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Origins and History


Catalan is a Romance language from the Neo-Latin group, appearing between the eighth and tenth centuries in a part of Catalonia, in Northern Catalonia and in Andorra, in the territories of the Carolingian Empire that formed the counties of the Spanish March.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it spread to the rest of Catalonia, most of Valencia, the Balearic Islands, La Franja (Aragon), to the Sardinian town of Alghero and to the Carxe county in the region of Murcia. The linguistic borders were established by the end of the reign of James I.

Currently, it extends over an area of about 68,730 km2, inhabited by 13,740,000 people in four countries: Andorra, Spain, France and Italy.

The language of the people, culture and the administration

The earliest known texts written in Catalan are fragments of the Catalan version of the Forum Iudicum and the Homilies d'Organyà sermons, both from the twelfth century.

Catalan expanded considerably as a language for creative work and government (the Royal Chancellery) between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, a time when the Aragonese crown extended its domains through the Mediterranean to Sicily, Sardinia, Naples and even Athens. The period saw the appearance of a number of literary works whose importance has been internationally recognised. They include the works of Ramon Llull, a contemporary of Dante, the four Cròniques (the Llibre dels fets, dealing with James I, the chronicles by Bernat Desclot and Ramon Muntaner and the chronicle written at the instigation of Pere el Cerimoniós), the works of Francesc Eiximenis, Anselm Turmeda, Bernat Metge and Ausiàs Marc, and Tirant lo Blanc, considered the first modern novel in western literature. The great legal texts of the period are also in Catalan: the Furs de València, the Costums de Tortosa, the Usatges and the Llibre del Consolat de Mar, a collection of maritime trade laws that applied to the whole of the Mediterranean until the eighteenth century. As a result of the relationship with Italy, one of the first known translations of the Divine Comedy was the Catalan version by Andreu Febrer, and great works of literature of the time, such as the Decameron, were translated into Catalan.

The period of literary decadence

Although the Catalan language had early access to the printing press, as evidenced by the fact that the first book printed in Catalan, Les trobes en llaors de la Verge Maria, appeared in 1474, in the Renaissance and the Baroque eras it experienced a period of decline, with respect to learned literature. It remained, however, a language of law and administration, and a popular language. In this period, the work of Josep Vicenç Garcia and Francesc Fontanella in Catalonia, Joan Ramis in Menorca, and Lluís Galiana in Valencia are of particular interest.

After the Catalan Revolt (1640-1659), the territories of Northern Catalonia were ceded to the French crown and Catalan was immediately banned from education and official use there. In the War of Spanish Succession (1704-1714), the territories of the former Crown of Aragon supported the Archduke Carlos and fought alongside the allied powers. As a result, after the defeat of Almansa (1707) and the taking of Barcelona (1714) and Majorca (1715), the Catalan-speaking territories lost their own institutions and Catalan was excluded from legislation, municipal affairs and the administration of justice, from education and from notarial and trade documents.

The Renaixença and the revival of the language

Coinciding with the movements of nationalism and romanticism throughout Europe, Catalan experienced a literary renaissance, the beginning of which is often considered to be symbolically marked by the publication of the ode La Pàtria (1833) by Bonaventura Carles Aribau, and which continued with poetry, theatre and fiction by many authors in Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and Valencia.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, this movement gave rise to universally popular and successful works such as those by Jacint Verdaguer, author of the epic poems L'Atlàntida and Canigó, Angel Guimerà who brought high literary standards to the Catalan theatre with works like Terra Baixa, and Narcís Oller, author of very modern novels, such as La febre d’or. Santiago Rusiñol, Joan Maragall, Ignasi Iglésias, Victor Català, Miquel Costa i Llobera, Joan Alcover, Joan Salvat-Papasseit, who introduced the use of calligrams, Josep Sebastià Pons and Bartomeu Rosselló-Pòrcel are among the most popular authors writing in the first third of the twentieth century.

At the same time, studies of the language were undertaken and dictionaries were produced (such as those by Pere Labèrnia, Pere Antoni Figuera, Josep Escrig and Marià Aguiló), and tracts on unacceptable loan words and spelling (such as those by the Majorcans Antoni Cervera and Joan Josep Amengual, and Josep Balari in Barcelona), which are the immediate predecessors of the modern standardisation which began in the early twentieth century.

Catalan was also introduced in the daily press and periodicals throughout Catalonia, both nation-wide and at local and county levels, with newspapers such as La Renaixença, El Poble Català, La Veu de Catalunya and, later, La Publicitat and El Matí, as well as magazines like La Ignorància, El Mole, L’Avenç, and others.

The institutionalisation of Catalan

In the early twentieth century, the Catalan nationalist parties in Catalonia began to campaign for the teaching of Catalan in schools and its use in the administration. Through the local institutions that he controlled, especially, through the Commonwealth of Catalonia, Enric Prat de la Riba provided great institutional support with the creation of the Institut d’Estudis Catalans  (1907) and its Philological Section, whose first president was the Majorcan priest, Antoni M. Alcover, promoter of the First International Congress of the Catalan Language (1906) and the Diccionari català-valencià-balear (Catalan-Valencian-Balearic Dictionary) (1926-1962), a masterpiece of Catalan lexicography. The support of Prat de la Riba and the Institut d’Estudis Catalans permitted the institutionalisation of the work carried out by Pompeu Fabra between 1913 and 1930 (orthographic rules, grammar, and his dictionary) with which Catalan was given unified modern rules.

