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Home » Content » Vulgar language of Spain: why Spanish is our common language
Nationalist propaganda argues that Spanish is a language without roots in Catalonia or the Basque Country, imported, foreign, something that does not correspond to the philological history of Spain

Juan Claudio de Ramón

04 December 2019
Two books I recently read have helped me to fully understand the history of language coexistence in Spain. The second has given a strong foundation to a belief that I already had. The reading of the first has had emancipatory effects for me. Let’s start with it. This is the Rumor of the uprooted: Conflict of languages ​​in the Iberian Peninsula, by the linguist Ángel Lopez García-Molins. The subversive nature of the work, Anagrama Essay Prize in 1986, was sensed by the former Catalan independence leader, Angel Colom: “a very dangerous book”, he said. Why? Because through a philological inquiry free of ideology, López disarmed the lie with which the nationalist establishment tries to pollinate the consciousness of the Catalans: that Spanish is a language without roots in Catalonia, alien, imported, illegitimate; the language of others, in short.

Given the error of this doctrine, and warned that the Spaniards lack clear information regarding the history of which, in most cases, is their mother tongue, López developed his thesis. He starts with the assumption that Castilian and Spanish are not, as is often believed, synonyms. In a technical sense, Castilian was a central peninsular dialect, such as Leonese or Navarrese-Aragonese. Spanish was something else: a language of urgency that Basque speakers, that is, the only peninsular people who did not have a romance dialect, articulated to understand their neighbors.

This is: Spanish is born as a poorly learned Latin with strong influences from Basque, in a Basque-speaking border area. Conjecture consistent with the fact that the first written testimony of the new language coincides with the first record of Basque: the Emilianense glosses preserved in the monastery of San Millán, in La Rioja. There we have, in the 10th century, the first bilingual person known in Basque and Spanish: the copyist monk who makes notes in both languages ​​while scrutinizing a Latin text. From there, the Spanish, that central koiné, simplified and without national ascription, extends throughout Northern Spain as a rumor of uprooted men and women without local or fixed spatial roots: pilgrims, crusaders, merchants, friars, royal armed escorts and plain people called to repopulate the villages won to Al-Andalus, who carried with them a new communicative vehicle, a language that belonged to everyone and none.

That is, in the face of the tendency to think that Castilian was first the language of Castile that was later imposed, by force or willingly, on the rest of Spanish territories, López offers philological evidence to affirm that “Castilian” is born as a common language; that is, as Spanish, and knows its first expansion when Castile lacks political importance. When later, in the heat of the military, political and economic heyday of Castile – a kingdom that has adopted the Koine as his thing and has given it spelling – all the peninsular nobility begin to speak and write in that common language – without abandoning the others: nobody thinks yet in the Manichean terms of nationalism – the expansion process is complete.

The crystal-clear proof of this reality is found in the testimony of an anonymous who in 1559 published a grammar of the Koine in Leuven. In the prologue, discussing the languages ​​spoken in Spain, and after mentioning the “vazquense”, the “aráviga” and the Catalan, he refers to what will be his object of study: “The fourth language is what I call Vulgar Language of Spain because it is spoken and understood in all of it generally and in particular it has its seat in the kingdoms of Aragon, Murcia, Andalusia, Castile the new and old, Leon and Portugal; […] to the language I name as Vulgar, some others call it Spanish language”.

Spoken and generally understood throughout it! In 1559! Because 1559, it should be noted, is two centuries away from the Nueva Planta and four centuries from Franco. In short, although it is true that in the Modern Age Spanish has been a language on and off imposed, what cannot be said is that it has ever been a foreign language. An essential part of the history of Spanish bilingual communities is written, without violence, in Spanish, in the Koine, in that Vulgar Language of Spain, which belongs to everyone.

To corroborate it, we turn to the second book invoked: Other Catalonia: Six centuries of Catalan culture in Spanish, by Sergio Vila-Sanjuán (Destino, 2018). Written by a great chronicler from Barcelona, ​​the book documents how for six centuries, those who go from Enrique de Villena to Eduardo Mendoza, a fundamental part of Catalan creators have used Spanish as a vehicle of expression, and that only at the price of a terrible mutilation of the inheritance itself, you can pretend to hide the bilingual condition of Catalonia in its history.

Two books, therefore, complementary. Their authors recently met in a conference on linguistic coexistence in Barcelona organized by Catalan Civil Society. From the public it was asked: Castilian or Spanish? While López expressed his preference for “Spanish”, and thus underlined its condition of common language among Spaniards, Vila-Sanjuán accepted the reasonable argument that by calling it “Castilian”, we released the “Spanish” category for the remaining languages of the country, since they would be equally Spanish. Two sensible points of view, although if you ask me, lately I am inclined to “Spanish”: the reason is that by saying “Castilian”, we make, subliminally and to the ears of many Galicians, Basques, Navarrese, Catalans, Valencians and Balearic Islanders, out of the common language the “language of the Castilians”, that is, the language of others. Which, as we have explained, historically does not correspond to the historical itinerary of the Koine.

In any case, both uses are common and there is no obligation to choose. The important thing is to preserve the affection for this inveterate frank language among Spaniards, which the chance of history made a powerful international koiné, and do what is possible for those who have lost it, to recover it. Naturally, the rest of the languages spoken in our country are also Spanish and the democracy of 78 was able to recognize this.

Although its merits are bargained, the multilingual learning of the State in these years has been remarkable. When some people have thought that it was time to complete it and develop normatively article 3 of our Constitution, in order to regulate the rights of speakers and put an end to the bitter linguistic disputes between citizens and administrations, there are those who have suspected that, wanting it or not, a language law could end up lowering the common language status for Spanish, giving another victory to the nationalists.

I do not share that suspicion but I understand it: the exclusionary aspect of the linguistic policies of the bilingual communities – in varying degrees and with Catalonia at the vanguard – has escalated such unreasonable levels that a good part of public opinion would not understand that the State deepened its commitment to multilingualism if before the communities do not back down policies that deliberately seek to put a stigma on the use of Spanish; on that Vulgar Language of Spain, the main thread with which the cultural history of the Spaniards was woven, also, whether they know it or not, that of those who do not want to be Spaniards.

Juan Claudio de Ramón

(Madrid, 1982), essayist and diplomat


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