August 20, 2022

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Home » Content » The languages of Spain: Catalonia linked to Castilian dinasty since 1412
The Compromise of Caspe in 1412 representing the beginning of the process leading to the Spanish state was not a problem. Catalonia - they are not talking about the Crown of Aragon properly speaking - was linked then to the Castilian dynasty of the Trastámara. If a Scotsman were told that the Act of Union (1707), constituting the United Kingdom, was a problem, he would laugh because the benefits to Scotland from the British Empire far outweighed the disadvantages. If an American from Texas were told that the Lone Star State would have done well to stay out of the US, his laughter would be heard in New York. The problem, however, is that they surround them with a symbolic and folkloric paraphernalia that manages to attract a lot of people.

Salvador López Arnal

‘The commitment of Caspe’, by Salvador Viniegra. (Wikimedia Commons)

Interview with Ángel López García-Molins

Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of Valencia, Ángel López García-Molins’ works include El rumor de los desarraigados (1985, winner of the Anagrama Prize) and El sueño hispano ante la encrucijada del racismo contemporáneo (1991). We focus our conversation on his book Repensar España desde sus lenguas (2020).

-How many languages does Spain have?

-You know that with languages it’s like with colours: there are a series of basic colours, but if you try hard enough, many more appear like mushrooms. Painters and fashion designers don’t just talk about red; there are many shades such as garnet, coral, carmine, cherry, purple, vermilion, raspberry, and so on. The same thing happens with languages: there are people who insist on differentiating Romanian from Moldavian, just as there are those who want to distinguish Valencian from Catalan or Andalusian from Castilian. We linguists throw our hands up in the air, but the political interests that drive these infinite divisions usually leave us on the sidelines. If you insist, you can always see two languages where there is only one, without doing anything more than raising the flag of some referents that are designated by a different word: don’t you see that we say espill and they say mirall? Well, technically there are only four viable languages in Spain: Spanish, Catalan, Galician and Basque.


-Viable means, in the terms established by Heinz Kloss (1904-1987), that they are either sufficiently differentiated (Abstandssprachen) or sufficiently elaborated (Abbaussprachen) or both. These languages are the basis of the four political entities which made Spain, and which are clearly reflected in its coat of arms: the kingdom of Castile, the Crown of Aragon, the kingdom of León and the kingdom of Navarre.

-In his essay he quotes from La hispanibundia. What is hispanibundia, a Spanish family portrait by Mauricio Wiesenthal?

-It is a fortunate neologism of Wiesenthal’s that I have hastened to adopt. It is formed on the abundant suffix -bundo and its qualitative -bundia, which appear in words like nauseabundo, errabundo, meditabundo/meditabundia, tremebundo, vagabundo, moribundo/moribundia, gemebundo.

A hispanibundo is a Hispanic who shows his condition in excess and what the word hispanibundia comes to mean is that we Spanish citizens are always thinking about our Hispanic condition, whether to exalt it, to regret it or to reject it. The anecdote attributed to Bismarck, who is supposed to have said that Spain was the strongest country in the world because it had been trying to destroy itself for centuries and had not succeeded, is probably false, but it hits the nail on the head. As the Italians would say: se non è vero, è ben trovato.

-He opens the chapter “A peculiar country” with a question: Is Spain a different country? His answer: “But, although culturally Spain differs little from other European countries, there is one area in which it is certainly different, and that is the question of languages”. Where exactly does our difference lie, and aren’t there also many other countries with several languages?

-Of course. In every country in Europe, except for Portugal and Iceland, several languages are spoken. In Europe the average is around four or so languages, but in the other continents there are many more. In Australia, Mexico, and India there are more than a hundred. The difference lies in the fact that only in Spain do their languages form part of the national imaginary. This is our specificity, and the sooner we adapt our culture and life in common to this singular fact, the better. But a tetralingual country is not four countries, as a simplistic interpretation tends to believe. A cup of coffee with milk cannot be broken down into a cup of coffee and a cup of milk, it is something else.

-And what does it mean that the four Spanish languages are constitutive of the national imaginary? What kind of imaginary is that? Isn’t that the case in France, for example?

-I don’t think so. In France, more languages are spoken than in Spain: apart from French and Occitan (which we could compare with Spanish and Galician), they have Catalan and Basque, but to these we must add German, Corsican and Breton. France is the prototypical example of political and cultural centralism: imitating a phrase from the catechism of my childhood, one could say that in the neighbouring country outside the French language there is no salvation. This is by no means the Spanish situation: the vitality of Catalan is unique in Europe for a language that has no state recognition, and that of Basque, practically reborn from the ashes, the same. As for Galician, its international consideration, as a codialect of Portuguese and its origin, is obvious.

