language and national identity

language and national identity
   The relationship between language and identity is perhaps clearest in the debates in Spain and Latin America over the term used to refer to the principal official language: español or castellano. The constitution of 1978 chose to adopt the term castellano to avoid the implication that Spanish (español can be used to refer to both the language and the state) enjoys a privileged status compared with that of the other languages of Spain (for instance Catalan); in parts of Latin America, the term castellano is also preferred to avoid connotations of Spanish colonialism; in other parts español is seen, for the same reasons, to be the more neutral term. That this and other language-related issues have the power to inflame passions and ensure a constant stream of "letters to the editor" in the Spanish press testifies to the importance of language to notions of identity in contemporary Spain.
   Throughout the twentieth century language has been central to discussions about national and regional identity in Spain, a country where more than 40 percent of the population lives in an area where a minority language is spoken in addition to Spanish. Interest in minority languages had been gaining force since the end of the nineteenth century, and it was hoped that these languages might gain official status under the Republic of 1931–9, but this hope was quickly brought to an end with the victory of Franco's Nationalist troops. Franco was to make the Spanish language his symbol of national unity, and systematic efforts were made to prohibit the use of languages other than Spanish and, if possible, actually to eradicate them. For example, not only was all public use of Basque prohibited, including the baptism of children with Basque names, but books in Basque were publicly burnt and inscriptions in Basque on public buildings physically effaced. Thus it is not surprising that the minority languages came to symbolize not only regional identity but anti-Franco resistance. This was particularly evident in the case of the Catalan protest song, the Nova Cançó. While, over the course of the Franco regime, repression gradually lessened, it is interesting to note that it had little effect in reducing the numbers of speakers of minority languages.
   With the constitution of 1978 and the creation of a quasi-federal state, the commitment by the autonomous communities where minority languages are spoken to the promotion of these languages has proved a reliable index of nationalist feeling. Indeed, such has been the importance of language as a badge of identity that, in addition to the principal minority languages of Basque, Catalan and Galician, attempts have been made to gain independent status for Aranese (a Gascon dialect spoken in North West Catalonia), Aragonese (fable) and Asturian (bable) and to raise the status of different varieties of Spanish (for example, Andalusian, Extremaduran). Even within minority language areas, conflict may arise over questions of regional identity. The most striking example of this is the case of valenciano, the minority language spoken in the autonomous community of Valencia. Opinion is divided over whether valenciano is a variety of Catalan (a view held by linguists) or a language in its own right (a view held by Valencian regionalists who fear what they see as the cultural and linguistic imperialism of Barcelona) and this particular language "war" has even given rise to serious acts of violence in post-constitution Spain.
   In the 1990s there has been a clear attempt to promote the Spanish language at home and abroad as a symbol of national unity; abroad, through the creation of the Cervantes Institutes (to promote Spanish language and culture) which has enhanced Spain's presence in Europe; at home, through the decision to fund the compilation of a descriptive dictionary of Spanish using information technology (see also dictionaries and encyclopedias).
   Defenders of the Spanish language perceive a dual threat: on the one hand, from the success of language normalization programmes in prosperous minority language areas (most particularly Catalonia); and from increasing globalization with the concomitant ascendancy of the English language.
   Perhaps the greatest pressure on Spanish comes from the vast amount of new terminology, particularly in the fields of science and technology, which enters the language each year, principally from English and also from French. Unlike other countries (for example, France which has sought to protect its language from a "foreign invasion" through legislation), Spain, notwithstanding the presence of a Royal Academy of Language, has adopted a more pragmatic perspective. Given the pace of change and in view of the absence of adequate descriptive dictionaries, the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the growth of the "style guide". Initially produced by the Spanish news agency Agencia EFE to safeguard standards in the written media, these guides have extended first to cover individual newspapers and later radio and television and also areas of professional discourse (e.g. Clinical Medicine). A principal concern is to provide indigenous equivalents for imported terminology (e.g. liquidación de activos for "assetstripping") and, if this proves difficult, to standardize the integration of loans into Spanish (e.g. scanner becomes escáner). Also advice may be given on how to avoid the use of English language constructions. For example, in the field of medicine, whereas in English compound nouns abound such as "methicillin-resistant disease", doctors in Spain are enjoined to use the unwieldy Spanish construction, una enfermedad resistente a la metacilina. Another area of concern in the late twentieth century has been the implications of globalization for the Spanish alphabet. International alphabetical reference does not recognize the separate entry, adopted in Spanish dictionaries, of digraphs Ll, Ch, and international keyboards do not always include the diacritic ñ (tilde). Proposals to align Spanish with international practice brought public outcry and a heated defence of the language in the face of perceived Anglo-Saxon hegemony. In the case of the digraphs, Spanish practice has come into line with that of the wider international community; in the case of ñ (even more clearly a symbol of national identity in Spain given its presence in España), its defence continues to be vigorous and its survival an indicator of the importance of language to identity.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Spanish culture. 2013.

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