Human language

“It’s my mother tongue”: the fight for a fifth co-official Spanish language | Spain

In the small village of Martimporra (16 inhabitants), nestled among the green hills and valleys typical of Asturias, Orfelina Suárez, 58, runs a household goods shop.

“If I were only allowed to speak Spanish, I would struggle with some vocabulary because I’m used to speaking Asturian,” she says.

“Without the Asturian, life here would be impossible. It’s not about geography, it’s more about emotional terrain. You cannot underestimate the importance of a language you speak, live and feel.

Martimporra is in Bimenes, a district where the Asturian language has officially enjoyed equal status with Spanish since 1998. Now the regional government is proposing to extend this linguistic parity to all of Asturias.

Basque separatists laid down their arms more than 10 years ago and with the Catalan independence movement currently on the wane, it seemed that Spain, a nation-state in danger of unraveling along regional and linguistic lines, was stitched up. But national unity could face its next challenge from this small, mostly rural region, best known for its dairy products, cider and, until recently, its coal mines.

In October, up to 10,000 people marched in Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, to demand an upgrade in the region’s language.

The number of inhabitants of the million Asturias who speak Asturian daily is a moot point. Any Spanish speaker would find this easy to understand.

Although there are grammatical differences, many common verbs are the same or vary only slightly: chop (do or do) is confront in Asturian; halar (to speak) is falaire. Many names only differ by one letter: harina (flour) is flour in Asturian; cat (Cat is left.

As a spoken language, many argue that Asturian is little more than a Spanish dialect. But then, as others may contradict, a language is simply a dialect with an army and a navy.

Spain already recognizes four co-official languages ​​- Catalan, Euskera (Basque), Galician and Aranés – each sharing the same status as Spanish in the region where it is spoken. If Asturian joins their ranks, the other minority languages ​​of Aragon, León and Extremadura, as well as the Gypsy Spanish languages ​​Caló and Erromintxela, could demand similar treatment in a Spanish state already fractured along fault lines. linguistics.

Xosé Antón González is the president of the Asturian Language Academy, which produced the standardized form of Asturian that will be implemented if the regional parliament votes to make it co-official. He says that Asturian is a language in its own right.

Activists want Asturian to be recognized as a co-official language. Photography: Alberto Brevers/Pacific Press/Rex/Shutterstock

“We are realistic,” he says. “We don’t have a problem with bilingualism. We know that Asturian is a small language that belongs to a small community of one million people and that Spanish will continue to be the main form of communication with the rest of the world. But without the kind of protection afforded by the constitution, it cannot survive.

Berta Piñán, the Asturian culture minister, argues that making the language co-official simply affirms the speakers’ rights under the constitution. From then on, “Asturias will be able to design its own language model based on rights rather than obligations,” she says.

“Making it co-official is the only way to guarantee our freedom to express ourselves in Asturian,” says Inaciu Galán, an Asturian language activist who has compiled an Asturian-English dictionary.

However, some Asturians fear that the language will become politically militarized, as is the case with Catalan, Euskera and, to a lesser extent, Galician.

“It’s very sad the way this has been politicized,” says Álvaro Queipo, secretary general of the conservative People’s Party of Asturias. “Now there is no more debate, just emotion and posturing, dividing Asturians between the good guys, who want to make the language co-official, and the bad guys, who don’t.”

González argues that language is a more difficult issue in Spain than in other European countries because Spain went from absolute monarchy to 40 years of fascist dictatorship with only a brief democratic interlude. A uniform idea of ​​the nation prevailed without any recognition of significant regional differences. The other problem is nationalism.

“The reason why we have a linguistic conflict in Spain is because the nationalists are linguistic nationalists, like in Quebec,” explains Mercè Vilarrubias, linguist and advocate for bilingual education.

Language, she says, is a way for regions to affirm that they are different from the rest of Spain. She speculates on what might happen if the Spanish state gave these languages ​​national prestige, beyond the regions where they are spoken, which Canada has done with French.

Instead, Spain’s other co-official languages ​​are invisible outside their regions and face an increasingly vocal uninational Spanish nationalism, led by a resurgent neo-fascism that has not seen the end of the dictatorship in 1975. The far-right Vox party, fiercely opposed to minority languages, produced a poster campaign depicting the Asturian president kissing a language activist under the slogan: “They are trying to put their language in you”.

