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Catalonia and the Catalan language

A brief history of Catalan language and culture

The province of northern or Nearer Spain, where Catalonia is situated, was first established by the Romans, who took it from the Carthaginians in the 2nd century BCE, together with southern or Farther Spain. These two provinces were governed by them until the 5th century CE, when the Roman Empire fell to the Goths. Catalonia was therefore for some six centuries part of Spain – but Spain was Roman. After successive invasions of the Iberian Peninsula, including its annexation by Charlemagne, Catalonia in 1137 was politically united with neighboring Aragon, and for the next 300 years enjoyed a period of great prosperity through maritime trade.

The marriage in 1469 of the Aragonese king Ferdinand to the Castilian queen Isabella ushered in a politically unified Spain, of which Catalonia again became part, though it still retained its regional autonomy and its own parliament, the Generalitat.

Though it rebelled against unified Spanish rule a number of times during the 17th century, Catalonian separatism only revived substantially in the 19th century. The language was deliberately reintroduced in theaters and the press, in a movement called the Renaixença (the Renaissance, or Rebirth, as experienced by Italy in the late Middle Ages).

Struggles for Catalan independence continued for many decades, but it finally declared itself as the Catalan Republic in 1931. Negotiations with Spain resulted in Catalunya being officially recognized as autonomous in the following year, but its independent nationhood lasted only until 1939, at the end of the Spanish Civil War, and the ensuing Spanish dictatorship.

Language represents identity for Catalunya

If you have ever been to Barcelona, or skiing in the Pyrenees in the independent province of Andorra, then you have probably encountered Catalan. In Andorra it is the official language. It is spoken in three of Spain’s autonomous regions: Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands, as well as in some parts of France and Italy. In the rest of Spain the language is Castilian, or what might be termed ‘pure’ Spanish. It’s the most clearly pronounced and enunciated linguistic version of Spanish to be spoken, which might be equated to the standardized ‘BBC’ English.

In their language, Catalans live in Catalunya, a dialect variant of the Spanish Cataluña, which in English spelling is slightly different again. As the situation unfolds in today’s Catalunya, its people are struggling to maintain their own unique identity, separate from Spain. For many of them this identity is represented precisely by this distinction of language. As opposed to Spain’s other separatist nation, the Basques, their nationalism is not about ethnicity, but purely a language movement. ”We are Catalans because we speak Catalan” says expert Enric Ucelay-Da Cal.

Linguistic history

Catalan, like Spanish, French and Italian, is derived directly from Latin, and therefore includes many similarities of vocabulary and grammar belonging to the ‘Romance’ linguistic family, including regional dialects like the old French dialect of Occitan. In Barcelona, 98% of the population speaks Castilian Spanish as well as Catalan, and all public information (including things like road signs) is given in both languages.

It was language that helped the region to reclaim its autonomy after the Franco dictatorship ended in 1975. When democracy was re-established in Spain, Catalunya was allowed to control its own regional government, and, crucially, set up its own system of education, where they insisted on full linguistic immersion, i.e. teaching everything in Catalan.

Can Catalunya be politically independent?

Many people would (and did) say Yes, and an unofficial vote in 2014 showed an 80% majority in favor. However, the Spanish government is categorically against it, believing that Catalonia should remain an integral part of Spain.

The recent unrest over demands by Catalunya to be recognized as an independent nation are the tip of a thousand-year iceberg. Since being re-absorbed into unified Spain in the 15th century, the Catalan people have struggled with the conflicting nationalist policies of the Spanish government, and recent economic distress has only exacerbated the problem.

Catalonia is still one of the most prosperous regions in Spain, with its thriving tourist industry and prominent sporting profile. Its people number more than 7.5 million and comprise about 16% of Spain’s whole population, and in their 32,091 square kilometers of territory they can account for nearly 19% of the national GDP – but many Catalans feel that the Spanish government is getting an unfair share of their economic output.

Its traditional maritime and textile industries have been superseded by highly industrialized pharmaceutical and chemical production, as well as plants for food-processing, metalworking and petroleum products. These all bring in rich rewards for the national coffers, so it is understandable that Catalunya should wish to retain these benefits for its own people.

Trading with Catalunya

The present political situation in the region demonstrates the importance of cultural and linguistic identity, and this must therefore be an important factor when completing marketing and website content for Catalunya. While it shares many of its linguistic features, Catalan is still a distinct language from Castilian Spanish, with more than four million native speakers. The majority of these are bilingual with Spanish, but probably eight million either understand Catalan, or speak it as a second language.

It can be a polite cultural gesture, therefore, and even a subtle business advantage, to address your potential Catalonian clients in their own language. Teck Translations fields a team of specialized native speakers of Catalan who recognize these differences in dialect and offer translation services tailored specifically to the area.

While Spanish continues to be the official language for trade and technology, as well as national and juridical matters, there is no question that the Catalans have a fierce national identity, and recognizing that identity will give you an edge. You may reach the same people as you would if you market in Spanish, but you will be showing a greater sensitivity to their cultural climate if you also demonstrate a knowledge of their own language.

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