Sunday, April 22, 2012

Linguicide?

Dr. Joan Badia
About the author of this article for Help Catalonia
Special Collaborators

On February 4th, 2010 the BBC reported the death of the last speaker of Bo, a language in the Andaman Islands, India. With the death of this woman, an entire language disappeared, together with a culture and a way of relating to nature. Every time a language dies the whole of humankind is affected, because diversity —not just linguistic but also cultural— experiences a loss, and we all become poorer.

However, how and why do languages die? Globalisation sometimes pushes the world towards cultural homogenisation and the loss of languages and cultures, but it has also helped us learn many things about the end of human languages. For instance, we now know that this is not a matter of sudden disappearance, but rather of a long, slow agony in which other social groups and linguistic communities might have a significant role.

As it has often been claimed, Catalan is a special case. During the last 350 years it has been the target of a number of deliberate attempts at linguicide, or language replacement, on the part of the Spanish and French states. The elites of these countries have not tolerated linguistic diversity in the territories over which they rule, by contrast with Switzerland, Germany, or other countries, which are much more respectful of differences. Despite these attempts at eradication, Catalan has been able to resist in its central area, but it has lost ground to other, dominant languages in border territories, such as the Roussillon (which nowadays is almost completely French-speaking) or the city of Alacant (Alicante), where the ancestral tongue can hardly be heard.

Thus, for the last four centuries the Catalan language has been fighting for its survival because the attacks on it have been massive, open, and directly aimed at its eradication. Democratisation has helped improve the sociolinguistic situation of Catalan to some degree. In certain geographical areas, such as Catalonia, the language is increasing its number of speakers, has a significant presence on the Internet, and is able to sustain its presence in the media, the public administration and the educational system. This, however, does not apply to all the territories where Catalan is spoken, because legislation, language policies, and degrees of social use vary from place to place. Yet a language must be seen as a whole, so the loss of ground or the increase or decrease of the number of speakers in a part of its territory affects the language in its entirety.

Sociolinguistic evidence shows that middle-sized languages like Catalan cannot sustain themselves if left to the “tyranny of the markets”, without the protection of state institutions. What would happen to Dutch, Swedish, Danish or Finnish if they didn't enjoy the support and protection of a state to promote their use, to ensure that the population knows them, to fund public media and to put them on the world map?

But we also know that “killing a language”, to accelerate its disappearance, is a premeditated process. First the language's name is put into question in the territories where it is spoken (“divide and conquer”). Then support for its presence in the media is withdrawn, it is made optional in school, and it ceases to be a requirement for civil servants. These steps have been described by sociolinguists, based on ample empirical evidence from a great number of cases of language replacement.

These are precisely the steps that the governments of some Catalan-speaking territories are taking: especially in the Balearic Islands, in Valencia, in Aragon (where Catalan-speaking children are unable to study their own language in school), or in the Roussillon (where Catalan has no legal status and is relegated as a mere patois). Thus Catalan is being forced into becoming a minority language in the periphery of its linguistic domain. It is also under threat in its central area, as shown by the Spanish government's continued legal challenge against the system of linguistic immersion in schools. This system is widely recognized as crucial for social cohesion in Catalonia, a country with very high rates of recent immigration.

The offensive is particularly intense in the Balearic Islands. The regional government has eliminated the statutory role of the islands' public television of promoting the use of Catalan; it has removed the requirement for civil servants to know Catalan; and it plans to change the regulations that make Catalan a compulsory subject in school. Besides, changes in toponymy have been promoted in order to replace traditional Catalan place names with Spanish ones. The goal of these policies is clear: to marginalise the Catalan language in the Balearic Islands and make it disappear. To be sure, this is a carefully-planned, deliberate programme of language replacement.

Confronted with such an assault on their language, their identity and their way of life, some people have resolved to go on hunger strike, to protest even at the risk of their lives. Thousands of others have marched in the streets of Palma, to show their opposition to their government's plan to eradicate their language from the islands.

Resistance to such an aggression, however, has to be exerted throughout the linguistic domain, for the future of our language is at stake in the whole of the territory where it is spoken.

Meanwhile, some pressing questions keep springing to mind. Why is Catalan seen as such a nuisance? Who is bothered by its existence? Why can't it have a normal life, just like any other language? Are Catalan speakers not entitled to it?

Joan Badia i Pujol
Editor, Escola Catalana.

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