There are hundreds upon hundreds of languages today, but many are under threat. UNESCO identifies four levels of risk: vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered and critically endangered. The number of languages appearing on this list, even just in Europe, is alarming. If regional dialects are included it is even higher. Yiddish and Romani, for example, are listed as definitely endangered, while West Flemish is listed as vulnerable, despite the fact that all three are still spoken in more than ten countries. In the UK, Cornish is listed as critically endangered and Welsh as vulnerable.
One language which might easily have found its way onto that list - but happily hasn’t - is Catalan. Having recently returned from a visit to the Pyrenees, I was fortunate enough to hear this language spoken by passers-by when walking in the mountains. Catalan is not a lost or dying language, nor is it merely a dialect of French or Spanish, as some people mistakenly believe. It is very much alive, in spite of the best efforts of those who have tried to extinguish it.
Dating back to the 9th century in the Pyrenees, and once extensively spoken in the Mediterranean part of Europe, the Catalan language has suffered multiple attacks. It was banned on two occasions: once in the 18th century when Northern Catalonia became part of France, and later in the 20th century under the Franco dictatorship between 1939 and 1975. In spite of this, there are those who have tenaciously held on.
Catalonia now forms a triangular-shaped area in north-eastern Spain. The autonomous government of Catalonia, the Generalitat, spends money on education and media to promote the language, and schoolchildren have most of their lessons in Catalan. The community is admirably bilingual, while the population of neighbouring Andorra is trilingual, with Spanish, French and Catalan being spoken. Catalan is also the national and official language of Andorra.
As a language, Catalan has flavours of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, but there are differences in lexis, grammar and pronunciation with all of these. For historical reasons, there is also a French Catalan, and a Spanish Catalan, with marked differences between the two. There are a few similarities between English and the Catalan spoken in Spain, but barely any between English and French Catalan. In Barcelona, for example, the word for curtain is “cortina”, while the French Catalan word is “rideu”. However, on both sides of the Pyrenees the word for cauliflower is “col i flor”.
I admire Catalan for its tenacity, and hope its chequered history will inspire others fighting for the survival of their language.