Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Catalonia is in north-east Spain. The language of the region, Catalan, is closer to Provençal than to Castilian Spanish, which itself is mutually intelligible with Catalan, and its variants are spoken throughout the north-east, on the Balearic Islands (Mallorquí, Menorquí and Eivissenc, as Catalan is known by its speakers in this territory), in parts of Aragon, and in Andorra, France, and Sardinia. According to the 2011 census, 95 per cent of the population (aged 2 or over) in Catalonia can understand Catalan and 73 per cent can speak it. However, among residents aged 15 or over, 36 per cent use it as their habitual language, and 31 per cent of the population learned Catalan as their first language.
Catalans have a strongly held tradition of regionalism. On 11 September every year they commemorate the 1714 siege of Barcelona by the Bourbon monarchy, which led to the loss of Catalan self-rule. A nationalist movement arose in the nineteenth century as Catalonia became increasingly industrialized and prosperous. Today it remains one of Spain’s wealthier regions.
The oldest text written entirely in Catalan dates from around 1131. As part of the Kingdom of Aragon and Catalonia, Catalonia became a major sea power and trading centre. The Corts (parliament) of church leaders, trading families, and craftsmen set some limits on the King’s power. In the thirteenth century Catalonia expanded its territory to include Valencia and the Balearic Islands, and in the fourteenth century Sardinia and Sicily.
From 1516, when the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile were united, use of the Catalan language began to decline. After backing the losing side in the War of the Spanish Succession, Catalonia’s political institutions were closed and military rule imposed by the new King Philip V in 1714. The Catalan language was replaced by Castilian Spanish in public administration, laws and commerce. It was revived as a cultural, political, and scientific language as Catalonia industrialized in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Catalonia became and remains the leading industrial centre of Spain.
The Institut d’Estudis Catalans (IEC), set up in Barcelona in 1907, codified Catalan and published authoritative spelling standards, dictionaries, and a grammar guide between 1913 and 1918. The Catalan variants of the Balearic Islands, Aragon, and Valencia were taken into account. The major dictionary was completed in the 1960s.
Catalonia was granted autonomy by the Second Republic in 1931 but this was short-lived. Autonomy for the Balearics was considered but not put into practice. During the Civil War, Catalans supported the Republicans and fiercely opposed the centralizing nationalism represented by General Francisco Franco. Following the Nationalist victory in 1939 the Catalan autonomous government was abolished, its leader was shot; regionally based political parties were outlawed; economic sanctions were applied, and public use of the Catalan language and expressions of Catalan culture were banned. Official policy was partially relaxed during the 1950s, and Catalans came to the fore in resistance to Franco’s dictatorship, although generally rejecting the violence of the Basque struggle.
In the Balearic Islands, despite the imposition of Castilian Spanish by the central government, Catalan was the only language of social communication until tourism became the leading economic sector from the 1950s and brought with it an influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants.
The 1979 Statute of Autonomy revived the Generalitat de Cataluña with wide powers of local government, including full control over education, and Catalan became an official language together with Castilian. The Spanish government recognized Catalonia as a nationality. A new statute of autonomy was adopted in August 2006 recognizing Catalonia as a nation.
In 1983 the Language Standardization Act was passed, with the aim of encouraging the use of Catalan in all areas of life, including public administration, court procedures, and education. Organic Law 6/1985 on Judicial Powers further defines the legal status of Catalan in the courts. The Consorci per a la Normalització Lingüistica was set up in 1988 to coordinate programmes for the promotion of Catalan.
The Balearic Inter-Island General Council was set up in 1978, but in 1983 the islands were recognized as an autonomous community with Catalan and Castilian as the official languages. Education policy is the preserve of the central government but the regional government sets policy for the teaching of Catalan and language standardization. The 1986 Language Standardization Law of the Balearic Islands sets out measures to promote Catalan.
