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Culture : Despite Ups and Downs, Catalan Language Is Alive, Well : Once banned by Franco, it is enjoying a resurgence in Spain and is used in a lively press and two television channels. And in 1992, it will be an official tongue at the Summer Olympics.

January 01, 1991|STANLEY MEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BARCELONA, Spain — In the 1970s, when Anna Balletbo was a television reporter, she and some of her colleagues devised a way to defy the dictator Francisco Franco by sneaking the Catalan language on the air.

They would interview people from the Barcelona area in Spanish but surreptitiously ask them to reply in Catalan. "Then we would go back to the studio," she recalled recently, "and say, 'I'm sorry. I asked my questions in Spanish, but they replied in Catalan. What could I do?' In that way, we were able to put the Catalan language on television."

Her ploy was looked on as a bold blow for freedom in those days--an era when a fascist regime trumpeted the glory of the unified Spanish state and tried to suppress all vestiges of regional culture and language.

Now that Franco is dead and Spain prospers with democratic government, Balletbo is a Socialist deputy from Barcelona in the Spanish Congress in Madrid. And Catalan is thriving as an official language alongside Spanish in the region of Catalonia. Almost all people in the region can understand Catalan, and most can speak it. More than half the elementary schools teach in it. There is a lively Catalan press, and two television channels broadcast exclusively in the Catalan language.

Balletbo, in fact, now finds herself more troubled by nationalists who continually demand more use of Catalan than by the handful of die-hard Francoists who would like to repress it once more.

"I have a feeling now that we need to breathe a little," she said recently over coffee at her home in Barcelona. "We don't need to keep pushing use of the language. Our schools are in Catalan. We have television in Catalan. That will do the job."

She smiled as she thought about some of the Catalans who have embraced the language almost too fervently recently. "I say to them, thank you very much, welcome to our ranks," she said, "but where were you in the days when it really mattered?"

There is little doubt that the extensive use of Catalan in eastern Spain represents one of the great triumphs of the persistence of language in history. The rest of the world will probably take notice of Catalan in 1992 when sports fans discover that it is an official language of the Olympics in Barcelona. Yet not every Catalan is as confident as Anna Balletbo about its future.

In a pair of scholarly articles published earlier this year, three Catalan linguists predicted that use of the language will die out within 50 years if the regional government known as the Generalitat does not pass more stringent legislation forcing its use.

Miquel Strubell i Trueta, the Generalitat's director of language use, dismissed the articles as scare tactics. "They wanted to shake people out of their complacency," he said in a recent interview at his offices in the Department of Culture.

But Strubell also disagreed with those Catalans who believe nothing more needs to be done.

"The power of the state, of the government in Madrid, is loaded in favor of Spanish speakers," he said. "People still have a kind of inferiority complex about using Catalan. Many people won't even think of speaking in Catalan with someone in uniform. When they go to a lawyer's office, they expect to deal entirely in Spanish. This comes from the Franco era and hasn't changed very much."

It is not always easy for an American to understand the problem of regional languages in Europe because our main minority languages like Spanish are imported rather than home-grown. But Catalan, a Romance language related even more to French than Spanish, has deep roots in Spain.

It developed in the Middle Ages and was used widely in the 13th Century when King Jaume I of Catalonia and Aragon conquered the kingdoms of Valencia and Majorca as well. A great Catalan novel, "Tirant lo Blanc," was written by Joanot Martorell in the late 15th Century, and the 500th anniversary of its publication has just been celebrated in Valencia.

Catalan was the official language of the kingdoms of Catalonia and Aragon until early in the 18th Century when the kingdoms' leaders supported the wrong side in a war between Spain and Austria and, as punishment, found their special privileges, including official use of their language, revoked by Madrid.

The Spanish republic restored the official status of the language in the 1930s, but this was torn away by Franco after he defeated the republic in the Spanish Civil War. In vehement fury against the language as a symbol of division and leftism, Franco tried to stamp Catalan out, urging Catalans to become "civilized" and speak Spanish--or what really is Castellano, the language of Castile in central Spain.

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