What a Language Means: Catalonia’s Linguistic Pride

Whenever I discuss the trip I took to Barcelona this past summer, the topic of language always comes up. Nearly everyone asks what Catalan is, having guessed that one would speak Spanish everywhere in Spain. In the case that they have heard of Catalan, they will erroneously consider it a dialect of Spanish, or if they do consider it an independent language, they might think of it as a mix of French and Spanish. True, it has its root in Vulgar Latin like French and Spanish, but never tell a Catalonian that his language is only a mix of two other languages. Catalonians are proud of their language and think of it as an important part of their culture—especially since only about 10 million people speak it, causing language repression. The preservation of Catalan is necessary because beyond its distinctive linguistic features, it also represents its speakers and their culture.

Fig. 1. Green areas show where the majority of people speak Catalan (Catalonia Votes).

Before understanding why Catalan is important, some context is necessary. Four languages are spoken by different communities in Spain: Castilian—what outsiders often call “Spanish”—Galician, Basque, and Catalan. People speak Catalan primarily in Catalonia—Catalunya as its own people call it—a relatively autonomous area of Spain, as well as a few other areas in Spain, France and Sardinia, as shown in Figure 1 above. It sounds like Castilian, but a bit harsher, almost like German or Italian. My introduction to the language came from my group trip to Barcelona. We taught conversational English classes there last summer as a way to connect with local people. I heard Catalan spoken throughout the city and tried to speak it. Everyone I met slipped easily between Castilian and Catalan, and it was honestly hard for me to distinguish between the two as a foreigner.

Despite immense pressure to use Castilian or English, Catalan has continued to be used regularly because of its speakers’ pride and fondness for it. At times, that pressure has taken the form of laws, as it did during the reign of Francisco Franco who prohibited speaking Catalan in public because he considered it a degenerative dialect of Castilian. Franco’s reign lasted for 36 years, more than a generation. Even after Franco died in 1975, Catalan speakers faced discrimination. Joan Manuel Tresserras, now a Catalan culture minister, told reporter John Tagliabue that the army punished him with three days of solitary confinement for speaking Catalan. Today, Catalonians still need to speak Castilian to communicate with many of the Spaniards surrounding them. Yet whenever they get the chance, people are speaking Catalan—possibly because of the language suppression has itself instilled pride in Catalan speakers.

Suppressing a language suppresses a culture. During my trip to Barcelona, I had the opportunity to talk with a woman named Rebecca who had lived during Franco’s reign. She talked about the hardships of life then, but what really caught my attention was the ban on her mother tongue. Everyone has or will face hardships, but imagine being unable to speaking your first language. You must translate every thought before you can speak it. Language is not only a part of culture but also a part of being. That language that you are so proud of is only considered an abased form of another language. Barcelona suffered greatly during its time under Franco’s rule, not only linguistically but culturally and economically too. Catalan was more widespread then, but Franco left a deep scar in the language. Though Catalonians take pride in their language, few people can speak it.

On top of that, as Catalonia joins the world economy, there is also a demand to speak English. Much of the business of the world is run in English because it is a shared language and many industries are administrated from English speaking countries. In addition, many people immigrate to Catalonia bringing their own languages and culture—according to a 2016 survey, about 1 million of the people living in Catalonia are foreign, compared to its population of 7.5 million. Thousands of tourists also flock to Barcelona every year and many of them do not speak Castilian, much less Catalan. In 2013, there were almost 15 million tourists in Catalonia, double the population of the state. Tourists expect Catalonians to speak English and international jobs demand English proficiency.

The continual use of Catalan can also be seen as an expression of independence from the rest of Spain—Catalonians have long wanted to be an independent country. The Castilian government’s heavy draining of Catalonia’s economic and cultural wealth presents a concrete reason for this. An additional reason: Catalonia is not as well-known because it is a part of another country. A great deal of modern innovation has originated in Catalonia, as well as the works of many great artists and architects generally only known of as Castilian: Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Joan Miró, and Antoni Gaudí to name a few. Barcelona was also the first industrialized city in Spain. Meanwhile, the rest of Spain is having trouble with its economy and unemployment, dragging Catalonia down with its taxation and lack of modern reputation.

The Catalan government has made many laws to show their independence and preserve their language. One law demands that schools teach in Catalan—this ensures that the young will continue speaking Catalan. Another less successful law the Catalan government enacted in 2010 to limit the amount of films shown in Castilian and English demanded that half of all films had to be dubbed or subtitled in Catalan. In response, almost 75% of the theaters in Catalonia closed for a day. It is debated whether the deficit of Catalan dubbed films is the fault of the consumers or of the theater owners. In either case, this legislation was ineffective in encouraging the production of Catalan and Catalan dubbed films. The new laws could be viewed as language favoritism akin to the suppression during Franco’s reign, though less extreme and in favor of the other language. However, film and published media in general in Catalonia are disproportionately lacking in the Catalan language compared to its use in other areas of life. The laws are more of a display of how Catalonia must cling to its language in the new, constantly changing and multi-cultural world.

Another effort to encourage the use of Catalan is the Floral Games—Jocs Florals in Catalan—a poetry contest for lauding Catalonia. This contest could both inspire passion for its culture and create art to represent the people. The contest is said to have started sometime in the 14th century, and, with a pause in the Middle Ages, continues today. The games have been considered by some to be the structure of the Renaixenca, the flourishing of romantic culture in Catalonia in the 1800s. Others argue that they helped Catalonia recover after Franco’s reign. However, as Robert Hughes puts it, “People do not speak a language because patriotic poems are written in it, and they do not give up speaking it because those same poems are censored. They speak it, and keep speaking it, because they learned it long before they could read.” Still, the Jocs Florals add to the gains of learning a language as small at Catalan. In addition, the games continually encourage Catalonian pride, which in turn encourages parents to speak Catalan with their children.

In spite of the desire for independence and preservation of language, hospitality and acceptance also shape the language. During my trip to Barcelona, I heard a phrase tossed around: If you speak Catalan, you are Catalan. You do not have to do it perfectly, but it is the trying that counts. When you speak to someone in Catalan, you are showing that you have made an effort to speak to them and their people since it is a minority language. However, there is not a requirement to speak Catalan to order in a restaurant the way there is in other countries that have strong linguistic pride. In France, and especially Paris, some restaurants will deny you service if you do not speak French. Catalans do not even require tourists to speak in Spanish, which is significant because of the massive amount of foreign tourism that causes locals much aggravation. There is not blatant disapproval or elitism even though they are so proud of their language and culture.

As Catalan continues to be used, it continues to live, and its life represents its people’s culture, independence, and history. Certainly, not everyone in Catalonia has powerful convictions about their language, especially the young and those who work in other languages. Tagliabue mentions an Italian exchange student, Luigi Suardi, who says, “People living in Barcelona don’t have strong feelings [about language].” There is a wide range in the passion people have for the Catalan language, whether it is indifferent or intense. Even though some will not care, the language one speaks matters because there is a reason to use it: to include or exclude someone, because it is more familiar, for its beauty, or to make a statement. 

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Tobin Smith is a student at Pikes Peak Community College who currently works as a tutor and rock climbing coach. He plans on pursuing a career in linguistics or translation and enjoys art, hiking, reading, and mountain biking.

Photo By: greenleft.org