring country and you will quickly see how absurd that is. Fortunately, my son will learn the language of his grandparents in total normalcy at a public school in our own country.
I hope that very soon a slogan like “Keep Calm and Speak Catalan” gets no play at all.
Josep Maria Ganyet
Degree in Computer Engineering from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, specializing in Artificial Intelligence. Ganyet has worked in Human Computer Interaction, design, teaching, and communication at IBM, Deutsche Bank, and Gotomedia. He has also created several online communication and web design startups as well as one focused on archaeology. He wrote a pioneering blog in 1998 in which he narrated the adventures of a medieval knight in the United States (in Old Catalan). Currently, he directs the design studio Mortensen.co, is part of a startup, gives classes at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, contributes to RAC1 radio, and is working on a book. He writes at Ganyet.com and speaks six languages.