Opinion, reflections and information

1 2 3 7

62. One Hundred Years of Irish Language Policy, 1922-2022

John Walsh

National University of Ireland, Galway

In this article, Dr John Walsh gives an overview of his new book on a century of Irish language policy, to be published in 2022.

By the late 19th Century when the Irish cultural and literary revival was at its peak, the Irish language was in a marginal position in society and spoken by less than one in five people, mostly in impoverished mostly coastal districts known as the Gaeltacht. The revitalisation of Irish became a central plank in the movement for greater independence from Britain and many nationalists learned Irish or championed its cause. The establishment of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) in 1893 was a milestone event, because the organisation dedicated itself to promoting Irish as the vernacular and attracted widespread interest throughout Ireland and abroad. While only a small percentage of those who attended its classes became fluent speakers, the League played a key role in raising public awareness of Irish and mustered support for the idea that its promotion was a key part of the broad nationalist movement. With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6th 1921, the path was cleared for the creation of an independent Irish state following a tumultuous decade of political change in Ireland. The Irish Free State, a dominion within the British Commonwealth, came into being one year later on December 6th 1922 and declared in its constitution that Irish was both the national and an official language, alongside English. Inspired by the ideals of the Gaelic League, some of whose members held ministerial positions, the new state announced a raft of policy measures to support Irish in education, legal status, public administration and the Gaeltacht.

The remaining Irish-speaking districts were located mostly along the western and southern coasts and had been decimated by economic problems and emigration by the time of the foundation of the Irish Free State. Given the centrality of language to the independence question, it was unsurprising that one of the state’s first big-ticket initiatives in relation to Irish was to set up a Gaeltacht Commission in 1925. The Commission was composed of representatives of the middle-class male Catholic elite that had backed the Anglo-Irish Treaty and was loyal to the new state. Some of the Commission’s 82 proposals were unrealistic in policy terms, but many useful recommendations were rejected by the Department of Finance on the grounds of expense, despite its claim to be supportive of the language. This was the beginning of a pattern that persisted throughout the subsequent century: proposals to strengthen Irish being rejected by governments that were ostensibly committed to its promotion. Despite a recommendation by the Commission that a permanent governance structure be set up for the Gaeltacht, responsibility was transferred to the marginal Department of Fisheries, later Lands. A dedicated central government department was not established under 1956, and this has remained relatively weak in political terms with the current arrangement combining Gaeltacht with five other portfolios. An industrial development agency was formed in 1957 and, following a rights-based campaign in the 1960s and 1970s, was replaced by an ostensibly more democratic body, Údarás na Gaeltachta, in 1980. While Gaeltacht development was successful in creating employment, it was also criticised for undermining the position of Irish by attracting English-speakers into the Gaeltacht to work in industries managed by non-Irish speakers. Since the industrialisation of the 1960s, the Gaeltacht has witnessed both socioeconomic and sociolinguistic change, and a major study of 2007 confirmed that Irish is under increasing pressure as a community language in its historical districts. The most recent census returns (2016) recorded falls in key Irish language statistics, particularly in the Gaeltacht. Almost two thirds of the Gaeltacht population (c. 64,000 people) report the ability to speak Irish, but less than 21,000 (21.4 percent) use the language daily outside the education system, a significant drop on the previous census. These figures mask considerable regional differences, with some parts of the Gaeltacht still significantly Irish-speaking. As part of a broader 20-Year Strategy for the Irish Language launched in 2010, a ‘language planning process’ was launched as a result of the Gaeltacht Act 2012, followed by a Gaeltacht Education Policy in 2016. The Gaeltacht is now divided into 26 ‘language planning districts’, each of which has its own plan and Irish language officer, but the process remains underfunded and lacks political clout.

The language planning process covers Irish speakers outside the Gaeltacht also, who have been recognised on a statutory basis in the 2012 act for the first time in micro-level initiatives aimed at specified communities. Such projects are often sites for ‘new speakers’, regular users of Irish who were not socialised in the language in early childhood or are not from the Gaeltacht. New spatial categories of Gaeltacht Service Towns and Irish Language Networks are to be developed through this process, although progress has been much slower than in the Gaeltacht. The all-Ireland language planning agency, Foras na Gaeilge, supports additional local language schemes. Despite widespread knowledge of Irish in the population, use of the language in community settings is stubbornly low after a century of policy support. Census data from the Republic of Ireland reveal that about 40 percent of the population (c. 1.7 million people) claim competence in Irish, but that only about two percent speak the language daily outside the education system. More than two-thirds of these are outside the Gaeltacht and in loosely scattered networks rather than areas of geographical density. In Northern Ireland, where Irish remains far more marginal in public life, about 11 percent of the population (c. 185,000 people) claim some knowledge, with about four percent (c. 65,000 people) reporting the key skills of understanding, speaking, writing and reading Irish. Relatively high levels of knowledge and use are recorded in nationalist areas such as West Belfast.

Despite the undermining of the Gaeltacht Commission in 1928, other early policy measures were significant, particularly in the realm of education. On St. Patrick’s Day 1922, Irish was made a core school subject and later became a requirement to pass state examinations. Despite the challenges posed by lack of competence among teachers, the absence of a written standard and poor supply of textbooks, significant progress was made with immersion education in the following decades. By the 1930s, most primary schools were operating fully or partially in Irish with about one third of secondary schools doing so. Standardisation of the spelling and grammar of Irish from the 1940s and terminology creation consolidated the place of the language in education in addition to boosting wider consumption of published material. While the requirement to pass Irish in order to obtain the Leaving Certificate examination was abolished in the 1970s, the language has maintained its core status and is still studied by the great majority of pupils throughout their schooling. This has ensured widespread knowledge of it, albeit at more passive levels of competence, and has contributed to general goodwill towards Irish among the population, a majority of whom favour maintaining its core status. However, repeated studies have tracked declining competence among students and teachers and a discredited system of exemptions is being exploited by a minority in order to avoid studying Irish entirely. An Irish-language requirement for many leading universities in the Republic of Ireland is an additional policy prop, but with the exception of the academic subject of Irish itself, opportunities to study through the medium of Irish at third level are few and far between. Another weakness relates to Irish-medium education, with only 8 percent of pupils (approximately 45,000 people) in the Republic attending all-Irish schools (Gaelscoileanna), a percentage far lower than equivalent figures in Wales and the Basque Country.

