A Homage to
Catalonia

The Forked Tongue

What it means to be bilingual



Catalonia is officially bilingual. That is to say the country has two official languages, but let's give this a moment's thought: what does it really mean? Does everyone speak two languages? Do some people speak one and some another? Are different languages spoken in different parts of the country? Or what?

Article 3 of the Spanish Constitution says:

'1. Castilian is the official Spanish language of the State. All Spaniards have the duty to know it and the right to use it.
2. The other Spanish languages will also be official in their respective Autonomous Communities, in accordance with their Statutes.'

In three terse sentences we already sense a certain wish to make Catalan subordinate to Spanish (Castilian), even on its own home ground.

And that, indeed, is the way it works. Spanish-speakers in Catalonia can go about their daily business without the need to use a language not their own and without being troubled by people speaking Catalan to them. They can always claim ignorance of Catalan and demand people speak to them in Spanish. Catalan-speakers are often forced to speak Spanish when dealing with the courts, waiters, security guards or immigrants (though the number of these who manage to master Catalan casts shame on those who can't be bothered to try).

Under the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975), Catalan may have been heard, in private, but it was certainly not to be seen. It wasn't taught, it wasn't used on television and books, newspapers and other publications in Catalan were not allowed. As a result, although Catalans spoke their language, few could read it or write it properly. Forty years after Franco's death, the situation has improved, but most books, newspapers, magazines, films and television are still in Spanish.

'Bilingualism is a transition stage on the road to language substitution.' Pau Vidal, El bilinguïsme mata (2015).

'I am part of a particular tribe. This tribe inhabits a certain geographical area, has its very own way of looking at the world and speaks a particular language. ... For historical reasons, this linguistic area was sandwiched between two great cultures -that of the Bourbon Court and that of the House of Austria- like a thin film of ham between two walls of bread.' Josep Pla, Notes disperses (1969).

'We can ... understand the annoyance of any well-educated, modern-minded Catalan when he is unable to have his children taught in the language ... which contains, for him and them, all the primitive associations of the crawling stage, when the inner grasp of a language, the absolute fusion between word and feeling takes place.' John Langdon-Davies, Dancing Catalans (1928).