The Spanish Constitution of 1931 and the Catalan Statute of Autonomy of 1932 enabled Catalonia to recover its own Government, Catalan to be declared an official language and an active policy to be undertaken to support its teaching. The Balearic Islands and Valencia, however, never saw their statutes of autonomy approved.

The dictatorship and the persecution of the language

Between 1939 and 1975, during the dictatorship that followed the Civil War (1936-1939), the persecution of Catalan was intense and systematic, particularly during the forties and fifties. Franco's regime prohibited the use of Catalan in education, in the publication of books, newspapers and magazines, in the transmission of telegrams and even in telephone conversations. In other words, it was banned both in public and in some strictly private communication. The screening of films was required to be in Spanish and theatre had to be presented in that language, the only one that could be used on television and radio. Administrative, notarial, judicial and mercantile documentation was exclusively in Spanish and anything in Catalan was considered null and void. Road and commercial signs, advertising and, in general, all exterior images in the country were in Spanish. During the fifties and sixties, at a time when none of the Catalan-speaking regions had educational resources or democratic freedoms, the large numbers of immigrants from the rest of Spain had few opportunities to become familiar with and learn the Catalan language, apart from some voluntary and semi-clandestine initiatives.

However, the Catalan language was maintained as a language of family transmission, in Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and the other Catalan-speaking areas. At that time many writers trained during the previous period, some of them in exile, wrote major works. They included Josep Carner, Carles Riba, Josep Maria de Sagarra, Josep Vicenç Foix, Josep Pla, Salvador Espriu, Mercè Rodoreda, Pere Calders, Joan Fuster, Vicent Andrés Estellés and Llorenç Villalonga.

Language Policy in democracy

After Franco's death (1975), when democratic freedoms were restored, the Constitution of 1978 recognised linguistic plurality and established that Spanish languages other than Castilian could be official in accordance with the statutes of autonomy for different regions. The statutes of Catalonia (1979) and the Balearic Islands (1983) recognised Catalan as the language of these areas and declared it the official language jointly with Spanish. The statute for Valencia also made the language official (1982), with the legal name of Valencian, while Catalan was established as the official language of Andorra in the country’s 1993 Constitution.

In accordance with these statutes, the autonomous parliaments of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and Valencia passed laws supporting the Catalan language, introducing it in schools, government and the media.

In Catalonia, the Language Standardisation Act of April 6, 1983, began a process that promoted the recovery of the knowledge and use of Catalan in three main areas, institutions, the media and education, which have determined the main lines of action on the path towards normalcy.

The Catalan Government, Parliament and provincial and city councils adopted Catalan as the language of everyday communication, both internally and in their relations with the public. This institutional commitment was reinforced by the creation of the Directorate-General for Language Policy within the Government of Catalonia as a body for the analysis, steering, planning, coordination and implementation of language policy. The Government also strengthened support for the Institut d’Estudis Catalans and created organisations such as TERMCAT, which has overseen terminology since 1985, and the Consortium for Language Standardisation, which works to extend the knowledge and use of the Catalan language.

Catalan medium education began in Catalonia in 1982, making Catalan the language in which pupils are taught in schools. The scheme has become an international benchmark, its positive results being reflected in the latest data on the knowledge of Catalan among children and young people.

Finally, since 1976 various Catalan media have been created that are noteworthy for their scope and popularity: Televisió de Catalunya, Radio 4, Catalunya Ràdio and RAC1 in Catalonia. Today, between public and private broadcasters, there are over 20 television channels in Catalan, and more than 100 radio stations. In Catalonia, the Local Communication Network brings together a large number of local radio and television stations. Catalan has also been strengthening its presence in the press, and there are currently more than 30 printed and digital newspapers in Catalan and more than 150 magazines.

The new challenges of the twenty-first century

In the twenty-first century Catalan has confirmed its place as one of the 100 most widely spoken languages in the world.

The social presence of Catalan in Catalonia at the beginning of the century was affected by two significant events: the flood of immigrants (in 2015, there were just over 1 million, 13.7% of the population) and the emergence of information and communication technologies. The first event had an impact on the general level of knowledge of Catalan and highlighted the need to continue working to give all newcomers access to knowledge of the language.

In the digital world, Catalan has a strong presence in different environments and networks. On a global scale, considering the number of Catalan speakers, the positioning and level of use of Catalan in information and communication technologies is quite remarkable. Viquipèdia (the Catalan version of Wikipedia), which contains over 1,000,000 articles, and Twitter, where it is the 19th most used language, are good examples. The .cat domain, available since 2005 in response to the demands of civil society, has not stopped growing: by 2011 there were more than 50,000 websites with this domain.

At the beginning of this century, despite the linguistic dynamism of Catalan society, Catalan continues to suffer from the obstructive attitude of the Spanish state in all Catalan-speaking areas. This is illustrated by the fact that Catalan is still not an official language of the European Union and that Catalan was used in just 8.4% of court rulings in 2015, to cite just two examples.

Update:  07.12.2016

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