Partition in 1920 left Northern Ireland outside the southern state, and decades of systematic repression of the nationalist community led to the total marginalisation of Irish from public life in the North. A radical ideology of resistance to the British state was often the basis for community Irish language projects since the 1960s, in particular a micro ‘Gaeltacht’ community in West Belfast. Further progress has been made since the adoption of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, especially in the establishment of Foras na Gaeilge as an all-Ireland agency with responsibility for promoting Irish on both sides of the border. The Agreement also obliged the British government to develop Irish-medium education and media and there have been significant advances in both areas in recent years. However, Irish remains a bone of contention between nationalists and unionists and was at the heart of the collapse of the power-sharing institutions in 2017. An agreement in 2020 to restore Northern Ireland’s government contained a commitment to enhance the legal status of Irish but fell short of the demands of campaigners for a standalone Irish language act. Progress has been slow, due to tensions over Brexit as much as cultural identity, and pressure has mounted on the British government to introduce Irish language legislation through Westminster, bypassing Stormont entirely.

Irish has benefitted from legislation in the Republic since 2003, when the Official Languages Act introduced obligations on public bodies to increase incrementally their offer of Irish language services. The Act followed decades of campaigning by Irish speakers for language rights, following the failure of the state to ensure the delivery of Irish language services, even in the Gaeltacht. Although Irish was designated the national and first official language in the 1937 Constitution, no legislation was enacted to give effect to the provisions, with a result that some Irish speakers had to use the courts to confirm their rights. The patchy case law that built up over decades was no substitute for legislative provisions and following the decision in 1973 to remove the Irish language civil service entry requirement, civil society groups turned their attention to a campaign for a bill of rights. The drive was also influenced by a growing discourse around minority rights and pressure for language legislation in countries such as Wales, Scotland, the Basque Country and Catalonia. The 2003 Act fell short of demands for rights-based legislation based on equality between Irish and English, on the basis that the Constitution gave precedence to Irish. Nonetheless, it established the first legal framework for the provision of Irish language services, albeit from a very low level in most public bodies. Based on the Canadian model, the office of Irish language commissioner was established to raise awareness of the Act and to monitor its implementation by public bodies. With the passage of time, deficiencies in the framework became apparent, particularly in the discredited system of ‘language schemes’ by which public bodies were supposed to enhance Irish language services on a cumulative basis. The Act was under review for almost a decade, reflecting its low political priority, but the failure to provide public health information and services in Irish during the pandemic threw the need for change into stark relief. The Official Languages Act (Amendment), enacted at the end of 2021, contains strengthened provisions about the provision of Irish language services and commits to deal with the recruitment of bilingual staff, a major weakness in the original legislation. 2022 also saw Irish gain full official working status in the European Union, giving a significant status boost to the language in an international forum and providing high-quality employment opportunities for Irish speaking graduates.

The past century has also witnessed significant changes in broadcasting provision in Irish. The country’s first radio station, 2RN (later Radio Éireann), was opened in Irish in 1926 by the Gaelic League’s co-founder, Douglas Hyde, but broadcast in English for the most part. Repeated promises of a Gaeltacht radio service over the decades were not realised until 1972, following the establishment of a pirate station in Connemara as part of a local civil rights movement. Raidió na Gaeltachta has grown from a local to a national radio service under the auspices of the state broadcaster RTÉ and has deepened connections between disparate Gaeltacht communities and Irish speakers at home and abroad. Ireland’s first television channel established at the end of 1961 largely ignored Irish and was criticised for its over-reliance on Anglo-American cultural imports. Pressure grew for additional programmes in Irish and eventually a dedicated Irish language channel, although campaigners differed over whether this should be a community service for the Gaeltacht or a national channel for all Irish speakers. A pirate television broadcast from Connemara in 1987 attracted further attention to the issue and a vigorous campaign for a separate channel culminated in 1996 with the establishment of Teilifís na Gaeilge (TnaG), based in the Gaeltacht but available nationally. TnaG was rebranded as TG4 in 1999 as the fourth national channel and despite a limited budget has developed a foothold in the national consciousness through its imaginative content. However, its core audience remains very small and the channel faces major challenges in the context of increased media fragmentation and the emergence of digital competition. The past thirty years have also seen the emergence of Irish language community radio in Dublin and Belfast and both stations provide spaces to often young and experimental broadcasters who fit the ‘new speaker’ profile and speak more hybridised forms of Irish. Given the exponential growth of digital media, there are opportunities for developing these stations further as community media hubs. However, since the emergence of dedicated Irish language channels, the language has been almost entirely marginalised in mainstream media, particularly the commercial sector.

Irish language policy has waxed and waned over the past century in line with changes of government and shifts in Irish political culture and international trends in governance. The rhetoric of Gaelicisation and revivalism that characterised the early decades has given way to a softer policy of bilingualism since the 1960s, although there is no evidence that any Irish government ever contemplated anything other than a bilingual state. Key individuals from politics and public administration, including figures such as former Taoiseach and President Éamon de Valera, his grandson Minister Éamon Ó Cuív and senior civil servant TK Whitaker, have shaped the policy in important ways at different times in history. Language policy has been professionalised and internationalised, with greater attention paid by both the state and civil society groups to relevant contexts abroad. Although some of the more robust policy measures have been diluted, Irish retains significant institutional supports that can only be dreamed of by many other minority languages: core status in education, its own broadcast media, state-supported publishing and arts initiatives, standardisation, official status in Ireland and at EU level, a commissioner to monitor legislation, an all-Ireland language planning agency and various voluntary bodies. However, the weak position of Irish as a spoken language by communities and networks, in the Gaeltacht and elsewhere, remains the language’s greatest challenge. As the state begins its second century, it is time to refocus political efforts on supporting all Irish speakers, regardless of origin, and encouraging others to adopt and relearn the language through a much more vigorous community programme than witnessed previously. Given the increasing mediatisation of society, this programme also requires major investment in an enhanced digital and multimedia presence for Irish.