The imaginary to which I refer is not politically elaborated, it has to be constructed: in my opinion, Spain should be, to all intents and purposes, the country of the four languages.

-I quote: “Treating the Spanish language – and worse, native Spanish speakers – as if they were invaders represents a misrepresentation of the historical truth that is attempted to be legitimised on the basis of false narratives of the past and invented maps. However, in some communities, in Catalonia for example, the success of this misrepresentation is widespread, generalised, known, and suffered. Where does the strength of these biased narratives of the past come from?

-We have abundant and irrefutable historical data showing that Spanish has been used as a vehicular language in the centre of the Iberian Peninsula since the early Middle Ages and on its coasts (Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque Country, Valencia, even Portugal) since the 16th century. The vehicular languages are not based on any invasion, they are the result of a pragmatic necessity. For this reason, the most intense role of Spanish as a vehicular language has been along the Camino de Santiago, which was born during the Middle Ages, and in the most industrialised areas, Catalonia, Valencia, and the Basque Country, during the 19th and 20th centuries. This does not detract from the fact that since the 18th century, on the occasion of the change of dynasty, there has been a desire to coercively impose Spanish on speakers of other languages. But if this had not been the case, it would have been all the same. The inhabitants of the peninsula tend to strengthen their bonds of cohesion, and this communicatively manifested itself in a common language.

-Does it also include Portugal?

-Obviously not. In the 16th century, Spanish was still felt in Portugal as a vehicular language: its best writers used it in some of their works (Gil Vicente, Sá de Miranda or Camoens, for example: the trend continues today with Pessoa or Saramago), but since the rupture of 1640 there has been a process of conscious distancing. Paradoxically, it did not reach Brazil. Today Spanish and Portuguese (in its Brazilian mode) are felt throughout Latin America as close and interchangeable varieties, but not so in Europe. I am not advocating a return to the situation of the 16th century. Although I am personally an Iberianist (i.e.: a supporter of the rapprochement of Spain and Portugal), at present Spanish is the common language in Spain, but not in Portugal. Another thing is that, for phonetic reasons, the European Portuguese understand Spanish better than the other way round (this is what happens to us with Italian). If one day Spain and Portugal were to form some kind of state association, for example a confederal one, it would have to be based on linguistic intercomprehension, which, on the other hand, is the ideal scenario we should be aiming for in Spain in relation to the Catalan and Galician romance languages. Understanding each other’s language is not a trifle, it represents half of communication.

 -Why do you attach so much importance to maps? You go so far as to say that “the whole tragedy of two world wars is contained in the maps that were printed in various European states before the conflagration”.

-Physical maps represent reality; political maps are a caricature of it. In the former, the sea is painted blue and the land ochre: it is accurate, the fish would drown on the land and the rabbits in the sea. But in political maps, the need to represent a great complexity in only two dimensions distorts the facts, replacing them with the wishes of those who commission the map. We look at the map of Spain and it seems that the uniform patch of colour represents a single climate, a single language, a single religion… Hey, but doesn’t Catalan cross the border of the Pyrenees and reach Perpignan? Hey, but isn’t Islamism very much alive in places like Granada or Vic? Hey, but is it really always raining in Galicia and that in Benasque it reaches minus 20 degrees Celsius in winter? This manipulation of maps, almost always self-interested, has provoked countless wars. For example, in the 19th century maps were printed of the grossdeutsche Lösung (Greater Germany) and the kleindeutsche Lösung (Little Germany), the former with Austria and the latter without. There is no doubt that Hitler’s annexation of Austria was the materialisation of an imaginary map. Something similar can be said of the imaginary map of Manifest Destiny promoted by John L. O’Sullivan in 1845, which justified the US annexation of all North American territories between the Atlantic and the Pacific and its subsequent imperialist interventionism in Latin America.

 Spanish, Castilian, Spanish – are these terms synonymous for you, and which term should we use if we want to speak accurately and without offending anyone? You warn us against reducing the Spanish language to the Castilian language.

-Castilian is one of the historical dialects of Spanish, the vehicular koiné that emerged along the Camino de Santiago simultaneously in Navarre, Aragon, Castile, and Leon during the Middle Ages. The origin of the synecdoche (the part for the whole) lies in the fact that it was a great Castilian king, Alfonso X, who was the first to impose a rule on the language and had it adopted by his neighbours.

 -And what are the other historical dialects of Spanish?

