15 Aug 2012

A Homage to Catalan: the Struggle of a Language

Every Sunday morning several dozen used-book dealers set up their stalls under the ornate cast-iron structure of an old Barcelona municipal market. Many of the books for sale at the Mercat de Sant Antoni are mass market printings and hardly merit a look--at least from my point of view. However, some of the dealers have stock worth going over especially if you have an interest in Catalan books. Admittedly not many foreigners would be looking for books written in Catalan--very few tourists attend--but after all it is Barcelona the capital of Catalonia and the centre of Catalan culture. I happen to read Catalan and I like to visit the market whenever I can, you never know what you may find. In any case, most of the books are in Spanish but if you pick through the piles and rows of books you will find a few in English, French and German. (1)

If one spends some time sorting through the Catalan books eventually an odd situation becomes apparent. It is very unlikely that one will find books in Catalan, nor any newspapers, magazines or comic books, not even advertising posters, from the period between 1939 and 1975. A little familiarity with 20th-century Spanish history is enough to explain the cause for that gap. Those are the years that coincide with the dictatorship of General Franco. During the dictatorship there were severe restrictions on the publication of Catalan books, magazines and newspapers. In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War very few books were published in Catalan, although gradually by the 1960s several hundred Catalan books did appear annually (2). There was, however, a complete ban on Catalan-language newspapers, radio, and television broadcasts. The Franco regime also tried to go further. If someone happened to speak Catalan within earshot of a policeman or person of authority they could at the very least be reprimanded and at worst arrested. Admittedly, in the last years of the dictatorship the public use of Catalan was tolerated, but only up to a point. (3)

And yet, under the dictatorship several million people could not find a book, a magazine or even a comic book written in their mother tongue. Even though parents and grandparents spoke to their children and grandchildren in Catalan they could not find a children's book written in their native language to read together. Friends speaking in Catalan to each other had to do so behind closed doors, lovers had to whisper between themselves. People dared not to address a policeman, a politician or even a priest in Catalan. Strangers meeting for the first time would be circumspect but later perhaps, once they knew each other better, they would dare to speak in Catalan. Speaking one's mother tongue was a crime.

Catalan, like Spanish or Castilian, is a Romance language that has evolved over the centuries from roots in Vulgar Latin. Catalan was clearly differentiated as a unique language by the end of the 10th century and first appeared in documents and text in the 12th century. By the 13th and 14th centuries Catalan poetry and literature reached a high level of sophistication. And so while under the Franco dictatorship the public use of Catalan was forbidden there were hidden away in libraries and archives, books and manuscripts hundreds of years old written in Catalan, as old or older than many Spanish texts. Catalan dialects continue to be spoken in Valencia and the Balearic Islands. Some Catalan is spoken in the neighbouring region of France but the only country where Catalan is the only official language is in the tiny landlocked country of Andorra. Today there are more than seven million Catalan speakers and perhaps an additional three million that can at least understand the spoken language.

With the death of Franco in 1975 and Spain's transition from dictatorship to democracy the status of Catalan began to change. The Spanish constitution of 1978, to a limited degree, recognises the other languages of Spain such as Basque, Galician and Catalan. Section 3, clause 3 of the constitution reads; "The richness of the linguistic modalities of Spain is a cultural patrimony which will be the object of special respect and protection." (4) Unfortunately, this clause, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is observed more in the breach than the observance. For many Spaniards the only language of Spain is Castilian. Few Catalans would agree that their language gets "special respect and protection" from the Spanish state. Catalan is not spoken in the Spanish Cortes, or parliament, it is not spoken in the Supreme Court, and no Spanish Prime Minister ever speaks in Catalan. The symbol of the Spanish State, the monarchy, does not seem to understand Catalan. No Spanish prime ministers dares utter even a few words in Basque or Catalan at official ceremonies. To speak, much less promote, one of the minority languages infuriates many uni-lingual Spaniards. Those same Spaniards have no problem learning English or French, and munching on their breakfast cereal they can stare at the box labeled in Spanish and Portuguese and not make a fuss. But if the labeling includes Catalan they are "offended." They take it as a personal affront when someone speaks Catalan in their presence.

