- - Tuesday, October 24, 2017


Words matter, and sometimes language matters most of all, as the crisis in Spain eloquently demonstrates. The crisis is the result of a long, bitter history of the Catalan people who now seem determined to break away, establish their own nation, and enthrone their own language.

Catalan is not a Spanish dialect, but a separate, ancient and time-honored Latin-derived language with a history and a literature all its own. A body of people of considerable size speak it in the northwest of the Iberian peninsula, in a tiny enclave tucked between France and Spain. Nothing ties people together like a common tongue, and nothing divides people like an assault on their language.

Catalonia is a self-governing province of Spain under the 1978 constitution which followed the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco. The generalissimo was particularly repressive of the Catalan separatists. With a population of 7.5 million Catalonia is one of the most populous urban areas in the European Union. Highly industrialized, it turns out a gross domestic product of $255 billion, the highest of any Spanish region; its per capita income of $33,580 is only slightly behind that of Madrid, growing by 1.4 percent a year. Barcelona, its capital and largest city, is a major international cultural center that hosted the 1992 Summer Olympics.

The Catalans have always struggled for identity and, though never achieving statehood, through the centuries have passed from monarch to monarch until incorporated into Spain. The Catalan yearning to be a state of their own emerged forcefully in the bitter Spanish civil war between 1936 and 1939. Fighting between Stalinist and Trotskyist marked violent differences, and George Orwell told a riveting account of this civil war within a civil war in his memoir, “Homage to Catalonia,” and how Soviet apparatchiks who accompanied arms for the Republican forces attempted to subdue local revolutionaries.

A Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, approved in a referendum in 2006, has hardly settled the issue of local self-government nor have demands for complete independence from Spain been satisfied. The law was regarded by the conservative People’s Party, which insisted on putting the law to the Constitutional Court of Spain, was an attempt to achieve full independence, which led to the independence referendum. Nearly 92 percent of the 2 million Catalonians voting said “yes” to independence.

Large numbers of newcomers, some from other parts of Spain and some from Latin America, have emigrated into prosperous Catalonia. The Catalan language is a required subject in the schools, and has become a strong second language in Barcelona. Nevertheless, threats of secession have aggravated the business community and some companies have fled to other parts of Spain.

King Felipe VI insists that Catalonia “is and will remain” an essential part of the country, and the Madrid government is making plans to impose direct rule if necessary to prevent secession. The king accuses the Catalan government of causing a rift with Spain but he promises that the rift will be healed through “democratic institutions.”

Catalonia is naturally being watched closely from other European capitals, particularly those with lively separatist movements at hand, such as in Scotland, Brittany and Bavaria.

Uncertain times always produce unsettled times, when words can become lethal weapons.

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