Comparing Catalonia and Scotland: Part 2, language

This is an issue where there are profound differences between Catalonia and Scotland.  This is a very long post, because it’s a complex subject, and because I make no apologies for being a linguistic anorak.  I’m not going to ask you to indulge me, I fully intend to indulge myself.

The fate of the Catalan language is a major factor in the Catalan independence debate.  In the Scottish debate, we’re far more exercised about whether we’ll still be able to watch Dr Who (we will, I’ve been in the Tardis and seen the future) than the future of Scotland’s traditional languages.

Catalan, Spanish, and Portuguese all descend from the Latin introduced into the Iberian peninsula during Roman times.  Due to the many similarities between these closely related languages, it’s not that difficult for a Spanish speaker to acquire a working knowledge of Catalan (or Portuguese).  Strangely this doesn’t appear to be the opinion of the average Spanish speaker with Partido Popular affiliations, who regards Catalan as more  incomprehensible than Klingon with a speech defect – and usually considers it of less practical use.

Funnily enough, this is also the opinion that quite a few English speakers have about Scots even though Scots and English are also closely related.  But then there’s something about having English as a native language that turns bilingualism into as much of an achievement as solving a Rubik’s cube in the pitch dark while handcuffed to a serial fondler.

Catalan is spoken by around 9.5 million people, and is understood by some 2 million more.  Many of these live outside the borders of Catalonia, in areas considered by Catalans to form a part of els Paissos Catalans ‘the Catalan countries’.  Catalonia itself has a population of about 7.5 million, 6.5 million understand Catalan and slightly less than 6 million speak it.  The remainder are largely Spanish speaking.

This gives the Catalan language a demographic weight which greatly exceeds that of Scotland’s 58,000 Gaelic speakers or the 1.5 million speakers of Scots.  It also has a political influence which is vastly more significant.

Catalan politicians make policy statements about ensuring that Catalan medium education is compulsory for all and demanding that commercial organisations provide signage and product packaging in Catalan.  In Scotland the most timid proposal to install bilingual Gaelic-English signs in railway stations still provokes howls of uncomprehending outrage about “imposing minority languages” on everyone with the supposed good sense to speak only English.  Scots are slowly getting over our linguistic cultural cringe, but only slowly.  Catalans have no linguistic cringe at all.

Scottish attitudes to our native languages strike Catalans as deeply bizarre and very confusing.  To be fair, most Scottish people are pretty confused by Scotland’s rich and complex linguistic heritage too.  We prefer to treat our national languages like beloved elderly relatives.  We want to make sure they live in a comfortable care home, but don’t dare suggest that they come to live with us.  It’s hardly surprising we don’t know that much about them.

On the other hand Catalan is fit, active, and quite capable of abseiling down the outside of La Sagrada Família.  It is not threatened with extinction in the way Gaelic or Scots are, but it faces a direct threat in the form of policies of the Spanish government which could lead to Spanish replacing Catalan as the everyday language.

Language plays a very different role in the national identity of each country.  The Catalan language is central to Catalan identity.  A Scottish identity is not tied to a single language.  Scotland is a multilingual nation, and has been for all of its recorded history.

There are many who believe that Gaelic is Scotland’s only “true” national language, but there is no law which says that a nation can have only one national language.  And anyway, if there was, as an independent nation Scotland could rewrite that law to suit itself.  Scotland has three national languages, Gaelic, Scots and English.  But it’s not wrong to say that Scotland’s confused and complex attitudes to Scottish languages reflect the confused and complex story of the various languages that have ebbed and flowed across the country.

Gaelic is a Celtic language belonging to the Goidelic branch of that family, and is closely related to Irish and Manx (with which it is partially mutually intelligible). It is somewhat more distantly related to Welsh, Cornish, and Breton, and probably the extinct Pictish as well, which collectively form the Brittonic branch of the Celtic family.

To simplify quite a lot, Gaelic originated in Ireland, and gained a foothold in Argyll and Galloway in the late Roman period.  Scotland entered history as a Gaelic speaking polity centred on the area of modern Argyll, which gradually extended its political, cultural and linguistic influence over the entire northern third of the island of Britain, replacing Pictish and Old Welsh varieties of Celtic.  By the time Scotland reached its modern territorial extent, around the year 1000, Gaelic was the only spoken language everywhere north of the Clyde Forth line, and overwhelmingly dominant west of a line drawn approximately from Gretna to east of Edinburgh.

