Visca la difer?ncia

Catalan, Basque, Valencian and Galician as EU official languages? That’s what Spanish foreign minister Moratinos proposes. You’d think the famously proud Catalans would be purring with cultural satisfaction.

You’d be wrong. Last week the Economist observed the astonishing reaction of some Catalans to this suggestion. They’re furious that Valencian might be given status equal with Catalan. One of them, Josep Lluis Carod-Rovira, is even willing to cut off Catalunya’s nose to spite Valencia’s face: if Valencian is granted official status, he says, Catalans should refuse it.1 The Economist thought the irate Catalans need to have a nice lie-down, and I agree.

In this week’s issue, though, a letter-writer from Barcelona takes up the cudgels once more. How dare those Valencians imagine they have a language of their own?

Experts unanimously recognise Valencian as a variety of Catalan (as many Valencians call their language).

Well, perhaps; though I daresay there will be some experts in Valencia who disagree.


I am no linguist and cannot say whether Valencian is ‘technically’ an independent language or a Catalan dialect. I suspect, though, that the dichotomy is false in this case; things usually aren’t black and white at the edges of a language. Is Schwyzerd?utsch a language, or is it a dialect of German? Is Flemish a language, or a dialect of Dutch? The best answer to both questions is probably ‘yes’; and I don’t see why the same rules shouldn’t apply for Valencian. As Max Weinreich once said, ‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy’. These days, perhaps, a language is a dialect with an office in Brussels. If Valencians want their dialect to be a language, then so be it; it’s no skin off the Catalans’ nose.

Ah, but it is, say Catalunya’s anti-Valencian brigade. The letter-writer goes on:

Traditionally, Castilian or Spanish nationalism has used the artificial division of Catalan and Valencian as a way to divide and rule people who until the 18th century had their own kingdom

Leaving aside that tendentious bit about ‘artificial division’ — I don’t notice many Valencians clamouring for annexation by the neighbouring comunitat aut?noma — Castilian centralism long sought to bash the non-Castilian parts of Spain on the head. But surely one can only see Moratinos’s proposal as Castilian divide-and-rule if one harbours a dream of Greater Catalunya, stretching from Alacant to Perpiny? to l’Alguer.2 Can our letter-writer seriously believe Moratinos is cleverly preventing Valencians from uniting with Catalunya, the better to keep the two regions under the Madrilene thumb?

The days are long gone when Catalans needed fear their culture and identity would be absorbed by Castille. Modern Catalunya is one of the smashing success-stories of Europe — economically, politically and, not least, culturally. Catalan has not merely survived a centuries-long onslaught by Castilian, it has undergone a renaissance. The most telling point is this: as generations of Castilians came to Catalunya to seek work, they did not displace the language with their own; instead, they have themselves become Catalans.

Catalunya has every reason to be self-confident. That some Catalans have so little self-confidence as to see a threat in EU recognition of Valencian is surprising. They need to relax. And they need to remember that, in the dark days of the past when Madrid sought to extinguish Catalan identity, one of its favourite tactics was to dismiss Catalan as a ‘mere dialect’ of Castilian.

1Carod-Rovira is a past master at playing one Spanish region against another, and not always in so relatively harmless a manner. Late last year he made a secret truce with ETA, by which the Basque terrorists agreed to refrain from violence in Catalunya — and only there. When this became known, he was sacked as deputy PM of the region.

2If carried to its logical extreme, this vision would mean ructions with more than just Madrid. Perpiny? (Perpignan) is in France; l’Alguer (Alghero), on Sardinia, is part of Italy.

18 thoughts on “Visca la difer?ncia

  1. I am no linguist and cannot say whether Valencian is ?technically? an independent language or a Catalan dialect.

    There is no accepted linguistic definition of what constitutes a language – we all just quote Weinreich – and many linguists question the usefulness of such a simplistic category in linguistics. Alas, nationalists seem to find it all too useful. Far worse than the Catalonians are the ex-Yugoslavs. “Croatian”, “Serbian”, “Bosnian”, now “Montenegrin” – it’s all a joke. The Greeks are just as bad, claiming that Macedonian is just Bulgarian, that Macedonia is a part of Greece, Macedonians are Greeks from Greek Macedonia, and those Slavs living on their northern border should call themselves something else. China is a bit better – they acknowledge that at least 30% of China can’t speak anything like Modern Standard Mandarin, but insist that Chinese is one language and China is one people – because saying it makes it so.

