Saturday, December 07, 2002

Another post from the old site, on minority languages, which we can never stop talking about in Barcelona. It is the number one issue in many people's minds here. Tonight in prime-time TV3, Catalan government TV, run by the Catalan nationalist Convergence and Union party, is running what they call a "documentary"--I'd call it a "partisan propaganda film"--on those goddamn files in the Civil War Archive in Salamanca that the Catalan nationalists want returned to Catalonia. Let me make something clear. ABSOLUTELY NOBODY GIVES A RAT'S PATOOT ABOUT THOSE GODDAMN FILES. Except for a bunch of idjits who have their heads so far up their own rectums that the most important thing in the world to them is the slight done to Catalan honor by the presence of these sixty-five-year-old papers in Castilian Salamanca. I am not exaggerating. War, poverty, economic disasters, terrorism, yeah, they'll pay lip service in the name of solidarity, but the only thing really important to them is the question of Catalan national prestige. These are the people I call Cataloonies, and about 20% of the people in Catalonia (the sum of all those who vote for the Republican Left and 1/3 of those who vote for Convergence and Union, plus a Trotskyist or two; the Stalinists and anarchists, all seventeen of them not living in squats, tend to be anti-Catalanist on the grounds that any form of nationalism is bad) fall into the category.

(Oct. 23, 2002): A reader from Belgium reminded us that not all of Belgium is French-speaking; of course, it isn't.
Wallonia, in southern and eastern Belgium, is French-speaking. Although Brussels is within Flanders, it is Flemish-French bilingual. Flanders, in northern and western Belgium, is Flemish-speaking (Flemish is a variety of Dutch). We were in Brussels once and I lost my passport under very strange circumstances at the airport. I had to talk to a lot of people, singly and in groups, at the Brussels airport, in English, of course. They all seemed to use Flemish and French more or less interchangeably with one another at work, in much the same way that both Catalan and Spanish are used in Barcelona. Another thing I noticed is that when I knew the context--the context of the conversations centered on passports and this American guy, me, who didn't have one--I could understand what they were talking about. Not every word, but the gist and some details. When I didn't know the context, I didn't understand a thing.

Belgium is one of the many places in Europe where the users of different languages have to make accommodation with one another in the same place. Remember that true bilinguals, people who speak two languages naturally, are fairly unusual and are most common in places where one language is used at home and the other by the State. We'd say that there are three possible scenarios:

1) Two strong languages coexist in the same place. That would include Belgium, with French and Flemish/Dutch, and Switzerland, with French, Italian, and German. Always, in these cases, one region of the country speaks language A and the other one speaks language B. Educated people in these places tend to speak both local languages as well as English, in which they can communicate even if one of them is really bolshy about not speaking the other local language. Though most people in these places are not too bolshy, they tend to be native speakers of only one language and to speak the other one as a "foreign" language. Next time you meet a smart Belgian or Swiss, ask him about this. Odds are he'll say something like, "Well, I'm from Antwerp, so my first language is Flemish, but I can speak French, too, about as well as or maybe a little better than I can speak English, which is pretty well but not perfectly." Some Flemish people, believing that Flemish should receive extra government protection, consider Flemish to be a weak language and that Belgium really falls into Group 2. We don't buy it.

