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G - 134 : Catalan and Democracy

The Baleares from Space - from South to North Ibiza, Mallorca and Menorca

During our third week this summer, we sail around the Baleares, the islands once belonging to the Kingdom of Aragon. We travelled through Aragon waters in 2020 when sailing along the coast of Sardinia. One of our more memorable stops was at the well-fortified medieval town of Alghero on the island's north-western tip.

At the day of our visit, we got up early to meet the local fishermen returning to the port. We wanted to buy their fresh catch. Talking to them was a challenge though. They talked in a dialect we barely understood. Turned out they spoke Catalan. But we managed to communicate by using French and Italian words. After some bargaining, we had a deal and enjoyed great food for the next two days.

The Catalan Speaking Firsherman sold us his fresh catch

Catalan is not only spoken in the province of Catalonia, but also further south along the Mediterranean coast. People in Valencia and Alicante speak Catalan. So do most people in Aragon west of Catalonia. Plus everybody on the Baleares and – of course – the people in Alghero. I did not know that there was Catalan when visiting Barcelona for the first time. But I do remember that I understood more than expected. Spanish must be closely related to French and Italian I mused. Already spoke both. Little did I know that I was hearing Catalan not Spanish. Typical confusion of an 18-years old.

The Romance Language Families in Europe

Later in life when spending more time in the Provence and other parts of Southern France, this episode came back to my mind. Provencal – the language you find on many monuments in Arles – looks similar. Like a blend of French and Italian. I understand these texts only when reading them aloud. With the sound you kind of get the meaning.

Turns out that Catalan and Provencal are part of Occitan, an ancient Romance language. During the Roman Empire, the provinces Gallia Narbonnensis and Aquitania formed a cultural entity, which survived the arrival of the Visigoths who governed for a few centuries. Toledo and Toulouse were their capitals. Under their rule, spoken Latin solidified into the vernacular which became Occitan or the Langue d’Oc. In the 13th century, when part of the Aquitaine belonged to the Kingdom of Aragon, it was even used in writing and in poetry. In the 14th century, Aquitaine eventually became French and stayed ever since. People though continued to speak Occitan.

The Mediterranean Kingdom of Aragon reached as far as Greece

But it was not to last. Power politiques saw an end to it. During the 100-years’ war between France and England (1357 – 1435), Aquitaine sided with England – something the French Kings in Paris would never forgive. Mandates were issued that all official communication had to be conducted in the Langue d’Oi, the language of Paris. First the mandates’ impact was limited. They related to taxation, military issues and Toulon university. But the bureaucrats in Paris loved them. They gave them power.

Planting the Tree of Liberty by Sueur, 1792 - an Idealised View of the French Revolution

With the French revolution though, the use of “proper” French – meaning the Langue d’Oi - was imposed with iron fist. France wanted revolutionaries immersed in nationalism and desired to eradicate everything reminding of feudal times. One France – one Nation – one Language. Universities, teachers, officials and the press were coerced into the use of the Langue d’Oi. School and university exams were standardized. Spelling in Occitan guaranteed failure. Students and parents started to comply. Since Napoleonic time, France is systematically eradicating dialects. Of course, every single French governments denies. The arrival of Radio, TV and the internet accelerated the drop in native Occitan speakers. Maybe 200’000 are left today. Nobody has precise numbers. In my view, both Occitan and Provencal are dead. They are no living languages any longer.

Merger of Castille and Aragon in 1469

The Spanish Kingdom was different though. Created by the merger of the Kingdom of Aragon with the Kingdom of Castile, it remained more decentralized than France. It only changed when Dictator Franco won the Spanish Civil War in 1938. Catalan speakers were mostly Republicans who fought against him. Why let them use their language? Castilian was made the only official language in administration, media and education. Spain under France was a centralist state which feared minorities and suppressed them. Luckily, Franco did not succeed. Catalan is today more vibrant than ever.

Catalan is today a Catalyst for Catalan Independence - Photo is from 2021

For a Swiss, this language intolerance is incomprehensible. Instead of understanding language diversity as a cultural heritage that makes us richer and stronger, it is viewed as a threat. In my home country, there are so many dialects, I do not even know their number. Every valley and region speaks differently. When listening to people from Zermatt, I have to pay attention to understand what they are saying. But am proud they have their own dialect and keep it. For official use, we adopted High German which is tought already in elementary school. It is a foreign language – no doubt - but useful. But nobody uses it in day to day conversations. We love our dialects, our mundart.

Am nor sure if ever Anybody came up with a Classification of Swiss Dialects

Preserving our local language means taking care our own affairs. We built the Swiss society from bottom up – not top down. No ruler conquered us and forced us to live together. Switzerland was and remains a federation of people who want to live together because they believe in the idea of Switzerland. Dialects are thus something genuinely democratic. As we have the right to govern ourselves, we shall have the right to speak the language we like. There is a reason why Russia tries to suppress the Ukrainian culture and language. It denies Ukraine its right of freedom. I hope Russia fails.

Am glad that Catalan is now spoken freely and frequently. It makes Spain a freer country.

Area of Catalan Speakers in modern Spain

If you want to spend more time on the issue, watch the fun video clips of Sara and Andrea on YouTube: How different are Catalan and Spanish?

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