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?