Anthony Pym


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Resplendent Catalan: What Money can Buy?

Anthony Pym

(This is the original text of an article published as "Resplendent Catalan" in The Linguist 38/3 (1999). 80-82.)

Of all Europe’s regional or ‘stateless’ languages, Catalan is perhaps the one promoted with most success in recent decades. Thanks to a vigorous language policy and hefty government funding, the language’s medieval heritage has undergone a postmodern revival to the point where it has recently combated the power of multinational film distribution. Catalan is now a language to be taken seriously. But to what extent might it provide models for Europe’s many other stateless languages?

The history is important. A distinct language by the tenth century, Catalan derived from Latin alongside Spanish, Provençal, French and Italian. Its written texts date from at least the twelfth century; in the thirteenth it attained a certain splendour in the prose of the thinker and proselytizer Ramon Llull; into the fourteenth an fifteenth it spread with the conquests of the Crown of Aragon south to Valencia and Murcia, west to Majorca, Sicily, Sardinia, Naples and even out to Athens. With this imperial range came official use in the Royal Chancery and a ‘Golden Age’ of Catalan literature. Then, when wars were lost and its institutions stifled in the early eighteenth century, Catalan virtually ceased to exist as a written language. Partial revival came only in the nineteenth-century Renaixença and the early twentieth-century Noucentisme, leading to new use as a language of written literature. Significant standardization measures also date from the beginning of the century: the Institute of Catalan Studies was founded in 1907; modern spelling norms were published in 1913, followed by standard dictionaries and grammars. Catalan finally regained official status under the Second Republic (1931-1939) yet lost that status when the Republic lost the Spanish Civil War. There followed a period of further repression under the 40 odd years of the Franco regime, the end of which only really came in the Spanish Constitution of 1978. The constitution accords Catalan co-official status in Catalonia, alongside Spanish, just as Basque and Galician are co-official in their respective regions. Spain’s multilingualism is nevertheless profoundly asymmetrical, since Spanish remains the only language with official status throughout the whole of country.

Such might be the story of Catalan as it is felt by its speakers: a glorified if distant past, repression from Spanish, a brief period of modern revival, then further attempts from Madrid to enact what some Catalan nationalists do not hesitate to call ‘linguistic genocide’. The general scheme means that the political identity of Catalan is often decidedly oppositional, defined in terms of the imposition of Spanish and adopting the role of the unjustly treated underdog.

For this very reason the current situation of Catalan is difficult to assess. There is little linguistic doubt that the language is spoken in Catalonia, in the region of Valencia, the Balearic Islands, a stretch along the Aragonese border, Andorra, the Pyrénées Orientales in France, and the Sardinian city of Alguer. This could give a total area of some 68,000 km2 and a population of more than eleven million people—a sizeable European country by any standards. However, multilingualism means that not everyone in this geographical area actually uses the language. Figures from the early 1990s suggest that some 5,691,000 people speak Catalan to one degree or another, although rather more say they understand it and significantly less say they can write it.

Competence in the written language can nevertheless be expected to grow with the passing of generations. Catalan is now present in all secondary and tertiary education in Catalonia. Good knowledge of the language is required of permanent staff in the various public administrations, including teachers of foreign languages, and a system of public exams remains unquestioned as the measure of skills (there seems to have been no parallel to the 1989 Groener hearings concerning the obligation to learn Irish in similar circumstances). Catalan is the sole language of two government-run Catalonia-wide television channels which have a marked influence on children’s language and create a strong demand for the dubbing of films into the language. Subtitling is used only occasionally for the more specialized cultural products. Catalan has a significant presence in the other media as well. One daily newspaper is written in Spanish and machine-translated into Catalan, requiring almost no revision for syntactic differences and only reduced postediting for word length as it affects layout. An impressive array of computer software is available in Catalan, thanks to subsidized translations. Government subsidies similarly feed the official terminology service, which supplies purist neologisms at a rate inevitably behind the demands of front-line translators. There is a telephone service to answer doubts about official Catalan usage, and considerable indirect investment in university departments privileging terminology and sociolinguistics. The standardization of the language—ambiguously called ‘normalization’, in keeping with the jargon of similar experiences in Quebec—is a reality in many fields of science and technology. In all, the revival of Catalan must be considered a success.

Yet the statistics and the technology certainly do not mean that everyone who uses Catalan would name it as their first language. This is where numbers and hype give way to politics; the ideal revival descends into messy ideology. There are at least  two problems here: internal regional diversity, and historical immigration patterns.

Catalan is not just one thing. The language has two main varieties, East and West. There are also legitimate linguistic grounds for called the Valencian language a further variety of Catalan, and much the same might be said for Majorcan, although in both contexts there are also heated political reasons for not putting all the varieties under the one centralized umbrella. In more minor contexts, especially on the fringes of the territory, local variations differ so markedly from official or ‘television’ Catalan that some speakers hesitate to identify their language as Catalan at all. This range of varieties and attitudes quickly reveals the social ambiguities of standardization. As the varieties of Barcelona tend to become ‘standard Catalan’—despite official claims to the contrary—, the linguistic hegemony deemed typical of Spanish cannot help but be repeated within Catalan itself. The role of the mistreated underdog could then logically shift to the regional varieties now threatened by the success of standardized Catalan.

