Language and Nationalism

[Edit: I use “language” in two different ways in this post; wherever I thought it useful, I have added “symbolism” to contextualize meaning.]

Reflecting on current events in Cataluña, Casey Mulligan writes,

Catalonia has its own language, Catalan, and a long history. Under Franco, Spain suppressed many Catalan institutions. And labor was mobile in Spain during the Franco regime, with many Spanish-speakers moving to Catalonia, Spain’s most prosperous region. The prevalence of Spanish in Catalonia, as well as the heavy hand of Franco, may have undercut an independence movement. But Franco’s death in 1975 and the emergence of democracy in Spain did not foster an independent Catalonia.

New generations have been learning Catalan, however, and that may be tipping the balance toward independence.

The literature is probably more split than what I suggest here, but from what I’ve read the opposite conclusion is true: Catalán is becoming more of a “practical” language, rather than one associated only with a particular nation. Language policy in the region has meant that most, if not all, residents in Cataluña of schooling age are learning Catalán. This includes immigrants: prior to the mid-90s, immigrants referred to Spaniards from other parts of the country, but more recently it includes foreign non-Spaniards. These are people who do not identity as much with Catalan nationalism; this dynamic between language laws and the changing demographics means that Catalán might be becoming more of a “practical” language — spoken because, (a) younger residents are required to know it and (b) it pays to know Catalán in a division of labor that predominately speaks that language.

In fact, several studies suggest that a unique regional language is not a significant factor that reduces identification with Spain (see, for instance, Bollen and Díez Medrano [1998]). Also, the recent decision by Spain’s Supreme Court to partially rescind language normalization laws in Cataluña does not seem to be playing a major role in the language [symbolism] used by Catalan politicians in the recent “drive” for independence.

Speaking on the situation in Cataluña more generally, those watching on the sideline would do well to acknowledge just how complicated those politics are. A very large fraction of Cataluña’s population is not “Catalán;” during the Franco era, and even during the years after, the region experienced high volumes of immigration from other regions of Spain. More recently, almost one million non-Spanish immigrants came to reside in Cataluña (the population increased from ~6 million to ~7 million). As such, a growing percentage of the population don’t necessarily sympathize with independence efforts. There’s also a significant disconnect between the language [symbolism] used by some Catalan politicians and the reality amongst the population: political language [symbolism] doesn’t accurately reflect popular opinion (and popular opinion spurred by economic hardship is oftentimes difficult to separate from calls for independence, especially since politicians universalize the motivations behind rallies where they shouldn’t).

Finally, Mulligan writes, “In elections over the weekend, where independence was one of the most discussed campaign issues, a majority of offices were won by parties that support more Catalan independence, in one form or another.”

Yet, the party of Artur Mas — the president of the Generalitat who has been pushing the  hardest for independence —, CiU, lost seats since 2010. While the party that gained seats has also supported independence, a lot of people don’t realize that intentions behind these politicians are complex and divided. In general, these 2012 elections have been considered a hit to the independence efforts, rather than a boon. While I don’t think independence is entirely unlikely, I do think that the long-term trend is for greater unity in Spain. This doesn’t mean growing identification with Spain, but at least a falling interest in independence. (Actually, I think Spain is a great example of a population tending towards general ambivalence towards government, whether it be in Madrid or in Barcelona.)

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