Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Politics Of "The"

The James the Third Foundation of the Balearic Islands in Castellano is La Fundación Jaime III de las Islas Baleares. But Castellano really won't do. Nor, to be frank, will English. How about, therefore, La Fundació Jaume III de les Illes Balears? Even worse; much worse in fact. It should be Sa Fundació Jaume III de ses Illes Balears. Which is what it is. Can you spot the difference?

Of the two latter usages, one is Catalan and the other isn't. It is Mallorquí. On such small detail are great arguments based. Whole societies and cultures revolve around the smallest of detail and words. In English we have a small word that generates no debate or discussion. The is the. The definite article is definitely the. Across the Catalan-Mallorquí divide there is no such definitiveness. The definite article is different.

Ultimately it is all to do with Latin. Without getting technical, separate or divergent linguistic development resulted in the "salat" article in Mallorquí - "sa" for the feminine form of the singular the and "ses" for the feminine plural. The use of the definite article is one of the more strikingly obvious differences between Mallorquí and Catalan, but it is far from being the only difference. There are at least 2,700 others. The foundation has an automatic translator system for Castellano into Mallorquí. This substitutes some 2,700 "continental Catalan" words for the genuine articles (sic) that are used in Mallorca. There are also hundreds of phrases.

The foundation takes its name from the last independent King of Mallorca, who died in combat in seeking to preserve his sovereignty. This happened an awfully long time ago - 1349 to be precise. Nowadays, Jaume III is the symbol for the foundation's mission, which is to dignify Mallorquí (and the languages of the other Balearic Islands as well).

Ah but, are they languages? The foundation pinpoints a time when Mallorquí was effectively relegated to dialect status: the establishment of regional autonomous government in 1983 and the adoption of Catalan as a co-official language. This is a somewhat contentious proposition. There are many of course who will argue that Mallorquí was always a dialect and still is. But the act of making Catalan official, the foundation argues, has led to Mallorquí being considered in a pejorative sense, as a form of patois.

Language or dialect is not an argument I have any wish to enter. Many are the philologists who have compiled worthy tomes on the distinction: it's for them to chew the fat. Let's just say that there are the obvious differences between Catalan and Mallorquí. But let's also say that there are great chunks of politics in the argument.

If one could just strip away the philological and political arguments for one moment, it seems - to me at any rate - perfectly reasonable and justifiable to defend Mallorquí (salat article and all). Be it language or dialect, this corresponds with culture and vice versa. In combination, language (dialect) and culture equate to identity, the roots of a society.

The problem is that politics, as much if not more than linguistics, intrude into the debate and totally dominate it. An article by Manel Soler Cases in "El Temps" last week took great issue with the foundation. Its title was "the ambiguous game of identity". Soler, in a nutshell, accused the foundation of being nothing but a politically motivated entity that it is anti-Catalanist. He explored the linguistic issue in depth, but then one has to ask how much he is influenced by politics - that of a pro-Catalanist nature.

The foundation has just drawn attention to a survey of linguistic uses in the Balearics that was conducted by the government in 2014. This discovered that only 31% of the population consider Catalan to be descriptive of their language. A further finding was that only 20% of young people (aged 15-29) predominantly speak Catalan. The foundation concluded that this was evidence of the "absolute failure of Catalan as a language of integration".

It is perhaps too simple to reduce the political argument to one of right versus left, but in general terms, there is a right-wing stance that favours the local languages, such as Mallorquí. On the left, a favouring of Catalan, at its most ambitious, involves the concept of pan-Catalanism and the Catalan Lands. When José Ramón Bauzá was president (a right-wing PP government), the IB3 broadcaster was made to use the salat article. There was a fair old stink; the policy has since been reversed.

When Bauzá stood again as leader of the PP, both he and the winning candidate, Biel Company, told the foundation that they were committed to teaching that uses Mallorquí. Company is not Bauzá though. But the very fact that he was asked thoroughly reveals the political nature of the argument.

I wonder if Jaume III used "sa".

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