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Catalan language, identity, and independence

The political crisis around Catalan sovereignty continues unabated, with a record voter turnout on December 21 in elections to replace the Catalan parliament that Spain suspended after the beleaguered referendum on independence of 1 October. The same pro-independence parties that had formed the deposed government again won a majority of seats in a significant rebuke to the Spanish government, which had declared the referendum illegal and jailed civic leaders and elected officials on charges of sedition and rebellion. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy miscalculated in betting that the resulting political and economic instability would undermine support for independence. That mistake owes in part to a wide-spread failure to fully understand the nature of Catalan identity and society.

In explaining the tenacity of Catalan support for independence, international media typically point to Catalonia’s distinct language and culture. Insofar as that evokes a backward provincial nationalism emotionally tied to the mother tongue, it doesn’t capture the linguistic dynamics of Catalan identity or the sovereignty movement adequately. Even the banned referendum ballot was multilingual.

Image credit: Referendum de independencia de Cataluña del 1 de octubre de 2017 by HazteOir. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Mainstream media liken the Catalan movement to Brexit, Trumpism, the French National Front, etc. and assume it is reactionary and nativist. But it is in fact a coalition of far left to center-right forces, mainly pro-Europe, contending with a right-wing and nationalistic governing Spanish Popular Party. Grasping the complexity of Catalan language and identity is one key to understanding the surprising breadth of independentist forces.

To the extent that Catalan identity is marked by the language, it’s not reserved for native speakers; it also includes the many second-language speakers of Catalan. The majority of the population is of immigrant descent, mostly from the south of Spain. As a result, less than a third of the population speaks Catalan as a first language, while over half claim Spanish as their mother tongue. The majority of people who can speak Catalan now learned it outside the home.

Support for sovereignty is strongest among native Catalan speakers but nonetheless cuts across these linguistic descent groups to a noteworthy degree. Only about 30% of eligible voters speak Catalan as their first language, but 47.5%, voted for a pro-independence party. Some 55% are first-language speakers of Spanish, but only 43.5% voted for the anti-independence parties that backed the suspension of the Catalan government.

For a historically minoritized language, Catalan has gained remarkable acceptance as a public language since Catalonia regained political autonomy in 1979. That change has involved a shift in the ideological foundations of linguistic authority and identity. Catalonia is now framed by leading pro-independence forces as both singular (with the Catalan language as its distinctive brand)  and socially and linguistically open and pluralistic, with Catalan as the common language among speakers of many mother tongues. In turn, the bid for Catalan sovereignty has been consciously mobilized not around xenophobic nativism but instead around social inclusiveness. In my ethnographic studies in the Barcelona area, I’ve found that this is consistent with perspectives on language found now in private lives as well as the public sphere.

Image credit: Promoció de Plataforma per la Llengua by Kippelboy. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Catalan linguistic policy, especially in education, disrupted a traditional form of Catalan linguistic authenticity that limited it to native speakers and made it hard for people of immigrant descent to feel they could take it up. For many, authentic Catalan identity is conceived now not as given by birth or mother tongue, but as a D.I.Y. project, what one chooses to become, including language choice.

This flexible, self-constructed link of identity to language appears in individuals’ understanding of their own lives. For example, I re-interviewed participants from my 1987 ethnographic study of a high school in the Barcelona area 20 years later, in 2007. Children of working-class Spanish immigrants who at fourteen had functioned socially as Spanish monolinguals recounted how as young adults they had left behind their resistance to a Catalan-speaking world and become comfortable bilinguals. As you mature, you “open your mind” and may even become “super-proud to be Catalan and to speak it;” you give up the “closed-mindedness” and “foolishness of not speaking Catalan, if you live in Catalonia,” explained Adela, Rosario, and José Luis respectively. After the polarizing teenage years, gradually “your prejudices disappear,” and you can use Catalan more easily said Elena, who described herself as having come from an “absolutely Castilian [Spanish] environment” that made entering secondary school a shock. Not all descendants of Spanish immigrants agree, and the elections showed that polarization is increasing.  But these interviewees and others like them felt that coming to speak Catalan was a sign of their own personal growth, and they were proud.

Image credit: Catalan general strike of October 3, 2017 against police brutality by Ernest CS. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This open, forward-looking, and even pleasurable formulation of language and identity as multiple, rather than as a reactionary, essentialist monolith, underpins the idea of Catalan sovereignty for many supporters. To the extent that the Spanish central government persistently fails to understand this, it generates greater sympathy for independence. As Elena wrote me in September about the crisis:

Since the Popular Party has been governing Spain, Catalan nationalist sentiment…has become a mass movement. We feel denigrated and unloved by the rest of Spain. I was born in Catalonia of Andalusian parents who emigrated in 1966. I’ve always felt Catalan and Spanish, but that’s changing, and it hurts me. It’s not right… because Catalan society is very open, and has always been based on respect and solidarity.</p<>

Distressed by the police violence against voters on October 1, this daughter of working-class Andalusian immigrants wrote me again, “My own opinion is on the side of my nation: Catalonia.” Spain needs to recognize that hers is a Catalan voice, and that there are others like it.


Featured image credit: La manifestació Diada del Sí by Medol. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Tom Clarke

    An interesting article which fits well with my experience of 15+ years living and working in Catalonia.

  2. Dvora

    When I moved to Catalonia as a mature adult (not yet elderly!), I was told that if you speak Catalan, you are Catalan. It’s simple.

  3. Michelle

    I was lucky enough to take classes by a professor Woodward and am looking forward to reading the book. As a linguist, and resident of Catalunya for nearly half my life, I can attest to the unique language situation Catalunya supports in open opposition to the Spanish ruling party, the most corrupt in Europe. As they sing their swan song, replaced by the ultra-right Ciudadanos in a marketing campaign, their ire against a region and a people is dangerous.
    If PP is the lawyer in the supermarket, the Catalan people are the mariachi band.

  4. Augusto Prego

    This ‘Catalan identity’ has been built up through 30 years of forced inculturation of Spanish speakers in Catalan, persecution of the official use of Catalan and discrimination against Spanish speakers in administration, services, cultural life and university life. We are witnessing the development of a totalitarian model in the 21st century, based on the principles of ‘One language, One people, One state’. There is a grave danger that his triumph (which seems inevitable without a Spanish national reaction in defence of his constitution and his territorial integrity, led by a 21st century Abraham Lincoln) will lead to a future of fragmentation, territorial rivalries and wars, not only in Spain, but also in Europe. Russia is watching us.

  5. Roderick

    Very interesting read, but it provoked a question: if one would argue for Catalan independence based on the defense of language and culture (in a territory where ethnic Catalans have become a minority), why would it be by default reactionary? I don’t see Ireland, Israel, Finland or other post-imperial nation-states created on the principle of national self-determination and national perseverance being particularly radical right-wing countries (or Quebec or Scotland who ended up opting for a different kind of autonomy)…

  6. Louis betancourth

    Yes. I want this!!!

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  8. Montserrat Gines

    Catalan secessionism is reactionary because the rights to speak a language belong to people not to institutions of government imposing this language in schools and setting up a real apparheit against the Spanish language. It is reactionary because these institutions of government indoctrinate children in schools and the general public through publicly funded media. It is reactionary because the separatist movement trampled the Spanish Constitution and the Catalan Statutory law imposing an illegal referendum and then blamed the Spanish government for the legal consequences that it entailed. it is reactionary because it has destroyed harmony among Catalan people, it has spread hatred and xenofobia against those opposing it. It is reactionary because secessionism has been handled, manipulated and imposed by a domineering separatist elite based on historical lies, vested in political and power interests and populist maneuvers.

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