2 July 2009

From parents to children

In fond memory of my parents, Ismael and Asunción.
We all have a mother tongue. In my case, it's Valencian, a Romance language usually classified as a dialect of Catalan (see map below). This is the language I learnt from my parents and the one I use today in everyday life, together with Spanish. It is obvious that languages are generally transmitted from parents to children, but there are circumstances that make this transmission a bit complicated, especially in cases where the mother tongue is not associated with power or prestige. To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at the history of Valencian/Catalan (I’ll try to be brief): The Late Middle Ages and Early Rennaissance were a period of splendour for this language, but by the late 15th century, under the pressure of the neighbouring powers (mainly Spain and France), there were signs of decay, which continued in the next centuries. It was still kept as the most common language for everyday communication but was not so relevant in some domains, for example in literature. This delicate balance came to an end in 1714, when the War of Succession brought about the first Bourbon King, Philip V, and with him a centralized, absolutist regime similar to the one they had in France. After the publication of the Decretos de Nueva Planta, Valencian/Catalan disappeared as an official language, substituted by Spanish, and its use was basically relegated to colloquial conversation. It was not until the second half of the 19th century that a series of Catalan/Valencian-speaking intellectuals started to think of their local language as something more than a just picturesque note. The early 20th century saw some developments in the use of Valencian/Catalan as a prestigious language, but the Civil War (1936-1939) and the Franco Regime (1939-1975) was a step backwards. After the restoration of democracy in 1975, the status of regional languages in Spain has grown considerably, and nowadays there is a lot of legislation aimed at protecting and promoting them.

When I was born, in 1968, there was only one official language in my region, and it was Spanish. Valencian was not taught at schools and most of its speakers could not even write it. But in spite of this long-lasting precarious situation, it had been kept alive by generations of people in my community. They were not the heroes or martyrs that nationalists, in Valencia or elsewhere, tend to imagine. They were just common people, people like us speaking their language and bequeathing it to their children. Maybe Valencian/Catalan was simply a lucky language, rescued from extinction at the very last minute. The forces behind modern states and their standard languages are really powerful, and the process of language substitution has been a reality in many places in recent centuries. But it seems that, beyond the great facts of history, the battles and invasions, the lists of kings and their deeds, and also beyond the works of the grammarians and antiquarians dreaming of the ideal land of the ancestors, the story of language is basically about common people. There is something particularly strong about the linguistic links between parents and their children. Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine why in 1968, after more than 250 years of decay, Valencian was still alive. And 250 years is actually a quarter of a millennium, which is quite relevant in historical terms. In this blog I have written extensively about the concept of language continuity, and today I have described a nice example, one that I know at first hand. And it’s quite recent. Let’s imagine other types of context, e.g. in prehistory, where languages were not under the pressure of highly complex entities such as modern states and modern societies. Mainstream historical linguistics seems to forget these details all too often, and the history of any language is usually described as the consequence of historical or imaginary facts including invasions, conquests and a continuous process of language substitution. Is it really so? Was it really like this?


Anonymous said...

Much more interesting could be studying the development of Aragonese, whose decay began as soon as the XV century but is still alive (not for much time, certainly) in the Pyrenees.

However, the old language has left a strong influence in Spanish spoken in several areas, even against the "leveling" of school during the past two centuries.

By the way, the border Aragonese-Catalan is very interesting to study indeed, as it shows how lingüistic relationship develop, by proximity. Interestingly, at least in the last century and a half, Catalan has won some territory to Aragonese.

I believe that the existence of Aragonese has preserved Valencian/Catalan in its territory, because during centuries there were not direct contact between Spanish and Catalan.

Jesús Sanchis said...

You mention many things in your comment, but it would take hundreds of pages to develop these topics properly.

It is true that Aragonese, being closer to Spanish, has undergone a deeper process of assimilation, which ended up with most of this territory as part of the Spanish-speaking area. At some point in time, perople in Zaragoza, in Teruel and in some other areas further south (e.g. La Comarca de Navarrés near Xàtiva) started to call their language Castilian. Any deviation from the Spanish standard was considered a local curiosity or in many cases an example of how country bumpkins spoke. Ig you add to this the increase in literacy in the last centuries (i.e. literacy only in Spanish), the final picture is clear: for most people in Aragon the only recognizable language is Spanish, and the local language (Aragonese) has been kept alive (i.e. transmitted from aprents to children) only in some remote areas. Would saomething like this have happened in Catalonia or Galicia? I don't know. In any case, the history of these and other languages is an on-going process, and we are all participants in this process.

Joan-Carles Martí i Casanova said...

Dear Jesus:

I actually published 24 pages in Catalan -a summary on an essay originally over 50 pages long- on the different sociolinguistic evolution of the Provençal variety of Occitan and the Valencian variety of Catalan. Unfortunately, the text is not available in the Internet. I amb 10 years older than you are (born in 1958) and we both know that the situation wasn't nor isn't ydillic in Valencian big cities.
Nevertheless, here is the reference and the article was viewed by Occitan and Catalan language scholars at time. It analyses why why Valencian (Catalan) was still pretty much alive in 1968 and I can assure you there are no differences between Provençal and Valencians parents. After all Occitan was the only popular language in Occitania as late as the 1880s. I could, of course, send you a copy by mail but it is also available in public libraries in Valencian universities.

Títol: Algunes concordances entre el secessionisme valencià i el felibrisme pseudo-mistralenc provençal
Autor: Martí i Casanova, Joan Carles
Revista: Llengua Nacional 2005

Jesús Sanchis said...

It would be interesting to read that text. It's a pity it's not available on-line.