Tag Archives: Catalan

Politics and linguistics in “Dos días de mayo”

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I am a huge fan of Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” detective novels. I’ve just finished the fourth in this series, Dos días de mayo, and found it a real page turner, and moving as well. If you love Spanish and enjoy a good read, please give it a try.

The Mascarell novels take place in Barcelona, in the waning days of the Spanish Republic and the early years of the Franco dictatorship, and their plots are very much linked to this setting. Without venturing into spoiler territory, Dos días is anchored to a specific real event, Franco’s visit to Barcelona in on June 1, 1949. In one passage, Inspector Mascarell, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, is aggrieved to see how beautiful Barcelona looks the day of the visit. His bitter reflections relate the city’s current abject position to a historical event, the Siege of Barcelona, which in 1714 definitively yoked Catalonia to the Spanish crown:

Salió al exterior y le golpeó el sol de la tarde. Otro bonito día de primavera, como si el tiempo se aliara con Franco para recibirle en la hermosa Barcelona que había puesto a sus pies.
La hermosa Barcelona.
A las putas también las engalanaban para que el cliente pagara más y se quedara satisfecho.
Se sintió culpable por ese pensamiento.
Su Barcelona.
— También caímos en 1714 y nos levantamos.  –Suspiró.

A rough translation:

He left the building and was dazzled by the afternoon sun. Another beautiful spring day, as if the weather were allied with Franco to welcome him to beautiful Barcelona, which he had brought to its knees.
Beautiful Barcelona.
Whores also get dolled up so that a client will pay more and be more satisfied.
He felt guilty for this thought.
His Barcelona.
“We also fell in 1714, and we got up again,” he sighed.

Given the strong Catalan identity expressed in the novels, it’s safe to assume that many of the conversations included in the book would have taken place (in “real life”) in Catalan, although the books themselves are written in Castilian Spanish. The books make occasional reference to differences between Catalan and Castilian. In one such passage, Sierra describes a policeman’s Castilian accent:

— ¿Miguel Mascarell? — Lo pronunció con marcado acento castellano, con la ‘g’ bien diferenciada y la ‘ll’ convertida en ‘l’, como si no supieran declamar ‘cuello’, ‘botella’, o ‘lluvia’ y en su lugar también dijeran ‘cuelo’, ‘botela’ o ‘luvia’.

— ¿Miguel Mascarell? — He pronounced it with a marked Castilian accent, with a sharp ‘g’ and the ‘ll’ converted in ‘l’, as if he couldn’t say ‘cuello’, ‘botella’, or ‘lluvia’ and in their place said ‘cuelo’, ‘botela’ or ‘luvia’.

In this passage Sierra shows himself to be more of a novelist than a linguist. Apparently he doesn’t know that a language’s phonology (pronunciation rules) determines not only its inventory of different sounds, such as l and ll, but also how they may be used within a word, an aspect of phonology called “phonotactics”. Castilian Spanish certainly has the ll sound but only uses it at the beginning of a word, or between vowels, whereas in Catalan it also permits it at the ends of words. You can’t blame the poor policeman!

A historical question about the language map of Spain

The main languages of Spain besides Castilian Spanish are spoken in the north of the Iberian peninsula, from Galicia in the west to the País Vasco and Navarra in the center to Catalonia in the east. Additionally, Portuguese territory occupies the western edge of the peninsula, and Catalonian is also spoken in Valencia, on its eastern edge.

Modified from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Autonomous_communities_of_Spain.svg under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Castilian became the predominant form of Hispanic Romance because Castilians took the lead role in the Reconquista: the long process of retaking Arab-held territory, culminating in the conquest of Granada in 1492. As Ralph Penny summarized, “At first typical only of the speech of the Burgos area of southern Cantabria, Castilian linguistic characteristics were carried south, southeast and southwest, in part by movement of population, as Castilians settled in reconquered territories, and in part by the adoption of Castilian features by those whose speech was originally different.” This naturally left Galician, Basque, Catalan, and Portuguese remaining in areas that weren’t part of this takeover process.

An animated map I found on Wikipedia has me wondering about the specifics of this process. It shows all the different forms of northern peninsular Romance pushing south, then Castilian spreading east and west at the expense of Leonese and Aragonese. I don’t know enough Iberian dialectal history to evaluate the accuracy of this narrative. Can anyone chime in? I’m particularly curious about the map’s depiction of the history of Portuguese. Was Mozárabe really the form of Romance spoken in today’s Portugal until the Reconquista?

