dilluns, 2 de març de 2009

What is Catalan?

There are a lot of misconceptions around the notion of Catalan as a language outside Spain. Inside Spain the question of language is a completely different story, intertwined with prejudice and politics.

Let's start with the conception of Catalan abroad. For travellers visiting us, Catalan might be either conceived as a pictoresque peculiarity, some remnant of a language which is almost death, or as a Spanish dialect.

As for the first consideration, I recall now that some years ago, when I worked in a campsite a tourist came, guidebook in hand, that he had read in the book that we had another language different than Spanish in the area (I don't know which area he meant exactly…). He thought it was something “typical” and that it was like a kind of old tradition –at least that was my impression. He then asked me if I knew and spoke the language. He obviously expected me to say “No”. Or if he expected me to say "Yes", I gave him the kind of "Yes" he did not imagine. When I said: “Yes of course, I usually, if not always, speak Catalan" (I would say that at that moment in time I was not as bilingual as I am now). “I speak at home, with my friends, when I go shopping". He was amazed, and all he could say was: "But the book says it as a curiosity...But you learn it at school?" I answered, for his further amazement: "Yes, since we are kids. We also learn Spanish, but all other subjects are taught in Catalan". I would have knocked him down if I had told him there are 9 million speakers of Catalan and that it is one of the most spoken minority languages of Europe and that it is a very active literary language and lots of foreign books are translated into Catalan. I do not know if he was very convinced but he was surprised. I am happy that he learnt about a new reality and I hope that he began seeing Spain as something plural with more than one language or culture. That is what I always try to explain: Spain is not a WHOLE UNIQUE ONE but MORE THAN ONE, and we should take advantage of it and promote it this way.

As for the second consideration: it is also very usual that foreigners consider Catalan a dialect of Spanish or ask if it really is. This is a logical deduction, as Catalan and Spanish come both from Latin, and also because the conception of "dialect" is different here than in other countries. For languages with very different dialects, like German and Italian, I would say this conclusion would be very easy to reach. For me, dialects are regional linguistic peculiarities which do not difficult communication and add richness and colour to a language. The case between Spanish and Catalan is not that. A monolingual Spaniard will not understand a conversation or a book in Catalan unless s/he learns the language first. S/he might understand some words, of course (some words are similar because of their common origin), but not the message. Catalan and Spanish have enough differences to be considered different languages.

Believe it or not, Catalan is more similar to French than it is to Spanish. Or at least it can be conceived as similar to French and Spanish. Catalan has some difficult tricks because there is a lot of contact with Spanish. As a colleague told me once to make fun: “Catalan takes the worse of Spanish and the worst of French and puts it together”. I don’t know if this is true, but I would say Catalan is as beautiful as any other language can be and it is as worth studying as any other language. And, like any other language it has its own peculiarities.

PD: Thanks to a special friend who asked me about this a few days ago and gave me the idea to write this post, making me realise this was needed to clarify some things about the issue of language first.

1 comentari:

anna ha dit...

Yes, that clarifies things. Didn't actually expect that Catalan has some connections to French. But of course, the Catalan language is located between French and Spanish, so that should have been more obvious to me.
Looking forward to read more. Keep it up!