    It could be worse. I’ve met Scots who actually deny that Dal Riata was an Irish colony and claim that the Gaels moved into Scotland at the same time they moved into Ireland. I know several Irishmen who think Gaelic has been spoken in Ireland since prehistoric times and that Ireland is the source of the q-celtic languages – neither of which is true either.

    For at least two centuries we’ve known better, but people still seem to attach such silly things to the distinction between a “lanaguage” and a dialect. Tell the Catalonians that they speak a highly corrupted dialect of Gallo-Occitian, just like the Valencians and a few million Frenchmen and see how they respond.

  2. I appreciate the thrust of what you are saying Mrs T. But there is a problem: on any scientific criteria Valencian is a Catalan dialect.

    This debate has been going on for years. The problem is that there are no ‘original Valencians’. The original inhabitants of the region were either driven out or assimilated under the Caliphate. Then there was the ‘reconquest’ by the Catalans in the 13th century.

    The area was then ‘repopulated’ by migrating Catalans (whose language was, of course, Catalan). Some of the Arab population remained, but they were all either expelled or killed in the mid 16th century.

    In subsequent years there was population drift from the Spanish interior. It is the impact of the fushion of these two populations that has produced the language which is known today as Valencian. Structurally the language is Catalan with loan words or expressions from Spanish (and even the odd bit of proven?al, indicating I guess some archaiicism in the Valencian version of Catalan).

    That this is not a separate language became clear to me when I started visiting Valencia (which I do frequently) and realised I could immediately understand most of it (a bit like visiting Newcastle if you were born in Liverpool).

    As an example, when the language was first introduced in the schools in Valencia the text books were Catalan ones, and there were no special problems in using them.

    The issue has been terribly conflictive over the years (fortunately it is now improving). The idea that Valencian is a separate language was promoted by the pretty right wing Uni? Valenciana as part of a campaign to deny the reality that many of the people who actually speak the language think it is Catalan. The PP basically went along with this at the time since they needed UV votes, and it fitted in with the generally anti-Catalan tone of their rhetoric.

    (In fact it was during that epoch (mid 90’s) that the former PP Minister Eduardo Zaplana (who at the time was President of the Valencian community) had soviet-style blockers erected to prevent people in Valencia who wanted to receiving the Catalan TV3.

    Now all this has calmed down a lot, and my impression is that the Valencians are increasing proud of their heritage and their language.

    So the real issue is not to deny the autonomy of Valencia (and suggest that it really belongs in some sort of ‘greater Catalonia’ as radical nationalists do), but rather to ask the more to the point question of what should be allowed to count as an official language at the European level. Just because it is politically expedient (to avoid a minefield) in Spain to advance Valencian shouldn’t cloud our better judgement on these questions.

    In the Balearic islands they also speak a Catalan dialect which is a different as the Valencian one, should this now be classified and documented as Balearic? Or the version of Catalan spoken in Rousillon (France): should Brussels fund the linguistic investigation necessary to recognise Rousillionese as a separate language?

    Really all this is beside the point: what the Catalans actually seem to want is that Catalan be recognised as an official language in Spain, in all its effects. What does this mean? That in all the ministries in Madrid dealing with Catalan citizens or institutions directly there should be people able to speak the langauge, and that documentation originating in Catalunya should not need to be specially translated before it is accepted by central government agencies.

    All the talk about languages in Brussels is simply playing to the gallery here, IMHO, and nicely creating a smokescreen.

  3. “There is no accepted linguistic definition of what constitutes a language – we all just quote Weinreich – and many linguists question the usefulness of such a simplistic category in linguistics”

    OK, I posted before I saw this. I am sure you are right in one sense Scott. But try telling people in the UK that there is no need to recognise English in Brussels (to turn the issue round) just because German and French are already recognised and they cover most of the ground.

  4. How long do you think it will take before Brussels is more important than Madrid? I think that legally it already is.

  5. Edward – linguists do recognise that you sometimes have to use different language to communicate with people. It would be silly to say that EU documents don’t have to be published in English because it’s just another lowlands germanic dialect, so the Dutch and German ought to suffice. But then, how about Scots? Scots is also a lowlands germanic language, but as someone who’s had to actually ask a Scots speaker if they spoke French because I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, I can’t see any way to call it English. (Worse still, my firm actually has to have different translators for “US English” and “UK English”.)

