The Catalan Situation

Despite the loss of formal constitutional independence of the Crown of Aragon from the one of Castile in 1716 and official ban of using the Catalan language in administration and education by the Castilan monarch (Nuevo Planta decrees), the Catalan language resisted strongly against the Castilanization in Catalonia throughout the 18th and 19th centuries as well as the first third of the 20th century, largely assisted by a cultural renaissance (La Renaixença), brief restoration of autonomy, and modern nationalist movement across the social sphere, including the bourgeois.

After becoming one of the first regions in Spain to undergo an industrial revolution, Spanish only pierced into a minority of civil servants and segments of the elite. The advanced economic progress in Catalonia long demanded unemployed Spanish workers from the poorer regions and they came in numbers that did not overwhelm the native population. So, within a generation or so, the newcomers were catalanized and this norm continued until the capture of Barcelona by the Spanish nationalist forces in 1939 during the Spanish Civil War.

During the four decades of repressive dictatorship under Franco, the policies strictly banned the public use of minority languages in the country, thus striking Catalan hard. Then during the economic miracle between the 1950s to the 1970s, unskilled immigrants came to Catalonia in waves, stressing its absorptive capacity to the seams. They settled in cities surrounding Barcelona (the Vallès, Maresme, and Llobregat comarcas), creating Spanish-speaking belts isolated from the native population. Combining the huge number of immigrants with anti-Catalan policies of Franco, the convention of effortless and rapid linguistic assimilation to Catalan was shattered as there was no easy mean of introducing the language to the immigrants. As the result, the native population found themselves in the minority in their own homeland.

Children of these newcomers, many of whom were born in Catalonia, were little exposed to Catalan and the Spanish-only education produced a generation with no opportunity to acquire or polish their Catalan literacy skills. This limitation still plagues older Catalans today and it adds to the complexity of linguistic normalization policies set by the Generalitat to repair the devastating damages to the language during Francoism and to restore the pre-civil war assimilation norm.

Upon the death of Franco in 1975, Spain underwent a peaceful transition to democracy that allowed to restore the Generatitat and pro-Catalan initiatives. Via Catalan-medium education, literacy has improved considerably and the Spanish-speaking immigrants, while still vocal and resistant, are slowly adapting to the new reality. Young native Catalans with less than functional Spanish speaking skill are appearing in the villages and towns out in the countryside, a sign of further linguistic restoration.

Similar effects have been observed in other Catalan-speaking regions in Spain (the Valencian Country, the Balearic Islands, and the Franja de Ponent), but the case of Northern Catalonia in France and Alghero in Italy was different, mainly due to the long-term pro-French and pro-Italian policies regardless of government. In Andorra, the world’s only independent Catalan-speaking nation, the language was mostly untouched due to the relative isolation from the world that ended in the 1990s.

Even after remarkable improvements, Catalan continues to be a secondary language to Spanish, French, and Italian. In Spain, knowing Spanish is a constitutional and civil duty and a primary language of the state and autonomous communities, with an important exception of the Catalan-medium education system in Catalonia that only provides two hours of lessons in Spanish, whereas knowing Catalan is not legally required and speakers do not have the right to use it in federal institutions. Attempts to bring Catalan to an equal status as Spanish have been struck down by courts and the central government. Without major constitutional reforms, which requires consent of all Spanish voters, it seem to be highly unlikely that Catalan will stand at the same podium as Spanish while still being part of Spain and it prevents the speakers from being at ease when the foreseeable future is rather cloudy.

Although it may seem like an eternity when Franco died, the imprints of Francoism still remain deeply embedded in Catalonia and the Catalan memory and while it is still unthinkable that some form of Francoism would return, the stable vitality of the language remains far from assured due to the attempts to reduce its importance by the Spanish nationalists in the name of the supremacy of the Spanish language and nation.


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