The Iberian Peninsula encapsulates the culturally rich Spain and Portugal, where apart from the obvious Spanish and Portuguese, an array of regional languages also scatter the land. I asked young people from some of the peninsula’s various regional language communities to share their experiences and thoughts about their unique linguistic heritage.
Spain is an especially interesting example when it comes to regional languages due to its turbulent history, with General Franco having banned their use during his rule in the attempt to promote Spanish nationalism and to stifle the regional uprisings at the time, such as among the Basque and Catalan communities.
In general, Castilian Spanish stands out from the crowd due to its distinctive cocktail of Latin and Arab influences. The moorish occupation of at least part of the peninsula lasted for seven centuries; This prolonged intermingling with the North African civilisation had a long-term impact on the Spanish and Portuguese languages and cultures which we can still observe today.
From commonly-used vocabulary loaned from Arabic such as arroz (rice), azúcar/ açúcar (sugar) hasta/ até (until) to the very sonority of the languages, with Spanish having adopted a more Semitic edge and harshness to its sound than other Romance languages. All but one of Spain’s regional languages are closely related to the national Castilian, although these relics of Arabic are not so apparent, with languages such as Catalan and Galician resembling their Latin ancestor more closely.
Catalan / Català
Despite what many might think, reducing Catalan to that peculiar French-Spanish hybrid spoken on one noisy corner of Spain, Catalan is actually spoken as a native language in 4 different nation states. As well as the obvious Catalonia, it is also spoken in the Valencian Community region of Spain, it is the official language of the nation Andorra, and also spoken in some areas of France and the Italian island of Sardinia. Nor is Catalan the only native language of the region of Catalonia – not only is Castilian Spanish still another official tongue, but just near the French border is a small Occitan-speaking community: a language minority within a language minority, if you will.
We hear a lot about Catalonia in the media these days and it is rarely positive. The impression has been created that the region is dominated by nationalist independentists who will attack anyone who dares to speak a language other than Catalan, since the entire population are deemed aggressively protective and proud of their heritage, specifically their language. However, as often is the case, it seems the media has blown things way out of proportion, making out a small minority to be representative of the entire region.
Teresa (24), attempts to break this warped stereotype of her native land:
‘Catalan and Spanish are both equally present in Barcelona and big Catalan cities (there are 4 capitals of province: Barcelona, Tarragona, Girona and Lleida) but in smaller towns you will hear more Catalan, especially with older people. In any case, this also depends and it’s not a rule, as many old people were so used to speaking Spanish during the dictatorship that they really didn’t change – and that doesn’t make them any less Catalan!
A thing that surprises outsiders is that in the same family both languages are spoken. In my case, both my parents have Catalan as first language so we all speak Catalan at home (but when my cousins from Madrid come, we switch to spanish and it’s zero trouble, we are after all bilingual from birth). But many of my friends have one parent that speaks Spanish and the other Catalan. Or, friends that speak Spanish at home, but Always have spoken Catalan with me, but then I’ll go to their house and I’ll adjust accordingly. Somehow you make mental notes of the ‘preferred’ language for someone, it’s really unconscious, and do it that way.
My friend, Mar, speaks Catalan with me, with her mother and brother, and spanish with her father. If I’m with her family everyone speaks spanish to the dad, who will answer in Spanish, and I’ll speak Catalan to the rest. Conversations go on untroubled. Everyone speaks both languages, we just mix them up. It has a lot to do with what you spoke with your parents, it’s not seen as rude at all to stick to your preferred language and it’s not political, you’re just used to it.
I know it sounds crazy and complicated from the outside, and describing it now I realize that too… but it really it is no trouble. Parting from the assumption that everyone speaks and understands both languages, you can mix it up as you want, and people stick to the language they are most comfortable with.
Not everyone in my parents’ generation speaks or writes Catalan so well because it wasn’t taught at school during Franco’s era. This might make them more comfortable in Spanish because they don’t want to make mistakes when talking. For people my age, it’s not the same as we went all to bilingual school, but you just stick with the language you spoke when you first met someone.
