Language and ethnicity: Spain

Sep 1, 2010 by

Undoubtedly, language constitutes an important ingredient in one’s ethnic or national identity. What is essentially the same language, may be perceived — by speakers themselves — as distinct languages, based on their ethnic self-identification. Thus, former Serbo-Croatian is now viewed as four distinct languages: Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin. Likewise, speakers of Muslim Tat and Judeo-Tat would not admit to speaking the same language, despite the highest degree of mutual comprehensibility. The reason: religious divide prevents them from seeing each other as part of the same ethnic group.

But still, in very many cases ethnic or geopolitical boundaries do not coincide with linguistic boundaries. This is true on the state level for many multilingual states, such as Switzerland, India or Belgium. And it’s equally true on the sub-state level too.

Take Spain, for instance. It is divided into 17 autonomous communities: Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Basque Country, La Rioja, Navarre, Castille and Leon, Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia, Madrid, Murcia, Castile-La Mancha, Extremadura, Andalusia, Balearic Islands, and Canary Islands. But a quick examination of a language map of Spain (see the Geocurrents map below) reveals that many of the linguistic boundaries do not correspond to community boundaries. Several of the so-called autonomous communities are monolingual: for example, La Rioja, Castile-La Mancha, Madrid, Andalusia and Canary Islands exclusively Spanish-speaking, Balearic Islands are exclusively Catalan-speaking and Galicia is exclusively Galician-speaking. Yet, many others autonomous communities are bilingual or even trilingual.

An interesting case is presented by Asturia, which is Galician-speaking in the west (shown in green) and Asturian-speaking in the east (shown in pink):

Similarly, Castile and Leon is trilingual with Galician and Asturian in the northwest and Spanish elsewhere. While the largest part of Aragon is Spanish-speaking, the inhabitants of the northern part of Aragon speak Aragonese and those along its border with Catalonia speak Catalan. Catalan and Spanish also compete in Valencia. But perhaps the most interesting linguistic situation obtains in the Basque Country and Navarre. While all the abovementioned languages (Spanish, Catalan, Galician, Aragonese, and Asturian) are very closely related — they all belong to the Western branch of the Romance subfamily (within the Indo-European language family), Basque Country and Navarre are divided between Spanish and a competely unrelated language — Basque.

Basque is spoken mostly in the northern parts of both Basque Country and Navarre (see the map below):

Basque is an islate, meaning it is not related to any other known (currently spoken) human language. It is spoken by about 580,000 and has the status of an official language along with Spanish in the Basque regions of Spain, in the Basque Country and in some parts of Navarre. It has no official status in the Basque Country of France.

Overall, the Ethnologue lists 14 languages for Spain, including — along with the already mentioned languages — Caló (the language of the 40,000 Spanish Gypsies), Extremaduran (spoken by 200,000) and Fala (spoken by 10,500) in the Extremadura autonomous community, as well as Gascon and Quinqui. There are also three Sign languages in Spain: Spanish Sign Language, Catalan Sign Language, and Valencian Sign Language.

In the next posting we will look closely at the language of France.

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