Dr John Walsh is an Associate Professor of Irish in the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He is also Vice-Dean for Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and People in the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies. His monograph, 100 Hundred Years of Irish Language Policy, 1922-2022, will be published by Peter Lang in spring 2022 in the series ‘Reimagining Ireland’: https://www.peterlang.com/series/5882


61. Linguistic Intolerance: The (e)Spanglish Debates

Ana Celia Zentella
Universitat de California San Diego

“Spanglish” is a hotly debated and widely misunderstood term, even more than 70 years after the word first appeared in a Puerto Rican newspaper article, “Teoría del Espanglish,” by Salvador Tió on October 28, 1948. What does it refer to—a mish-mash of two languages, or a third language, or a style of speaking? Who uses it—proficient or deficient bilinguals? Is it a positive or negative label– are we harming speakers by using the term? These questions become more relevant as the 62 million Latinus (the universal u is my preferred inclusive gender marker) in the USA are en route to becoming the largest ethnic group in the country by 2045, when there will be no racial majority. But U.S. Latinus are very diverse: although 62% are of Mexican background, a total of eight countries each have over one million representatives, and another eleven countries have more than 75, 000 each. Latinus also differ in their views:  a 2019 Pew Foundation study found the majority (54%) did not prefer the Hispanic or Latino label; 47% identified with their country of heritage (76% had not heard of Latinx and only 3% used it). And although all generations believed speaking Spanish was the most important part of their identity, that was true for a slight majority of the foreign born (54%); only 44% of the second generation and 20% of the third generation and beyond chose Spanish as most important.

Although the centrality of Spanish was highlighted by all generations, the fact is that the share of all Latinus who speak Spanish at home declined from 78% to 70% between 2000 -2019; among the U.S. born, the number declined from 66% to 57%. It seems likely that Spanish will continue to be lost in future generations because of growing linguistic intolerance in the US, including increased verbal and physical attacks against Spanish speakers. The Republican congressman who was a candidate for the US Presidency in 2012, Newt Gingrich, argued against Spanish-English bilingual education “because English is the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto”, and when fellow Republican Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency in 2015, he insisted “We speak English, not Spanish”, and insulted Mexicans: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”  Fueled by Donald Trump’s comments, anti-Latino hate crime increased 176 % in major U.S. cities in the three weeks after his 2016 election. In 2019, the assassin of 22 Wallmart shoppers in El Paso, TX —almost all Mexicans–spouted anti-immigrant hate.

For decades there has been a nationwide push to insist on English-only in the workplace, government dealings, and public education.  Latinus have long been criticized for speaking Spanish, but our English is also disparaged, even by national policies; beginning in 1990 the Census Bureau insisted on labeling all those who did not speak English “very well” at home as “linguistically isolated”, even if they spoke it “well”. (By 2010 we convinced the Bureau to drop that insulting label, although their replacement– “limited English proficient” –remains unfair.)  Our English and Spanish are belittled, and bilingualism itself has become an ideologically charged term; Potowski noted that “bilingual” was a “dirty word” in the 1990s unless it referred to middle class Anglo students. We find ourselves entre la espada y la pared, with no way out. Above all, our ability to speak in a way that reveals our bilingual dexterity is severely maligned.

So, what is Spanglish?  Decades of rigorous research across the USA have documented that Spanglish is a rule governed, in-group and informal style of speaking that honors the grammars of both English and Spanish. It consists of adapted and un-adapted English loan words inserted in Spanish, as well as calques and switches between Spanish and English that can be both intra- and inter sentential. Even the 6 to11 year old children I studied in New York’s Puerto Rican barrio honored both Spanish and English grammatical rules in 95% of 1,685 code switches to accomplish over twenty discourse strategies, including topic and role shifting, quoting, translation, mitigation and aggravation of requests, often by switching complete sentences, e.g., when an 8 year old reported, “We speak both. Hablamos los dos”.

We do not know how many Latinus speak Spanglish, but it certainly is not true, as the linguist John Lipski claimed in 2007, that the term is “most commonly used by non-Latinos (or by Latinos who are openly critical of nonstandard language usage”.  When Professor Adam Schwartz and I asked our students on opposite coasts to interview 115 Latinus across the US (convenience sample, 2010) whether they favored the “Spanglish” label or not, most interviewees (71%) approved of it, 25% were against, and 4% were indifferent. The most significant background variable was whether the interviewee identified as a Spanglish speaker or not. The great majority (83%) of Spanglish speakers (n = 84) favored the label, whereas only 42% of the non-Spanglish speakers (n = 31) did so. Neither gender, nor level of Spanish proficiency, nor place of birth, nor roots in one of eleven different Latinu groups mattered significantly.  Most important, most interviewees (94%) defined Spanglish in neutral or positive terms.

Some outspoken critics of the label are linguists who acknowledge the bilingual strengths of Spanglish speakers, but insist that the term misrepresents those skills by suggesting a mishmash or hybrid language; Ricardo Otheguy prefers “popular Spanish in the United States”. In my view, that alternative capitulates to the ignorant critics who attack the label AND the way of speaking, playing into the hands of those who privilege uniformity, imposing it via strategies that result in exclusion. And it does not capture our reality.  “Popular Spanish in the US” includes many varieties from throughout the Spanish speaking world, and their speakers may or may not engage in speaking Spanglish. For those of us who speak it with each other, in addition to speaking Spanish with monolingual Spanish speakers and English with monolingual English speakers, “Spanglish“ is a graphic way of saying “we speak both because we are both.” Whitney Chappell attributes the disagreement over the label to distinct poles on an ideological continuum, i.e., those who favor a structuralist and generative grammar approach that isolates language from its social context reject “ Spanglish” in favor of focusing on the linguistic properties of Spanish, whereas those of us who study the life of language in communities go beyond a focus on the structure to include WHY and HOW those structures are culturally employed, as well as speakers’ positive semantic inversion of a negative label. The label itself forces us to confront the way language is used as a smokescreen to impose national and cultural boundaries and to disguise racial and ethnic prejudices; it invites us to discuss the specific socio-historic, cultural, economic, and racial contexts that give rise to Spanglish.

Misconceptions concerning Spanglish contributes to the reproduction of inequality and encourages attacks against those considered speakers of “the tongue of the uneducated” that is “a hodgepodge,” with “barbarisms . . . and is “deformed, perverted”. These insults appear in a book devoted to Spanglish by a Professor of Spanish of Mexican background, Ilan Stavans,. Not only did Stavans fail to cite any of the linguists who have studied Spanglish syntax, his dictionary of 2,073 words (collected because they were overheard three times) includes many lexical items that are either standard Spanish, such as fiesta [‘party’], doña [‘madam’] , Sr., and Sra. (‘Mr. and Mrs.’), or improbable loans, such as loadear < “loiter” and deservear < “deserve.” Only 16% of the dictionary’s items had been heard or used by 80 self-identified Spanglish speakers, yet Stavans was widely cited in the press, including in Spain .

