A skeptical look at narratives from the Catalan nationalist fever swamps
"Use your tongue (in defense of the Catalan language)" by Liz Castro is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Jordi Sabaté Pons is one of my favourite people on Spanish-speaking Twitter. He suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the same neurodegenerative disease that Stephen Hawking battled for decades. His tweets show humour, grace and charm under difficult circumstances. Spanish speakers might find their eyes moistening as they read his takes on life and death.
In May, Sabaté Pons said that thousands of Catalan separatists were insulting and bullying him on Twitter. Some of them even insulted his late mother. He said their attitude was “inhuman.” Why would political fanatics go onto Twitter to insult someone who is fighting a deadly disease?
The background was that a group of people who suffer ALS and their families visited the Catalan parliament. One carer asked the politicians if they could switch to Spanish from Catalan so her husband, an ALS sufferer, could follow the conversation better. One of the politicians refused to switch languages. Sabaté Pons took to Twitter to complain about this answer, triggering the ire of disgruntled cyber-nationalists.
On the face of it, the carer’s request was perfectly reasonable. The Catalan government’s own data show that nearly 49% of the region’s population use Spanish every day, compared to just 36% for Catalan. A further 7.4% are totally bilingual, with the remainder mainly speaking foreign languages. What is particularly interesting is that nearly 53% of the population grew up in Spanish-speaking homes, while only 31.5% did so in Catalan-speaking homes.
A deeper dive into the data shows that nearly 100% of the population understand Spanish, while around 95% say they understand Catalan. In other words, around 3.2m Catalans claim to understand the Catalan language without actually speaking it every day, while nearly 400,000 Spanish speakers don’t understand it at all. In this context, a request to change language on behalf of an unwell individual should be completely uncontroversial.
Unfortunately, the fever swamps of Catalan nationalism are hostile to ideas that would be uncontroversial elsewhere. To understand why, let’s take a look at an unsavoury character called Fredi Bentanachs. He was the founder of a spectacularly incompetent terrorist organization called Terra Lliure (Free Land), which was active from 1980 to 1995. It killed five people, including four members of the group who blew themselves up in accidents while building explosive devices.
Benanachs was the subject of widespread ridicule at the end of March and beginning of April after he made a speech on the streets of Barcelona claiming kids speaking Spanish to their classmates in school breaks should be seen as equivalent to “genocide” or the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Of course, Benanachs is a fringe figure. But mainstream nationalists have proved very bad at distancing themselves from his brand of linguistic hysteria. When he led a mob to smash up a Spanish-language discussion on the literature of Miguel de Cervantes at a university in Barcelona in 2018, nationalist leaders turned a blind eye to the thuggery. He has also been photographed with many senior politicians, including former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont.
Benanachs’ comments on the alleged genocide in the playground reflect a siege mentality, which is common to many Catalan nationalists. We can see how far these ideas have spread into the mainstream by taking a critical look at two slogans. Òmnium Cultural, a nationalist organization that was founded during Francisco Franco’s long dictatorship, talked about “language, culture, country” from about 2012. The order is important. It wants to defend the Catalan language against the threat implied by immigrants and migrants who speak Spanish; it then wants to build a culture around the minority language; and use the culture as the basis for a new state. A little later, Òmnium launched another campaign based on the idea that Catalonia should be “a normal country,” which strongly implied the new state would be monolingual.
Sometimes this subtext becomes explicit. Let’s take Laura Borràs as an example. A strident establishment nationalist, she has been speaker of the Catalan parliament since 2021. She had previously signed the Koiné manifesto, which said that Catalan was the “endogonous” language of Catalonia and that poor Spanish-speaking migrants to Catalonia were responsible for unwitting “linguistic colonization.” The signatories denounced bilingualism and said that an independent Catalonia should seek to exclude the Spanish language spoken by the majority in the name of “integrating” its speakers.
At the heart of all these narratives lies a certain essentialism. This is the idea that some attributes are essential to the identity of objects. In this case, the Catalan language (which evolved from vulgar Latin in the Pyrenees by the 9th century) is thought to have some essential connection to the territory conquered from Muslims by Catalan-speaking Christians in the Middle Ages. It doesn’t matter what language people in contemporary Catalonia actually speak: Nationalists believe languges belong to lands not to human beings. Expressing the purity of your identity will always be more important than communicating with other people.
