Catalonian Crisis: Is Language the Root of Nationality?

The story of Catalonia is a complicated one, but it is one heck of a fascinating linguistic phenomenon. Catalan plays a fundamental role in the region’s debate for independence, serving not only as fuel for the opposition but as the highest expression of identity. Before we dive into cultural debates, I want to make it clear that I am by no means a Catalonia expert. I am, however, a resident of Madrid and a long-time Barça fan.

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A Brief History of Catalan

Catalan started, as roman languages often do, by growing and maturing into its own entity. By the VIII century, Catalan was not to be considered a variation of Latin, but an official language. It boasted of development and even an expansion period up to the XV century, when Aragonese forces began occupying parts of what is considered Catalonia today.

Before this interruption in the development of Catalan, the language’s literary expression had reached its peak. Thanks to a reprioritization of Latin as the accepted governmental language, Catalan took its place within the Catalan-Aragonese court.

Now, you must be wondering: if Catalonia and Aragon were part of the same court, why would some Aragonese people hanging out in olden-day Barcelona be a big deal? Well, the County of Barcelona and the Kingdom of Aragon were supposed to be independent territories that only shared certain governmental functions.

However, by the XVI century, Aragon had joined forces with Castile (through the marriage of Isabella I and Ferdinand II). Through this turmoil, Catalan survived as a spoken language, but completely disappeared from the literary sphere.

By the XIX century, Romantic tendencies and economic stability bring about a resurgence of Catalan. The language is reinstituted in literature and education by the hand of the bourgeoisie and continues its steady climb until the Franco era. At this time, Spanish is imposed as the official language of Spain, relegating Catalan once more to the B team.

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Catalan Today

After the Rivera and Franco dictatorships, culminating in 1975 with Franco’s death, Catalonia promotes its language at full force. Reinstating Catalan is then seen as a sign of strength, resilience and even patriotism.

As you can now appreciate, language has always served Catalonia as a freedom meter. The more its language is used and accepted, the better the community and its people are fending. But what has happened to Catalan from the 70s to present day?

The late 70s sedimented Catalan as an official language. It was being taught in schools again, linguists were preserving the language’s particularities and formal Catalan had been welcomed back into governmental offices. However, the rate at which the vernacular was changing was hard to keep up with, resulting in the need to reconsider dictionaries and grammar rules by the 90s.

For example, there had always been a marked distinction between open and closed vowels as is with silent consonants. However, the distinction has been lost by the influence of Castilian Spanish. Pronouns like “hi” and “en” are disappearing, especially from non-native Catalan speakers that live in the territory.

Each day, Catalan linguistically parallels Spanish more and more. In the same way that English words creep their way into Latin American Spanish, Catalan adopts Spanish particularities as happens with the verbs “emprovar-se,” (to try on) “provar,” (to try) and “tastar” (to taste). In Spanish, the verb “probar” assumes all of these roles, a phenomenon which can now be observed in Catalan.

The Catalonia Crisis

Spain is a very peculiar country. It’s comprised of 17 autonomous regions and has four co-official languages (aside from Spanish). While there is strength in our differences, sometimes its hard to reconcile fractured natures. Are there really so many dissimilarities between a Catalan and a Castilian Spaniard? Perhaps not many, aside from the language. The problem is that years of repression and a substantial history of toxicity between the two groups can no longer be ignored.

For those who haven’t been following the news. Here’s what the situation currently looks like: Catalan president Carles Puigdemont organized what is being called an “illegal referendum.” The purpose of the referendum was to vote for or against Catalonia’s independence from the Kingdom of Spain.

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Why is the referendum considered illegal?

There’s a specific process the Catalan government should have followed in order to make the referendum constitutional. Aside from that, the authenticity of many of the votes were put in question thanks to lack of proper urns, security and pictures surfacing of citizens allegedly voting more that once.

While it is true that it’s not in the central Spanish government’s interest to allow the referendum, forcing a democratic process is both unprofessional and unconstitutional. Up to here, the debate would remain as follows: does the end justify the means?

Of course, nothing with politics is ever so simple.

During the referendum, the Spanish military was deployed in Catalonia to “contain the situation.” However, claims of police brutality complicated the dispute. The biggest issue is that, in the aftermath, skewed news reports appeared on both sides.

According to Catalan news sources, over 90% of the people voted for the independence. However, less than half of the eligible population voted. This poses an important question: if you’re not for the independence and an unofficial referendum is taking place, would you bother to go out and cast a ballot?

Regardless of the results or possible results of an independence referendum, it cannot be denied that both sides would benefit from communicating more openly. For linguists, however, the Catalonia case serves as a perfect case study on the importance of language in shaping a nation. Is the divide between Catalan and Spanish so unbridgeable that a harmonious relationship could never flourish? And, are oppression and political divides brought about because of language barriers or in spite of them?