The insistence on maintaining strict borders between English and Spanish, as if bilinguals were two monolinguals joined at the tongue, has encouraged what I refer to as LA MIGRA BILINGUE, i.e., critics who attack bilinguals for crossing language borders, like the Border Patrol that pursues immigrants trying to enter the USA. Latinus are not alone, this complex language practice occurs in other language-contact situations, e.g. Franglais in Montreal, and Portuñol/Portunhol along Portugal’s border with Spain and Uruguay’s border with Brazil. As if the opprobrium of leading academics, educators, politicians, and the general public were not enough to convince young bilinguals that they should join La Migra Bilingüe, the Real Academia Española (RAE), the arbiter of Spanish norms in the world for over 300 years, added fuel to the fire with its definition “espanglish” in its official Diccionario in 2014.

: 26 Artículo nuevo. Avance de la vigésima tercera edición espanglish. (Del ingl. Spanglish, fusión de Spanish ‘español’ y English ‘inglés’). m. Modalidad del habla de algunos grupos hispanos de los Estados Unidos, en la que se mezclan, deformándolos, elementos léxicos y gramaticales del español y del inglés.


This definition was met with outrage in many circles, and petitions by Professor Jose’ del Valle and myself secured over 400 signatures. My letter to ANLE read , in part:

la definicion va en contra de los resultados obtenidos por los lingüistas que han investigado este estilo de comunicación ….constituye una falta de respeto para los hablantes del español en los Estados Unidos….va en contra de “la visión policéntrica” que tanto predica la RAE, pero que reiteradamente deshonran.”

The international response ultimately forced the RAE to drop the word “deformándolos”, although they refused to re-write the entry.

Such misinformed and misguided attacks are decried by many, including poets who express pride in their communities’ Spanglish. In Los Angeles, Mexican American Olga Angelina García Echeverría’s poem, “ Lengualistic Algo”, declares,:

Qué quieren conmigo los puristas,
all tongue-tied
& sitting proper
behind fat stoic dictionaries?
I’ve already eaten the thin white skeletons
of foreign words
choked on the bones of Inglés Only,
learned the art of speaking in codes
and code switching…

….Aquí se usa lo que sirve,
el rascuache, el mestizaje,
las left-overs y lo yet to be born,
Aquí cada palabra está viva. Respira.

Los académicos me ignoran
los puristas dicen que contamino,
Webster y el Pequeño Larousse
no me conocen y Random House me escupe.
No manchen!….


And from New York City, Tato LaViera provided a Puerto Rican perspective in “español” [sans accents]:

… now we-gente de sangre gorda,
continental travalenguas
enmixturadas cocinandose metiendole miedo a tu real academia….
….we existed before we discovered colon…
…but alas i love you Spanish
half of my lengua
part of my tongue
i’m gonna fight for you siempre
i am your humble son
que tragedia
que contra


These poets express bilingual joy and pain, in the hope that our future children will be proud of their people and their English, Spanish, and Spanglish. As we embrace the languages of our families, we also learn to respect all other languages and cultures. Advocating linguistic tolerance is increasingly urgent, given the sad fact that 50% of the 6,000 languages currently spoken in the world are likely to disappear within the 21st century. We have an excellent opportunity to foreground this issue every February 21st,  declared International Mother Language Day (IMLD) by UNESCO in 1999 to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and promote multilingualism. This worldwide observance was formally recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in 2002; will you encourage your community to celebrate every IMLD?

60. El silbo gomero

Marcial Morera (lingüista)
Universidad de La Laguna
Rogelio Botanz (maestro silbador)


1. ¿Qué es el silbo gomero? En esencia, el silbo gomero no es otra cosa que un reducido sistema de fonemas silbados que han empleado tradicionalmente los campesinos de la isla canaria de La Gomera para silbar las palabras y las oraciones de su lengua materna, que es el español, y hacerlas así audibles a grandes distancias. La práctica del silbo se encontraba tan arraigada en la isla colombina, que su uso no se limitaba a los ámbitos prácticos de la agricultura y la ganadería, que eran, obviamente sus contextos más importantes, sino que se extendía también al ámbito doméstico, al social e incluso al ritual, pues se empleaba puntualmente en ciertas festividades religiosas y fiestas populares. La accidentada geografía de la isla parece haber sido la causa externa más determinante del desarrollo de tan singular medio de comunicación.

Al parecer, el sistema fonológico que nos ocupa está constituido por los seis fonemas silbados siguientes, que el silbador ejecuta ayudándose o no con los dedos de las manos metidos en la boca, y que se basan concretamente en los contrastes fónicos vocal/ consonante, grave/ agudo e interrupto/ continuo: 1) Un fonema silbado vocálico grave, que suena más o menos como la /a/ de la lengua hablada, que se usa para silbar las vocales graves /a/, /o/ y /u/, y que, por ello, suele representarse en la escritura con la letra mayúscula  A; 2) Un fonema silbado vocálico agudo, que suena más o menos como la /i/ de la lengua hablada, que se usa para silbar las vocales agudas /e/ e /i/, y que, por ello, suele representarse en la escritura con la letra mayúscula I; 3) Un fonema silbado consonántico grave interrupto u oclusivo, que suena más o menos como el fonema k/ de la lengua hablada, que se usa para silbar las consonantes graves interruptas u oclusivas /p/ y /k/, y que, por ello, suele representarse en la escritura con la letra mayúscula K; 4) Un fonema silbado consonántico grave continuo o fricativo, que suena más o menos como el fonema /g/ de la lengua hablada, que se usa para silbar las consonantes graves continuas o fricativas de esta /b/, /f/, /m/, /g/ y /x/, y que, por ello, suele representarse en la escritura con la letra mayúscula G; 5) Un fonema silbado agudo interrupto u oclusivo, que suena más o menos como la consonante aguda interrupta u oclusiva /ʧ/ de la lengua hablada, que se usa para silbar las consonantes agudas interruptas u oclusivas /ʧ/ y /t/ y la consonantes aguda continua o fricativa /s/, y que, por ello, suele representarse en la escritura con la letra mayúscula CH; y 6) Una consonante silbada aguda continua o fricativa, que suena más o menos como la consonante aguda fricativa /ʝ/ de la lengua hablada, que se usa para silbar las consonantes agudas continuas o fricativas /d/, /n/, /ñ/, /l/, /ʎ/, /ɾ/, /r/ / y /ʝ/, y que, por ello, suele representarse en la escritura con la letra mayúscula Y. Así, por ejemplo, una palabra como carretera se silba como /KAYICHÍYA/ y una frase como Dile a María que baje la caldera para la leche, como /YÍYI A GAYÍA KI GÁGI YA KAIYÍYA KAYA YA YÍCHI/ . De todos modos, hay que tener en cuenta que, aunque el silbo gomero se ha usado siempre en la sociedad hispánica de la isla para silbar la lengua española, lo cierto es que se trata de un sistema fonológico independiente, que puede adaptarse a cualquier lengua natural no tonal. En realidad, se habría usado en principio para silbar la lengua bereber que se hablaba en las Islas antes de la llegada de los europeos, supuesto que sea verdad, como sostienen algunos estudiosos, que su origen es prehispánico.