So far, we have used words like “fanatics,” “fever swamps,” “hysteria,” “siege mentality” and “essentialism” to describe the way Catalan nationalists see the Catalan language. In fact, “dualism” would work even better. The Catalan language is seen as the source of everything beautiful, vulnerable and pure in the world, while the Spanish language is seen as dirty, invasive and corruptive. The eternal competition between the two languages is seen as a zero-sum game: If one wins, the other by definition loses.
I first became aware of this dualism in 2007, two years after I moved to Barcelona. The Frankfurt Book Fair was so inspired by the works of Carlos Ruiz Zafón and other Barcelona-based novelists who write in Spanish that it invited Catalonia to feature in its 2007 edition. The nationalist government of Catalonia organized the event, but only invited novelists who write in Catalan, sparking outrage in the literary world. It eventually backtracked but it was too little, too late for the writers it had offended.
It should be obvious that debating people with such a strange and dualistic worldview is never going to end well. Catalan nationalists long ago decided that education in the region should be fully in Catalan. Spanish courts have disagreed. A sentence that a quarter of classes should be in Spanish is currently the source of much hysteria. The ruling might seem reasonable to those who realize that Catalonia is still part of Spain; most kids speak Spanish at home; and that Spanish has more than half a billion speakers worldwide. Meanwhile, dualists see the court case as an example of evil slowly encroaching into the pure and innocent world of childhood.
The linguistic hysteria means that nationalists are actually missing a fantastic opportunity to help the language grow. Do you remember that 3.2m people in the region claim to understand Catalan without speaking it regularly? This is known to linguists as passive bilingualism. Instead of fining Spanish speakers for linguistic crimes or treating their very presence as contaminants on sacred soil, promotors of the Catalan language should seek to encourage their fellow citizens to upgrade their skills.
Why not use some of the government money used to fund separatist organizations like Òmnium for cash prizes for people who get a good streak going for Catalan on Duolingo? Why not subsidize attractive films in Catalan without worrying whether or not they serve the separatist agenda? Why not subsidize bilingual art that reflects a bilingual society?
Meanwhile, nationalists are also mistaken to see the 5% who don’t understand Catalan as a threat instead of an opportunity. Former Catalan President Quim Torra once called them “beasts in human form, scavengers, vipers, hyenas” in a particularly infamous phrase. Wouldn’t it be better to try to coax them into language classes? Catalan isn’t particularly difficult for Spanish speakers to understand with a little exposure and patience, even if speaking it well takes more time.
Of course, there is a possibility that nationalists will look back on just 5% of the population failing to understand Catalan as something of a golden age at some point in the future. Barcelona has become a top-five European startup hub in recent years. A quick look at any jobs site will show that finding Catalan speakers is a very low priority for fast-moving tech companies. Young Europeans are moving to Barcelona in droves in search of a good quality of life, including lots of sunshine and cheaper housing than in cities like Berlin or London.
Residents of tech hubs from Amsterdam to Zurich are finding out that startups encourage dynamism, migration and risk, but not necessarily a deep respect for local quirks. Successful startups will create new elites across Europe as some companies become unicorns, enriching founders, early employees and investors. Many members of the new elite will lack deep local roots. This is a scary message for Catalan speakers, who have often tried to build linguistic barriers to entry to Barcelona’s middle class and elite.
In many ways, the current situation is a direct result of nationalist policies to turn Catalan into a prestige language with a dominant position in education. Away from the startup scene, Catalan speakers tend to be over-represented among the region’s middle class and the elite. This means that anyone who wants to practice Catalan in Barcelona will find that the majority of waiters and shop assistants are native speakers of Spanish.
Finally, moves to protect Catalan risk a backlash among teenagers who are growing up in homes where other languages are spoken. Why would you want to associate the Catalan language with boring school teachers and backwards-looking politicians if Spanish is the language of startups, Netflix and Latin pop?
Sabaté Pons found out the hard way that Catalan nationalists seem to find it very challenging to live in a plural and open society. For this reason, I will be turning the comments off this week. See you next Saturday!
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