Despite its ancient history and the crucial role it played in the formation of the Scottish nation and the Scottish state, Gaelic cannot play the same role in modern Scotland as Catalan does in Catalonia.  This is not just because it has declined in number of speakers, but also because it must share the title of national language with Scots and Scottish Standard English.

Scottish Standard English is probably easier to deal with first.  It has already effectively declared independence from other varieties of Standard English and is well described in linguistics textbooks.  It is a strikingly distinct variety of Standard English proper only to Scotland, and as such is a national language of Scotland.  But there’s no Catalan Standard Spanish, most Catalans would see such a thing as a contradiction in terms.  There is only the Standard Spanish of the Spanish state, regulated by la Real Academia.

The existence of Scottish Standard English is one of the reasons which leads to so much confusion in the debate about whether Scots is a language in its own right or a dialect of English.  Most linguists have no difficulty accepting Scots as a language, moreover one which is easy to distinguish from the general run of English dialects.  But Scottish public opinion is far less convinced.

Scots descends from the Northumbrian dialect of early Middle English.  Standard English from the dialect of the East Midlands.  Northumbrian Middle English displaced Gaelic from much of Lowland Scotland during the Middle Ages, spreading out from the newly founded burghs which attracted thousands of settlers from northern England, Flanders, and even further afield.  The common language was a northern dialect of early Middle English.  Prior to this expansion Northumbrian Middle English had been confined to parts of the Lothians and Borders.

There was no compulsion on Lowland Gaelic speakers to adopt Inglis, as it was called.  They took up the new language as it was the effective language of trade and wider communication.  Increasingly it became the means of preferment and advancement as the Scottish state turned its back on its Gaelic roots.  But it may also be true that like modern Scots they had weak language loyalty, retaining a folk memory of a time when their ancestors had spoken Welsh or Pictish.  For some that may not have been in such a remote and distant past.  Old Welsh clung on as a spoken language in some of the remoter parts of the Southern Uplands perhaps as late as the early 1200s.

A number of important linguistic changes occurred during the period following the Scottish Wars of Independence, affecting pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.  These changes led to the Inglis of Scotland becoming clearly differentiated from its southern relative.  Eventually it became the state language of Scotland, under the name Scots.  It was on course to evolve into a standard written language quite distinct from English, but history and politics intervened.

Despite the spread of Scots, Gaelic remained widespread and was still spoken by over half the Scottish population perhaps as late as the time of the Reformation.  However it was increasingly confined to the more mountainous north and west, the region traditionally known as the Highlands.  Gaelic lost prestige, and the Scottish state was more than occasionally hostile to it, an attitude which strengthened with the post-Reformation association of the Gaelic language with Roman Catholicism.  The Reformation also saw the introduction of written English in the form of the English language translation of the Bible.

Gaelic came to be regarded as proper only to the Highlands, although it was still spoken in Galloway and South Ayrshire until as late as the 18th century.  Lowland Scotland is lowpin with Gaelic place names, but a surprising number of residents of places like Dysart (an Dìseart ‘the hermitage’) Airdrie (an t-Àrd Ruigh ‘the high foothill’) or Bellahouston (Baile Uisdein ‘Hugh’s town’) will still deny that they have any connection to Gaelic.

The Clearances of the 19th century devastated the remaining Gaelic speaking heartlands.  The language experienced a demographic collapse, and although elderly native speakers could still be found throughout the Highlands right into the second half of the 20th century, by the 21st century Gaelic speaking communities were largely confined to the islands.

Efforts to revitalise the language have had limited success.  Gaelic enjoys a higher public profile than in the past, and the language is attracting increasing numbers of language learners.  The most recent census showed that there is a small but welcome increase in the number of children who are acquiring the language.  And there are also encouraging signs that the language is developing looser networks of speakers in other parts of Scotland, often centred around a Gaelic medium school.