No todos los silbadores realizan estos seis fonemas silbados de la misma manera, sino que, determinados por el contexto, la tradición de cada comunidad, la modalidad de español que se silba, etc., en muchos casos se producen diferencias de altura o de tono de un silbador a otro y de unas zonas de las islas a otras. En todo caso, se trata de diferencias que no pertenecen a la forma del código, sino a la sustancia de su ejecución.

Obviamente, la falta de paridad entre los fonemas del silbo y los fonemas de la lengua que se silba (es decir, el hecho de que un mismo fonema silbado corresponda siempre a varios fonemas hablados) determina que las palabras silbadas presenten una ambigüedad mayor o menor, según los casos. Así, una palabra silbada como /GAYÍYA/ , por ejemplo, puede entenderse, al menos, en dos sentidos radicalmente distintos: en el sentido de ‘gallina’ y en el sentido de ‘ballena’, que solo el contexto, el saber compartido por hablante y oyente, permite aclarar. La interpretación se ve facilitada por el hecho de que la gente que se comunica mediante el silbo (generalmente, constitutiva de comunidades muy limitadas) comparte el mismo espacio físico, social y, frecuentemente hasta familiar, y que se dedica a tareas, laborales, económicas y sociales similares. En todo caso, la precariedad del sistema determina que los mensajes que se silban sean siempre mensajes muy sencillos, generalmente reducidos al ámbito doméstico y profesional más elemental. No es que no puedan silbarse textos complejos. En realidad, el silbador puede silbar cualquier texto de la lengua hablada, incluso los poéticos; el problema es que la altísima ambigüedad de las palabras silbadas hace muy difícil su interpretación por parte del receptor sin el contexto adecuado. Por eso, puede decirse que es el lenguaje silbado el sistema de comunicación que más claramente pone de manifiesto que no se habla solo con el código de la lengua, sino que se habla también con el contexto.

De lo expuesto hasta aquí, se deducen dos hechos importantísimos en relación con la índole del lenguaje que nos ocupa:

Primero, que el silbo gomero, que, como vemos, es un silbo codificado lingüísticamente, no tiene nada que ver con el silbo común, que es un tipo de silbo absolutamente convencional, sin codificación social. Por eso se dice que el silbo gomero es un silbo lingüístico, en tanto que el silbo común o convencional es un tipo de silbo no lingüístico.

Y segundo, que el silbo gomero no es un lenguaje primario, sino un lenguaje secundario, sustitutivo o subrogado, como el morse, el braille o la escritura. No se trata de un lenguaje autónomo, sino de un lenguaje subsidiario de un lenguaje autónomo, que es la lengua hablada. Más concretamente todavía: de un lenguaje subsidiario del plano de la expresión (no del plano del contenido) de la lengua materna del silbador. A pesar de esto, hay que decir que entre ese lenguaje sustitutivo que es el silbo gomero y los otros lenguajes sustitutivos citados antes existen al menos tres diferencias radicales:

Primera diferencia: mientras que estos últimos son artificiales (i. e., se basan en señales externas o convencionales), aquel es natural: i. e., produce sus señales mediante el aparato fonador, de la misma manera que la lengua hablada. No es el resultado de un acto de convención o pacto explícito entre sus creadores, sino que ha surgido naturalmente en el seno de sus propios hablantes, como desarrollo espontáneo del instinto idiomático. Por eso, no constituye ninguna exageración afirmar que, desde el punto de vista idiomático (no desde el punto de vista cultural, obviamente), los lenguajes silbados son los lenguajes secundarios, substitutivos o subrogados más importantes del mundo.

Segunda diferencia: mientras que la relación entre las señales de lenguajes sustitutivos como el morse, el braille y la escritura y las señales de la lengua que sustituyen es simétrica (i. e., cada señal de la lengua secundaria representa una y solo una señal de la lengua primaria), la relación entre las señales del silbo gomero y las señales de la lengua que sustituye es asimétrica: i. e., cada señal de la lengua secundaria representa más de una señal de la lengua secundaria. Es decir, que, en tanto que los lenguajes sustitutivos más convencionales suelen ser tan complejos en señales como la lengua que sustituyen, el silbo gomero es mucho más simple que esta.

Y tercera diferencia: mientras que las señales de los lenguajes sustitutivos como el morse, el braille y la escritura son absolutas (es decir, no articuladas u opositivas), las señales del silbo gomero son relativas (es decir, articuladas u opositivas): están constituidas por oposición de rasgos sonoros distintivos, exactamente igual que las señales de los sistemas fonológicos de las lenguas habladas. En realidad, el silbo gomero se organiza solo sobre los tres contrastes fonológicos fundamentales del aparato fonador, que son el contraste vocal/ consonante, grave/ agudo e interrupto/ continuo. De ahí su importancia para la teoría fonológica.