    If someone said Catalan ought to be an EU language because more people speak it than Danish, while Valencian has far fewer speakers, that would be a demographic argument. If folks said that all of Spain’s official languages should be EU languages, that’s a political argument which depends entirely on what the Spanish government legally takes to be a language. Lots of places legally define their languages in silly ways. If the Catalonians said that Valencian shouldn’t be an EU language because every literate Valencian can understand the Catalan version just fine, that would be a verifiable empirical claim, but would open the door to complaints that everybody in Catalonia who is actually going to read EU documents is quite literate in Spanish, so why bother in the first place?

    But the whole idea that Valencian should have no status because it is an artificial distinction – that artificiality is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Do Valencians agree that they are just speaking Catalan? Croats are violently opposed to the idea that the distinction between Croatian and Serbian is artificial, even though mutual comprehension is near total. Bosnia has three official languages that are, in the end, effectively identical for exactly this reason.

    The definitions are political. I would be okay with an EU that said that it would recognise all the languages it really needed to communicate with its constitutents and use that as a basis for making official language decisions. But if it did, it might well decide it needed to have Turkish and Arabic as working languages but could do without Danish and Swedish. Since that won’t happen, we make do with compromises that have nothing to do with linguistics and everything to regional and ethnic politics.

  6. Edward,

    I’m grateful for the historical background. More broadly, I take your point, but it is really the same point I am trying to make (only seen from round the other side, as it were).

    I really don’t want to come over as supporting some sort of Valencian nationalism here. And yes, I know the culture/language of the eastern coast of Spain is in important ways a geographical continuity (and, as Scott points out, there’s no reason to stop when you reach Port-Bou…) As it happens, my family have been friendly for years with an extended clan in and around Alacant. When I first visited them (more than half my life ago, how time flies) I was flummoxed that my Spanish — dodgy at the best of times — suddenly didn’t seem to be working at all. Oh no, they explained; at home we speak Valencian. What’s that, I asked. Well, they said, you could say it’s a dialect of Catalan. Or you could say it’s a language similar to Catalan. They didn’t have a definitive answer themselves, and that didn’t bother them. (This family, BTW, are very far from anything like Valencian nationalism, let alone separatism. They are quite happy with the present ‘Spain of the regions’.)

    The Catalan of the Balears is, as you note, in its way as distinct from the ‘standard’ as is Valencian. The difference seems to be that nobody in Palma or Ma? wants to label it as anything other than Catalan (well — perhaps I speak too hastily; but if there is such a movement it must be a small one). If the Valencians see themselves as speaking a distinctive language, fair play to them. I am no more going to tell them they are not than I am going to tell a Gallegan he is just speaking Castilian tarted up with a few Portuguese-looking bits, or a Fleming that he is speaking Dutch. (Conversely, I’m not going to tell a Berner that he isn’t speaking German, though some might say that was closer to the truth…)

    Catalans may think the Valencians silly, and who knows, perhaps they are right. But it’s the Valencians’ call. Catalans can be justly proud of maintaining their identity and culture, often in the face of determined efforts to stamp them out. They shouldn’t begrudge Valencians for emulating them.

  7. Oh, and as for Edward’s practical point (i.e., do we really want or need an absurd multiplication of EU official languages? Though if we do, I’m all for adding Schw?bisch and Bairisch to the list):

    I don’t mean to imply that I think Moratinos’s proposal a good or wise idea. (I’m pretty agnostic about it, but with a gun at my head I’d probably be against it.) I was simply struck by the sight of Catalans behaving like Castilians from 30 years ago.

  8. This should be very simple.

    The claim “What WE speak is a language, not a dialect” (or vice versa) should always be accepted.

    The claim “What THEY speak is a dialect, not a language” should alwasy be rejected.

    Or alternately, use the old “kid cake cutting” trick where one kid cuts and the other chooses. If the Catelans want to decide that Catalan and Valencian are not different languages, then let the Valencians decide which one is the language and which is the dialect. Even if there were a scientific distinction between language and dialect, there could be no scientific way to determine which was a dialect of which!

