Linguistic Globalism vs. Nationalism:

It’s Miró, Gaudí and Dalí

Norman Berdichevsky (June 2020)

Catalan Peasant Resting, Joan Miró, 1936




Imagine for a moment you were watching a sleekly produced cultural documentary program on the individuality of Britain and America, and that the distinguished hosts, acting as interviewers guiding you around, all the while mistakenly pronouncing the name of key individuals so you hear them speak of Wa-SHING-ton, Je-FER-son, Ke-nay-DI, Dis-rael-LI, Church-HILL, and Glad-STONE, and conversing with local celebrities and authorities who respond to questions about historical figures we know as Washington, Jefferson, Kennedy, Disraeli, Churchill and Gladstone. Wouldn’t you expect these names to be as familiar to the interviewers and listeners as our very own names? Would you give the hosts any respect and credence for their professional qualifications?


The program features a dozen conversations with local authorities in Barcelona expressing reverence for Gaudí, Dalí and Miró. On several occasions, the camera even focuses on street signs featuring these names with the appropriate accent marked over the LAST syllable. Is there something wrong with their vision or hearing? Yes, but in a cultural sense not a physical one, and one that has apparently been part of the BBC’s conscious decision to only use what is most familiar to an audience of native English speakers in the U.K.


Even more ironic is the use of Castilian Spanish (Castellano) rather than Catalan used by those interviewed when questioned by the hosts in English. The only reason for this is reluctance of the BBC producers to search for experienced translators and interpreters familiar with the language pair of Catalan-English, a much less common specialty than an experienced staff working in the much more common pair of Castilian Spanish and English.


Yes, it is true that all Catalan adults are bilingual in both languages, but this does not change the reality of the centuries long rivalry, attitudes learned in early childhood, animosity and distinctive outlooks transmitted from the political elite in Madrid that have dominated Spanish affairs for many centuries on multiple issues, intensifying the sense of a core identity of the Catalans.


The works in architecture and painting of Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), and Joan (not Juan) Miró (1893-1983) span a century and embrace the diverse styles of Art Nouveau, Surrealism and Art Deco. They are regarded today as geniuses although all three were initially regarded with suspicion and curiosity, even denounced by some art critics for their daring ingenuity. All three were deeply committed to a strong sense of Catalan national identity and were hailed by the new national movement for autonomy as great artists whose work truly reflected all that distinguished Catalan culture, flair, innovation, initiative, daring and pride.  


At the beginning of the 1880s, Barcelona was a city of about 350,000 people and had only just knocked down its medieval walls twenty years earlier. Pride in their city, its development, its new industry and the renaissance of the Catalan language and culture all coincided to give expression to the national awakening of “Catalanismo.” The period from 1880 to the end of World War I witnessed the flowering of “La Renaixença” The Renaissance, (in Catalan, the letter x is pronounced as “sh”), expressed by a flair for innovation and inventiveness, and a desire to make Barcelona distinct from Madrid.


The Historical Divide of Language, Geographic Orientation, Economy, Social Mores, and History


As early as the twelfth century, Catalan balladeer-poets, or troubadours, wandered through the region and northward into Provence at a time when the language spoken there was recognized as a Catalan dialect. This vibrant poetic tradition and the use of Catalan by philosophers and historians, the greater achievements of Catalan seafarers and merchants who traveled throughout the Mediterranean and brought their language to Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily (see map) and traded with the Orient at a time when Spain still had no overseas experience, colonies or trans-Atlantic ties created a lasting heritage. For many generations this heritage contributed to the feeling that a noble and civilized culture had been submerged by Castile, the central region located on the meseta (upland) that led the struggle against the Muslims from the 9th to the 15th centuries and launched the Inquisition.


The Catalans made a transition to a modern economy and became the dynamo of Spain, outdistancing economic activity in the rest of the country. During that time, Barcelona grew much faster than any other city in Spain. Industry in the manufacture of paper, iron, wool, leather, textiles and processed fish, as well as in the export of wine and cotton led to a new sense of confidence and prosperity.


Barcelona rather than Madrid became the engine of change, progress, industrialization, workers’ unions, the first railways and the first opera. In Castile, the old prejudices against merchants and working with one’s hands still prevailed among an elite out of touch with new developments. Catalunya proved to be the most loyal region in Spain to the ideals of the Republic and was the stronghold of resistance to the Fascist uprising commanded by General Franco. Arch-conservatives distrustful of Catalan commercial astuteness even labeled support for the Republic during the Civil War (1936-39) part of what they called a “Judeo-Catalan conspiracy.”


During the seven years I lived in Spain (1990-97), I had occasion to witness first-hand this suppressed animosity in which traditional Spanish antisemitism was grafted onto Catalan identity, more liberal attitudes and commercial skills. My wife and I lived in Santiago de la Ribera in the province of Murcia bordering on Catalonia. I had a part-time job teaching English to a well-to-do family in the town. The mother, who in all other respects seemed to me to be an intelligent and well-read lady, bore a strong animosity to what she termed the propensity of Catalans to be money grubbing, arrogant, radical, too fond of “foreign ideas”, and lacking respect for religion and tradition “just like the Jews.”