2. La práctica del silbo gomero.De modo similar a otros sistemas de comunicación a distancia, como las cartas o el teléfono, el silbo se ha dotado a lo largo de los siglos de ciertas fórmulas comunicativas que le son características. El resultado es una serie de voces o frases fácilmente reconocibles en cualquier mensaje silbado y que resultan muy eficientes desde el punto de vista comunicativo. En primer lugar, toda comunicación silbada entre dos interlocutores comienza siempre con una “voz de llamada”, que consiste en la emisión de un sonido equiparable a “¡Aaaaa!”, seguido del nombre de la persona con quien se quiere contactar: v. gr., “¡Aaaaa Antoniooo!. La función apelativa del lenguaje es, por tanto, clave en el tipo de comunicación que nos ocupa. Aunque todas las personas del entorno, sabrán a quién se está llamando, únicamente la persona aludida responderá a esa llamada, con la emisión de la voz “¡fuiooooo!, que no se corresponde con ninguna palabra de la lengua hablada y que se entiende como ‘¡sí, dígame!’, ‘¿qué?’ o ‘¿qué quieres?’.

A partir de este momento se inicia el intercambio de información, de preguntas o peticiones objeto de la comunicación. Es el turno de la función representativa del lenguaje, junto con la apelativa, única protagonista verdadera de la comunicación silbada.

El nivel de concentración que requiere el tipo de comunicación que nos ocupa por parte del receptor es altísimo. La desatención del más leve matiz de lo escuchado puede significar la pérdida de comprensión total o parcial del mensaje. Pero sorprende también la concentración del emisor, que, antes de emitir su mensaje, hace una pausa, como si estuviera buscando cada una de las palabras con las que va a construirlo. Y, efectivamente, así es. El silbador experimentado sabe que, si se limita a silbar las palabras como si estuviera teniendo una conversación hablada, el mensaje no será comprendido, por mucho que lo repita y por mucho que su dominio de la técnica del silbo sea excelente. El buen silbador, conocedor de las limitaciones del sistema que emplea, antes de empezar a silbar, se pone en el lugar de quien va a recibir su mensaje, en sus conocimientos previos en relación al nuevo mensaje desconocido que quiere trasmitir, busca las palabras sinónimas que presentan mejores características fonológicas para ser sustituidas por el silbo, y sobre todo, elige el orden de aparición de cada palabra en la frase, con unos recursos sintácticos específicos y distintos de los utilizados habitualmente en la lengua hablada.

Es consustancial al silbo gomero que las dos personas implicadas necesiten confirmar con frecuencia que el mensaje está llegando con claridad. Así, es muy frecuente que el emisor pregunte al receptor “¿Oíste lo que te dije?, buscando que el interlocutor le confirme que ha comprendido. En muchas ocasiones, pese a todos los esfuerzos, llega un momento en que el receptor no comprende parte del mensaje que se le trasmite, y es entonces cuando aparece en el silbo una fórmula muy importante, la fórmula “Yo no te entiendo,  ¿Qué dijiste, que yo no te entiendo?”  o “¡Dímelo otra vez, que yo no te entiendo!,  lo que obligará al emisor a desplegar distintas estrategias para conseguir que el mensaje acabe siendo entendido sin problema. En primer lugar, repetirá el texto ya silbado, intentando mejorar la calidad de su ejecución. Si no fuera suficiente con esto, comenzará a sustituir alguna de las palabras originales por otra de significación similar u ofrecerá explicaciones complementarias, como breves referencias a la voz que no consigue hacer comprender al interlocutor, alusiones al contexto, etc. Para asegurarse de que ha entendido bien el mensaje, es frecuente que el destinatario del mensaje pregunte al emisor si lo que él ha entendido es correcto. Así, si un silbador dice a su interlocutor “Quiero que mañana vengas a mi casa a las cuatro de la tarde, es posible que este, que ha creído entender el mensaje, le pregunte: “¿Que si quieres que mañana yo vaya a tu casa a las cuatro de la tarde?, a lo que el emisor responderá utilizando una partícula muy especial, una expresión, al parecer de origen prehispánico, que suena como “ejey , que significa “que sí” y que, como el “¡fuioo! que vimos antes, no es traducción de ninguna palabra de la lengua hablada.  Es el equivalente al término “afirmativo” que se utiliza en las comunicaciones a través de emisoras de radio, cuando el receptor quiere transmitir al emisor que el mensaje ha sido recibido con una certeza absoluta.

Y otra de las fórmulas que con casi toda seguridad escucharemos al finalizar toda comunicación silbada será el “bueno, bueno con que un silbador transmite a otro que la comunicación ha llegado exitosamente a su fin. Es expresión que también se entiende como despedida, pues el silbador rara vez silba “¡adiós!”,  o “¡hasta la vista!.

Hasta aquí hemos hablado del Silbo Gomero utilizado como sistema de comunicación interpersonal, pero hay otra función muy importante de este particular código lingüístico, que es el uso que se hace de él para informar a toda la comunidad de determinada noticia, suceso, o convocatoria que a todos concierne. En estos casos de uso público, el emisor suele ponerse en contacto con alguien que vive a cierta distancia y con quien de forma habitual se comparten este tipo de noticias, para que difunda el mensaje o lanzar al aire el grito “¡Que corran la voz!” o “¡Que den la voz pa’bajo!”. Se trata de una invitación a que todos aquellos silbadores que escuchen el aviso, recojan claramente la información y, a su vez, la repitan, para que otros silbadores situados a mayor distancia vuelvan a reproducirla, haciendo que llegue lo más lejos posible. Entre este tipo de avisos comunitarios hay uno que ha quedado profundamente grabado en la memoria de quienes pudieron escucharlo en su niñez o en su juventud: son los anuncios de fallecimientos. Este silbo, que se emitía al anochecer, se inicia con la exclamación “¡Aaaaaaaa!”, que preludia en sí misma la tristeza y el sentimiento de la pérdida. En cuanto la población oía esa voz infausta, se prestaba la máxima atención, para conocer el nombre de la persona fallecida y cuándo y dónde se celebraría la ceremonia religiosa de despedida: v. gr., “¡Ha fallecido don Francisco García Chinea y el funeral será mañana, en la iglesia de Agulo, a las siete de la tarde!.

