On the prickly matter of language, by JC Major

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“The importance of making the language uniform has always been recognized as great, and it is a sign of dominion or superiority by princes or nations . . .”

José Rodrigo Villalpando, senior officer of the Council of Castile, 1716

“The utmost resolve shall be applied in introducing the Castilian language, to which end the most guarded and surreptitious measures should be taken, so that the effect is accomplished without the intent being noticed.”

From the secret instructions issued to government officials deployed in Catalonia, 1717

“It is our interest to ‘hispanicize’ Catalan children.”

José Ignacio Wert, Spain’s Minister of Education, 2012

What, then, makes a nation? Not race or religion—at least not for Catalans. Nor the trappings of power—a state, an army—whose unquestioned benefits they lost a long time ago. The right place to look for proof of Catalonia’s unique personality is in the broad field of -culture—in the set of values and customs that are shared by a community and are specific to it, the common way of doing things that is recognized as such by the people living in a certain land and also by those coming into contact with it for the first time.

Catalans are no different from any other society in the world in that their culture has a particular language as its proper vehicle. And, no differently from every other society in the world, they see in their language a central element of their national character. This should be easy enough to understand. And yet, a common criticism of Catalans is that they give too much importance to their language. That is chiefly because, in spite of its remarkable past as a self–governing nation, of having preserved to this day its distinctive culture and of having belatedly recovered a fraction of its political institutions, Catalonia is not thought about as an independent community but merely as part of something else. To be sure, if Catalans are defined as only a subset of the general Spanish population, their insistence on speaking something different from the rest may be seen as an anomaly. And a silly one to boot. Wouldn’t they be better off, a pragmatic outsider might reasonably ask, if they restricted their local tongue to family use or gave it up altogether to embrace their neighbors’ formidable language, which they all know anyway? Castilian is, after all, official in Spain, the state that most Catalans belong to, and they’re all required by law to learn it. It is also the first language of more than 300 million people, most of them in Latin America, and has roughly 35 million native speakers in Spain alone. Catalan, with an area of some 10 million altogether, is certainly small by comparison, and has a more limited reach. So it would be justifiable to think that Catalans may really be overdoing it when they make all that fuss about their relatively unimportant language.

But just stop to consider for a second in what way Catalans are behaving differently from other linguistic communities in Europe. Do the 6 million Finns, for instance, who are sitting next to 170 million Russian speakers and keep on nattering away in Finnish regardless, set too much store on their language or just the right amount? And what about the 5.5 million Danes, living their merry lives speaking Danish just a stone’s throw away from one of Europe’s economic powerhouses that is home to almost 82 million German speakers? What sets Catalans apart from those other smaller nations? You may have guessed it: the only difference lies in the fact that Finns and Danes, being masters of their own lands, don’t have to compete with a neighbor’s language in them. But, wouldn’t a Finn or a Dane be preoccupied with his or her language if it were forced to coexist with that of a more powerful society which has long had total political control over their territories? And this is precisely the Catalans’ lot: to have been engulfed in a political structure run by another national group with a history of aggressively pushing its own language and customs in every land it has ever acquired—by whatever means.

Casual observers may not be aware of the lengths that official Spain has gone to in order to thrust the Castilian language upon peoples that had never felt the need for it. The fact is that at every point in history and under every kind of government, laws and regulations have been issued aiming to dislodge languages other than Castilian from all spheres of life outside private and family communication. Thus, the presence of Castilian in Catalonia can in no way be put down to a natural process of substitution, where a weaker and presumably more inadequate language gradually gives way to a stronger and better equipped one, but should be considered primarily the result of a strategy of assimilation applied by the State.

Two conclusions can be drawn from all this. One belongs to the Spanish narrative and posits that, considering the political reality and the subordinate status of Catalonia within Spain, Catalans should have given up their language in favor of Castilian, which, under the loftier name of Spanish, was declared compulsory for all the peoples of a vast empire and now boasts for that reason a large number of speakers. In the normal course of events, and given the obvious asymmetry between the two contenders, Catalan should have gone the way of so many native languages that have died out or are just clinging to life as inferior alternatives to Spanish in the part of America that was compelled to become Latin.

The other opposite conclusion is that the Catalan -language—
together with the culture whose means of expression it is and the society that it serves—must have some intrinsic value if it has been able to withstand the competition against such an exalted rival. All the more so if one considers the degree of force applied by the other side in order to suppress it. In fact, given the almost impossible odds and the hard resolve of its enemies, it is surprising that Catalan has been able to remain alive at all—and, by the look of it, in fairly good health. Still, an uneventful life can’t be guaranteed even in our seemingly milder times. There may not be open persecution today—in 2012 people don’t get slapped in public for speaking in Catalan, as was the rule in the early nineteen–forties, and not an unheard–of risk as late as the sixties—but this doesn’t mean that the existence of the Catalan language—or, indeed, of the Catalan nation—has been accepted into the official Spanish worldview. On the contrary, every small gain made by Catalans on the linguistic front will be resisted as just another dent in the position of dominance that Spaniards enjoy in Catalonia.

Spain has a history of never playing fair with Catalans, including on the subject of their language, and it simply couldn’t act differently so late in the game. Every new season brings fresh examples of subtle and not–so–subtle attacks suggesting that it won’t let up on its obsession to undermine the language as a way of wiping out the nation. So for Catalans, today as much as ever, working to safeguard their language is a matter of survival.


J.C. Major

New York-based linguist. Major is co-founder of the Col·lectiu Emma (Emma Network), an opinion group about Catalan issues, and chief editorial writer for its website, “Explaining Catalonia”.

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