November 9, 2011

Shared Language ≠ Shared Culture: Spain's 4 Official Languages

"Come, let us go down and confound their speech."
Living with the Tower of Babel in a modern society
There is a lot of confusion among foreigners about what are the official languages of Spain. I know this personally because of the number of times I've had to explain it, and then re-explain it to my family when they visit me in Valencia.

For starters, there are _not_ five official languages, only four. Somehow outsiders have been given the impression that Valencian is a distinct, official language from Catalan, and continue to reproduce this false impression in educational textbooks or blogs. It is not! Valencian is a _dialect_ of Catalan, not a separate language! Don't take my word for it, just check the CIA factbook.

I am in a strong position to argue this point. I live in Valencia, I married a Valencian-speaking Valencian, and I am currently enrolled in classes of "valencià." So let me say it again and once and for all, valenciano is linguistically a dialect of catalán. There is no debate among language experts about this.

I suspect the origin of confusion on this issue has to do with the ongoing political tension surrounding regional identity and language between the Comunidad Valenciana and Cataluña. The government of Valencia regularly posts the dialect of valenciano in its official decrees as if it were a distinct language so as to distinguish itself from its northern neighbor. But one should not be naive. This representation of Valencian is political posturing. (It is kind of like renaming french fries "freedom fries.") It reflects certain Valencians' annoyance at being confused associated with their Catalan-speaking neighbors.

To make sense of this language farce debate, you need only remember one simple rule: shared language does not equal shared culture. For an in-depth explanation of the history of the languages of the Iberian peninsula, how they have evolved in dialogue with changes in the ruling powers, see here. A quick pass through the four official language—castellano, catalán (spoken by 17% of Spaniards), gallego (7%), and euskera (2%)—will suffice to show some of the lingual complexity and richness of Spain and how it reflects a cultural and political diversity, too.

Lingual boundaries don't always following political boundaries.

"Castellano" (Castilian Spanish), a.k.a. "español" is the national language and, in case you had any doubt, is natively spoken by everyone in Spain. (Some Spaniards, however, as explained below, are bilingual and thus also speak other official languages). Castellano is a Romance-language, that is based on the Latin introduced by the Romans. Castellano originated in the northern part of the Castilla la Vieja region, at the foot of the Cantabrian mountains. As Castilian, centrist Spain conquered other regions of Spain (discussed in my entry on 1492 and "la Hispanidad"), rulers required the conquered to speak "castellano" or Spanish, though often locals continued to speak their own regional language.

Linguistically castellano is technically the name of a dialect of Spanish, español. Though in Spain by default everyone usually refers to Spanish as castellano, and not español. Or actually, Spaniards call Spanish "castellano" when talking about Spanish within Spain, but tend to call it "español" when talking about the language at a global level, or when referring to the language as spoken by non-Spaniard Spanish speakers. Spanish, after all, is the second most natively spoken language in the world, after Chinese (Mandarin). (It drops to third, behind English, in lists of total number of both native and secondary speakers, and to sixth place for number of only secondary language speakers. French, Russian, Portuguese, and Arabic apparently have more pull in secondary language markets.) So one can understandably be confused by this equivalence made in Spain between what is castellano and español, given that everywhere else in the world it is simply called español.

A globally significant language.

To add to the confusion, there are dozens of regional dialects of Spanish _within_ Spain: murciano, extremeño, andaluz, leonés, aragonés, canario… which, themselves being dialects, could be considered on par with castellano, the dialect of the Madrid and Castilla La Mancha regions. Moreover, within these dialects one can encounter dozens of very distinct accents, dialects or sub-dialects. Just within Andalucía alone there must be hundreds of different accents. A person from Sevilla speaks with a very different accent than someone from Granada, even though both are in the region of Andalucía and natively only speak Spanish, a.k.a. "castellano." All this on top of the myriad of global regional dialects for "el español."

Four linguistically distinct languages, but hundreds of regional dialects.

