Papua New Guinea's nine million people have more than 840 languages, and its Constitution (1975) calls for the state to achieve universal literacy in three of them: English, Tok-Pisin and Hiri-Motu. Both Pisin and Motu have a peculiarity: they are languages of pidgin origin, that is, they arose in hierarchical and multilingual contexts, without a common language, in which a new oral system is formed that, normally, mixes the basic lexicon of the language of the dominant (English) with grammatical structures of the languages of the dominated (several Polynesian languages in the case of Pisin, The oceanic language Motu in the Hiri Motu). When a pidgin language has native speakers, it is called creole and, if it has the necessary political backing, it can be standardized (with grammars and dictionaries that fix one of its varieties), to subsequently be transmitted in formal education, build the body of written texts that constitutes cultural memory, and become an official language of a State.
The case is not exceptional. The Constitution of Nigeria (1999), with more than 250 ethnic groups and more than 500 languages, recognizes English as an official language and the possibility of using Hausa (Afro-Asiatic language), Igbo or Yoruba (both of the Benue-Congo family, but of different subfamilies) in the National Assembly. For its part, Bolivia recognizes in its Constitution (2009) the officiality of Spanish along with 36 other languages. There are many examples. The decolonization processes of the last century highlighted the problem of the selection of official languages in the new States, so it is normal for colonial languages (Indo-European Romance or Germanic) to appear as languages of power; but the situation has been repeated in all the empires of history, which have exercised their linguistic policies relegating the languages of the invaded to diglossic situations (erasing them from institutional use), when not persecuting them or, directly, exterminating them.
Observing references such as these, it would seem that the languages of Spain are, suddenly, much more manageable, and that turning their coexistence into conflict contains a certain ombliguism and lack of will. Of the 48.3 million Spaniards who, according to the INE, make up the country, 19.6 belong to bilingual communities, and the figure exceeds 22 million if we include the Aragonese communities (with Aragonese, and also speakers of Catalan), Castilian-Leonese, Extremadura and Asturian (Asturian), or varieties such as Aranese Occitan, the Extremaduran fala of the Jálima valley, the Riffian Arabic from Ceuta or the Tamazig Berber from Melilla. All this does not include other languages that are the mother tongue of Spanish citizens of migrant origin (Romanian, Arabic...). However, most state institutions reinforce the idea of a monolingual country, in which the presence of other languages seems relegated to a curious folkloric anecdote.
Language is an essential element in our identity as human beings, and that explains the viscerality it awakens. As, in addition, language integrates the individual experience of each one of us, it is difficult to accept that our interpretation can be erroneous, and that there is an objective knowledge about it, especially if that knowledge is contrary to our intuitions. Intuitions normally impregnated with both classism and self-esteem, which can be summarized in the axiom "my language, your dialect", and whose clearest representation is that which places "the best Spanish" in the center-north of the peninsula, ignoring that Spanish has the majority of its speakers in Latin America. Although it is not a classism exclusive to Spanish; Many Valencian speakers claim that the variety of the city (the apitxat) is "the right one", and exactly the same happens with respect to Barcelona, for example, and the rest of Catalan varieties.
Of course, we all want ours to be a first-rate language; It is no coincidence that "Chabacano" is precisely the name of a Filipino Creole (Spanish lexicon, Tagalog and Cebuana grammar), whose speakers feel that their language is neither one thing nor another. But the truth is that we all speak dialects. That is why linguists use the concept of "variety" more, because for linguistics there are no better or worse languages, although sociolinguists must always consider these perceptions and, especially, their frequent political connotations.
In addition, the distinction of languages and dialects affects the denominations of languages, constantly instrumentalized from the identity nuance. Valencians accumulate decades, if not centuries, of experience in the subject. But, again, broadening the look helps to relativize, especially when we observe that almost all varieties have more than one name, and that it is frequent that some contain pejorative nuances. Thus, in 1977 the First Circumpolar Congress held in Alaska agreed that the term "Eskimo", meaning "person who eats raw fish" (although there are other theories), be replaced by "Inuit", which means "human beings". The history of gluttonims is full of similar cases.
In Spain, much of the belligerence aroused by many gluttonists ("Catalan" for the language of Mallorcans and Valencians; "Asturleonés", "bable" or "mirandés" for Asturian; "Castilian" for Spanish) is based on the nineteenth-century fallacy that establishes biunivocal correspondence between language and nation. A fallacy that connects with other equally unrealistic prejudices – such as pretending that the grammar of our mother tongue conditions our worldview – that have remarkable aesthetic appeal, but that simply do not reflect reality. English, Spanish, Arabic or Russian perfectly exemplify that a language does not correspond to a nation, but this prejudice still feeds many linguistic attitudes.
Undoubtedly, bringing Spanish multilingualism to Congress can be a significant step in the visualization of languages, but it is a decision that – like so many – basically affects the symbolic terrain. There are other communication spaces in which the State can demonstrate its respect for the mother tongues of many Spaniards: government messages in networks and media, school curricula, explanatory texts of exhibitions financed with the General Budget... to the name of coins and banknotes. It is, however, eloquent, however disproportionate, that the PERTE of language, which undoubtedly includes a brilliant initiative to promote the fourth international language, Spanish, in the digital economy, devotes 30 of its 1,100 million euros to the other official languages.
I end with a key concept, that of passive bilingualism (sometimes called sesquilinguism), which is especially relevant in contexts of typologically close languages (in Spain only Basque is a language alien to the Romance group). It is a situation in which everyone speaks their own language but understands that of their neighbour, which is compatible with a claim of rights over what one speaks, respecting what the other speaks; It is a quite natural situation not only in multilingual families but all over the world. Faced with the "talk to me in Christian!", painfully frequent in certain contexts of our geography (and not only in Spanish speakers), it is surely more effective, and more democratic, a "can you speak to me more slowly?", which is, by the way, what we tend to ask in Italy, France or Portugal when we are on vacation. Because on this issue, as in almost everyone, a clear distinction is made between those who defend being able to speak their own language, and those who pretend to decide the language that others should speak.
Beatriz Gallardo Paúls is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Valencia and collaborator of Agenda Pública.
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