-Astur-Leonese and Navarrese-Aragonese in the north, and Extremaduran and Murcian, which continue them, in the south. As direct derivatives of Castilian, we have Andalusian and Canarian.

 -Can it be said, as is sometimes claimed, that Spanish has always been coercively imposed on all citizens in bilingual communities such as Catalonia, Galicia, the Basque Country, Valencia, and the Baleares Islands?

-Not at all. Spanish has never been coercively imposed; Castilian has. Spanish is a vehicular language, which was adopted by people of different mother tongues (first Basque; then French, Gascon, Italian or German; later Catalan or Galician) for strictly practical reasons and without renouncing their mother tongue. The imposition of Castilian is linked to the modern state, to the regulation of justice, education or administration and naturally adopts the regulations that this state adopted in the 18th century, parallel to what was happening in France and Great Britain.

 -On pages 37-38, you quote the Koiné group’s Manifest pel català com a única llengua oficial (Manifesto for Catalan as the only official language). What are the most important inaccuracies in this Manifesto, where you speak of linguistic colonisers?

-The reference I make is more than a quotation, it almost reproduces the Manifesto in its entirety.

-You’re right, I’m sorry.

-The reason is that I was interested in making the reasons given known to many Spanish speakers, who are not well aware of the depth of the Catalan cultural malaise. I have to say that some of them I agree with, others I understand and a few I am not convinced by. It is to these that you refer, and my disagreement has to do, above all, with the concept of linguistic colonisers. The Spanish speakers who entered Catalonia en masse during the 20th century were immigrants who came to make a better life for themselves and who, through their efforts, turned Catalonia into a much more prosperous community than it was. Today they represent half of the population: is Catalonia really viable as a political community – I am not going into whether it should be independent or not – when half of its population is systematically ignored?

 -Catalan nationalist forces seem (or without the ‘seem’) to believe that yes, it is viable. In fact, according to critics, they have been doing so for more than four decades.

-Even the Spartans believed that they could keep the Ilots working for them forever without respect for their rights. But they rebelled and Thucydides tells us what became of Sparta.

 -You also maintain that it is a mistake to speak of Spain as a multilingual country, that it would be better to use the term plurilingual. What is the difference? Why is the second option preferable?

-Multilingual means that several languages coexist (the prototypical example would be Switzerland), plurilingual means that the country conceives itself and the world as a place that would be unthinkable without the coexistence of several languages. The reason for preferring the second option is that the history of Spain is different from that of Switzerland; Spain is not an aggregate of cantons that today remain monolingual, but the sum of four bilingual kingdoms because one of the languages is the vehicular language. In Switzerland there are cantons that speak only German and cantons that speak only French: if Luzern and Neuchâtel were to split up, nothing would happen. There are even cities, such as Freiburg, where the river rigidly separates one community from the other. In Spain there is nothing like that: a political conformation based on the mother tongue of the people would lead to a savage balkanisation and would inevitably result in war.

 -You ends the chapter of “Evil invaders” with these words: “Evidently the immigrants and their descendants were of little importance compared to all the business that was being set up thanks to the good understanding of the conservatives on both sides of the Ebro”. But, he adds, “neither was the left in favour of sticking to the facts and the truth: it is clear that historical materialism in Spain is not an ideology that interprets history in a material key, but the history they have created for themselves in order to solve their problems by throwing stories at life. That’s how we are doing”. Why was the left unable to stick to the facts and the truth, two very important attributes it usually flaunts? You also write, further on: “Turning a deaf ear to reality, a very abnormal policy of alleged ‘linguistic normalisation’ has been practised, leading to the erasure of Spanish from Catalonia. And, surprisingly, the Spanish left, almost unanimously, has joined the chorus of this shameful linguicide that aims to crush the Spanish-speaking community”.

-Yes. The left, which has historically been against the imposition of some over others and has consistently defended the marginalised, from workers to women, has always had theoretical difficulties with the national question, as revealed in numerous texts and exemplified by the polemic between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin. Obviously, supporting national liberation processes, such as in the USSR or China, is obvious from a Marxist standpoint. The problem is what position to adopt when the nations that want to self-determination are prefigured as capitalist states by crushing their proletarian minorities (and even their majorities). It is symptomatic that the faction of the Catalan left that has enthusiastically supported and supports radical nationalism belongs to the same privileged social class as the leaders of the latter. They are the same dogs with different collars.

 -What do you call peninsular koiné, how did it come about and what has been its role?