Have I lost you? Well, now I'm going to bring in the other languages.

Catalán (Catalan) is another Latin-influenced language spoken in "los países catalanes," which includes Catalunya, but also includes Valencia and the Balearic Islands. Today, politically and geographically Valencia and the Balearic Islands are not part of Catalunya even though they share the language. Much like English is named for England, but spoken by non-English people (e.g. Americans, Canadians, Australians...), Catalán, the name of the language, comes from the medieval Catalan Principality, which only loosely corresponds with modern Catalunya, and which was part of the "Crown of Aragón" kingdom that once reigned over the Valencian, Catalunya, and Balearic Island regions (many, many centuries ago), not to mention regions of Italy and France. What's more, Catalan is still spoken in parts of southern France and Sardegna in Italy.

But the Catalunya region of today is not a vestige of that Empire. The modern political community emerged at the same time as and parallel to Valencia and the Balearic Islands. So despite what some Catalán people may think Catalunya has no political or cultural authority over Valencia even though they share a language. To draw an analogy, you could say that there are cultural attempts to build a "Catalanidad" (my word invention) that runs through all the Catalan-speaking communities, much like "Hispanidad" reaches across the Spanish-speaking world. But these attempts are frustrated by regional resentment (particularly in Valencia) at Catalunya's self-fashioned claim to be the center of Catalan(-speaking) identity.

Gallego (Galician), also a Romance family language, is the third most spoken official language and is used in Galicia. It is similar to Portuguese, reflecting Galicia's geographical proximity to Portugal, but is considered a distinct language.

Names in Euskadi look so different that highway
signs have to also list the castellano name:
Donostia, a.k.a. San Sebastián
Euskera, a.k.a vasco (Basque), the fourth official language, is not a Latin-based language but rather a wholly unique and indigenous language to the Basque Country. It is believed to be the language of the people in the region before the Roman conquest who resisted Romans and the uptake of Latin which occurred in the other regions of the Iberian peninsula. This singularity of euskera arguably feeds the Basque separatist sentiment today, though it is important to bear in mind that many people born and growing up in the Basque Country, especially in cities like Bilbao, do not speak euskera on a regular basis. (The same goes for gallego and catalán in Galicia and Catalunya.)

There is a fifth distinct language, aranés, a variant of Occitan spoken in Val d'Aran. But it is spoken by so few people that it is not counted among the official languages.

The Instituto Cervantes, official purveyor of
Spanish culture and language around the world
Spain's Constitution takes a pluralist approach to defining "official language," by calling "español" the _national_ official language and all other languages declared official by autonomous regions to also be officially recognized. Galicia recognizes gallego, Cataluña and the Balearic Islands recognize catalán, and the Basque country euskera. I suppose one could thus legally interpret the Constitution to mean that technically valenciano is a fifth language, because the Valencian government names it so, but to do so is to circumvent all linguistic reason and pander to Valencian reactionary politics.

If you have followed me so far, this is all you really need to know to understand the official languages of Spain, their relation to each other, and how they loosely graph onto geographical regions and cultural identities.

However, now I want to venture into the realm of speculation. It is my impression that, when people here use "castellano" instead of "español" to refer to the Spanish language, they do so in part because all of these languages—catalán, gallego, español especially—in Spain are (in spirit, if not linguistically) "español." I'm playing a bit on the lingual confusion created here by how "español" (the noun) is a language, but "español" (the adjective) is a description which incorporates (at minimum) a nationality and (more broadly) a shared geo-cultural identity which transcends regional languages.

Not everyone here would agree with my cultural assertion that Catalan, Valencian, Castilian are all "español." (Consider the opinions of separatists who would argue that the Basque Country or Cataluña are distinct cultures and therefore also languages from Spanish). There is a hugely important backstory to this fierce regionalism and linkage between language and political identity: under Franco's dictatorship, all regional language (esp. Catalan and Basque) were banned, and only castellano was allowed. When the dictatorship ended, the regional languages, which had continued to be spoken at home and in private, flourished once again, as did much lingual resentment towards central Spain and castellanismo.