3. Vitalidad del silbo gomero. Como en tantos otros bienes culturales tradicionales, desde el punto de vista de su vitalidad, en la historia del silbo gomero hay que distinguir tres etapas distintas: una etapa de apogeo, una etapa de decadencia y una etapa de recuperación y promoción. La etapa de apogeo coincide, obviamente, con la época de predominio de la vida rural tradicional, donde no había más procedimiento para comunicarse a grandes distancias que el silbo. Se trataba de una técnica absolutamente imprescindible en el desarrollo normal del mundo campesino de entonces y, como tal, se transmitía de padres a hijos en sus propios contextos prácticos de uso. La etapa de decadencia empieza con la diáspora de la población rural de la isla, la decadencia de las actividades tradicionales de la agricultura y la ganadería y, sobre todo, la irrupción del teléfono (fijo, primero, y móvil, después), que lo convirtió prácticamente en innecesario, aunque muchos lo siguieron usando, de forma más precaria, en sus nuevos destinos. Como es lógico, sus limitaciones comunicativas, sus dificultades prácticas y el estigma de “cosa propia de gente rústica” determinaron que el silbo gomero sucumbiera ante el auge del avasallador competidor moderno. Hasta tal punto es esto así, que, ya en la década de los sesenta del siglo pasado, esta ingeniosa práctica comunicativa de los gomeros de antaño mostraba síntomas de encontrarse en serio peligro de extinción. Por último, la etapa de recuperación y promoción abarca desde mediados de los sesenta hasta el momento actual. A esta empresa de recuperación y promoción contribuyeron agentes diversos, entre los que cabe destacar los siguientes: en primer lugar, ciertos silbadores amantes de las tradiciones, que dieron en promocionarlo en clases particulares, fiestas populares, exhibiciones para turistas, manifestaciones folclóricas, medios de comunicación locales y nacionales, etc.; en segundo lugar, determinados etnógrafos y lingüistas canarios y europeos, que pusieron su atención en él y lo estudiaron científicamente, como Ramón Trujillo, por ejemplo, que fue la persona que desveló finalmente los misterios que encerraba este singular lenguaje sustitutivo; en tercer lugar, las asociaciones de padres y madres de alumnos de la isla, que lograron introducirlo por la época como actividad extraescolar en el sistema educativo; en cuarto lugar, determinados políticos locales, que llamaron la atención sobre su importancia etnográfica en las instituciones públicas de las Islas; en quinto lugar, el gobierno de la comunidad autónoma, que lo introdujo en el sistema educativo en la década de los noventa del siglo pasado; y en sexto lugar, la UNESCO, que lo declaró patrimonio intangible de la Humanidad, en el año 2009. En el reconocimiento de este organismo internacional jugó un papel fundamental el esfuerzo continuado y consciente de la comunidad portadora por la conservación y la adaptación del silbo a los nuevos tiempos. En todo caso, hay que decir que, en esta nueva etapa, su enseñanza y funciones tienen ya poco que ver con las tradicionales. Su enseñanza, porque al presente no se realiza de forma práctica en sus contextos originarios, sino académicamente, en las aulas de clase, con programas didácticos elaborados a tal fin. Sus funciones, porque ahora no se usa tanto para transmitir información práctica del mundo rural, sino para fines más lúdicos e incluso artísticos. Una de las consecuencias más evidentes de esta nueva práctica del silbo es que se ha achicado la distancia entre los silbadores, circunstancia que permite hacer distinciones sonoras imposibles de realizar en sus contextos tradicionales o históricos, con distancias de hasta dos kilómetros o más. Por eso no constituye ningún disparate hablar de dos tipos de silbo en ciertos aspectos distintos: el silbo tradicional, que siguen practicando los silbadores más viejos de La Gomera y El Hierro en sus contextos naturales, y el silbo académico, que es el que suelen usar todos los nuevos practicantes, independiente de la isla de que se trate, en demostraciones públicas, concursos y exhibiciones para turistas, y que, pese a partir de las enseñanzas directas de silbadores tradicionales en las escuelas de La Gomera, ha terminado siendo mucho más elaborado que el anterior.



Batista Rodríguez, J. J. y M. Morera (2007), El silbo gomero: 125 años de estudios lingüísticos y etnográficos, Islas Canarias: Academia Canaria de la Lengua.

Bethencourt Alfonso, Juan (1881), “Notas para los estudios prehistóricos de las islas de Gomera y Hierro. El silbo gomero”, Revista de Canarias, núm. 71.

Busnel, René-Guy (1964), Documents sur une langue sifflée pyrénéenne, Paris, SFRS.

Busnel, René-Guy (1970), “Recherches expérimentales sur la langue sifflée de Kusköy”, Revue de phonétique appliquée, n.o 14-15, pp. 41-57.

Charalambakis, Christophoros (2003), “El lenguaje silbado de Antia (Grecia)”, comunicación presentada en el I Congreso Internacional de Lenguajes Silbados, celebrado en la isla de La Gomera, del 24 al 25 de abril.

Cowan, George (1976) “Whistled Tepehua”, en T. Sebeok y D. J. Umiker-Sebeok (eds), Speech Surrogates: Drum and Whistle Systems, Paris y La Haye, Mouton, pp. 1400-1409.

Classe, André (1957), “The phonetic of the silbo gomero”, Archivum Linguisticum, 9: 1, pp. 44-61.

Lajard, Joseph (1891), “Le langage sifflé des Canaries”, Bulletin de la Societé d’Anthropologie de Paris, II, pp. 469-483.

Morera, Marcial (2018), Silbo gomero o arte de hablar silbando (Realidad y fantasías), Madrid: Arco/ Libros.

Quedenfeldt, Max (1887), “Pfeifsprache auf der Insel Gomera”, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 19, pp. 731-741.

Rialland, Annie (2005), “Phonological and phonetic aspects of whistled languages”, Phonology, 22 (2), pp. 237-271

Trujillo, Ramón (1978), El silbo gomero. Análisis lingüístico, La Laguna-Tenerife: Instituto Universitario de Lingüística Andrés Bello.

Trujillo, R., M. Morera, A. Guarro Pallás, U. Padrón Brito, I. Ortiz Mendoza, Rogelio Botanz Parra y E. Darias (2005), El silbo gomero. Materiales didácticos, Islas Canarias: Consejería de Educación, Cultura y Deportes del Gobierno de Canarias.

59. The world of castells and the construction of a reimagined community

Aida Ribot Bencomo
University of California, San Diego


In the previous decade or so (2010-2019), castells or human towers—literally “castles”—, arose as an emblematic expression of the Catalan society. They appeared and gained visibility in myriad contexts—for example, covers of academic journals, bank commercials, tourist posters, and beer commercials on television. This came about amid a debate on the sovereignty of the Catalan people and the growing support for proindependence positions that developed in the same period. The ethnographic work I carried out within two castellers teams (known in Catalan as colles castelleres) in the metropolitan area of Barcelona during 2016 revealed micropractices that, although specific to the casteller activity , promoted a sense of community and collective responsibility that is based on solidarity, equality and cooperation between participants. Two of the practices that I analysed and will present here focus on the use of the body and physicality, as well as on communication between members of the team, who are known as castellers. In the previous decade, popular and political movements related to the Catalan sovereign project—for instance, Òmnium Cultural and the ANC (Assemblea Nacional Catalana)—strategically extrapolated this sense of community found at castells to reimagine a present-day Catalan society based on similar relations.