  9. To say nothing of all the German books that say they are “translated from the American.” I keep looking for things that are translated from the Australian or New Zealandish, but alas, so far in vain…

  10. Fair dinkum, mate. (And that whole business about there not being any Strine worth translating – just a nasty pommy rumour?)

  11. How much can issues such as these be seen as a symbol of success for European integration? And, perhaps more importantly, are we seeing manifestations of a movement transforming the European political landscape?

    Language has been an issue in Europe since history began and it is frequently tied up with the political, religious, social, economic and other wonderful regional differences making Europe so unintelligible to our new world cousins, not to mention to Europeans themselves. However, over the last few centuries, far from dying dignified deaths in a big, bland melting pot, these regional differences have been alive and kicking but suppressed. Either voluntarily in times of strife or artificially by influence of larger neighbours, local almost ‘tribal’ differences have taken a back seat to the ‘big picture’.

    Life is a little different in today’s peaceful and largely open Europe, local peculiarities are not only gaining recognition but becoming issues of pride, community and, sometimes, unfortunately, derision.

    That this is influencing politics cannot be ignored. From the Scotish parliment to the rise of the Lega Nord in Italy, choose your own favourite examples. Last week I was with a group of friends in Haute Savoie and quite surprised at how vehement their old rift with Paris had become. (For those who haven’t heard about this one, they claim that one of the conditions of Haute Savoie joining France was perpetual tax-free status. The French goverment reneged on the deal.)

    Today’s national boundaries are almost as arbitrary as the ones imposed in Africa. So, in my mind, the question is not whether we will be looking at an EU of 30 countries in twenty years time, but whether we will be looking forward to a community of a hundred or more statelets. And then, I suspect, Catalunya and Valencia will re-discover their shared values and language.

  12. “than I am going to tell … a Fleming that he is speaking Dutch”

    I would. Not only is it the truth, but the Flemings acknowledge it as such, at least nowadays; they play a role in determining what constitutes Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands, through the Nederlandse Taalunie.

    As for the old “languages vs. dialects” question, the old comprehensibility rule is about as good as it gets: if speakers from two speech communities can understand each other with little difficulty, then “technically” they are speaking the same language, whatever politics might push them to say to the contrary. One may wish to play along with such fictions for the sake of politeness, but one can’t ever lose sight of the fact that it is a fiction; I’d refuse to take seriously anyone who claimed that there were separate languages callled British, Australian and American.

    To say that the language vs. dialect distinction can’t be made because it gets fuzzy at the edges is to fall prey to the fallacy of the sorites, i.e, that black shades into grey into white means black and white are the same. Operationally, the definition of what constitutes a language is structurally identical to that used to define species, and though species show the same gradations as languages on occasion, no sensible person claims that’s a meaningless distinction as well.

  13. My feeling is that the only consolation for the Catalans here is that it is better to be criticised than ignored. On this argument and on the EU constitution one (where they argue that the constitution is consolidating states rather than cultures) I suspect they are on a big loser.

    Your point Mrs T is perfectly reasonable, as a culture the Valencians obviously have as much right to be recognised in Brussels as anyone else.

    “Do Valencians agree that they are just speaking Catalan?”

    “The claim “What WE speak is a language, not a dialect” (or vice versa) should always be accepted.

    The claim “What THEY speak is a dialect, not a language” should alwasy be rejected.”

    This last point seems eminently reasonable. The difficulty is that the situation in Valencia is in many ways so bizarre that the problem is turned upside down. If we take the people who speak ‘Valencian’ on a day to day basis, the majority of them would probably regard the language as a variety of Catalan. If we take the people in Valancia who habitually speak Spanish and ask them they will say that Valencian is a separate language (motivated primarily by the desire to deny any ‘Catalan connection’).

    Now curiously the most intelligent “Catalanists” in Valencia currently use the “Valencian as a separate language” issue as a kind of Trojan Horse tactic, to get the language more used and accepted (and because they are tired of all the strife: Joan Fuster – who was the intellectual inspiration for this Valencian ‘Catalanism’ has his grave regularly desecrated). The idea is to promote the Valencian identity, and then join up with the other Catalans further up river (they are nothing if not inventive these guys :)).