Also, there was a lot of immigration from Andalucía and other poorer parts of Spain to Catalunya from the 70s to the 90s, so obviously those people don’t speak Catalan, and won’t learn it, and that’ okay! There’s a myth that Catalonians will lynch whoever doesn’t learn the language. While we all appreciate the effort (after all, you moved here) we usually don’t care speaking Spanish with outsiders at all, since we already do it between each other anyway.’
So it seems that the Catalonia situation is sensationalised to those of us on the outside. That said, Teresa continues:
‘Girona and Lleida people are known for being more independentist and “Catalan-crazy” than the rest of Catalunya… it’s funny when they speak Spanish because they have the strongest Catalan accent and they don’t usually care to hide it.’
So in summary, there certainly is a wave of nationalism and some cases where pride for one’s native language has trespassed into a darker territory. However, despite what many might think due to recent events in the region, this certainly does not apply to all Catalonians, most of which enjoy the benefits a open, bilingual environment just as much as the other communities we are about to explore.
Valencian / Valencià
This language is so similar to Catalan that many consider them dialects of the same language (though others argue vehemently that they are radically different – perhaps stemming from a cultural identity issue). The various forms of Catalan and Valencian are mutually intelligible, with only minor variations in pronunciation and vocabulary, to such a degree that most linguists address Catalan and Valencian as the same language. But whether a language or dialect, Valencian-speakers have certainly formulated their own sense of linguistic and cultural community.
I asked sisters Carmen and Aräceli, from the Valencian Community’s town of Ibi, how the regional language affected them personally:
Carmen (22): ‘The languages which I use day-to-day are Spanish and Valencian. At home I speak Valencian with my mother and Spanish with my father. In Ibi, both languages are used equally, though maybe young people tend to use Spanish more. I almost always used Spanish with friends, whereas Valencian with older people. In school they teach half in Spanish and half in Valencian. I never had any problems with discrimination concerning the languages I use, though that’s just my personal experience.’
Aräceli (26): ‘In my case, as Carmen said, we use both languages at home. Ibi has always traditionally been a Valencian-speaking town. However, in the 60’s, many families emigrated over from the Spanish-speaking regions of Andalusia and Extremadura since in those days, Ibi had a lot to offer in terms of employment. As a result, all families that came out of this cultural fusion incorporated the two languages into their home life. We speak Valencian for my mother’s sake, so as not to lose this part of our heritage. Castilian Spanish has dominated the region and is now more widely-spoken than Valencian.
And so, although I think that schools have an important responsibility to preserve the language, I believe that it’s within the family that really counts, whether or not they continue to use a language is what decides its fate. It’s thanks to this that I can say that both languages are in my life, and to the same level. Back in high school, and even now, I have some problems with orthography and I often mix the languages or make small mistakes.’
Celia (22), also Valencian-born, had experienced slightly more negativity, but still praises the long-term effects of growing up in a bilingual community.
‘I went to a so-called Valencian primary school where most of the classes are taught in such language but, at the same time, having a Colombian mother made me speak Spanish at home. My naivety as a child did not let me see nor understand the conflicts and tensions behind Valencian and Spanish speakers. Growing up, I have realized how important it would be to regain the ingeniousness we carry as children: no prejudices and no jaundiced eye.
Sadly, in Spain people do not acknowledge the benefits behind growing up bilingual, even in certain cases bilingualism is ignored and downplayed. My point here – drawing from my personal experience – is that the trickle-down effects of growing up bilingual are huge. I moved to France, still as a kid, Valencian was key for me to learn the French language and now, I am encountering myself in the same situation when trying to learn Italian.
I won’t even extend myself developing on all the benefits of speaking various languages: from mental vocabulary, to a richer vocabulary or empathy as researchers have noticed. To end with, I will retrieve Charlemagne’s quote “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”’
So despite the potential negativity and conflicts triggered in some of these regional language communities, it seems the overall effect is positive. Growing up with another language not only provides an incomparable link to one’s cultural identity, but also, more practically, being bilingual can enrich the mind and facilitate future language-learning.
