Catalan Got Your Tongue?

Posted on December 12th, 2007 by Valerie

By Valerie Collins

Say what you like about Catalan. Say it sounds like dogs barking, as they sometimes do elsewhere in Spain. Complain that it’s short, sharp and brusque, not at all like the romantic Julio Iglesias or sex-drenched Shakira tones you dreamed of. Moan that you found it difficult enough to learn Spanish and if you’d known that everyone spoke Catalan here, you’d have gone to Madrid.  But whatever you say, don’t call it a dialect.

Catalan, which survived two official attempts to wipe it out and finally hit the world’s ears at Barcelona’s fabulous 1992 Olympics, is a language in its own right with a long, checkered history and a literary tradition dating back to the 12th century.

The reason it looks like a jumble of the more familiar French and Spanish is that like them, it’s a Romance language derived from the Latin spoken during the Roman empire. In fact Catalan, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian are all sister languages.

Ah, so it’s a minority language, like Welsh, that sort of thing? Another sore point. According to recent statistics, it is spoken by over six million people and understood by over 10 million: in comparison with the 20 official languages of the newly enlarged European Union, it is on a par with Greek, Hungarian and Czech and ahead of Portuguese and Swedish. Counting only the number of active speakers, Catalan is more widely spoken than Danish or Finnish, to say nothing of Lithuanian, Latvian, Slovenian, Estonian and Maltese.   To put it in a nutshell, it is the most spoken stateless language.

In Barcelona and elsewhere in Catalonia, Catalan appears to be thriving. Most people are bilingual and slip automatically back and forth between Catalan and Spanish. Writers and journalists, actors, singers and TV presenters often work in both languages, and the main Spanish language papers publish supplements in Catalan. One popular paper, El Periódico, publishes a daily edition in each language. Catalan has two TV channels and numerous radio stations… rock bands, best-selling novels and websites. El Cor de la Ciutat, TV3’s longest-running and grittiest soap opera yet, has massive ratings. And – an achievement much vaunted by the Catalan government – the telephone, electricity, gas and water bills are sent to all homes in Catalan.

So how come the words “endangered” and “terminal decline” and “extinction” are being bandied around not only by nationalist extremists but also by worried sociologists and professors of linguistics?  Have the ghosts of General Franco and Philip V still not been laid to rest in the Catalan psyche?

Catalonia was once a great imperial power. In 1137 the County of Barcelona was united with the Kingdom of Aragon by marriage, although each people kept their language, laws and institutions. Catalonia-Aragon – known as the Crown of Aragon – went from strength to strength, pushing south to reconquer and resettle the Moorish kingdoms of Valencia and Murcia, and east to the Balearics and beyond. By the 13th century, Barcelona rivaled Genoa and Venice as a maritime power, ruling over an empire that included Sicily, Sardinia, Naples, Athens and Neopatras.

After centuries of decline, in 1714, Catalonia lost the War of the Spanish Succession and was punished by Philip V by having all its government institutions abolished and its university closed, Castilian laws imposed, Castilian made the official language and Catalan relegated to religious and popular use. Catalonia languished until the mid 19th century, when the industrial revolution brought a national economic and cultural revival known as the Renaixença (Renaissance).  Catalan culture bloomed again. With the establishment of the Generalitat (Home Government) in 1931, Catalan again briefly enjoyed the status of official language.  After winning the Spanish Civil War in 1939, General Franco and his National Catholic dictatorship cracked down on all expressions of regional and ethnic identity. Again Catalan went underground and an entire generation grew up unable to read or write the mother tongue they spoke at home.

After Franco’s death in 1975, democracy was restored and Catalonia recovered its Statute of Autonomy. The Generalitat (Home Government) set about ‘normalising’ Catalan, that is, promoting it as an everyday working language in all fields: education at all levels, the media, science and technology, business, public administration, the courts.  In fact the Catalan Language Act is regarded as a model of cutting edge legislation by those working to safeguard endangered languages.

However, the ‘normalisation’ process has not been evenly implemented throughout the països catalans (Catalan countries), the informal name given to all the areas where Catalan is spoken, based originally on cultural affinity and common heritage.  According to the Spanish constitution, Catalan is co-official with Castilian in Catalonia,  the Community of Valencia (where it is called valencià) and the Balearic Islands (balear). (To clarify -or possibly further muddle things – in Spain Spanish is called castellano out of respect for the fact that Catalan and the other languages of Spain are also Spanish, as it were.)

In Andorra Catalan is the only official language, although French and Spanish are almost universally spoken there and seem to be gaining ground over Catalan.  Catalan has no official status in Catalunya Nord (Roussillon) in France, or in el Carxe, a small region of Murcia, or in La Franja, a strip of Aragon adjacent to Catalonia, although speakers there are fighting for recognition.  And – here’s one for the pub quiz – Catalan is co-official with Italian and Sardinian in the city Alghero.

Overall, say the sociolinguists, Catalan is losing ground, not only in Palma de Mallorca, Alicante, Andorra and Perpignan but even in Catalonia itself, where linguistic normalisation has been so vigorously promoted.  To make Catalan totally “normal” means, for example,  getting Harry Potter films dubbed into it: while a campaign to do this was nominally successful, teenagers in the inland town of Igualada complained on a TV documentary that not enough reels were provided.  Similarly, activists campaign, for example, to get mobile phone companies to include Catalan in their interface language menus and packagers to use Catalan on product labels.

Social mobility, globalisation, immigration all contribute to the loss of “regional” languages. Positive discrimination is the key, say the bilingual Catalans. As long as they switch to Castilian out of courtesy or a historical inferiority complex when talking to incomers, those incomers will not feel obliged to learn Catalan.  What about the problem of foreign students faced with lectures in Catalan? Should  university lecturers, judges and other civil servants be required to speak Catalan to take up posts in Catalonia? Yes, say the language activists. Why not? Catalan is the language of Catalonia and if you want to live and work here you should be obliged to learn  it.

In fact, Catalan is no more difficult than Spanish, French or Italian, and easy enough for native Spanish speakers. But, the anti-Catalan argument goes – the final very sore point – what use is it outside Catalonia? Well, you could say the same about most of the official EU languages. But it’s nice to feel integrated. You’d be doing your bit to save what Unesco calls the Intangible Cultural Heritage.  And you’d actually be able to decipher your phone bill.

©  Valerie Collins 2004

First published in Viva España Magazine, July 2004

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