    The big questions I was raising out of all this were twofold: firstly should our definitions of what constitutes a language be decided by political horse trading. I am deeply unhappy with that idea: even if you feel that what you speak is a separate language, you should be able to provide some evidence to back this up. Case in point Welsh (my own native tongue) and Breton. My feeling is that these two, whilst closely related, are sufficiently different to be separate, but it is only a feeling. If I was to have to decide what I would want to see would be a rigorous argument, not a vote in Westminster. (Full disclosure: I am a complete mongrel, and have absolutely no Welsh or Celtic ‘feeling of belonging’ whatever).

    The second question is what should count as an ‘official language’ at the EU level (in terms of things like provision of translators and documentation). I would back Catalan as an almost unique case for a non state language here (ie not Euskera – Basque – and not Gallician,not Waloon, not Flemish, not Alsacian, not Corse, not Sardinian, and not I’m afraid ‘Valencian’). I would back the Catalan case on a number of grounds. The first would be the non-violent and pacific way they have pursued their cause. In these violent times this merit should be recognised. Secondly the number of speakers: anything between 6 and 9 million, depending on how you count. Thirdly the wide social and institutional use of the language. And fourthly the fact that the majority of Catalan nationalists, including the so-called ‘separatists’ have effectively renounced the idea of having an independent state. What they want is to be a nation without a state: in Spain, and inside the EU. I think the EU would be all the richer for being able to come to terms with this challenge.

    Of course, I would be happy to consider any other cases for ‘special pleading’ should anyone wish to make them.

  14. “What’s that, I asked. Well, they said, you could say it’s a dialect of Catalan. Or you could say it’s a language similar to Catalan. They didn’t have a definitive answer themselves, and that didn’t bother them.”

    Yep, well I guess your friends are just normal. reasonable people. But as we’ve seen in the US recently, sometimes the views of normal, reasonable people aren’t too well reflected in the political circus.

    “well — perhaps I speak too hastily”

    Yep, maybe you do. There is no doubt that if you go into the bars of Mallorca and try to speak in Catalan people will feign that they don’t understand you, and say ‘here we speak Mallorqui’. But again, you find this type of thing when you move from one village to the next. The difference is that in the Ballearic islands all this is not politicised (the Mallorcans are actually very good Catalans, and simply want ‘to do business’), whilst in Valencia it is.

  15. “Is Flemish a language, or a dialect of Dutch?”
    The answer is: neither.

    Flemish is a collection of different dialects and as such is not “codified”. This means there is no official grammar nor dictionary of “Flemish”. Someone from Bruges speaking in his/her local dialect would not be understood by a brother/sister from Limburg and vice versa. Different vocabularies, different grammars, different accents.
    If Valencian is considered a separate language, then the Flemish dialects should get the same status.

    Dutch is the official language in Flanders, even though there are many differences compared with Dutch as it is spoken in The Netherlands (a bit like American English versus British English in this respect). Attempts at creating a Flemish language have so far failed, mainly because of the differences between the regions in Flanders.

  16. To say that the language vs. dialect distinction can’t be made because it gets fuzzy at the edges is to fall prey to the fallacy of the sorites… Operationally, the definition of what constitutes a language is structurally identical to that used to define species, and though species show the same gradations as languages on occasion, no sensible person claims that’s a meaningless distinction as well. [Emph. added.]

    I see you’ve taken this up at greater length over at your place, but as you raise the language-as-species point here, here’s where I’ll answer it.

    One sees what you’re driving at, but with respect, I think you fall victim here to the very natural tendency to carry a good metaphor farther than it can really go. The image of languages as species (and of groups of related langauges as higher-level taxa) is a powerful analogy, and for many purposes very useful. But the ‘biological species concept’ now generally accepted as (for most purposes, and for most organisms) best is precisely where the analogy stops working for languages. For, in sharp contradistinction to organisms (at least, to the ones you’re thinking of), linguistic evolution can be and often is reticulate. If languages are ‘species’, they are most like the very species for which the biological concept breaks down: those prokaryotes who swap genetic materiul with other, ‘unrelated’ ‘species’. (‘Unrelated’ in inverted commas because, hey, if they’re swapping out bits of DNA, surely they are related in the most fundamental sense; ‘species’ in ICs because by so acting, these organisms put themselves firmly outside the definition of species under the biological concept; though we may still speak of them as ‘species’ using a typological concept or, frankly, simply for taxonomic convenience.)

