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Catalan Language Today: Between Catalonia of North and South

by Kelly Smith

Following the decades of political turmoil that would largely diminish its usage, the Catalan language of today is recovering to unlock its full potential in Catalan mass media, education and the arts. There is still a number of language policies in force to protect Catalan language and culture, even though it's quite popular and cannot be considered a strictly regional language - boasting the number of speakers of about 9 million, Catalan is spoken by more people than several of the official European languages.

While Catalan is blooming on the Spanish side, its position behind the French border is still to a large extent reduced. It might not be a well-known fact, but prior to 1659, Catalonia comprised a territory slightly larger than today, a part of which was ceded to France by means of the Treaty of the Pyrenees. That French part is the so-called Northern Catalonia, a piece of land that roughly corresponds French department of Pyrénées-Orientales. As expected, French is its official language, with Catalan, more precisely its northern dialect, recognised solely as a regional language and spoken by about a quarter of the area's population.

Despite their separation in the middle of the 17th century, Catalan spoken in Northern Catalonia and in Spain suffered a surprisingly similar fate. While the official use of the former was forbidden by Louis the Great in 1700, the latter was suppressed much later by Franco's regime that even banned some of the regional Catalan names, such as Jordi. In Spain, Catalan was officially allowed to be taught in schools since the country's transition to democracy, starting from 1975. In France, on the other hand, Catalan could be taught for one hour a week already in 1951 by virtue of the Deixonne Law.

Interestingly, the Catalan language on the French side has found its solace in literature, over time producing a rich and distinctive literary corpus. The key moment in the development of literary arts were the 1950s, when artists exiled from Catalonia would get in contact with their French neighbours, sparking new literary movements and inspiring publication of books and anthologies, such as the Tramutana collection. The events of May 1968 led to the establishment of Universitat Catalana d'Estiu in Prada. Even though Catalan is still a minor language for book publishing, Northern Catalonia promotes its linguistic and cultural heritage by means of the Catalan library and literary prize of Vila de Perpinyá Modest Sabaté for writers and poets who use Catalan as their primary medium.

On the Spanish side of the story, Catalonia was struggling to reinvent Catalan arts and literature to fit them within a larger European paradigm. The problem of the regionalism of the Catalan language has been addressed with particular enthusiasm in literature, with almost 10% of all books published in Spain in 2012 being written in Catalan. The Catalan mass media played a major role in popularizing the local literature - most notably by promoting three collections of monologues published by a TV presenter, Andrea Buenafuente, that sold over 100,000 copies each. The wide acknowledgment of works written by major figures of the Catalan literary scene, such as Josep Pla, Salvador Espriu, Enric Cassases or Jordi Puntí, proves that Catalan literature has earned a place in the European literary canon.

Even though their stories diverge as early as 1659, the Catalan communities of both Spain and France have experienced similar difficulties and linguistic suppression, which might have ended in the Catalan language simply dying out and giving way to French and Spanish. Fortunately, both regions found methods to ensure the language’s existence by taking their rich cultural and linguistic heritage into the future and exploring the Catalan language in literature and other arts, most notably theatre.

About the writer

Kelly Smith writes for Career FAQs, a trusted provider of quality Australian career and educational resources. She's also a great language enthusiast and learner herself.

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