3. Is Catalan spoken on the London Underground?


Maria Carme Junyent
Grup d’Estudi de Llengües Amenaçades, GELA-UB

Recently, Oliver O’Brien, a University College London researcher, published a map of the London Underground showing the languages spoken there: http://oobrien.com/2014/11/tube-tongues-the-ward-edition/. The first edition of the work identified the following languages: French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Lithuanian, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil, Cantonese, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, Somali, German, Dutch, Yiddish, Russian, Hindi, Telugu, Nepalese, Korean, Yoruba and Afrikaans; a later version added Swedish, Albanian, Hebrew and Swahili. An article about this web site on http://www.fastcoexist.com/3037778/visualizing/this-map-shows-which-languages-are-most-common-at-every-subway-stop-in-london, mentioned the fact that London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, as around 300 languages are spoken there.

Of course, more than 300 languages are spoken in London. Just like here in Barcelona, where so far we have only identified 280 languages, http://www.gela.cat/doku.php?id=llengues. But returning to the map of the London Underground, there is something rather surprising: It does not show a single endangered language. Needless to say, this was neither the author’s intention, and even if it had been, it would have been difficult to find one. The reason is because endangered languages have this feature in common: they are largely hidden, either for fear of ridicule, marginalisation, repression, or because the likelihood of them being noticed is very slim. The speakers of subordinate languages, threatened or not, behave rather similarly when using these languages in public. Centuries of persecution, marginalisation, humiliation and all kinds of inhumane treatments towards their languages have taught them to use discretion.

We all know that Catalan is spoken on the London Underground, but Catalan does not appear on the list; it probably remained hidden among Spanish speakers in the same way that other languages on this list must hide many more. It is also curious to see that Swahili appears in last place on the list when in fact there are many more Swahili speakers than speakers of Lithuanian, Greek, Dutch, Swedish, Albanian and Hebrew. Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that in reality the “most widely spoken languages ​​on the London Underground” are the most common “official languages”, that is those used because their speakers have the confidence of people who have won the right to use the language or because they are languages that have “already made it” into the mainstream.

The endangered languages study group (Grup d’Estudi de Llengües Amenaçades, GELA) have often wanted to show a map of which languages are spoken in which areas, either in Catalonia or in Barcelona, that is, to show similar information to that in the London Underground map. We have not been nor are we able to do it: such data are not available to us and the census does not reflect the full diversity here. Interviewers often find that many Catalans, who have suffered humiliation or repression through speaking their own language, conceal it and the interviewers have to be very well trained to draw out this information.

When GELA was making an inventory of the languages spoken in Catalonia, the fundamental aim was to reveal the diversity. Beyond the inventory, we wanted to show the value of this diversity, which is so often looked down on, and the search for the languages of Catalonia gave us many pleasant surprises and helped us understand that the mother tongue is not the language of the mother but the language you identify with, according to Dr Tove Skutnabb-Kangas. So, for example, a group of Egyptians told us that their language was not Arabic but Coptic, or an Argentinian girl was said to be speaking Selknam, a language officially considered extinct, and another declared that her language was Hawaiian. We also found people who were not taught the language of their parents or ancestors and while in Barcelona found the opportunity to learn it with people from their countries who were preserving it: there have been people here who recovered Tatar, Mapudungun, Quechua and others. And very often, this desire to recover the ancestral language is provoked by the realisation of the vitality of Catalan.

Mirroring of Catalan is also at the root of the claim made by a Nepalese girl that she was from Tamang or that by a Senegalese boy that he was from Bassari, or by an Indian boy that he was from Sikkim. They saw, through us, that their languages have value. Experience in Catalonia has also enabled them to shake off the prejudices that were transmitted to them. Iranians speaking Azeri, or Russians speaking Bashkir, or Ghanaians speaking Akan have also discovered here that what they speak are languages and not dialects as they were always led to believe. And, conversely, Catalans have also been able to learn that eskimo, jibaro and lapp are derogatory terms and that those groups of peoples speak the languages Inuktitut, Shuar and Sami respectively. These are terms that are being gradually incorporated in our dictionary. We have also discovered that there are Catalans who have Rapanui as their first language, or Maori, or Aka, the language of the Pygmies, or Tlingit, a nearly extinct language of Canada.

If we made a map of our languages, either on the metro, the bus, in schools or on squares and streets, we would find more than forty languages from Cameroon and more or less the same number from Nigeria. We would also find a large number of Creole languages and sign languages coexisting with the Catalan Sign language. Catalonia is also the country of 300 languages. We hope than none of them have been hiding for fear or shame because, official or not, with many or few speakers, all these are languages of Catalan people and all form an indispensable part of our linguistic heritage.