But, again, I think the (unconscious) reasoning for why Spaniards refer to the Spanish language by its national dialect, "castellano," within Spain, while recognizing that the actual linguistic language (as disseminated globally) is "español," comes from the view that all four languages are "español." Seen in this light, Valencians sometimes make a reverse move by calling their catalán language by the local dialect, valenciano. Yet other catalán-speaking regions like Mallorca and Menorca speak catalán dialects such as mallorquí or menorquí, and don't claim them as a separate language. This says more about the identity politics and posturing of Valencia than about its linguistic distinctiveness.

Bottom line: Spain has four distinct languages, but many, many regional dialects, idioms, and cultures. 

Postscript:  Another blogger, Mr. Grumpy at Tumbit, posted a brave series of entries on his thoughts about the regional languages and dialects in Spain, Valenciano/Catalan, Galician, and Basque. I point you to them because 1) they provide a nice introduction to each language, but also because 2) they illustrate a common misconception among Anglophones: that bilingualism is somehow an impractical unnatural state... and thus, by extension, speakers of Catalan and Basque inevitably must fail to learn Spanish as well as Castilian speakers would. This is, empirically, not the case. Much of the world's population is bilingual (consider, for example, India or China). Moreover, children are perfectly capable of learning more than one language at a time, bilingual kids simply do so differently than monolingual ones. There is also an undertone of crass lingual functionalism whenever tourists, immigrants, or expats complain about the advantage or practicality of a country focusing on just one language, as opposed to many. As I hope this entry illustrates, and perhaps also proven by the hilarious failed language endeavor of esperanto, languages do not merely exist to unify humankind through logic, but embody histories of people that are heterogeneous, fluid, and even irrational...

... and can justifiably be deployed to keep people out of a culture a much as bring them in. While I certainly at times share Mr. Grumpy's frustration with how Catalan can alienate foreigners (though, to use American legal lingo, we are in fact "aliens"), I think it is time we Anglophone expats stop contributing to encouraging this monoligualist misconception of language learning and politics.


Mr Grumpy said...

Bilingualism IS an unnatural state - may not for North Americans - but certainly for us Brits. We have had to endure a school system for years where languages (French and German ONLY) were taught for maybe two hours a week AT MOST for 3 or 4 years.
Secondly, we have zero knowledge of our own Grammar - and I say this as a former pupil of an English Grammar school. I my Spanish lesson on Monday my teacher asked the class what the "Present Continuous" was in the English language.
I was slightly embarrassed that the Dutch guy was the only one to know.

Mt Grumpy said...

.... I note that typing & spelling need to be added to that long list of my deficiencies

An Expat in Spain said...

Hi Mr. (or Mount) Grumpy. I'm glad you weighed in. I actually think your example is a perfect argument for how bilingualism/monolingualism are cultural states, not states of nature.

My wife and I actually met (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away) in French classes at a university in London. (Long story.) And, at the risk of underscoring your observation with how grammatically challenged Brits are, she and I sort of bonded over how ignorant the English classmates were on identifying what a "noun", "adjective", or "verb". (This said, she had a laugh on most of the Americans in the class, who were challenged by "adverb" and "subjunctive", "past participle", "sentence diagramming", etc.) These issues said much about language education systems.

But I want to make an observation about cultural environments. I'm from Texas... one of several "ground zeroes" in the States for Spanish-English bilingual education wars. It is my personal observation that in most places in the US, even where there is bilingual education, there is no real strong cultural support and appreciation for bilingualism... and thus many kids simply do not embrace it. English is the marketable language, and so all others fall to the wayside. In Spain's autonomous regions (to varying degrees), and particularly in Catalonia, one can find a real comfort with and cultural embrace of more-than-one-language-at-a-time. The result are kids who learn both without seeing either in conflict with the other.