    A glance shows that Catalan and Castilian are both descendants of Latin, and pretty closely related within the family of Romance languages. And one may very legitimately carry on with the taxonomic analogy by saying that they have ‘speciated’, i.e., diverged sufficiently from each other since the time of their most recent late-Latin ancestor to constitute separate languages. But another glance shows that something has happened that by definition never happens to biological species once they have gone their separate ways: they have continued to ‘exchange DNA’, as it were. Castilian has influenced Catalan, and I daresay it goes the other way as well. (Given geography and history, it would be surprising if they hadn’t done this.) And reticulate linguistic evolution isn’t limited to languages that were already related anyway: witness the influence of Turkish on modern Greek. To abuse taxonomic terminology, in linguisitcs (unlike systematic biology), a synapomorphy doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the ‘phylogeny’ of a language.

    And I think your test of the distinction between language and dialect (‘Can two native speakers understand each other readily enough?’) fails often enough to be rejected. As Edward suggests, one might make a plausible if weak argument that Welsh and Breton, — invariably regarded as separate languages these days — are really related Brythonic ‘dialects’. (Certainly through early modern times, Welshmen, Cornishmen and Bretons could conduct trade, each speaking their own tongue.) Conversely, I have seen a denizen of Tennessee frustrated nearly to tears while trying to speak with Bostonians (whose speech was, to me, perfectly clear if a bit harsh). I have seen a documentary film about northern German sailors shown on German televsion with subtitles for Hochdeutsch-speakers (curiously, I had no difficulty understanding the sailors, perhaps because their Platt dialect is more closely related to English than is standard German). As for me, while I’m not a native germanophone, I’ve learned the language pretty well. And, having learnt it mostly from southerners, I have no problem understanding Bavarian backwoodsmen or Swabians who couldn’t speak ‘correct’ German with a gun to their heads; but I cannot easily understand people from Cologne when they are in full K?lsch flow (and nor, I suspect, could many Bavarians and Swabians). Gaelic is a classic example of divergent evolution; a few centuries ago, the Irish and Scots variants were regarded as the same tongue (just as the Scoti were regarded as a single people; only later did one need to begin adding clarifiers like ‘Eriugena’, and it would take a while after that for the term to be restricted to inhabitants of the one place and not the other). These days Gaeilge and G?idhlig are viewed, correctly, as separate languages (a separateness heightened by modern Irish orthographic reforms). They have ‘speciated’. Still, while a Kerryman and a Harrisman would have nigh-insurmountable difficulties in communicating (except, perhaps, in English), as one reaches the border between Scots and Irish Gaelic, communication becomes possible.

    So I think we may legitimately speak of ‘fuzziness at the egdes’ without worrying about the dread sorites paradox. Leaving aside the very real phenomenon of reticulate ‘inheritance’, the distinction between (say) standard German and standard Dutch is obvious enough. Get close enough to the (linguistic, not necesarily political) border, though — especially 75 or 100 years ago, when education was less widespread and mass media did not play their modern standardising role — and one sees the borders are rather more porous than those between species.

    So I think I will have to defer to Scott Martens here. Linguists, it seems, are happy enough to use the language/dialect distinction as a rough ad-hoc tool, but deny it a strong objective meaning. For all the flippancy of Weinreich’s famous aphorism, there is something to it.

  17. There is no doubt that if you go into the bars of Mallorca and try to speak in Catalan people will feign that they don’t understand you, and say ‘here we speak Mallorqui’.

    Ah well, Edward, here you are hindered by your mastery of Catalan. Sometimes linguistic weakness is a strength. A glance at any menu is enough to show the difference between the Catalan of the Balears and the ‘standard’. Yet I find the Formenterencs delighted when I manage to stammer out a simple ‘Si’s plau’. (Unless of course I am speaking with, say, a waiter from Andalucia; and I met an Englishman, resident in the island for 30 years, who speaks only Castilian and claims, perhaps genuinely, total ignorance of Catalan.) No doubt they are happy to see a foreigner recognising that they have their own, non-Castilian tongue, and aren’t bothered that I am ignorant of the subtle distinctions.

    The difference is that in the Ballearic islands all this is not politicised

    Oh yeah; that too.

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