But why hang on to a minority language that has limited use outside of its geographic limits? That question is sometimes difficult to explain to people who only speak one of the major languages of the world such as English, Hindi-Urdu, Mandarin, Russian, Arabic or Spanish. Every language that has disappeared, and there are hundreds of minor ones that are no longer spoken, diminishes humanity's patrimony. A language represents the culture of all those people who have ever spoken it, going back through generations. A language reflects the history of its speakers, it reflects the environmental conditions of those people and how they use it to relate to their world. A Castilian's view of Catalan history is likely to be very different from a Catalan's perspective even though the two languages have their origins in Latin. How can a uni-lingual English-Canadian hope to really understand the history, culture or music of French-Canada? A language is a map of how a people relate to their environment, how individuals relate to each other.

The repression of Catalan during the dictatorship caused some peculiar effects in the use of the language that linger to this day. Despite the dictatorship Catalans continued to speak their language at home. Parents would speak to their children in Catalan thus passing on knowledge of the language, at least verbally. But without the written word many Catalans struggled to read what few books were available and even fewer were able to write the language. Even knowledge of grammar and proper syntax was limited because there was no formal instruction available, Catalan was not taught in schools for almost 40 years. A friend of mine explained that when he was growing up during the dictatorship his family only spoke Catalan at home, he had very little exposure to Castilian. When he started school at the age of five he had tremendous difficulty because he had to learn what was to him a foreign language. And even today many older Catalans whose schooling coincided with the years of the dictatorship have taken classes in order to learn to write a language that they already speak fluently.

To bolster and defend the use of Catalan the Generalitat--the government of Catalonia--has several important tools at its disposal. Perhaps the most important in terms of Catalan's long term prospects is the education system. The use of Catalan in the public school system has been "normalized" since the 1980s. What that unfortunate Orwellian term means is that Catalan is the language of instruction in the school system. Castilian and English are taught as subjects. The fact is that while Castilian is taught as a separate subject all students in the Catalan education system graduate perfectly bilingual. Catalonia continues to be part of Spain and the Spanish language dominates most of the media. Television, radio, movies, books, newspapers, advertising, and magazines are predominantly in Spanish. So despite being instructed primarily in Catalan students are constantly exposed to Spanish. (If there is fault with the Catalan education system, a fault it shares with the other regions of Spain, it is the atrocious level of English instruction.) Studies have shown that Catalan students on average speak and write Castilian at a higher level than do students of other parts of Spain and where students are mostly monolingual.

Another threat that Catalan has had to endure, and to a certain extent still does, is the high level of immigration from the rest of Spain to Catalonia that took off in the 1950s and continues today. This immigration from the poorer parts of Spain to the wealthier Catalan provinces has been driven by legitimate economic reasons. The dictatorship, however, used the economic imbalances within Spain to encourage immigration to Catalonia by uni-lingual Castilian speakers in a perverse attempt to stifle Catalan. Most of these immigrants had no interest in learning Catalan and never have. The children and grandchildren of these immigrants have learned Catalan because they were enrolled in the Catalan public school system. Some non-Catalan parents have not been happy with this situation. They allege that Castilian has a "secondary" status within Catalonia and this situation is a source of frustration for them as parents who would like the choice to send their children to schools where the language of instruction is Castilian. Their argument is that Castilian is now subject the same repression that Catalan faced under the dictatorship.

The demand for a second stream in the Catalan school system where Spanish is used as the language of instruction would create long-term social divisions. In terms of social harmony it is better to have a single stream where there is one language of instruction and other languages are taught as subjects. Of course this is the argument used by Spanish nationalists who insist that only Castilian be used everywhere in Spain. However, languages like Basque and Catalan continue to flourish even after hundreds of years of repression by a long line of absolute monarchs and various dictatorships. How can Spain, a country that now aspires to be a democracy, deny the linguistic rights of significant numbers of it citizens? Simply put Catalans want to be able to speak their language at home and they want the same respect for their language from others.

In any discussion of Catalonia some mention must be made of nationalism. Catalans are proud of their language and want to be able to use it and to speak it. They also want outsiders to at least acknowledge that Catalans have such rights. If this is not nationalism then I do not know what is. Now, nationalism can be a troubling concept and it acquired some very negative connotations over the course of the 20th century especially when it was based on race, national origin or religion. There is no need to go into a list of the past century's catastrophic events driven by nationalist ideologies. However, modern Catalan nationalism is based almost wholly on knowledge of the language. (There is a small minority of Catalan nationalists representing extreme right-wing views whose ideology is race-based but their numbers are more than countered by the much larger numbers of of the Spanish extreme-right.) When someone asks, Who is a Catalan? The answer is someone who speaks Catalan, however well or poorly, regardless of origin or ethnicity. Nationalism can be an ugly word but if it is based on knowledge of a language you can perhaps reconcile yourself to it. To enter the group, the tribe if you will, one has simply to make an effort to learn the language. There is no need to change religious beliefs, no need to falsify one's genealogical heritage, no need to spout slogans but simply learn a language and acceptance is instantaneous.