We’re confused about the role Gaelic played in our history.  We’re even more confused about Scots.  Scottish people naturally compare Scots with Scottish Standard English, which is after all the form of English used in Scotland.  This means Scottish people perceive the Scots language to be far more similar to English than non-Scottish people do because Scottish Standard English is itself the result of language contact between Scots and English and has absorbed many features from Scots.

Scottish Standard English is a historically southern variety of English imported into Scotland after the Union.  It is pronounced with the phonological system of Scots, and has borrowed a number of Scots words and quite a lot of Scots syntax.  It typically coexists in a continuum with traditional Scots, people using varying amounts of Scots or English depending on the social circumstances.

The introduction of English led to the abandoning of the old Scots literary language.  Scots was restricted to poetry and was now spelled according to English orthographic rules.  Writing Scots as though it were English increased the public perception that Scots was “a dialect of English”.  This perception remains widespread, and is the reason why Scots benefits from even less government and public support than Gaelic, despite having 25 times as many speakers.

Although both Gaelic and Scots have been discriminated against and discouraged, there has been no legislation actively preventing their use outside state institutions since 18th century attempts to extirpate the Gaelic language.  The state did not legislate against the use of Scottish languages, they were ignored and left to decline.  Deeply ingrained Scottish social attitudes and the need to acquire good English in order to get ahead in life did the rest.

Independence is likely to improve the status of Gaelic and Scots, but language issues do not form part of the debate.  A positive outcome for Gaelic and Scots will be an accidental side effect of independence, but for the overwhelming majority of Scots, this language obsessed geek included, they do not rank high in the list of reasons for seeking independence.

Catalan has not suffered the same neglect, instead it was subject to severe state repression, well within living memory.  And for many in Catalonia their language is an important reason for seeking independence.

The linguistic differences between Catalan and Spanish are of a similar order to the linguistic differences between the English of England and very traditional Scots.  But for god’s sake don’t ever say that Catalan is a Spanish dialect or you’ll likely find your boiling hot botifarra casserole served in your lap.  Unlike Scots, Catalan has an accepted written form and is highly codified and standardised.  It’s considered ill-educated to mix Catalan and Spanish together with the casual disregard that Scottish people mix Scots and English.  So jist gaunnie no dae that.

Also unlike Scotland, which has played musical chairs with languages throughout history, and whose linguistic history requires a multilingual set of volumes full of maps and diagrams*, Catalans have continued to speak their Latin derived language since Roman times.  When people in Glas Cu were speaking Old Welsh, Catalans were speaking an early form of Catalan, when Glaschu was speaking Gaelic, Catalans were speaking Catalan, when Glesga was speaking Scots and later Glasgow spoke Scots and English, Catalans were still speaking Catalan.  It’s something they’re quite consistent about.

Catalan was the state language of the Kingdom of Aragon, and was highly prestigious.  Following the Reconquista, Catalan spread south into the Balearics and Valencia, and was even widely spoken in Sardinia and Sicily.  It possessed a rich literature, which formed the basis for the modern standard language. Catalan was widely recognised as amongst the most important European languages of the day.  Its literary output included influential masterpieces such as Tirant lo Blanc, and  Ramon Llull’s Blanquerna, regarded by many as the first true European novel.

One of the first books to be printed in the Iberian peninsula was in Catalan, a devotional text dedicated to the Virgin Mary published in Valencia in 1474.  Also in Valencia, a full translation of the Bible was published in Catalan around 1477, making it one of the first Bible translations into a European vernacular language.

The Valencian Bible was prohibited by the Spanish Inquisition in 1482.  All copies were ordered to be burned.  The sole surviving book ended up in Sweden, where it was lost in a fire in 1697.  A single leaf of the book is all that remains.  Even after the Kingdom of Aragon and the Kingdom of Castile were united under the same monarchy with the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon to Isabel of Castile in 1475, the Catalan language remained the official language of Catalonia and els Paissos Catalans.  It continued to be an important medium of literature and administration.

However the status of Catalan went into a slow decline after the union of Castile and Aragon.  The merchantile classes of Aragon who had supported the language were cut out of the important trade with Spain’s American colonies, which Spain insisted must pass via the Castilian speaking ports in Andalucia.  Catalonia descended into poverty and neglect.  The language lost prestige and gradually became permeated with Spanish words and expressions.

