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Fighting words in Spain

In Catalonia, Spanish is snubbed in favor of the mandatory regional tongue. Cultural identity has come at the price of intolerance, critics say.

December 04, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

Barcelona, Spain — WHEN Elvira Lindo, a Spanish writer, delivered the opening speech at the annual festival of the patron saint of Barcelona one autumn afternoon this year, she arrived under the protection of an armored car.

Men with black umbrellas, symbolizing mourning and death, blocked her entry into City Hall. They shouted insults, tossing out words like "fascism" and "genocide."

Was Lindo a kind of Spanish Salman Rushdie, writing something that inflamed passions to a fever pitch? No -- she planned to speak in Spanish, not the regional language of Catalan.

The last time anyone checked, Barcelona was still part of Spain. As regional differences flourish in this country of 40 million, however, language has become a tool of identity but also of exclusion.

Like the Basque Country before it, and perhaps Andalusia after it, Catalonia -- one of Spain's 17 state-like autonomous regions -- is establishing a separate cultural identity. The move is praised in some quarters as a long-overdue liberation from decades of repression, and attacked elsewhere as local nationalism run amok.

Critics warn ominously of a disintegration of the nation. Spain, they moan, is fast becoming a Tower of Babel. Loyalty to Madrid is weakened; diversity has gone too far.

SOME ATMs in Spain offer a choice of six languages, four of which are the Spaniards' own. It is not uncommon in places such as Barcelona, Catalonia's largest city, for a single conversation to take place in two languages. And on occasion, as Lindo's ordeal demonstrated, intolerance is the order of the day. Catalan officials have been known to refuse to speak Spanish in news conferences with Spanish-speaking journalists, or in parliament. Big commercial companies here that don't toe a Catalan line risk boycotts.

Ten million people speak Catalan, a kind of French-sounding Spanish -- not just in Catalonia but also in a town on the Italian island of Sardinia, in pockets of southern France, in the Balearic Islands and in the Spanish city of Valencia. (Don't tell the Valencianos that, however. They think they have their own language, and have begun a quixotic campaign to get it recognized as such.)

In the Basque Country of northern Spain, Basques have an indisputably unique language. But they have injected an ethnic component, where the most extreme nationalists argue racial superiority as part of their Basque identity. Most experts will say that the dialect of Galicia, north of Portugal, is just a form of Portuguese. And that "Andalusian" is heavily accented Spanish.

At a certain point, asserting a regional language and identity is a political maneuver, a play for power. Spain's diverse regional identities were repressed for decades under the Franco dictatorship, then revived when democracy was introduced in 1976. Today, under the 2-year-old Socialist government, regional autonomy and cultural expression flourish in abundance.

Here in Barcelona, the language of Catalan is thriving under a kind of affirmative action that thrills purists and rankles traditionalists. At one end, Catalan extremists want a Catalan-only world; at the other end are people who angrily predict the demise of Spanish. For both, bilingualism is a dirty word: One person's bilingualism is another person's loss of linguistic domination.

In between are many who favor bilingualism, but for different reasons and with different definitions.

Catalan is the official language in the region's primary schools, the language that is used in PTA meetings, public-address announcements and most classrooms. Catalan "immersion" is obligatory starting in kindergarten. Residential utility bills are in Catalan only. Businesses can be fined if they don't have signs in Catalan, or if customers complain they were not attended in Catalan.

Proficiency in Catalan is required, and tested, for many government jobs.

ACCORDING to the Catalan Language Observatory, Catalan was born of 11th century vulgar Latin around the same time as Spanish and French, and enjoyed alternating periods of revival and prohibition.

Jo tambe soc barcelonina is Catalan for Yo tambien soy barcelonesa, which is Spanish for "I am also from Barcelona." Bona tarda is buenas tardes ("good afternoon").

"Catalan has been starved for 40 years," said Jordi Porta, head of Omnium, an institute that promotes Catalan culture. "A certain militancy is required."

Porta grew up under Franco. When he enrolled in elementary school, he gave his name: the very Catalan-sounding "Jordi." No, the school authorities told him, your name is Jorge.

As a child, Porta spoke Catalan at home, secretly, but he was in his teens before he learned to write it -- from a clandestine youth group formed as resistance to Franco.

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