The Spanish Riveter: The Languages of Spain by Miranda France

Those of us who use language chiefly as a means of communication (most of us, in other words) can never fully understand what it’s like to select it as a way to express identity or even political resistance. Spain has four national languages, and anyone who isn’t speaking the one used by the majority – Spanish, or Castilian – has made a decision on some level to choose a different form of self-expression, be it for reasons relating to family, culture or politics. Language, among other things, is feeling put into words. So it’s not surprising that people who feel Catalan, Basque or Galician want to express themselves in the language of their homeland.

That’s not always a simple choice, though. I remember, as a student in the late 1980s, meeting a young Basque woman who had decided never to speak Spanish. Given that less than 3% of Spaniards speak Basque (‘Euskara’), that was a weighty commitment. On our evening out, it meant relying on a mutual friend, Jokim, to translate everything, even though we could all have spoken Spanish (going out for tapas has rarely been more laborious). I don’t know how much longer the woman was able to maintain her purist stance, but what looked like obstinacy then impresses me now. Languages have to be spoken to survive. Like other regional languages, Euskara was suppressed during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (1936–75) and may have disappeared if not for the determination of some Basques to keep using and teaching it. My friend Jokim’s father, for example, ran a secret language school in the basement of his house. 

From the mid-1950s onwards language restrictions eased. The Royal Academy of the Basque Language, ‘Euskaltzaindia’, began working to establish a standard form of Basque, no easy task with a language that has no links to any other language family. Described as ‘genetically isolated’ Euskara is also historically mysterious. Its rampant x’s and k’s are daunting to all but the boldest linguists.

That difficulty is reflected in its literature. Until the nineteenth century, almost all works in Basque were religious. In the twentieth century, novels were often deliberately pedagogic in an effort to build a fluent readership. After the enactment of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, which gave minority languages equal status with Spanish in their home provinces, Basque literature flourished. The publication in 1988 of Bernardo Atxaga’s novel Obabakoak, was a landmark, the first time a book written in Basque had scooped Spain’s Premio Nacional de Narrativa. But Obabakoak had to be translated from Basque to Castilian before it could reach the wider world. We have Margaret Jull Costa to thank for bringing it into English.

Unlike Euskara, Galician, or Galego, spoken in the north-western province of Galicia, and Catalan, over in the east, are romance languages and thus easier both to learn and translate. The books of Galician author Manuel Rivas have been translated directly into English by Jonathan Dunne, whose Small Stations Press has done more than any other publisher to bring Galician writers to international attention (new names to look out for include Teresa Moure and Anxo Angueira).

About two and a half million people speak Galician, which is linguistically closer to Portuguese than Spanish. The region’s identity has been shaped by its remote position on the coast, its maritime tradition and the fact that so many of its inhabitants have been driven by poverty or politics to leave the area. When a teacher in Manuel Rivas’s memoir, The Low Voices, asks the class what they want to be as adults, one child shouts back ‘Emigrants!’ The Galician is a legendary émigré across the Atlantic, too: in Latin America, ‘gallego’ is a somewhat disparaging synonym for ‘Spanish’.

In Catalonia, perhaps more than anywhere else, language is a matter of principle. After the Franco years there was a determined effort to increase the number of speakers through legal and cultural initiatives. Legislation passed in 1983 made Catalan the ‘language of reference’. About two thirds of the region’s inhabitants now speak it; a third consider it their mother tongue. Teaching has been almost exclusively in Catalan for more than forty years, a policy that continues to meet resistance from the region’s many non-Catalan-speaking residents. In 2021 the Supreme Court in Madrid ordered Catalan schools to provide at least 25% of their teaching in Spanish, but the ruling has been fiercely contested by Catalonia’s government. In June 2022 they struck a compromise with legislation that allows schools to take a more flexible approach, depending on the needs of their intake.

The energetic promotion of Catalan culture abroad, thanks especially to the Institut Ramon Llull, is evident in the fact that seventeen UK universities currently offer Catalan studies, compared to nine in Spain. However, only about twenty Catalan books are translated into English every year (Italy and France do much better), and on recent evidence we deserve to see more. Emili Teixidor’s Black Bread (translated by Peter Bush) is a searing account of rural life in the years immediately following the Civil War. Irene Solà’s When I Sing, Mountains Dance (translated by Mara Faye Lethem) is a paean to Catalonia’s landscape, giving voice not only to its people, but to its animals, mountains and trees. It won Solà the European Union Prize for Literature in 2020.

When I had dinner with a group of Catalans a few years ago, we all spoke Spanish. I asked the others how frequent that was for them, expecting to hear that they juggled both languages daily. But one woman said she never spoke Spanish. Someone else said he hadn’t spoken it for ten years. Even allowing for some exaggeration, that was surprising. I used to feel proud (and even smug, to be honest) of my ability to speak to people in ‘their own language’. Now I realise that this group might have been happier speaking English than the language they associated with an occupying culture. English, once the voice of colonisation, increasingly serves as a neutral lingua franca in places where the local choices may be contentious. A Flemish speaker in Belgium may prefer it over French, for example.

Spain has four official languages, but in 2010 Catalonia also conferred official status on a fifth: Aranese, or ‘Aranés’. This version of Occitan, spoken in the Val d’Aran, close to the border with France, has about four thousand speakers and is taught alongside Spanish and Catalan – and a foreign language – in schools. Not long ago it was endangered, now it’s enjoying a renaissance. It’s heartening to think that young people may once again study the poetry written by their Aranese forebears. Language is a bridge after all, not only to our contemporaries, but to our past and future selves.

Miranda France

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