Spain’s Complicated Language Landscape, Part II: Miscommunication Nation

Sam Quillen
6 min readSep 26, 2022

In linguistics, two generations is a long time. If, thanks to migration or cultural or political change, grandchildren grow up speaking a different primary language than their grandparents, it is unlikely that the latter’s language will ever recover.

During his forty-year reign from 1936 to 1975, General Francisco Franco did his utmost to unify his country. Castilian was the only language taught in schools; people could face criminal penalties just for speaking their own mother tongues in public. He was largely successful, as Spaniards shrugged their shoulders and traded in their ancient regional “dialects” for standard español.

But in a few places, suppression had the opposite effect. Catalan, the language of the Mediterranean coast, was an important language in its own right. As late as the Renaissance era, it was more prominent than Castilian itself. It lost its official status when the Crown of Aragon was subsumed into united Spain, but it still boasted millions of speakers who were none too keen to become Castilians.

In Barcelona, Catalan is “llengua que es lluita:” language that is struggle.

To be frank, Catalan and Castilian are very similar languages. Their grammars vary little, and their dictionaries are practically cognatic. After three days in Barcelona this summer, I could pretty much read everything, and even hack together one strange conversation in which I spoke Spanish and a grumpy metro employee insisted on sticking to Catalan.

But Catalan does have some notable distinguishing features. The most obvious is that words generally end in consonants, which is unusual for any Romance language and particularly different from Castilian. Interestingly, this is also true of some southern Italian dialects. Cataluña and Naples were part of the same kingdom in the Middle Ages, in a time when people and culture traveled more easily over sea than the war-torn Spanish interior. Indeed, to this day, Catalan is 87% lexically similar to Italian, and only 85% to Spanish.

Another feature with Italian resonance is the use of the article with people, e.g., El Josep llegeix un llibre, literally, “The Joseph reads a book.” My favourite, however, is the Catalan habit of putting an odd semantic spin on words. For example, in every other Romance language (as well as English), the Latin word ignorare became the word for “to ignore.” In Catalan, however, enyorar means to miss somebody.

The walled town of Alghero in Sardinia is the last toehold of the Catalan language in Italy, a vestige of an era when the Crown of Aragon ruled half the peninsula (photo credit: Expedia).

Catalan is distinct enough that it could not just merge with Castilian, but its prominence in western Spain did erode over the centuries. It did not help the language’s standing that the Catalans have chosen the wrong side of every major Spanish conflict, from the Habsburg pretender in the War of the Spanish Succession to the communists in the 1930s.

Cataluña is also one of the wealthiest areas of the country, and in the 20th Century, it was flooded with new residents who did not speak Catalan. Barcelona and Valencia could absorb the influx, but less populous areas were transformed by the newcomers. This summer, I stayed in a locale in Ibiza that road signs call Sant Antoni, but is known to everyone colloquially by its Castilian name San Antonio. Few of Ibiza’s fans around the world realise that the official name of the party island is the Catalan Eivissa. (“I took a pill in Eivissa…” does not sound as catchy.)

For all the trials that the Catalan language has borne in its fight to stay relevant, at least everybody agrees that it does, in fact, exist. The same cannot be said for many other daughters of Latin sprinkled across the Iberian Peninsula.

Austurian and Leonese were once universally acknowledged to be independent languages, the official registers of independent kingdoms. But when Asturia and Leon became mere provinces of Spain, their languages became mere dialects of Spanish.

The people of Asturias and Leon rode the wave stirred up by the Catalans, and today their languages are co-official with Castilian in their respective regions. I applaud their determination to keep their heritages alive. But to be honest, as someone who has spent zero minutes studying either language, I have no more trouble understanding them than I do Scottish English. In a Europe in which the Danish government has to pay its citizens to use the sole national language of their own country on their phones, it is hard to imagine a long future for Asturian and Leonese.

The neighbouring language of Galician, spoken on the rugged Atlantic coast, faces a situation that is similarly challenging but even more confusing. People cannot decide whether it is its own language, a dialect of Spanish, or a dialect of Portuguese. The Royal Galician Academy in A Coruña contends that it is the former; across town, the Galician Language Association claims the latter. (Note that the name of the capital uses the Portuguese article a, and the Castilian tilde.)

Older editions of the Encyclodpædia Britannica characterise Galician as Portuguese, and Galician peasants seeking opportunity did traditionally gravitate to Lisbon, rather than Spanish cities. But Galician does have some notable distinct features, including an unusually large number of Celtic words.

The translation of the Bible, a key milestone in the development of many European languages, did not happen for Galician until 1989. Today, the two academies promulgate rival orthographies and dictionaries pushing spoken Galician one way or the other. Unfortunately, neither has much success getting young Galicians to speak it in the first place.

One of these things is not like the others.

There is one minority language whose independent status no one disputes. In a land of related Romance dialects, Basque (or Euskara) looks like something from the moons of Saturn. Indeed, it is completely unrelated to any language in Europe, or anywhere else in the world. It is the last survivor of the languages spoken in the continent on the eve of the Indo-European invasions in the 3rd Millennium B.C. The Basque Country has been Basque since before Europe was European.

Basque was long marginalised and persecuted by Latin authorities. French revolutionaries tried to extinguish it on their side of the Pyrenees because speaking it somehow turned peasants royalist. Their heirs have almost succeeded in completing this campaign. On the Spanish side, however, Franco’s persecution sparked fiery resistance, including a decades-long terror campaign by the militant nationalist ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna). Compared to other minority languages, Basque is quite healthy today.

As you might expect, Basque is an extremely weird language. Among other things, it requires speakers to conjugate verbs differently according to the gender of the listener. But some things have somehow managed to hop over the towering language barrier. The Basques count in twenties (as opposed to tens), a scheme the French have adopted for numbers above sixty (e.g., 77 is soixante-dix sept, “sixty-seventeen”). The Spanish word for “left,” izquierda, is noticeably not Latin.

Thanks to the rough terrain of their homeland, the Basques have maintained their ancient language while all other pre-Indo-European tongues have long since died out.

One last, tiny minority language deserves a shout-out, not least because the BBC recently ran an in-depth piece on it. Aranese is an alpine variety of Occitan spoken in the snowy hamlets of the Val d’Aran, north of the Pyrenees. It is spoken by only a few thousand people, yet it is a co-official language of Cataluña because the Catalans will use any excuse to stick it to Castilian.

This privileged status stands in sharp contrast to Occitan over the border. It was once the general language of the south of France, but under the strain of centuries of persecution by the uniformity-obsessed French state, it is dying out. Thanks to an accident of medieval cartography that shifted the border a few miles, one day the language of southern knights and troubadours may survive only in one sleepy Spanish valley.

Or, maybe it will not last there, either. Spain has done much since the 1980s to preserve her rich linguistic heritage. But there is only so much a government can do to resist the tide of history. In a few generations, it is possible that all Spaniards will speak only Spanish. But they will still recall their country’s unique history every time they turn left.

The Garonne flows through Vielha, the metropolis of the Aranese-speaking world (photo credit: BBC Travel).

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Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets