The Catalan Language

“I am a Catalan. Today, a province of Spain. But what has been Catalonia? Catalonia has been the greatest nation in the world. I will tell you why. Catalonia has had the first Parliament, much before England. Catalonia held the beginning of the United Nations. All the authorities of Catalonia, in the XIth century, met in a city of France, at the time Catalonia, to speak about peace. XIth century. Peace in the world and against, against against war, the inhumanity of war. This was Catalonia.”
With these words, in 1971, Pau Casals, exiled Catalan musician and composer (also Nobel Peace prize nominee in 1958), presented the anthem he had written for the UN.

he Catalan language is spoken by nearly nine and a half million people. It is the national language of Catalonia and Andorra, a co-official language in the Spanish autonomous communities of the Balearic Islands and Valencia and also in the city of L'Alguer, in Sardinia. It is also spoken, although with no official recognition in the Spanish area of La Franja, within the autonomous community of Aragon, in El Carxe (Murcia) and in Northern Catalonia, a historical region of Catalonia in southern France, equivalent to the actual Pyrénées-Orientales “department”.

Catalan is a Romance language born between the Xth and XIth centuries. The first testimony of written Catalan ever found is the translation of the book of laws “Liber iudiciorum”. The first originally Catalan text is the religious “Les Homilies d’Organyà” from the XIIth c. In the XIIIth century, Ramon Llull becomes the first renowned Catalan writer. Writing in Catalan becomes popular and little by little starts to win over dominant Latin. This results in the XVth century “Segle d’Or” (“Golden Century”); when Joanot Martorell writes “Tirant lo Blanc”, the first modern novel in European Literature.

As a consequence of the War of Succession (1705-1715), the Catalan language suffers from its first but not last period of prohibition and repression. With “La Renaixença” (The Renaissance) in the XIXth century, the Institut d'Estudis Catalans (1907) writes the First Orthographic Dictionary (1917) and Catalan Grammar, by Fabra (1918) which will determine its rules and uniqueness.

Catalan regains its status of an official language with the Second Republic (1931-1939), but struck by the Civil War, the use of Catalan becomes forbidden again, only spoken behind closed doors. The publication of books in Catalan is from now on clandestine. Artists and intellectuals create an underground world of culture in Catalan. Through poetry and music, groups like “la Nova Cançó” express strong political views against the regime.

With the arrival of democracy in 1978, and once the “Estatut d'autonomia” (Statute of Autonomy) is proclaimed, the use of Catalan becomes free. Its use in administration, culture, education and media spreads and grows strong over the years. In 2006, the Generalitat (Catalan government) proposes a new “Estatut” that reviews and attempts to adapt the 1978 version to today’s reality, but gets rejected by the central Spanish Government in Madrid, judged as too controversial. The situation of the Catalan language is, yet again, deeply linked with nationalism, territory, politics and a strong feeling of identity and nostalgia among its people.

The Catalan language receives several influences in its evolution. From the VIth century BC, the Indo-European, Greek, Phoenician and Iberian-Basc civilizations will add a strong impact on Latin language. When the Roman Empire falls, Germanic civilizations like the Visigoths and the Francs occupy the Iberian Peninsula, leaving a traceable mark in war-related vocabulary and also in common names. Later, the Arabs leave an impact especially in toponyms and food nomenclature.

Occitan, Castilian, French and Italians have over centuries exchanged vocabulary either as a result of sharing a same territory or by its constant commercial and cultural exchanges through the Mediterranean.

Catalan has several dialects. Those belonging to Occidental Catalan, as North-occidental Catalan (Parlar ribagorçà, Pallarès and Parlar fragatí); Valencian of transition or Tortosa language (Parlar del Matarranya, Parlar del Maestrat and Parlar ebrenc); Valencian (variations from Castelló and Alacant, Central Valencian, meridional Valencian, Mallorquí of Tàrbena and Vall de Gallinera). Those part of Oriental Catalan: Septentrional Catalan or rossellonès (Capcinès and Septentrional Catalan of transition); Central Catalan (Salat, Barceloní, Tarragoní and Xipella); Balearic (Mallorquí, Menorquí and Eivissenc) and Alguerès.

Catalan has 8 phonetic vowels and peculiarities like the use of the “el.la geminada”, a long sounding “l” written “l.l”, or a long sounding “ee” written “ï ”. Often the sound of phonemes will transform depending on the neighbouring letters. It also has a complicated system of pronouns.

“Jocs Florals” was a literary contest festival born in Tolosa de Llenguadoc in 1323 by the “Sobregaya Companhia dels Set Trobadors”. It was celebrated until 1484, with troubadours and Catalan poets. In 1859 a group of writers and intellectuals brought the “Jocs Florals” back. There were 3 categories: love poem, patriotic poem and religious poem. The support from Catalan intellectuals and politicians contributes to bringing Catalan literature into prestigious status. During the Civil War and the following dictatorship, the “Jocs Florals” were held in exile. Nowadays, on St. George’s day (Patron Saint of Catalonia), “Jocs Florals” contests are held in schools all around Catalonia.

“La Diada de St. Jordi” (St. George’s Day) is also known as “El dia de la rosa i el llibre” (The day of the rose and the book) or “Dia dels enamorats” (Lovers day). According to the legend, when St. George killed the dragon, a red rose was born from its bleeding wound as a sign of love and friendship. Traditionally, on this day, men offer their loved ones a red rose and women offer a book in return. Nowadays, the exchange of books and roses is beyond gender, and not only among lovers. April the 23rd is also the anniversary of the deaths of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes (1616) and Catalonia wanted to export this tradition to the rest of the world. In 1995 the UNESCO declared the day as World Book and Copyright Day. On this very popular day, the buzzing streets are filled with roses and bookstalls and writers presenting their new books. A celebration of love, tradition and literature.

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