The ideological purity of language revival is further perturbed by the question of population movements within Spain. Economic growth in Catalonia brought massive immigration from Spanish-speaking areas, to the extent that some 40% of the current population would have at least one parent born outside Catalonia. This means that there is increasing use of Catalan as a second language, one that has often been learned for economic or social purposes. Language use thus need not correspond to any Romantic authenticity or deep identity structure, and certainly not to underdog status. Catalan is now the language of the dominant social class to which the children of immigrants often aspire; money speaks Catalan.

Thsi fundamental change in status is reflected in a change in the arguments used for the promotion of Catalan. In the initial post-Franco period and into the 1980s, the future of Catalan tended to be seen as a  fight for survival. Any inroad into the hegemonic dominance of Spanish was for the better; educational immersion in Catalan could be considered superior to a functionally bilingual school. The pro-Catalan movement thus targeted Spanish as an imperialist imposition, pointing out that the co-official status of Catalan could not be complete until the language was uniformly present in all spheres of public life. According to this reasoning, co-officiality meant an absolute right to use Catalan in any situation. Only this could put an end to the functionally asymmetric relation between the two languages. Everyone should master Catalan.

The actual policies applied in the 1980s were thankfully more subtle than this. They were based on a step-by-step negotiations between the political elites of Barcelona and Madrid. If any ideal equality between state and regional languages was at stake, it was not presented as an outright demand. More important, this strategic development increasingly benefited from two major factors that are perhaps specific to the Spanish situation.

First, unlike the ETA movement which has long struggled for the independence of the Basque Country on the other side of northern Spain, violent campaigns in favour of Catalan independence died fairly quickly. Calls for complete Catalan independence may have lost their physical violence precisely because concessions were made in the linguistic sphere—if people can use their language, they’re less likely to kill for independence. In the case of Basque, on the other hand, the reduced number of speakers and the intrinsic difficulties of the language meant that linguistic policy was less ueful as a bargaining chip.

The second factor has then been the main Catalan nationalist party’s considerable weight within Spanish politics, where in recent years it has participated in both left-wing and right-wing ruling coalitions at State level. In such contexts, language policy is just one item in lengthening lists of decentralizing measures that have been moving Spain in the direction of a federation.

Due to this combination of factors, the public debates are no longer those of the 1980s. Now it is the Spanish-speaking population of Catalonia that tends to insist on the right to use Spanish in all spheres of public life, as guaranteed by the constitution. Perhaps paradoxically, arguments against the imposition of Catalan are increasingly framed in terms of a right to a multilingual society. The ideological shoe is now on the other foot.

The most recent occasions for such reversed modes of argument have been furnished by the 1998 Catalan law that seeks to extend further the status of the language, envisaging its presence throughout the legal system and allowing the government to set language quotas for cultural products. Although the battle for the courts has yet to take place, several skirmishes have followed the attempt to have 25% of all major films dubbed into Catalan, with a system of fines for distributors and cinemas that do not conform. Public debate of the issue took place in early 1999; the distribution companies threatened simply to not screen their major films in Catalonia; the quota-wielding decree was promptly put on ice, and at the time of writing no one really knows what will happen. In effect, this means that Catalan has challenged the politics of mainstream international culture; the mouse has roared; but the appeal of Hollywood may have more political clout than does the defence of a language. What is more interesting is perhaps the fact that the issue is not directly financial as far as the distribution companies are concerned. Since the films will eventually be dubbed for Catalan television anyway, the Catalan authorities are quite prepared to subsidize the dubbing for first cinema releases. The problem is that, if this is done for Catalan, then a precedent may be set for all the other stateless languages across Europe. And if that happens, cultural distribution could risk becoming a detailed and time-consuming business, sacrificing international efficiency to the politics of regional identity. Only in terms of this logic could the distributors threaten not to screen their films in Catalonia. After all, if one stateless nation could insist on its language, all the rest might follow suite.

So is Catalan a really model for other stateless languages? More exactly, can contemporary language revival be achieved by money alone, or even money plus sharp political skill? The answer must clearly depend on very specific combinations of factors. And the model is not yet one of absolute success.

No matter what happens with the dispute over international films, one can legitimately argue that Catalan is now at least on a par with official European-Union languages such as Danish and Finnish, and that more recognition is thus merited. Yet nothing can hide the fact that, in the ‘Europe des patries’ such as we still have it, the large nations states protect their sovereign cultures. In part, they do so by insisting that the EU’s official languages are those that have official status in the entire territory of a member state. So when the governments of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands requested enhanced status in Europe, the EU issued a 1990 report praising the language but insisting Catalan could not be official within European institutions. Perhaps something similar could be seen in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, where the fact that Catalan was indeed an official language (alongside English, French and Spanish) simply meant that the Catalan translators operated in lieu of a Catalan sporting team. Linguistic representation may buy cost-effective symbols at local level; it may stop politics becoming violent; it may help oil the wheels of decentralization and provide engaging public debate. But to gain greater status and actually compete, it seems our languages still need a State.

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Last update: 8 July 1999 


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