The 1982 Statute of Autonomy granted to Aragon makes no mention of Catalan. Education is the remit of central government. A 1984 manifesto supported by 17 mayors called for improved protection and standardization of Catalan.
In 2006, the Spanish government approved a new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia, further expanding the region’s autonomous powers and strengthening the Catalan culture. The statute was approved by referendum in Catalonia on 18 June 2006.
The promotion of their culture remains an important issue to many Catalans. The Catalan language is increasingly used in Catalonia, as a result of active policies for its use since 1980, particularly in education. The language is increasingly spoken by families in Aragon since it is no longer suppressed. By contrast, in the Balearic Islands, there is a preference for Spanish in activities requiring the written language.
In Catalonia, children are entitled to receive primary education in their language of habitual use, whether this is Catalan or Spanish. Both languages are compulsory at all levels of non-university education. Children are intended to be proficient in both languages by the end of primary education. Pupils are not allowed to be placed in different school institutions on the basis of their mother tongue. Catalan is the language of instruction of the majority of schools at all levels, for the majority of university courses and for teacher training courses. Consorci per a la Normalització Lingüistica provides Catalan courses for adults, language consultation and assistance and activities to promote the social use of Catalan. In the Balearic Islands half of nursery schools provide Catalan as a language, but only a small minority use it as a teaching medium. This sets a precedent for the next stages of education. However, Catalan and Castilian Spanish are compulsory subjects in school, teacher training and adult education. Around half of state primary and secondary schools provide Catalan as a teaching language. About half of university courses are presented in Catalan. In Aragon parents need to apply in writing if they want their children to learn Catalan. Only the language is taught; there is no instruction in Catalan.
Catalonia has eight daily newspapers and the Balearic Islands one daily newspaper published entirely in Catalan. Several Spanish language newspapers have articles, supplements or versions in Catalan. One of the most widely read weekly magazines in Catalan is Valencia’s El Temps. Catalonia and the Balearics also publish weekly, monthly, and quarterly magazines in Catalan or partly in Catalan, some of which receive regional government funding. A few magazines are published in Catalan by cultural associations in Aragon. Textbooks, children’s books, poetry, novels, and short stories are published in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands, while poetry, novels, and stories are published in Aragon. The Catalan Corporation of Radio and Television was set up by the regional government in 1983 and currently has six TV channels and several radio stations. There is a separate TV broadcaster in the Balearic Islands. Spanish national broadcaster RTVE also puts out programmes in Catalan. There are over 100 local independent TV stations and nearly 250 local independent radio stations, most of which broadcast in Catalan. Some of Catalonian TV and radio programmes can be received in Aragon. In other areas of life, such as court proceedings, Catalan is only used in a small number of cases.
However, the issue overshadowing all others in Catalonia is the struggle for independent statehood. Following the central government’s limitations on Catalonia’s autonomy statute in 2010, tensions between Catalan independence activists and the central government increased. In 2014, former Catalan President Artur Mas organized a referendum vote that was declared unconstitutional. 80 per cent of those who voted favoured independence, though only 40 per cent of the population turned out to vote. Many who do not wish for Catalan independence viewed the vote as illegitimate and did not turn up.
The Catalan authorities organized a referendum vote on independence again in October 2017, stating that a 50 per cent ‘yes’ vote would lead them to declare independence. In Spain’s biggest political crisis in decades, over 90 per cent of voters favoured secession; turn-out was 43 per cent. Spain’s Constitutional Court deemed the referendum illegal, and peaceful protestors and voters faced a violent crackdown by Spanish police. Nearly 900 protesters and 33 police officers were injured, as a result of the heavy-handed police actions against people lining up at polling stations to vote. Given the referendum results, the Catalan parliament declared independence shortly afterwards. The Spanish government responded by establishing direct rule and dissolving the regional parliament. New regional elections were called in December, although there was then a protracted process as the results returned the pro-independence parties to power, and the Spanish government initially refused to accept the new regional cabinet’s choice of councillors. Direct rule finally ended in June 2018.