Catalonia and the French Language

May 24, 2014


Every day in Catalonia brings new chills and thrills in linguistic politics. This article, with its headline on the page pictured above, appears in the most liberal paper of the Madrid constellation. It tells us that the President of Catalonia has requested membership for his country in the international francophone conference. (So far as I know this story appeared in Catalan media, by contrast, only to quote El País.) The report goes on to say many things without making the points that actually seem to be in play. President Mas (whose own education was in French at Barcelona’s Lycée Français — a fact that you might think would come up in this article) drives them crazy in Madrid because of his use of languages — and not just his native language, Catalan, the very sound of which evokes from many Spaniards words like “uncultured,” “ill-mannered,” and even to charges of refusing to “speak Christian.” Of course Artur Mas speaks a refined Catalan, but consistently switches to a courtly Castilian in any situation where that could be seen as the discreet thing to do. But what really makes many Spanish nationalists foam at the mouth is that he speaks French like a native, as well as an absolutely correct English. This means that, in international gatherings, the foreign officials naturally talk directly with him in one of the languages in which he’s comfortable, while proudly monolingual Madrid politicians are sealed off with their translators glorying in what they keep calling “the language of the empire.”

This simple application for association with a peripheral international body is really a brilliant move on Mas’s part to take a minor, perfectly legal act of little importance that exposes very relevant cultural differences between Catalonia and Spain — differences that are alternately denied and reviled in the current polemic from the Madrid government.

One wonders if it is a coincidence that this small development comes, and makes a first-page Madrid headline, during the shock waves that must have been set off on delicate seismographs when Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister of France, came to Barcelona last week and spoke publicly in his own first language, Catalan.

Artur Mas, speaking Catalan:

Speaking Spanish:

Speaking French:

Speaking English:

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