When Spain's minister of foreign affairs declares that, "the excesses of nationalism have turned into veritable cancers of the modern Europe," I have to agree. (5) Nationalism can be an ugly force especially when it includes a racial element. In his comments the minister was making reference to nationalist tendencies that have resulted in the Albanian minority in the Serbian province Kosovo declaring independence. The minister neglected to make any mention of how Kosovars were killed in the name of Serbian nationalism. Spain continues to oppose the national aspiration of Kosovars because of the precedent it would set vis-a-vis its own minorities. And what about the Kurds in Turkey, or the Berbers in Morocco or the Cajuns in the United States, or Tibetans in China? Then we have the case of Spanish nationalism that seeks to deny the legitimacy of minority language groups within its borders.

The argument that some Spanish nationalists use against Catalan nationalists is that the Spanish language within Catalonia is now suffering the same sort of discrimination that Catalan suffered during the dictatorship. They avow that the language under siege within Catalonia is Spanish. Catalans counter that Catalonia is not Spain and insist that in Catalonia the language that should take precedence is Catalan. But Catalan continues to struggle even in Catalonia. If one spends any time in Barcelona or any part of Catalonia one soon realises that Spanish is spoken everywhere. And of course, there are no longer monolingual Catalan speakers like there were a few generations ago. No one in Catalonia is advocating that Spanish not be used. Catalans do not deny the heritage of the Spanish language in literature, music and art, and recognise its immense importance to Spain and the rest of the world. So the argument that the Spanish language is under siege is nonsense. Catalans would like to have their language and culture treated with the same respect and recognition.

Depending on which political party is in power the attitude of the Spanish state toward Catalan varies from barely tolerant to rabidly intolerant. As far as most Spanish politicians are concerned Spain should have only one official language and that the various autonomous regions now have too much power on this issue. The more extreme believe that Catalan, Basque and Galician should simply be ignored and that absolutely no concession be made to those languages. It is an attitude that often filters down to employees of the Spanish government and even today if someone addresses a Guardia Civil or member of the national police in Catalan they risk a reprimand. Using Catalan in a court of law invites being charged with contempt. It is sometimes difficult to get service in Catalan even from large corporations like the principal telephone company and the banks. Most Catalan speakers can relate anecdotes of insults they have been subjected to, some childishly minor others more deliberate, to their language when dealing with the state bureaucracy or when visiting other parts of Spain. Sometimes officials will ignore someone when spoken to in Catalan. More serious incidents include arrest by police when they have been addressed in Catalan. It is frankly a lot of pettiness.

To foreigners these stories sound as so much internal bickering and are likely to produce yawns of boredom. Most foreigners, and I find Americans and Britons in particular, do not understand Catalans and their "obsession" with language. They view the whole language debate in Spain as a minor domestic squabble and have little idea why language matters so much to Catalans, or to Basques. It is the same reaction that English-Canadians had in the 1960s and 70s with respect to French-Canadians and their insistence on the use of French. Nowadays many English-speaking Americans are finding it difficult to reconcile themselves to the increasing use of Spanish within the United States even though Spanish has been spoken in parts of that country for hundreds of years--that the mother tongue of millions of Americans is Spanish. Many tourists who vacation in Barcelona are not even aware that Catalonia has its own language. The Castilian attitude toward Catalan is very similar to that of monolingual Americans who have little tolerance for anything other English especially since English has become the world's lingua franca.

In 2007 Catalan was the invited language at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It was of course a proud moment for Catalans to have their language, and culture, recognised at such a prestigious international event. From the moment that it was announced that Catalan was to be the invited language voices from the Spanish government raised howls of protest. There were also protests from Catalan writers who only write in Spanish because they were excluded from the event. It is certainly problematic to exclude someone from such a public event. However, the organisers of the Book Fair had in mind to showcase a language, and its culture, that only has about seven million readers and perhaps ten million speakers. There are more than 500 million Spanish-speakers in the world, Spanish hardly needs promoting when compared with Catalan. Again, I would point out that almost all Catalan speakers can read and write in Spanish. Catalan is not a threat to Spanish.