-I call the Romance variety that arose in the northern kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula along the Camino de Santiago a peninsular koine. It was originally a vehicular Romance, i.e.: created for practical purposes by people who may have had mother tongues far removed from Latin. This variety was not conceived as national, i.e.: it did not represent one against the other but was limited to facilitating communication. Comparisons are odious, but it reminds me of Swahili, which is a Bantu-based vehicular language used by many people as their mother tongue in Tanzania and Kenya, and as a vehicular language in Uganda, Zambia, Mozambique, Somalia, Congo, Burundi, Malawi, Rwanda, etc. This language is a strange Bantu because it has lost its tones, which undoubtedly makes it easier to learn, and has ended up with a very simple phonetic system. It is closely reminiscent of Spanish, whose vowel sounds are less open than those of its Catalan, French, Portuguese, and Italian brothers. The Swahili consonants are also simpler within the Bantu group, as were those of Medieval Spanish in the Romanesque sibilant system (but not those of Castilian, which in the Middle Ages was reminiscent of Catalan and Portuguese).

 -What would be the appropriate use of the expression “lengua propia”? What kind of entities have, properly speaking, their own language? Countries or citizens?

-The adjective propio in lengua propia should not mean anything different from what it means in casa propia, i.e.: my own. When I argue with a friend and say how dare you insult me in my own house, it is obvious that we are in my house and not in his. But houses in themselves are not their own, they are appropriated by someone else when they become their property. Languages are not their own either, it is the individuals who own them or not. And in the same way that one can have several houses of one’s own, one can have several languages of one’s own. For example, I myself, as a citizen of the Valencian Community, have Spanish and Catalan as my own languages. As mother tongues, on the other hand, I have Spanish and German because they were spoken by my mother, who was born in Munich. In addition, there are languages that are not our own, but which we use out of necessity, as is the case with the English of globalisation.

-You speak in the book of vertical nations and horizontal nationalities. Which communities and processes are you referring to?

-These denominations have to do with the Reconquest, which is a historical process that shaped the peninsula politically from north to south (i.e.: vertically): the Galician-Portuguese nation, the Castilian-Leonese, the Basque-Navarre, the Aragonese, the Catalan-Valencian, and so on. Only Andalusia has been configured horizontally as a nation because its origin is in Al-Andalus, the Muslim territory that the Christians from the north were pushing towards the sea.

Nationality is something else, it has to do with the transversality resulting from economic and cultural convenience and is linked to the common language.

 -In the section “Theory of the nation”, you argue that nations are relatively modern inventions. Since when can we properly speak of nations? In the case of Spain?

-I am not a historian, but a linguist, but based on the data of my colleagues, I understand that nations do not emerge at a specific moment, but throughout a process of consolidation. I don’t think that Guifré el Pilós felt that he was a Catalan nation, any more than Don Pelayo knew he was Asturian. In the case of Spain, there are a number of clear moments: the Compromise of Caspe (1412), when the states of the Crown of Aragon accepted a Castilian dynasty; the marriage of the Catholic Monarchs and the marriage of those kings; the change of dynasty from the Habsburgs, who followed a patrimonial model, to the Bourbons, who moved towards a state model (in 1700 Philip V was proclaimed king of Spain in the palace of Versailles! ); the constitution of Cadiz (1812); the constitution of 1978.

This is like love relationships: when did Maria and Juan become a couple: when they met and liked each other, when they started dating, the first time they made love, the day they got married, when their first child was born…? The official date is usually the date of the wedding, and in the case of Spain it was probably 1812. It doesn’t matter too much.

 -What is the difference between the functional conception of the nation and the ethnic conception?

-The same difference that exists between a scientific concept and a religious idea. The functional conception is something that changes over time, it depends on how the vicissitudes of history shape a given human group. The ethnic conception is based on the people as an untouchable and eternal entelechy. Philosophically, one could say that the former is rationalist and the latter idealist.

 -I quote you again: “The language policy of the bilingual communities, some more than others, reminds me of what the state of Israel is doing with the Palestinians: a canniness, which is in no way justified by the genocide of the Nazis because the Palestinians have nothing to do with them”. How have we arrived at a situation that you describe in very critical terms?

-There are several reasons. The main one is that, strangely enough, Spain is a country where we tend to draw inspiration from other people’s experiences without ever really understanding them. A lame devil who could see us raising the roof of our history would be surprised that the empire of the Indies, which has been criticised so much, was a pre-modern empire made in the image and likeness of Rome’s, but without the religious flexibility of the Romans. He would also be surprised that, although the Spanish Bourbons’ policy of administrative centralism and educational monolingualism is a pale reflection of that practised by Louis XIV and his Jacobin successors, it is the Spanish state that “has become a problem for European democracy” (Puigdemont dixit) rather than the neat French state that has a bad reputation.

