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.
With the death of Franco in 1975, and once democratic freedoms had been recovered, the 1978 constitution recognized linguistic plurality and established that Spanish languages other than Castilian could be official languages of the state. Catalan is now compulsory in Catalonian schools.
Catalan is spoken in Catalonia, but also in the Balearic Islands, in parts of Valencia, in Andorra, in the French province of Roussillon, and in the Italian city of Alghero. Overall, it is spoken in a territory that contains over 13 million inhabitants.
More than 150 universities in the world teach Catalan and more than 400 journals are published in the language. Ironically, Catalan studies are only weakly represented in Spanish universities, reflecting both the historical discrimination against Catalan and contemporary concerns about the drive for independence in Catalonia. Only seven universities in Spain (outside Catalonia) teach and research Catalan, whereas 22 universities offer courses in the U.K., and 20 French higher-education institutions offer Catalan Studies, as do 24 in the U.S.
Catalan is the ninth language in Europe in terms of number of speakers—more than Swedish, Danish, Finnish, or Greek. More than 80 television channels and more that 100 radio stations are broadcast daily in Catalan and there is a long publishing tradition. Each year in Spain almost 6,000 books are published in Catalan, some 12 percent of the total number of books published in the country.
What the Catalan experience seems to demonstrate is that banning a language may be an effective way of preserving it. Speakers of a banned language feel resentful and resist authoritarian reach into their culture. This Catalan emotion was picked up nicely by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín while he was living in Barcelona in the 1970s.
People lived in a private realm. The parents had moved into that realm at the end of the Civil War, and they had remained in that realm … But what was also interesting was that Catalan, the language, was considered a way of being free … No one was talking about history. No one was talking about politics. But people were talking in Catalan. And they considered that a fundamental way of resisting, or being apart from official Spain, or the regime.
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 traveler 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.”
As a Catalan myself I have experienced this emotion. After years of teaching Spanish in Queen’s University, Belfast, a language I value the more I teach it, last year I offered a course in Catalan for the first time. Standing in front of my students on that first day, I had to try hard to avoid tears.
This post appears courtesy of The Conversation.