Illustration by Lluís Sallés
In the greater scheme of things, languages are like clouds moving across landscapes. Their forms are in constant flux. They merge into one another, expand, dissipate or simply drizzle out. That is exactly what Catalans have been fighting against for over 500 years, since the 15th century, when their language began to be periodically suppressed. But like the ancient Hebrews, the Catalan culture has maintained its identity throughout good times and bad. And it has always managed to undergo a renaissance.
Catalan, like all Romance languages, is a descendant of Latin; more specifically of Vulgar Latin. Robert Hughes, in his well-known book, Barcelona, wrote that Spanish grew out of a formal, high-class Latin and Catalan from Latin of the people, Vulgar Latin. Hughes’s association of Spanish with the older, Classical Latin is disputed by Felice Coles, Associate Professor of Spanish Linguistics at the University of Mississippi. “I’d say that even the higher classes of Romans still spoke Vulgar Latin, albeit a more formal version for their professions than the uneducated populace. I can’t imagine why Hughes would go against every other scholar in the field. All the Romance languages evolved from Vulgar Latin, including Spanish and Catalan.”
Hughes’s distinction not withstanding, Catalan followed the course of every language that has ever existed: it blossomed from another. Languages take time to evolve. Sounds erode and morph, semantics drift, dialects and pidgins develop and grow until they become so distinct from their origins that they are classified as a separate language. This is what happened to the Vulgar Latin that was spoken across southern Gaul and Hispania Citerior as it transformed into Langue d’Oc, maintaining its identity in the former region up to the present day. In Hispania Citerior, however, Langue d’Oc—or Occitan—continued to reinvent itself until by the 10th century a new language was recognised: Catalan.
The language reached its high point of geographical expansion throughout the 13th and 14th centuries when, as part of the Aragonese Empire, Catalunya conquered Valencia, Murcia, the Balearic Islands, and even extended itself to Sicily and Sardinia, where Catalan is spoken to this day in the town of Alghero.
It began to suffer something of a decline immediately after the War of the Spanish Succession (1705-1715), which solidified Spain into the entity that it is today. Philip V abolished all government institutions in Catalunya and imposed the Decrees for a New Political Order, which banned the formerly hegemonic Aragonese and Catalan languages from the legal system.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that Catalan began its renaissance as a literary language, with the beginning of a poetry contest known as the Jocs Florals (Floral Games). Then, in 1906, there were 3,000 participants in the first Catalan Language Congress, followed in 1907 by the establishment of the Institut d’Estudis Catalans. The language was well on its way to eminence with the publication in 1907 of the Normes ortogràfiques (Spelling Rules), the Diccionari ortogràfic (Spelling Dictionary) in 1917, and the Gramàtica catalana (Catalan Grammar) in 1918 by Pompeu Fabra, for whom a university is named.
Under Franco, the policies of Philip V were resumed, in many cases barbarically, and it wasn’t until the dictator’s death that steps were gradually taken to re-establish the language as an essential facet of cultural identity. While the Foundation for Endangered Languages reports that five or six languages die every year, and that within two centuries, 40 percent of the world’s extant languages may be gone, it is difficult for anyone who lives in Catalunya to imagine that the resilience of the people will permit this to happen to their own tongue.