Following the Spanish War of Succession, which saw Catalonia support the losing side, the new Bourbon monarchy took steps to centralise Spain and abolished the traditional autonomy of the various kingdoms and provinces which made up the Spanish state.  Henceforth all the realms of the Spanish monarch were to be governed by the laws of Castile, “the most praiseworthy in the universe”.   The decree was issued in 1707, the year another ancient polity lost the right to govern itself.

Catalan was banned from administration, the legal system, and the theatre.  Priests were forbidden to preach in any language but Castilian Spanish.  Only a limited amount of private publishing in the language was permitted.  As the 18th century turned into the 19th, the prohibitions stayed unchanging.  When telephones were introduced into Catalonia in the late 19th century, it became illegal to speak Catalan on the phone too.

Catalonia was one of the first parts of the Spanish state to experience the industrial revolution.  This brought increasing wealth and development to Barcelona, whose citizens increasingly saw their progress hindered by the reactionary Spanish state of the 19th century, which was in thrall to the interests of the old landed aristocracy and the church.

The Catalan Renaixença  ‘Renaissance’ arose in response to the sclerotic nature of the Spanish state.  The Catalan language came to be seen as a symbol of the frustrated desires of Catalans for their country to become a fully democratic modern European state.  A revitalised standard literary form of Catalan was the outcome of this movement, a modern Catalan language fit for all the needs of a modern Catalan nation, but which was solidly linked to the greatness of the Catalan literary past.  It was rapidly accepted throughout els Paissos Catalans.

But despite, or perhaps because of, these developments, Catalan remained exiled from the education system and lacked any official standing until the 1930s, when for a brief period the Spanish Republic was more tolerant of its use.  But it was not to last.

Following the victory of the Francoist Nationalists in the Civil War, the Spanish state again clamped down on the use of Catalan.  The prohibitions implemented from 1940 onward were draconian.  All publishing in Catalan was made illegal, it was banned from the radio and later from television.  Speaking the language in a public place was outlawed.  Many families have stories of older family members who were hauled off by the dreaded Guardia Civil because they could not speak Spanish properly.  Even Catalan personal names were changed to their Castilian Spanish equivalents – many found themselves in the surreal position of their own names being illegal.  You could no longer be Pau, you had to be Pablo.

The period of the dictatorship saw the development of the package tourism industry, and the gradual recuperation of Catalan industry.  Although a limited amount of Catalan language publishing was slowly permitted, the official position remained one of harsh intolerance.

Thousands moved from other parts of Spain into Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearics.  For the most part they did not acquire Catalan, the policies of the Franco government ensured that it was almost impossible.  The predominance of Spanish monoglot children in many Catalan schools – where Catalan was banned from use – meant that children from Catalan speaking families acquired the habit of speaking Spanish to their friends.  For the first time in Catalan history, large scale language shift to Spanish was underway across much of the traditional territory of the language.

This was the situation when Spain returned to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975.  As the country transitioned to democracy, Catalans demanded autonomy and official recognition and support for their language. A key element of this was that control of the education system and broadcasting should rest with the new Catalan autonomous government.

Catalonia introduced an immersion system of education, in order to teach Catalan to the generations of children who now started school without the language.  These children then learned via the medium of Catalan, alongside native Catalan speaking children.  Spanish remained an obligatory subject, taught through the medium of Spanish.  Spanish language media was still widely available in Catalonia, and it was joined by a wide range of Catalan language publications, radio stations and television channels.  The result was to produce a generation fully bilingual in Catalan and Spanish.  In fact the success of the system was seen in the fact that Catalan children regularly scored the highest in Spain in their Spanish language exams.

Although Catalonia has had great success in reversing the language shift to Spanish, elsewhere in els Paissos Catalans the story was not so positive.  As Spain emerged from the dictatorship, the old Kingdom of Valencia became a stronghold for those francoist Spanish nationalists who sought to continue under the new democratic system.  Their current political incarnation is the Partido Popular.