One thing that is missing from the Spanish debate is the option of a federal system along the lines of either the Swiss or Canadian models where multiple languages have official status both in name and in fact. Unfortunately, Spanish (and Catalan) federalists are rare animals, they do exist but their voices are seldom heard over the roar of the nationalists on both sides. I say unfortunately because a strong federalist option would imply a spirit of compromise and understanding. This failure is almost completely the fault of the centrist mind-set of Castilian politicians and their supporters in the Spanish media. There are few in Madrid who would dare speak of a country that revels in the diversity of its constituent regions, including the diversity of cultures and uniqueness of the various languages and dialects. Spanish nationalists claim that elimination of the minority languages would resolve the country's divisions. But why is it a problem, if the various regions have their own customs, cultures, cuisines, celebrations or languages? Yes there are costs in administering a multilingual state but what of it? But, there are also benefits to the individual that can speak more than one language.

For Spanish nationalists the preferred state model is the French system that has over the last two hundred years managed to make nearly extinct all of the regional languages of France like Breton, Alsatian, Normand, and even Basque and Catalan within its borders. The typical PP politico looks with envy at what the French elite centred in Paris has "achieved" and would love to emulate it in Spain. In the opinion of former Catalan president Jordi Pujol, "Spain has decided that it has to be like France. Total homogenization is the aim." (6) The Spanish state he says wants to eliminate Catalan little by little. On the other hand a federalist model would be welcome by a majority of Catalans but there are few who believe that Madrid would support such an option.

On Sunday mornings at the Mercat de Sant Antoni I may purchase a book in Catalan but I am also just as likely to take home a book in Spanish, or English or French for that matter. The three latter languages are spoken by a combined total of more than a billion people throughout the world. The literature of each of those languages is of immense importance to humankind's patrimony--imagine all the books and songs written in each of those languages. Would it not be a tremendous loss for humanity if Cervantes’ works had not been written, if Shakespeare's plays had never been handed down to us and if Moliere's plays had never been performed. Humanity would feel those losses as keenly as we feel the loss of so much of classical Greece's literature or the various texts that are referenced in the Old Testament but are  now lost. And yet, even today a minor language like Catalan struggles to be heard because it has the additional burden of having to suffer from the chauvinism of a minority of Spanish-speakers who happen to rule Catalonia from Madrid. Catalan is a thousand years old and Catalans will continue to fight for the right to speak it, write in it and read it without being repressed, censored or castigated.


1 - At present--summer of 2012--the Mercat de Sant Antoni is undergoing renovation and the book market has been moved to an adjacent street under a huge tent.

2 - Books published in Catalan per year 1939, 0 - 1940, 0 - 1941, 0 - 1942, 4 - 1946, 12 - 1947, 53 - 1948, 60 - 1949, 59 - 1950, 43 - 1951, 48 - 1954, 96 - 1963, 208 - 1964, 294 - 1965, 453 - 1966, 488 - 1967, 465; source, Què cal saber de Catalunya, Ferran Soldevila, CLUB EDITOR, 1968, Barcelona

3 - In fact, during the 20th century Spain suffered under two dictatorships. The first under General Primo de Rivera lasted from 1923 to 1930. Rivera also banned the public use of Catalan. Since the defeat of Catalonia in 1714 after the War of Spanish Succession the use of Catalan has been more often proscribed than not.

4 - Spanish consitution of 1978 (translated into English), http://www.lamoncloa.gob.es/IDIOMAS/9/Espana/LeyFundamental/titulo_preliminar.htm

5 - Ara, February 29, 2012, edition, "El ministre d'Afers Exteriors i de Cooperació veu "els nacionalismes com un càncer per a Europa" ",

6 - El Punt Avui, March 8, 2012 edition, "Per Jordi Pujol, l'Estat vol fer desaparèixer el català"

Photograph Source; http://jornadesxllengua.blogspot.ca/ - A mural promoting unity for Catalan and the various regions where Catalan is spoken.

1 comment:

Christopher Crittenden said...


I have a master's in Spanish, and I've studied several other languages such as French, Latin and Scottish Gaelic. I recently decided to study Catalan, and I must say that at the same time that I discovered the beauty of this language, I also discovered this conflict. It greatly saddens me to see this happening, and my support is certainly with the Catalan people in maintaining their language and culture. As they say in Scottish Gaelic, "gun teanga, gun tir" - without a tongue, without a country.