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.