30. What we say, and how we feel about it: Focus on Catalan in France

This post is also available in: Catalan

James Hawkey
University of Bristol


All students of sociolinguistics quickly learn that language is highly variable, and that such variability can convey a great deal of social information. Let’s take the United Kingdom as an example. As soon as a native speaker of British English utters the word bath, they are opening themselves up to an onslaught of social judgement… Where is this person from? What kind of school did they go to? What kind of job do they have? What political party do they vote for? The answers to all of these questions are potentially coded within the pronunciation of that one little word: does the speaker use a short vowel, like in hat, or a long vowel, like in car? Is that last consonant pronounced with the tongue between the teeth, or in the same way as the last sound in staff? Just this one tiny word, with its three different sounds, reveals a number of possible pronunciations, each conveying its own social information. So, how do we go about patterning this complex variation? What sort of social categories can predict or govern a speaker’s preference for using one sound over another? And, of particular interest to us in this discussion, do our own opinions about the languages we speak affect the way we speak them?

In order to answer these questions, we need to draw on the most recent scholarly advances from two related sub-disciplines of sociolinguistics: variationism and language attitudes. Variationism seeks to establish correlations between the preferred use of a given variant (so, for example, whether you use a long or a short vowel in bath) and some broader social category (such as your age, social class, etc.) Language attitudes examine the views and belief systems we hold about the language(s) we speak. Social psychologists have long maintained that attitudes are made up of different components, including our emotions about a given object, our beliefs and thoughts about said object, and our enacted behaviours regarding the object. Attitudes and behaviours are therefore closely linked, and much social psychological scholarship seeks to understand how our feelings about something tie into our actions. Bringing all of this together, my work looks at the question of whether our opinions about a language reflect patterns of variation, with a particular focus on situations of bilingualism and language endangerment. My latest book, Language Attitudes and Minority Rights (Palgrave Macmillan 2018), constitutes an in-depth study of the Catalan language in Southern France, and asks whether language variation in Catalan can be correlated with speaker attitudes.

Firstly, I used anonymous questionnaires to paint a clear picture of the language attitudinal landscape in Northern Catalonia (the area of Southern France where Catalan is an autochthonous variety, based around the city of Perpignan). Language attitudes are typically quantitatively measured along two dimensions: status (‘the desire to get ahead in some way’) and solidarity (‘the desire to be accepted by another group’) (Woolard 1989: 90). Of course, it should come as no surprise that, in France, French was seen by almost everyone as the main language of status in the region. For centuries, regional and minority languages in France (like Catalan) have been subjected to processes of marginalisation and its speakers forced or encouraged to move towards French monolingualism. However, one thing that is particularly interesting in Northern Catalonia is that, even for speakers of Catalan (who, according to official statistics, number around 35% of the population, though the real figure is likely to be lower), French is a language of solidarity. That is to say, French is a language that all speakers hold dear as a vehicle of in-group communication and identity, even if these people are also speakers of Catalan. The centuries of French dominance have led to this language leading the way not only as a means to get ahead socially, but also as a strong identity marker. This being said, while French is viewed as the preferred vehicle of in-group solidarity and social advancement across the population of Northern Catalonia, people are not necessarily negative about Catalan: some speakers view Catalan as a language of potential status, social mobility and international advancement. So, what are the consequences for language variation? Do Northern Catalans who view Catalan positively as a language of status speak in a certain way? What about those people who do not view Catalan as a language of status, but instead as a vehicle of in-group solidarity? Do they sound different?

Turning to the study of language variation in the region, I focused on a number of different variables, only one of which we’ll briefly look at here. One of the most salient differences between varieties of Catalan spoken in France and those spoken elsewhere is the ‘r’ sound. In Northern Catalonia, many speakers use the uvular fricative rhotic, more familiar to most people as the guttural ‘French r’. This is basically limited to Catalan as spoken in France, with speakers from other areas using the alveolar tap or trill, recognisable as the rolled ‘r’ sound used in languages like Spanish or Italian. Within Northern Catalonia, this rhotic variable proved highly unusual, since there was very little intra-speaker variation, but large amounts of inter-speaker variation with little apparent accommodation. In short, this means that people were very consistent in their own use of either the ‘French r’ or the ‘Spanish r’ when speaking in Catalan, and that this didn’t depend on their conversation partner. So if people were categorically using one variant or another, and if they weren’t influenced by the person to whom they were speaking, how could this variation be predicted? What was the social meaning carried by the use of the ‘French r’ or ‘Spanish r’? The answer turned out to be language attitudes…

If a speaker rated Catalan highly as a language of in-group solidarity, then this person was more likely to use the uvular (‘French’) rhotic. A sense that the local language is important to interpersonal relations is clearly linked to use of local variants: remember that the uvular rhotic is not found outside this region. Local orientation on an attitudinal level is aligned with usage of local language patterns. In very broad terms, people who feel that their identity is bound up with use of the local language, sound more local. People overtly comment on this kind of variation too, as I discovered during the interviews I conducted in Northern Catalonia:

El meu accent és pas un accent totalment tradicional per la gent del sud. Per exemple, potser és anecdòtic, però les bromes pel fet de fer les erres guturals i no de les fer rulades.

My accent isn’t exactly traditional for somebody from the south [i.e. the Autonomous Community of Catalonia]. For example, it might be anecdotal, but the jokes (I get) because I have my guttural r instead of a rolled one (Hawkey 2018: 119).

This variable is merely one example of the complex variation that characterises this (and indeed, every) language variety. The links between variation and attitudes have been, until now, largely overlooked. Variationism has become increasingly focused on locally constructed categories as correlates for language variation: instead of simply saying ‘person X is more likely to use a given variant if they are male/working class/White, etc.’, scholars are now examining the different ideological stances that language variation might imply. My work is taking this a stage further, by using large-scale questionnaires to look at societal-level attitudes and belief systems, and then relating these to language variation. By marrying the different methodological approaches from variationism and language attitudes, it is possible to shed light on how our belief systems influence what we do. In short, perhaps the way we speak is indeed affected by how we feel about language itself, and this conclusion represents an interesting move forward for sociolinguistic scholarship. Moreover, this kind of holistic approach to linguistic communities (particularly those that find themselves in situations of endangerment) allows us to better understand the rich linguistic and cultural diversity that surrounds us, and ultimately, to better connect with other people.



Hawkey, James. 2018. Language Attitudes and Minority Rights: The Case of Catalan in France. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Woolard, Kathryn. 1989. Double Talk: Bilingualism and the Politics of Ethnicity in Catalonia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.