Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Forgotten Language: Castilian signs

In the arguments about trilingual teaching, the law of symbols and the removal of the requirement for public-sector employees to speak or be proficient in Catalan, something has tended to be lost. It is the Castilian language. It hasn't of course been lost by its defenders, be they in the regional government, in certain organisations (mainly of the right, such as the Circulo Balear) and in the public at large, but the polemic that has raged as a consequence of the government's anti-Catalan policies has tended to portray the Catalan language as the victim and as the principal matter for debate while ignoring the rightful claims of Castilian.

It is worth remembering that Catalan and Castilian are co-official languages in the Balearics and that the 1986 law of "linguistic standardisation" envisaged the co-existence of the two languages in a balanced fashion. But this didn't happen. Though the government at the time was dominated by the Partido Popular (strictly speaking, the Alianza Popular, which was the forerunner to the PP), Catalan was adopted as the language of government. The government of Gabriel Cañellas also introduced a measure to apply to public signs. They would be in Catalan, but Castilian could be used as well for what were referred to as "sociolinguistic circumstances". Even then, Catalan would take preference. In 1990, the then minister for culture, Maria Antònia Munar (her party, the Unió Mallorquina was in coalition with the PP) took this further. She had been instrumental in drafting the measure for public signs, which had included establishing place names in Catalan/Mallorquín only (e.g. Sa Pobla rather than La Puebla), and under a decree of 1990, she succeeded in all but eliminating Castilian from the Balearic administration.

What followed was that Catalan came to dominate, especially in two key sectors of public administration - health and education. So dominant has Catalan become that there was, in May 2009, a sizable demonstration in Palma against the "Catalan imposition"; some 25,000 people took part. So dominant has Catalan become in education that for the 2011-2012 school year, according to government figures, seven out of ten children in state schools received their education in Catalan only.

It is this dominance that the Bauzá government has sought to address. It may have gone about doing so in a far from satisfactory fashion - as with the cack-handed way it has dealt with trilingual teaching - but there were legitimate reasons for it to have addressed the "imposition". Castilian had become an all but non-language.

But there was a world of difference between the public and private sectors. In 2001, the government of Francesc Antich, ostensibly therefore a PSOE administration but beholden to partners on the left and the Unió Mallorquina, introduced a law by which businesses' signs could be shown in both Catalan and Castilian but which also allowed signs to be in Catalan only. It was deemed illegal if signs were only in Castilian.

To what extent this law was really paid any real attention to is questionable. It was observed, by the "El Mundo" newspaper that by 2008, in Palma at any rate, signs and information provided by private businesses tended to be in Castilian rather than Catalan. It is often said, with justification, that Palma is more Castilian than the rest of Mallorca, but nevertheless, these businesses were, in effect, flouting the law. In that year, therefore, Antich's second government reiterated the law that had been passed in 2001. Fines for non-compliance could be as steep as 60,000 euros.

The Bauzá government has now repealed the 2001 law. Businesses will no longer be required to have signs and information in Catalan "at the very least". While this might raise some hackles, the law was hardly ever enforced. And in another move, the government has opened the way to foreign-run businesses to have information in whatever language they want without, or so it would seem, having to use Castilian or Catalan (not that all have been doing so, by any means). The government doesn't seem to be insisting on place names going back to being in Castilian - a suggestion which had been raised early in the current legislature - presumably having reasoned that it would be more trouble than it would be worth. 

Scrapping the law is common sense. While it was a futile law in any event, it was a nonsense of one, too. Private businesses should not be dictated to as what language they use. If one is better than the other for a particular business, then so be it. It was a law which showed how far the "imposition" had gone and how far a zeal for Catalan had indeed become an imposition. The Bauzá government may not have always applied common sense in linguistic matters, but on this one, it most definitely has.

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