Thursday, January 13, 2005

The talk all over the place here in Spain is what's going to happen with the Retch Plan. If you haven't been keeping up, the Basque Parliament approved Basque Prime Minister Juan José Ibarretxe's plan to hold a referendum on Basque "self-determination", whatever Woodrow Wilson meant by that. The vote passed with the support of Herri Batasuna, the ETA's political branch. Supposedly, if Ibarretxe's plan for the Basque Country ever comes into effect, the result will then be a hypernationalist enclave within Spain with effective Home Rule, including the right to discriminate against non-Basque nationalists (since a Basque "nationality" will be created, and some people obviously won't want to be part of that). Note: for more information fill something like "ibarretxe plan" into the Search box above; we've talked about this before in greater detail.

I don't think it's going to happen. 1) The Basque Parliament does not have the Constitutional right to call a binding referendum. Any referendum they call will be totally meaningless and have no legal effect. 2) The Spanish Parliament will massively vote down the Retch Plan anyway, so nothing in it will go into legal effect. 3) The Tribunal Constitucional will declare the Retch Plan unconstitutional if it ever gets that far. 4) Should Ibarretxe actually call a referendum, its results will have no meaning to anyone except the radical Basque nationalists, who will claim a moral victory for their cause. I imagine that if Ibarretxe does call a meaningless referendum, the Spanish government will not do anything to interfere just so they can't be accused of suppressing democracy or anything like that. The referendum will go to the polls in the Basque Country with the support of the Basque autonomous government, it will be massively boycotted, and "self-determination" will win. So what? The vote's non-binding. Now, if the Basque autonomous government actually begins taking the steps of the Retch Plan that the referendum will supposedly approve, they will be legally invalid and unenforceable. If the Basque government should then actually go so far as to use force to impose the aforesaid Plan, that's when we send in the Guardia Civil to arrest the lot of them and damn the consequences, they can't do that, that's open armed rebellion and it has to be crushed with force. I will personally bet one bajillion dollars that it does not go this far, however.

Part of the problem with language in Spain is that languages have at least two purposes. The first, of course, is communication. The second is as a sign of identity. What goes on around here is a lot of people think Purpose Number Two is more important than Purpose Number One, which I think is totally bassackward. Purpose Number Two people are frequently known around here as Spainiacs, Cataloonies, and Basquetballs (everything they say is complete balls).

I am, frankly, a believer in the free market of languages. Purpose Number One people, among whom I count myself, learn the languages we need to communicate. Of course it helps me enormously to be a native educated speaker of English; that's one less thing I have to worry about. Living here in Barcelona, I need to know Spanish. I can't get along at anything higher than a tourist level if I don't. Catalan, frankly, comes after Spanish for me, because everyone who speaks Catalan can also speak Spanish. However, it's useful to know and if you know Spanish you can pick up understanding Catalan and speaking a little without much trouble. I haven't made much of an effort with Catalan because I quite frankly really don't need to. I can speak enough to get by and of course I read and understand it fluently. I never write it; I have no reason to. As for French, I can read it, and I can speak enough for tourism purposes and a little more; same with Italian, though my spoken Italian is even worse than my spoken French except for the accent. There's no reason for me to put forth any more effort. Were I to move to France or Italy, of course, I would immediately embark on crash learning of that language, as I would then need it very badly.

Some of my thinking is no doubt standard American, though I will point out that the language I use most every day (Spanish) is not my personal identity language and that doesn't bother me in the least. Still, though most non-immigrant Americans don't know foreign languages at all, most Yanks aren't too hung up on language. There are always a few people looking for conflict (unfortunately I think Victor Davis Hanson, who I admire so much on other issues, is one of them), but we don't have a national language and in many places in the States languages besides English are used. Nobody seems to much care as long as we can understand one another.

Here's an example of Purpose Number Two thinking in today's La Vanguardia. In the Catalan Parliament they're talking about a new regional government constitution called the Estatut d'Autonomia. Among other things, if this version of the Estatut goes anywhere, 1) Catalans will have the "duty" to know Catalan 2) All products sold in Catalonia will have to be labeled in Catalan 3) Every citizen will be allowed to demand that he be served in the language he chooses--it doesn't specify whether this is by the government only or by private business as well.

Well, I don't think anyone has the "duty" to know any language unless his job requires him to, and the language(s) that the job demands ought to be clear to both the employer and the worker as part of the original agreement between the two. Labelling products sold in Catalonia in Catalan is just fine if a company wants to do so, but requiring it is ridiculous because everyone who can read Catalan can also read Spanish. And who's going to make Mahmoud the Pakistani attend his clients at his corner shop in Catalan? Come on. Be serious. If there's something in it for Mahmoud--for example, he can communicate better with his suppliers or his clients if he learns Catalan, or he feels more integrated into local society because he knows Catalan, or he discovers some authors in Catalan in which he has an interest, or he wants to understand what Carod-Rovira is raving on about--then he'll learn it of his own free will. If there's not, he won't. And, right now, there's not much in it for Mahmoud. He'd be much better served improving his Spanish, the language that all his clients and suppliers know, rather than Catalan, which is used preferentially by only some of them.

One thing that some Cataloonies are being real dicks about is their demand that people from other parts of Spain be legally obligated to give them service in Catalan if they're doing business here in Catalonia. This pisses off non-Catalans no end, and justifiably so, since what kind of a doofus buying products from a company based in Albacete is going to demand to be served in Catalan? Well, a few Cataloonies, that's who. Here's an apposite letter from today's Vangua; it's from a guy named Manuel Romana from Madrid. He is responding to a demand by another letter-writer, Albert Bastardas--yes, that's a real surname here--that non-Catalans should have to just deal with whatever the most extreme Cataloonies want.

Regarding Albert Bastardas's letter, I wanted to add a personal experience: several years ago I had to send some papers to the Basque Country. I had them in two different versions, and the better one was in Catalan. In Bilbao this was not well-received, because Catalan was a strange language for them, but not for me (I live in Madrid but I work in all of Spain). That's all my experience. I have not yet had the opportunity to send a text in Basque to a Catalan company, but that day will come.

Has Albert Bastardas thought that one day they might send him a document at the University of Barcelona in Basque, and it would be his obligation to understand it or translate it at his expense? I'm sure he hasn't because what he wants is that other people be asked to understand him, and not the other way around.

Languages are a cultural blessing, and they must be preserved. But they don't all exist at the same level...I hope the day never comes when Eroski (a Basque supermarket chain) applies for a permit to the Sabadell City Council in Basque.

Manuel Romana, Pozuelo de Alarcón, Madrid

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