What surprised me to a similar degree was the extent to which Catalan intellectuals and “activists” in the movement for greater autonomy and even independence looked down on the majority of ordinary Spaniards as ignorant and lacking in culture.


Catalans have maintained such a fierce sense of pride and opposition to the concept that they must regard themselves first and foremost as “Spaniards” because they are citizens of Spain. It is understandable that in their own homeland they should have priority status.


In Barcelona, Spanish is the language of lower class chambermaids and other employees. It’s the language of dummies, the illiterate and such low people as to speak a language that makes that frightening guttural “jota noise.” The non-Catalan speakers also don’t know English, or French . . . But it’s not only in Catalonia that Spanish is a symptom of the lower class . . . It is true that pages have been written in Spanish of great beauty, but the fortunes of the countries that speak it have historically been an irrevocable disaster . . . Catalonia’s separateness is absolutely justified even if it’s only to flee from the scum and the dust, the sadness of being Spanish.


It is doubtful that the editor of any major American or British newspaper would permit such derogatory language against any ethnic, racial or religious group but it reflects many attitudes still freely expressed, although it should be borne in mind that even during the most recent crisis following the frustration of the demand for a legally recognized referendum for independence, a half a million citizens organized by Societat Civil Catalana, the region’s main pro-unity organization, marched in the streets of Barcelona calling for national unity and reconciliation. The march featuring the slogan “Let’s recover our common sense”, calling for dialogue with the rest of Spain.


The Lasting Linguistic Divide



The language issue has long been the source of irritation for Catalans who have to remind the world that their language is spoken by more people, close to nine million, throughout Spain (as both a first and second language), than speak Danish (barely 6 million speakers) yet until very recently, not accorded official recognition (as a “national language”) by the institutions of the EU or outside of Catalunya. Compare this with the official EU status of Erse (Irish Gaelic) and Scots Gaelic with no more than 50,000 speakers as “national” rather than “regional” languages.


The Civil War and Since Then


Catalunya also proved to be the most loyal region in Spain to the ideals of the short-lived Republic (1931-1939) and was the stronghold of resistance to the Fascist uprising commanded by General Franco. Barcelona, the seat of much political power in the hands of Catalan nationalists, socialists, Trotskyites, and Communists was the last major base to fall and the Franco regime crushed every attempt to maintain Catalunya’s sense of individuality, including any remnant cultural and linguistic separateness.


In the last years of his life, General Franco (died 1975) began to make tentative reforms relaxing the tight control over Catalunya and the Catalan language, hoping it would pave the way for the regime to follow him. His successors believed they had succeeded and have been taken by surprise by the new round of aggressive assertions of Catalan identity and the renewed call for independence.



Catalunya thus has a much stronger claim to individuality and separateness from the rest of the country than the Scots have. They are however, like the Scots, aware, that to demand secession would plunge the economy and society of the two regions into chaotic conditions provoking bloodshed among fellow citizens and even among families. This explains the high proportion of voters in the referenda who simply refused to take part or cast blank ballots. Their NATO allies are aghast as this potential conflict, the roots of which go back more than seven hundred years.


As in Quebec, where two referenda for independence were narrowly defeated, the great majority of the population outside the disputed region simply wishes to restore harmony but believes that no further compromises should be made. Spain’s friends and allies must convince the Catalans that their heritage, language, and history can be secured but only without confrontation and in solidarity with other Spaniards against a real threat to them all from militant Islam and a greater measure of respect from other Spaniards and foreigners including the willingness to observe the ways in which Catalans are different, including their names.


It is not only the BBC, but all large firms with global interests that seek the “simple” solution of the largest market possible as the Walt Disney corporation did in 1995 when it refused to provide a dubbed version in Catalan for its new film Pocahontas. It claimed this would be a money loser although the EU promised to fund it. After all, a dubbed Spanish (Castilian) version already existed to serve the great international “Spanish speaking world.” (Dubbing a film costs ten times the expense of subtitling.) One year later, after boycotts and demonstrations, the decision was reversed both for Pocahontas and the new Disney film in 1996, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.


The Catalans have exorcised the ghost of General Franco, his 35-year rule and attempt at depriving them of cultural identity. They are however deeply divided over the question of independence and a restoration of the Republic. Most are unsympathetic with the monarchy which for so long was identified with Spanish imperialism, and centrist rule from Madrid. They are however unanimously proud and committed to the policies that promote the primacy of the Catalan language. Moreover, they have rejected the kind of global capitalism that seeks to dominate a small people, and diminish the essence of their language and culture.

Parallel texts






La floreciente economía de los siglos de la expansión catalana, su interrelación con los reinos de otros países y la cosolidación de un poder político hacen que los catalanes, además de dotarse de unas instituciones propias, construyan, a las ciudades mas importantes, los edificios necesarios para acogerlas.




The flourishing economy of the centuries of Catalonian expansion, its relationships with the kingdoms of other countries and the consolidation of political power made the Catalans, besides devoting themselves to develop their own institutions, construct their most important cities and the necessary buildings to accommodate them.   



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