I.e. it seems "natural" to be bilingual in Catalonia, but somehow "unnatural" to be bilingual in Britain or the U.S. This is why linguists who study bilingualism with multilingual households always say that a big part of the battle for parents is convincing their children that the second or third language is culturally significant (exposing them to communities and family who speak it).

Tumbit said...

I blame the education system in general. I was taught Latin and classics "ad nauseum" (see what I did there?) for quite a few years and know more about other languages than my own. The problem is that 'the system' assumes that we already know the basics, which we clearly don't.

Valentini said...

Hello My name is Ed Valenciano and I am doing some basic research on my last name "Valenciano" I Find your blog interesting and was hoping you would be able to assist me in locating materials I can use to learn the Valenciano language or dialect of the Catalan language. I understand this is an old post but am hoping it will be viewed by someone who can assist me.

Thank you,

An Expat in Spain said...

Hi Ed! Good luck on your genealogical hunt. "Valenciano" isn't the most common of last names here, though it has been very visible recently because of a very public, important politician, Elena Valenciano:

Maybe she's a distant relative? As for learning Catalan, the Valencian School I'm at here directs students to this public website:

Though it may be tough at first since it's total immersion. Best of luck with it!

Juan Carlos said...

Hi, I'm sorry to disagree with you, but I think you've got the basis wrong when you affirm the following: "Catalán, the language, is named for the Catalan kingdom which once reigned over the Valencian", as a matter of fact, there has never been a Catalan Kingdom, Cataluña was part of the Aragon Kingdom, and never, ever by far has been a Kingdom, so if you base your article on that, then you have got it all wrong.

An Expat in Spain said...

Juan Carlos, no need to apologize for seeking accuracy and clarity. I've modified the text to reflect your point, that the "Catalan(-speaking) kingdom" to which I was referring was actually the "Crown of Aragón". Thanks for keeping the blog honest!

The problem I was struggling with when talking about these terms "kingdom", "nation", and "region", as they relate to the Catalanidad argument, is that our modern idea of nationality is really a 19th-century invention. So it is a very egregious kind of anachronistic thinking to build nationalist-independentist arguments on medieval linguistic regional affinities. Paraphrasing what I meant by this in just a couple of sentences was/is just too hard a task for me to pull off in the entry... but perhaps worth elaborating on in comments with the readers. Keep it coming!

Anonymous said...

In politics, specially in Valencia, one must use everything to take advantage over the opponent. If you can use the language for this, you will use it (or religion, or the right of use of the rivers...). Since the times of the `Transición´ there have been a lot of philologists in Valencia ("No, we don´t speak Catalan: we say xiquet and don't say noi, etc.")and most of them without studying at the University. Funny.

Sareb el Malo.

P.S.: By the way, before the Aranés the Astur-leonés (not the dialect of spanish spoken in León: seeés) is an official language in Asturies, also spoken in areas of León (Llïón) and at the city of Miranda do Douro in Portugal. Historically, the Llïonés has been the language of the Court of the Kingdom of Llïón until the XIIth century. You can amuse yourself at this blog ( with the pains, battles, quarrels and so on of our forgotten kingdom.

An Expat in Spain said...

Sareb el Malo, Thank you for sharing the links. Very interesting! I've certainly had my fair share of close encounters with amateur (opinionated) Valencian linguists. (I had one student who told me, on this subject, "I don't care what books say about Valenciano [being a dialect]. I'm Valenciano, so what I say is my truth"!)

I do find myself increasingly frustrated by the 'politics of confrontation' in Spain, not only in Valencia, and on a variety of subjects not only Valenciano. I've come to telling my Spanish students in the English conversation class that what Spanish politics needs is a Kindergarten lesson on not picking fights for the sake of picking fights. It would be a good lesson for all sides, regardless of their political positions.

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