By The original uploader was Alexandre Vigo at Galician Wikipedia (Transferred from gl.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Census data on languages of Spain

Here are some interesting data about how many Spaniards who live in the relevant regions speak or just understand Galician, Basque, or Catalan. The Spanish government asks about language usage every time it does a national census. Unfortunately, it still hasn’t processed the language results from the most recent census (2011), so these numbers date from 2001.

census data

At that time, the regional languages were spoken by over half the residents of their respective territories: Basque by just over one-half of residents, Catalan by about two-thirds, and Galician by almost all. The lower numbers for Basque are to be expected because, unlike Galician and Catalan, Basque is unrelated to Castilian Spanish and therefore difficult for other Spaniards to learn. (This difference also explains the large numbers of Spaniards who can understand, though not speak, Galician and Catalan.) The higher numbers for Galician, compared to Catalan, are probably attributable to demography. As shown in the last column, over 90% of Galicians were born in Galicia, compared to less than 70% in the prosperous and cosmopolitan Catalan region.

It will be interesting to see how the 2011 data compare.

If you want to have a closer look at the numbers yourself, you can visit the Spanish census website. Previous posts on minority languages of Spain are here, here, here, and here.


Spanish-Catalan face-off in Catalonia

Since writing my previous post about the role of minority languages in Spain’s educational system, I’ve continued to look into the dramatic ongoing battle between Castilian (i.e. “Spanish”) and Catalan in Catalonian schools. While my expertise is in linguistics, not history, politics, or law, this issue is so important in Spain, and so illustrative of the passions that language can inspire, that I wanted to share what I’ve learned.

To recap from the previous post: current Catalonian educational policy gives primacy to Catalan, designating it as the language of instruction. Castilian is treated more like a foreign language, an object rather than a vehicle of study. The last seven years have seen a complicated series of judicial challenges to this policy in both the provincial (Catalonian) and national (Spanish) courts.

Here are the details, including links to the actual court decisions for the truly zealous reader who relishes the challenge of wading through dense legal Spanish. My retelling is mostly based on an April, 2013 summary (in Spanish) in 20minutos.es, with some historical background from a 1996 review article (in English) in the journal Hispania. An excellent summary of the current stand-off (in Spanish) is here.

  1. Before Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, Catalan was the language of daily life in Catalonia, including in education. It was used except when interacting with the national government.
  2. During the Franco years (1939-75), Catalan was repressed in schools, the media, and even in baby naming.
  3. In 1983, eight years after the death of Franco, Spain established its federal system of Comunidades Autómomas, including Catalonia as one of the 17 Comunidades. One of the new Catalonian government’s first actions was to enact its pro-Catalan language normalization statute (see previous post).
  4. In 1994 the Spanish Supreme Court upheld the language normalization statute. Catalonia then implemented a pro-Catalan educational policy (see previous post).
  5. In 2006, a handful of Catalonian families petitioned for the right for their children to be educated in Castilian.
  6. Four years later (in 2010), on the heels of a decision by the Spanish Constitutional Tribunal that Catalan shouldn’t be “the only [language] to be…a vehicle of learning”, the Spanish Supreme Court ruled that Catalonia “should adopt whatever measures are necessary (cuantas medidas sean precisas) to adapt their educational system to the new situation”, i.e. to the Constitutional Tribunal ruling. The vagueness of the “whatever measures” wording would prove problematic.
  7. In July of 2011 a district-level local court gave the Catalonian Department of Education two months to implement teaching in Castilian (el plazo máximo de dos meses), in accordance with the Supreme Court decree. The Department appealed this ultimatum, arguing that it had fulfilled the previous Supreme Court decree by instructing schools to provide individual attention (in Castilian) to Castilian-speaking students.
  8. In February of 2013 the Spanish Supreme Court upheld a higher local court’s dismissal of the district-level ultimatum. The Supreme Court reiterated that it was up to the Catalonian government to properly implement bilingual education, and accepted the government’s plan for individual instruction.
  9. In March of 2013, the same district-level court that had previously issued the two-month deadline ruled in favor of a new group of Castilian-speaking families, stating that individual attention was not enough, and that “the system has to adapt [i.e., teach in Castilian] to the whole class that a student is part of.” Elsewhere the decision complained that “it’s one thing for Catalan to be the center of gravity and another that it takes over, to the point where in the cases we have examined, Castilian is only used for three hours a week.” Needless to say, an appeal is already underway.

I will post future developments… 

Language education policy in Spain

I’ve been looking into how bilingual education works in the different Spanish provinces (Comunidades Autónomas) that have their own language. It turns out that there are some significant differences.

As shown below, the relevant provinces are Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands for Catalan, Galicia for Galician, and the Basque Country and parts of Navarra for Basque.

Minority languages of Spain (adapted from Martorell 2006)

Minority languages of Spain (adapted from Martorell 2006) — click to enlarge.

