THE thousands of tourists who visit the Sagrada Família church in Barcelona every year are unaware that Antoni Gaudi, its architect, was arrested for speaking Catalan. On September 11 1924, the architect wanted to attend a mass in memory of the Catalans who had fallen in 1714 defending Barcelona against the troops of Philip V, the ancestor of the current king. The police blocked the entrance and threatened Gaudí that if he insisted on speaking Catalan, they would arrest him. Gaudí continued to speak Catalan and was locked up for a night in a dungeon.

Gaudí’s story is an example of the three-hundred-year-long struggle over language between Spain and the Catalan people. After defeating the Catalans, Philip V replaced the Catalan institutions with Castilian institutions. The Catalans were left with only their language to survive as a people. During the 18th and 19th centuries, kings, dictators, and presidents wanted to eliminate Catalan from the public sphere: from institutions, from schools, from universities, from the church – and even forbade speaking it on the telephone. During the forty years of Franco’s dictatorship, in addition to the prohibitions, compulsory schooling and television had to be in Spanish. At the end of the dictatorship, Catalonia recovered a certain level of self-government, and two measures were taken to recover the language: the creation of public television in Catalan and schooling in Catalan. These were initiatives with a great social and political consensus that achieved a 90% knowledge of Catalan. This made Catalan an example for minority languages, without a state behind them, which do not want to disappear.

However, the percentage of people who habitually use Catalan is declining because the Spanish Constitution gives pre-eminence to Spanish as the only official language. Its speakers have the right to use it in all territories and speakers of other languages have the obligation to know it. As all Catalan speakers know Spanish, but not all Spanish speakers know Catalan, Catalan is not so necessary and is losing speakers among newcomers. Although 10 million people speak Catalan (comparable to Danish, Norwegian, Hungarian or Greek), Catalans have far fewer rights because Catalan is subject to policies that diminish it.

The NGO “Plataforma per la Llengua” has documented 52 cases of linguistic discrimination against Catalan speakers in 2020. This figure is only the tip of the iceberg, as many discriminations go unreported, and many Catalan speakers opt to switch to Spanish to avoid problems. Given that a third of discrimination has been perpetrated by the police, things have not progressed as much as they seem from Gaudí’s time until now. And although the degree of discrimination and violence has varied over time, the goal of all Spanish governments has always been the same: to achieve a homogeneously Castilian state population. It is therefore not too surprising that so many Catalans have concluded that they need an independent state to survive as a national minority.

For more information, see “The Catalan Language”:

Maria M Garayoa

Barcelona, Catalonia

RIGHT, I’ve been putting it off for long enough (Anger after petition labels Gaelic funding a ‘frivolous, vanity project’,, Jan 11). This cretin Douglas Capon has made my mind up for me. Some say that learning Gaelic is a political act. It is. Do it.

Derek Thomson