Galician / Galego
The regional language of Galicia, in the north-western corner of Spain, and just north of Portugal, showcases the historical overlap between the Latinate cousins of the Castilian Spanish and Portuguese. Although a language spoken only in this particular region of Spain, the language still resembles Portuguese much more than the national language.
Since Portuguese now boasts 200 million native speakers, spanning not only its Iberian birthplace, but also Brazil and various African countries, compared to Galicia’s comparatively humble 3 million, you would be excused for believing that Galician is a minor descendant of Portuguese. In fact, the opposite is true: Portuguese may have expanded as a result of colonialism, but it is in fact a descendant of Galician. The only reason they broke apart from each other in the first place is because Portugal’s new nation status caused a border to be drawn in between what is now Spanish Galicia and northern Portugal. As a result, the first Portuguese monarch renamed the Galician spoken on his territory, in fitting with the new nation, as “Portuguese,” and the rest is history. To this day, Portuguese and Galician are mutually intelligible and only have minor differences, despite being officially recognised as two separate languages.
Nowadays, both the national Castilian Spanish and Galician are spoken in the region of Galicia. Though in the big cities, the latter is beginning to fade.
Ángela (27): ‘I’m bilingual but with my family and close friends, I always use Galician. In my region, “diglossia” is very common, meaning one person speaking Spanish and the other answering in Galician. There are no conflicts but in the main cities of Galicia, Galician is rarely spoken (Vigo or A Coruña). So there are people working to preserve and promote the use of the language, among them the more radical use for writing and speaking the Galician-Portuguese. They choose all the nouns that are closer to the Portuguese, willing to “reintegrate” the two languages.’
Basque / Euskara
Last but not least we have Basque. This language community, straddling the Franco-Spanish border has an incredibly unique, mysterious, and unfortunately violent history. This language is certainly the odd one out, as it is the only non-Romance language natively spoken on Iberian territory. In fact, linguists still aren’t sure where exactly Basque came from. It has no known living relatives and has a vocabulary and structure unlike any other surviving language. Some believe that the Basque people were the first ethnic group to settle in Europe and it is for that reason that they have no obvious ties to their neighbours.
The Basque community certainly faced some adversary during General Franco’s rule, as they resisted the attempted suppression of their language and thus their identity. This sparked the formation on infamous separatist group ETA, (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, meaning Basque Homeland and Liberty), in 1959. Between 1968 and 2010, it was responsible for killing more than 820 people, including 340 civilians, and injuring thousands more. This resulted in the official classification as a terrorist group by the EU and has certainly tainted the Basque community’s reputation as a whole, despite the fact that, according to a poll by abc.es in 2016, only 22% of basque people want independence from Spain, likely to have increased even further since then. Nonetheless, this unique linguistic community intrigues linguists and anthropologists alike to this day, and reminds us that we still have a lot to learn about Europe’s linguistic history!
In line with this air of mystery, we couldn’t find any real live basque people to ask for a personal insight – please share with your basque friends who may want to share the full story!
Iberia: Where European, Arab (and unknown) cultures collide
Overall, the rest of Europe can learn a lot from the incredibly diverse language portfolio of the Iberian Peninsula. As with all regions, the languages and culture we observe today are the result of a long history of population movements, cultural exchanges, and admittedly, violence. For many, the Iberian Peninsula still seems like a sort of cultural gateway between European and Middle Eastern culture, and this is demonstrated through the language. Meanwhile, the numerous regional languages which continue to exist are a fitting reminder of the many cultural and linguistic subgroups which make up the wider community as we observe it today. Mostly stemming from the original vulgar Latin which birthed all the romance languages we enjoy today, the only exception is Basque, whose mysterious origins we may never be sure of. As with all languages, they offer an insight into how both linguistic and cultural groups, once separated, are now united. And yet, their separate and unique identities remain.
The questions that we can conclude on are: is it possible to be a proud member both of the national and the regional linguistic and cultural community? Or will tension and separatism always come hand-in-hand with regional language communities?