In all three regions, the jumping-off point for language policy is the Spanish Constitution, which officially promotes both Castilian Spanish and the regional languages. Article 3 of the Constitution states (in CastilianCatalan, Galician, Basque, and English) that:

  • Castilian is the official Spanish language of the State. All Spaniards have the duty to know it and the right to use it.
  • The other languages of Spain shall also be official in the respective Self-governing Communities in accordance with their Statutes.
  • The richness of the different linguistic modalities of Spain is a cultural heritage which shall be specially respected and protected.

Accordingly, Spain’s national education law requires children to study both Castilian and the local language in these provinces. This is a serious directive: to accommodate the extra language study, the percentage of class hours that schools are required to spend on basic subjects (math, reading, etc.) is decreased to 55%, compared to 65% in the rest of Spain (Article 6 in the law).

Each province has a statute of “language normalization” that interprets this national legislation, and this is where differences among the provinces arise. Catalonia’s statute is the most demanding, stating (Article 2.2a) that Catalan is the language of education in Catalonia. More detailed legislation regarding primary and secondary education spells out (Article 4 in both) that:

Catalan, as Catalonia’s own language, will be the normal linguistic vehicle of instruction and learning and in internal and external activities of the education community: oral and written student and faculty activities, lectures, textbooks and other teaching materials, learning and evaluation materials, and communications with families.

In other words, Spanish (Castilian) is relegated to the same position in Catalonian schools that it has as a language of foreign study in the United States. It’s no wonder that the Spanish-speaking community has pushed back in recent years, claiming that the schools aren’t living up to the national goal of promoting both languages, and launching lawsuits and legislative proposals to change the current system. The Catalan establishment, in turn, argues that the current system works, and that Catalan needs extra support in a Castilian-majority country. A popular poster inspired by the current controversy will strike many readers as familiar:

The language normalization statutes in Galicia and the Basque Country are more accommodating. Galicia’s (Articles 12-14) states that Galician is an official language in education (not the language as in Catalonia), and that “children have the right to receive their primary education in their mother tongue”, although “children cannot be separated by school because of language.” Likewise, the Basque statute states that “all students have the right to be taught as much in Basque as in Castilian”, and refers to the parents’ right to choose which language their child is educated in.

In response to an earlier post, some readers commented about their own experiences with minority languages vs. Castilian. I’d love to hear from more of you.


Spanish vs. Catalan vocabulary

It’s dangerously tempting to think of Catalan as a “melting pot” of Spanish, French, and Italian. Tempting, because Catalan has aspects of all three languages, and is spoken in their geographical midpoint (see map below). Dangerous, because the “melting pot” metaphor implies that the other three languages came together to form Catalan. In fact, all four are the product of slightly different versions of Vulgar Latin.

As long as we don’t fall for the “melting pot” fallacy, it’s fun to pick out the similarities between Catalan and its sister Romance languages. For example, Catalan has a letter ç, like French (e.g. Cat. abraçada “hug”), a /ts/ sound, like Italian (e.g. Cat. potser “maybe”), and two verbs for “to be”, like Spanish (Cat. esser and estar).

The most interesting differences between Catalan and Spanish have to do with vocabulary. Many Catalan and Spanish words come from two different Latin sources, such as Catalan voler “to want” (from Lat. volo, the source of French vouloir and Italian volere) versus Spanish querer (from Lat. quaerĕre), or Catalan nebot “nephew” (from Lat. nepote, the source of French neveu and Italian nipote) versus Spanish sobrino (from Lat. sobrīnus). As Ralph Penny explains in his awesome A History of the Spanish Language, the Spanish words usually reflect the older, more classical, variety of Latin that was spoken when Rome first conquered the Iberian Peninsula (between 200 and 17 BCE, relatively early in Roman history), while the Catalan words are more innovative. Because Catalonia is closer to Rome than the rest of the Peninsula, it kept up better with ongoing changes in Latin vocabulary.

Other vocabulary differences reflect the geographical realities of the post-Roman world. When Rome fell, the Visigoths invaded the Iberian peninsula from the north. Later (711 C.E.), the Moors invaded from the south. Germanic vocabulary therefore affected Catalan more than it did Spanish (e.g. guarir vs. sanar for “heal”, lleig vs. feo for “ugly”) while the Arabic impact was greater for Spanish than for Catalan (e.g. coixí vs. almohada for “pillow”, llogar vs. alquilar for “rent”). The two influences met in the middle for the word “blue”: Catalan’s Germanic blau and Spanish’s Arabic azul both displaced Latin caeruleus, the source of the the sophisticated English color term cerulean.

Follow the link below to download a table with a more substantial listing of vocabulary differences, including etymologies and French and/or Italian cognates.

Spanish vs. Catalan Vocabulary