Viscerally opposed to el catalanisme (Catalan national sentiment) right wing Spanish centralists ensured that the new Spanish constitution recognised the Catalan of the newly autonomous Valencian Community as a totally distinct language, called Valencian.  Valencia isn’t in Catalonia, therefore, they insisted with a simple minded logic, the language of Valencians cannot be Catalan.  Meanwhile they were blythely indifferent to the fact that everyone who wasn’t Castilian was still expected to speak Castilian.  It was a calculated attempt to break up the unity of the Catalan language, and reduce the “risk” of contamination from Catalan thoughts of independence.

Years of utterly moronic arguments followed, in which linguistically illiterate politicians tried to assert in the face of all contrary evidence that a not especially distinctive group of Western Catalan dialects were not in fact Catalan at all.  They even attempted to insist that “Valencian” should be written according to Spanish spelling rules, not Catalan.  Eventually a compromise was reached and it was agreed that Catalan and Valencian were different parts of the same “linguistic system” and shared the same basic orthographic principles.  Which in layperson’s terms means they’re the same language.  However it is still enshrined in the Spanish constitution that the official languages of the Valencian Community are Spanish and Valencian.

More recently, and even more gob-smackingly naked in its political intent, the government of Aragon has ruled that the Catalan spoken in the towns and villages along the Aragonese border with Catalonia, a region known as La Franja, is not a language at all.  It is instead a collection of dialects which officially have no connection with Catalan or with each other, known by the Spanish acronyn LAPAO. Lengua Aragonesa Propia de la Parte Oriental ‘Aragonese Language Proper to the Eastern Area’.  One of the aims of this law was to inhibit Catalan teaching in local schools, and prohibit the use of text books published in neighbouring Catalonia.

However the Catalan language has also come under direct assault within Catalonia.  A series of court cases led the Spanish High Court to rule that Catalonia was in breach of the Spanish constitution by not providing Spanish medium education.  The Spanish government’s education minister, Ignacio Wert, railed against the Catalan education system, accusing it of promoting “separatism”, and said that the goal of public education must be to “hispanicise” pupils.

Just this week, Madrid unveiled a plan to reduce the powers of autonomous regions and eliminate many Catalan institutions under the guise of “rationalising” Spanish layers of government.

Madrid wants to impose on Catalonia an education system like that of Valencia, which has proven unable to prevent the on-going shift from Catalan to Spanish.  Nowadays Catalan is scarcely to be heard on the streets of Valencia city or Alicante.  Many Catalans fear that if they do not achieve independence, that will be the fate of Barcelona too.

Well that it, as close to in a nutshell as I can get.  It’s a walnut which is very convoluted and full of wrinkles.  If you’ve read this far, you probably know more than you need to about why Gaelic and Scots are not especially relevant to Scottish desires for independence, but the Catalan language is important to Catalan desires for indy.

But I hope it’s been worthwhile.

* and foot notes.

7 comments on “Comparing Catalonia and Scotland: Part 2, language

  1. […] Comparing Catalonia and Scotland: Part 2, language […]

  2. Wow Paul! Have you considered writting a book on this? Very good job, indeed! 😀 ♡♡

  3. Excellent blog post — I thoroughly enjoyed it (even if I knew most of it already, being a linguist myself)!

    I like to compare Scots with Norwegian in the 19th century: Still widely spoken, but mixed up with English/Danish, and without an official norm. It’ll be interesting to watch whether independence will be a catalyst for a revival of Scots, just like what happened in Norway (although I hope we won’t end up with two official varieties of Scots!).

  4. Andrew Morton says:

    Gonnae keep daein tha’?

  5. Helpmaboab says:

    Please indulge yourself more in the future WGD.

    I was quite sympathetic toward Catalonia before I read this. Now I admire the country with enthusiasm. “Nou estat d’Europa”? Yes please.

  6. allypallykayak says:

    Thanks for this. I have one phrase in Catalan – “I’m sorry I don’t speak Catalan, please speak to me in Castilian.” Oh, boy! Just giving the nod to the language and apologising for not speaking it almost makes me a member of the family in some places.

    When people take exception to Gaelic (why?) I point to Aranès, a language in Northern Spain with around 5000 speakers. And they are NOT about to give up speaking it. Not for anybody.

    I really enjoyed this article. Keep them coming.

  7. […] whit Wee Ginger Dug writes anent Catalonian (in […]

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