2) A strong language and a weak language coexist in the same place. This is the situation of Irish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, Galician, Basque, Catalan, Frisian, and company. Normally in these places there is a local language used by a significant number of natives of the area with their families and neighbors and in local economic activity, and a State language used in education, the bureaucracy, the media, larger-scale economic activity, and high culture. (Intellectuals call this diglossia.) Of these languages listed, Catalan is the strongest and has the most significant cultural history, but when Catalan culture went into decline in the eighteenth century--the causes are debatable--and Spanish was the language of the centralized State, it replaced Catalan as the State language inside Catalonia. Since Catalanists are people who think Catalan rather than Spanish should be the State language again, part of their program is to replace Spanish with Catalan in the abovementioned areas; this is what they call "linguistic normalization". Catalan has replaced Spanish as the language of regional and municipal government and their respective bureaucracies, and as the primary language used in education--public schools teach all subjects in Catalan except Spanish language and literature. Catalan has been fairly successful in such high-cultural fields as literature, theater, and the like, but by no means has it displaced Spanish. It's been fairly successful in the media, too, though it certainly hasn't displaced Spanish, either. TV and radio in Catalan are both widely popular, though we believe that all the broadcast media outlets in Catalonia that use Catalan are government-subsidized or -owned, and Spanish is a good bit more common than Catalan on the airwaves. The Catalan daily newspapers like Avui, El Periódico's Catalan edition, and El Punt lose tons of money and are only kept afloat by government subsidies, though; Catalan has also failed completely in larger-scale economic activity, as virtually no non-Catalans want to learn Catalan. It's also failed in popular culture; Catalan movies and popular music are generally dreadfully bad, though we genuinely like the singer Joan Manuel Serrat--who sings in both Catalan and Spanish and is popular in the rest of Spain and in Latin America. You could argue, though, that Serrat, like, say, Bob Dylan, could count as high culture--the lyrics are an important part of his songs and he does things like set well-known poems by Spanish authors to music. Some Catalanists, concerned about Catalan's prestige, would say that Catalan is a strong language and Catalonia really belongs in group 1; we don't buy it.

3) A strong language exists in urban islands, surrounded by another language. This is particularly common in wealthy areas with large numbers of immigrants. Thus there are islands of Turkish-speakers, who speak enough German to get by, in German cites and islands of Arabic-speakers, who speak enough French to get by, in France. A historical example is that of the Austrian Empire cities of Prague (Prag), Bratislava (Pressburg). Ljubljana (Leibach), and Budapest. Robert McNeill explains in Plagues and Peoples that in the pre-modern-medicine days, cities had considerably higher death rates than birth rates and thus relied upon in-migration from the surrounding countryside for growth--or just to keep the population stable. Since these cities were government, economic, educational, and cultural centers, and the State language of the Hapsburg Empire was German, the language used in these fields in those cities was German. The local bourgeois adopted German as their home language, often because they intermarried with the German-speakers from other areas who moved in as teachers, civil servants, business people, and the like. The urban lower classes and the rural peasantry that both surrounded the cities and flocked to them as in-migrants continued to speak Czech or Hungarian or whatever, but they were the most ravaged by the urban epidemics and died wholesale. When modern medicine put an end to epidemic disease in Europe between, say, 1850 and 1920, the Czech and Hungarian and whatever population of these cities, which until then had been fairly small places, began to grow hugely as more and more peasants moved in--and stayed alive. Nationalism, an urban phenomenon linked to ancestral feelings for the land and the traditional rural way of life left behind in the countryside, grew up. The Czechs and Hungarians and whatever seized power after World War I (OK, Hungary in 1867) and made their tongues the State language, replacing German. Similarly, Barcelona is a Spanish-speaking island surrounded by Catalan-speakers; the difference is that the peasantry drawn to Barcelona after 1914 was mostly from Spanish-speaking parts of Spain, who have mostly continued using Spanish and who have displaced or absorbed the old Catalan-speaking Barcelona working class. Thus, Spanish is both a State language and a people's language in Barcelona; the Catalan-speakers in Barcelona are middle-class folk, who are more nationalist than most Catalans outside Barcelona and run the regional and municipal bureaucracies and control local economic activity. This is why the Catalan economy is disproportionally endogamic (a lot of its commerce takes place within itself). It's locally successful on a small-to-medium scale, but it doesn't compete too well outside Catalonia; this is why Barcelona is prosperous and happy and not too internationally important or cosmopolitan. (Ooh, the Barcelonese are going to hate that last comment, but we think it's true; hey, I'm from Kansas City and we, too, are provincial rubes who don't like to be reminded of it. It's also true that both Kansas City and Barcelona are surprisingly nice places to live, much better than, say, Oklahoma City or Valencia, and right up there with better-known places like Madrid, St. Louis, or Dallas. However, both Kansas Citians and Barcelonese want to compete with New York and Paris and London, and they're--well, we're--not even in the same league.)

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