With a history stretching back to the early Middle Ages, Catalonia thinks of itself as a separate nation.
A nation has its own language and Catalonia is no exception, although it repeatedly lost out in the Spanish game of thrones.
In the 13th century, the royal court decreed that the language used in Toledo in Castile would be the model for “correct” Spanish. The vernacular of people living in the Cantabrian mountains, it became the country’s official language, ignoring the claims of Leonese, Aragonese, Asturian, Galician, and Catalan.
As a result, during the 16th and 17th centuries use of the Catalan language declined. According to Words: An illustrated history of western languages (1983) edited by Victor Stevenson:
“The marriage of the Catholic monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon in 1469 began the decline of Catalan prestige… Castile and Castilian became dominant, to such an extent that in 1640, in the middle of a war between Castile and France, the Catalans sided with the French. Forty years later they rose once again against Madrid in the Wars of the Spanish Succession, and as a result their universities were abolished, books could no longer be printed in Catalan, and Castilian was imposed as the language of education and religion.”
In the upsurge of 19th century European nationalism, Catalan underwent a renaissance. Scholars reconstructed the old language, borrowing from Castilian where there were gaps. They saw that Medieval Catalan bore more than a passing resemblance to French Provençal and, in fact, the modern language has retained elements of both. A Catalan farmhouse is mas (like the French maison from Latin mansionem), but an ordinary house is Spanish casa. Catalan days of the week are dilluns, dimarts, dimecres, dijous, divendres, dissabte, diumenge – a sort of inversion of French lundi, mardi, mercredi…
After 1931 when Spain became a republic, Catalonia regained some of its autonomy and during the Spanish Civil War it became a key stronghold against Franco. But once again it found itself on the losing side and Franco lost no time in revoking Catalonia’s freedoms and restricting the use of Catalan.
Today, after a long period of rehabilitation, Catalan has equal status with Castilian and is actively promoted in education, medicine, the public sector, and the media. However, Castilian still predominates in Barcelona and is the first language of most Catalans, who are nearly all bilingual.
Spain’s leading political parties, deadlocked in their efforts to form a new government after two inconclusive general elections since December 2015, have shown little sympathy for Catalonia’s grievances, even though the region’s 7.5 million people make up 16% of Spain’s population and account for almost 19% of the national GDP.
When Catalan nationalists held an unofficial referendum in November 2014, 80% of those who voted backed independence. Last week, some 800,000 of them turned out in Barcelona and other towns in Catalonia for a day of rallies by nationalists wishing to break with Spain. Maybe this time they will be lucky. As the Catalan proverb says, “Qui no s’arrisca no pisca” – “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”