An anti-Asturian language advertising poster of the far-right Vox party. Photography: Beatriz Montes/The Guardian

On the other hand, says Vilarrubias, once a language becomes co-official, nationalist governments can try to marginalize Spanish and use the language as a separatist tool.

That’s what sparked a nasty row in Canet de Mar, a seaside town north of Barcelona, ​​where a family has complained of harassment and abuse for seeking to teach at least in part Spanish to their five-year-old son. Insisting on the right to be educated in Spanish as well as Catalan is seen by nationalists as anti-Catalan, even though more than 50% of Catalans declare Spanish as their mother tongue, against 36% for Catalan.

The resurgence of linguistic regionalism seems to undermine the process by which many European nation states emerged in the 19th century. Linguistic standardization was used as a unifying factor, for example during the creation of the Italian state in 1871.

In recent decades, however, language has been used as a justification for separation, not unity.

The European Union encourages the protection of minority languages ​​– other than its 24 official languages ​​(Irish only became official on 1 January) – convinced that linguistic diversity is a social good.

the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, adopted in 1992 by the human rights body of the Council of Europe (which has 47 member states), recognizes 60 minority languages ​​spoken by 50 million Europeans, including 10 million Catalan speakers. The charter does not give any definition of what a language or a dialect is.

Scots, which many consider a dialect, is recognized by the UK in the charter, but Italy does not recognize its many regional dialects as languages, although it lists 12 languages ​​in addition to Italian, including Catalan, Albanian and Sardinian.

“Dialects [in Italy] are not a political issue like minority languages ​​are in Spain,” says Anna Cozzolino, a Neapolitan residing in Barcelona whose dialect includes words of Spanish, Catalan, French and Arabic origin.

“They survive because they are spoken at home and on the streets. Growing up in a middle-class Neapolitan family, the local dialect was considered vulgar, but now people are proud to speak it.

Asturian language activists want to keep the language alive by ensuring it is taught in schools. But the main motivation behind the desire to extend co-official status is to increase its visibility and use in public life.

A road sign indicating the Spanish and Asturian versions
A road sign for Gijón also displays the Asturian spelling, Xixón. Photography: Beatriz Montes/The Guardian

Even in Catalonia, where an immersion system ensures that everyone is fluent in Catalan, studies show that young people increasingly prefer to speak Spanish. This is partly because the internet and social media have reinforced Spanish and English, while doing nothing to stop the perception among many young people that Catalan is uncool.

Immigration is also a factor. On 1.3 million of the 7.5 million inhabitants of Catalonia are immigrants little or not concerned by the nationalist discourse. About a third are Spanish-speakers from Latin America, but others, like Moroccans, tend to speak Spanish as well, partly because Catalans don’t speak Catalan to them, reinforcing the impression among many immigrants that Catalan is not for them. .

In the Basque Country, where educational options are 100% Spanish, 100% Basque or a mixture of the two, approximately 70% choose Euskera, while immigrants are more likely to choose Spanish. On 750,000 of the 2.1 million inhabitants of the Basque country speak Euskera, an increase of 233,000 in 25 years, which is an extraordinary achievement for a language which, unlike Galician and Catalan, is not part of the family Latin languages.

“We talk a lot about linguistic rights,” explains Rafa Arenas, an Asturian who teaches law at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. “The question is, does a language have the right to have people speaking it, or is it about people’s language rights?”

“We are not politically motivated”: Asturian speakers Orfelina Suárez and her mother, María Carmen, in the village of Martimporra. Photography: Beatriz Montes/The Guardian

González argues that when a minority language is lost, we also lose a way of understanding the world. “It leads to a uniformity which, in my opinion, is not good for humanity. It is our language and our culture and we still have time to save it. This is my mother tongue.

Aníbal Martín, who is campaigning for Castúo, which is spoken in northern Extremadura, to be made co-official, agrees. “There is a consensus that we need to preserve our material heritage – a Roman bridge, for example – and language is part of the heritage that you carry within you,” he says. “To give up a language is to give up a part of who we are.”

Back in Martimporra, Orfelina Suárez is puzzled by all the fuss.

“I don’t understand why wanting to preserve a language could be so controversial,” she says. “It is not because we defend the Asturian that we are politically motivated. It is the politicians who politicize the language.