Surely this tendency towards collective masochism is a consequence of our peripheral status on the continent. It is the same for us as for the Russian people, a parallel that has been pointed out many times by both sides, not without reason. In a situation like this, people always look for culprits, and the wrath of xenophobic nationalist impotence has fallen on Spanish-speaking immigrants, a people who have had the audacity to preserve the language of their ancestors against all odds. Hence my pessimism: neither the one will leave nor the other will stop pretending that the best Catalonia is the one from before, the further back in time the better. But Palestine, chopped up and stateless, continues to exist.

-Allow me to insist on an aspect that has already been mentioned. Was the migration of Spanish workers from other communities to Catalonia in the 1960s and 1970s a strategy of the Franco regime, of the Spanish state, however you want to put it, to Spanishise Catalonia? Is there any historical or linguistic basis for this assertion?

-There are grounds, both historical and linguistic, to affirm the contrary. Historically, Franco’s regime tried to make it difficult for workers to concentrate in Barcelona and its area of influence because it was there, along with Valencia, where the Second Republic resisted the longest and where immigrants were likely to find an environment more favourable to the left. He was not wrong: after the war, anti-Francoist resistance began earlier in Catalonia than in the rest of Spain and, on the other hand, the Maquis entered from France through the Aran valley.

As for the linguistic basis, it must be said that a large part of the emigration to Barcelona came from the south, but another part came from Galicia.

 -Many Catalanists, including historians, some of them Valencian, maintain that the problem of Catalonia (and perhaps also of Valencia) goes back a long way. They associate it with the Compromise of Caspe in 1412, when Catalonia – they are not talking about the Crown of Aragon properly speaking – was linked to the Castilian dynasty of the Trastámara. Is there any basis for such a statement?

-I have already said it: that episode represents the beginning of the process leading to the Spanish state, only it was no problem. If a Scotsman were told that the Act of Union (1707), constituting the United Kingdom, was a problem, he would laugh because the benefits to Scotland from the British Empire far outweighed the disadvantages. If an American from Texas were told that the Lone Star State would have done well to stay out of the US, his laughter would be heard in New York. These are gratuitous statements from the Ku Klux Klan and similar racist organisations. The problem, however, is that they surround them with a symbolic and folkloric paraphernalia that manages to attract a lot of people.

It is a different matter whether, now that Britain has left the EU and no longer has an empire, it is in Scotland’s interest to remain there. But Catalonia is simply incomprehensible: the Spanish empire no longer exists (from which, by the way, it benefited much more than other communities, especially since the 18th century), but the conditio sine qua non for remaining in the EU, and it has been made very clear to them, is that it must be part of Spain.

-Does incomprehensible here mean irrational? If so, how can this irrationality be explained? A bourgeoisie that has always given itself off as very European and enlightened, represented by nationalist parties that don’t touch reality, that live in limbo?

-I’m afraid you are putting your finger on the sore point. In fact, incomprehensible is much more than irrational: 19th century romanticism exalted irrationality, but as an emotional attitude in the face of the crisis of the ancien régime, which is what underlies it, it is understandable. That is why its most obvious political consequence, the explosion of nationalism in Europe, is logical. However, in the 21st century, Catalan independence is impossible to understand what it has destroyed will be thrown in the face of many future generations of Catalans, and what it can achieve is simply nothing.

 -You quote Joan-Lluís Marfany on several occasions. What is your opinion of the work of this intellectual who has not always been fairly recognised?

-Marfany is an example of what Catalonia needs. I admire his intellectual independence, even though we don’t agree on many things, because he is a committed Catalanist and I, who am not even Catalan, am not. He is a historian of the stature of Vicens Vives or Reglà. He is right to stay on at Liverpool University: I imagine that in the unbreathable atmosphere of Barcelona, where a certain Torra came to direct the Born Cultural Centre, Marfany could not have done anything.

 -When you speak of transnational language, what are you referring to?

-Transnationality is a modern concept that arose in economics. A transnational company creates clones of itself appropriate to the environments in which it is installed and from which decisions are made. In contrast, multinational companies are imperialistic, everything is done at headquarters. Until now, global languages such as English were multinational. Spanish, which is beginning to see the proliferation of several centres of normative orientation, is on its way to becoming the great transnational language of the present moment.

 -Would you like to add anything else?

-I would just like to thank El Viejo Topo for giving me this interview. The moment we are living in Spain is very important because there are many aspects of coexistence that we will not be able to resolve without a linguistic plurality that is fair and symbolically accepted by all.


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