Catalonia,the northeastern corner of Spain, is heading to polls. A move in which we could possibly see a new independent state. Amid the political predictions, the election narrative closely shadows what has held this population together. The Catalan language. One that finds its being in the fact that banning something could lead to its preservation.
This Catalan reaction is also expressed by a Catalan writer exiled in Mexico, Pere Calders, in his 1955 short story, “Catalans in the World”. A Catalan traveller in the Far East, at an evening party encounters a parrot which, to his surprise, utters Catalan phrases. He was overcome by emotion: “Many were the things which made us different but there was a language which made us one… Early that morning, when I left, I had a softer heart than the day I arrived.”
Scroll looks at the history behind banning the language which now unites many millions:
Attempts to suppress the Catalan language and culture have deep historical roots but were intensified during the era of Francisco Franco. The dictator banned the Catalan language from public spaces and made Spanish the sole language of public life.
For 40 years under the dictatorship, Spain tried to present itself as an ethnically and politically homogeneous state. The execution of Franco’s opponents continued after the end of the Spanish Civil War. One prominent victim was the former Catalan president, Lluís Companys who was deported from Nazi-occupied France in 1940 and then executed in Barcelona
After the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, the repression was not only political but cultural too. Catalan institutions were suppressed and Catalan was banned in the school system. Indicative of the new political order were statements from the authorities, the police in particular, such as “Hable el idioma del imperio”: use the language of the empire.
The immediate consequence was that Catalonia lost many of the material resources for the production and reproduction of its culture. The Catalan language lost prestige in comparison with Spanish, and some upper-class Catalans began to start speaking more Spanish.
At the same time, between one and two million people from the south of Spain moved into Catalonia after the 1950s. These migrants were sometimes prejudiced against the Catalan language, not least because many of them did not even know about its existence before coming to Catalonia. Some felt no need to learn Catalan. This is the kind of problem which faces all stateless nations.
Despite this, most Catalan people went on using their language at home and the language has survived against the odds. Paradoxically, other languages such as Irish have had a state to protect them in the 20th century and yet it has proved difficult to stop the erosion of the language.
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