If a Catalan thinks about the world of castells, even if he or she does not have much knowledge of it, he or she will probably know the traditional values that are always repeated: “strength, balance, courage and common sense,” or the expression fer pinya (literally, “to make/form a pine cone,” a reference to the base of a castell; the expression is used more generally by Catalans to convey the idea of working together to achieve a common goal). These expressions are not only a metaphorical interpretation of how castells are defined by its members and the practice underpinning its activity. Rather, in the embodiment of these expressions via participation in the activity, they are interpreted in a much more literal way. That is, participants embody or materialize these values and expressions through their bodies and the physicality—or physical contact—that they experience, generate, and promote.

The notions of cooperation, collective responsibility and egalitarian relations surrounding castells are partially developed through the body and the physical contact required to build the towers. Bodily practices related to the construction of towers, distinctive clothing, and beer drinking were three very practical activities that participants learned and used to form a casteller identity within this community. Although some activities raised concerns and tensions among participants (such as the use of alcohol, the roles and the regulation of bodies), the practices I analysed required participants to interact, cooperate and be responsible for one another. For example, when castellers put on their support sashes, they usually need another person to help them wrap it around their waist. And when participants learn to position themselves in the pinya or the base of the castell, they must protect others with their hands and arms, in addition to sharing the burden and balance with others. If they do not do so, the castell collapses. Castellers then learn to withstand pressure and pain collectively and learn to support each other to decrease individuals’ exposure and risk.

The perspective of the body is especially interesting in the Catalan context: none of Catalonia’s other emblematic and representative cultural expressions mobilizes the body to achieve the same level of continuous and supported contact between participants as castells do. Mountaineering, choral associations, football, sardanes and other folk activities (for example, correfocs and bastoners) associated with Catalan culture require minimal or no physical contact. Traditionally in Catalonia, the use of one’s own body, postures or the expression of emotions has been understood in a refined and contained way. In general, the cultural forms that have been considered distinctively Catalan since the nineteenth century have emphasized this sense of both mental and physical restraint. To give an example, the physical rigidity, discipline and restraint embodied in sardanes have been symbolic of the type of “refined” Catalan urban identity of the middle classes of the late nineteenth and late twentieth centuries. Meanwhile, less contained, less refined and more physical and emotional forms (such as castells) had never been representative of this identity up until now. Today, the use of the body in castells seems to break the association between social classes in Catalonia, as this activity voluntarily brings together people from different backgrounds, creating a practice that violates everyday Catalan norms and stereotypes.

From a linguistic perspective, castellers also had to learn to become members of the community—that is, they had to socialize into castellers. This entailed learning to interpret and communicate with others in a context of tension; team members had to make use of the most economical and practical language possible because they often have to adjust their body in a matter of seconds so as not to endanger the structure. It is important to keep in mind that Catalan was the most frequently used language among participants, even in the case of those who self-identified ethnolinguistically as Spaniards, Argentines or Americans, among other identities.

Directives, through which the listener is called on to do an action via orders, were the linguistic practices that participants most commonly used during the construction of castells. Contradictory though it may seem, the forms employed emphasized the cooperative aspect in the decision-making process. For example, the team leader and other participants who held positions of power in the team hierarchy did not usually exploit power imbalances during the construction of the castell. They used first-person plural forms to give orders—for instance, aguantem (“let’s hold”) and tanquem la pinya (“let’s close the base”). And they deployed other forms that are unconventional within the literature on speech acts, face-threatening acts (FTA), and so on (Searle; Austin; Brown & Levinson), issuing orders from which the typical imperative forms were absent—for example, pugen (“they climb”), van pujant (“they keep climbing”), baixant (“coming down”), avall (“down”), amunt (“up”), terços (“thirds”) or quintes (“fifths”) —the latter two commands refer to the people who are assigned to form specific storeys of the human tower. The second person plural “you,” vosaltres, was non-existent, and the second person singular “you,” tu, was highly unusual. However, among participants who had similar roles in the castell (such as those in the base or the trunk), the use of unreserved orders was common and expected. During their first day, novice team members received instructions on how to ask for help and give orders when necessary, such as calling out pit (literally “chest,” an expression used to make team members push closer together) when they were in the base. This use, in fact, promoted relationships of closeness and solidarity that are more typical of interactions between family members or within much closer and trusting relationships. Explicit instruction to novices to give orders and the nonexploitative use of power relations with unconventional forms of orders empowered participants and helped them feel more immediately and horizontally included in the activities. In addition, this way of communicating challenges many communicative boundaries that are commonly found in everyday life and that are often subject to gender, age, experience, status and other relations. Learning to speak for oneself when help is needed or when there is an unbearable pain that one cannot stand anymore is also a way to learn to be responsible for others, because if one person falls, so do the others.

Since 2010, civic, cultural and political associations have mobilized the casteller community to represent a new national project. In doing so, they extrapolated to the national level the characteristics that have popularly been identified with castells and that thus appealed to a community that is increasingly diverse on the social, cultural and linguistic levels. Sardanes and the characteristics that had iconically represented the type of cultural identity and the type of Catalanism of the late twentieth century have fallen by the wayside. In the last decade, Catalan society has valued and made visible aspects such as hard work, the historical activity, teamwork and the tenacity of castells, characteristics that were popularly represented symbolically and humorously via the Catalan donkey in the early 2000s. In addition, aspects such as pride, courage, physical and mental strength and youth have been added, antagonistically represented by the image of the Spanish bull. Both the bull and the donkey humorously represented the two social, cultural, political, and linguistic communities of the turn of the century. This polarization strengthened the bonds within each imagined community, but it also exacerbated the boundaries between them. Castells therefore incorporate—including symbolically—images, styles and aspects popularly recognized by the two communities, and they have become a symbol that represents more and more people.

The new image for the national project has sought to emphasize some of the features in the world of castells analysed here, such as the collective responsibility, the cooperation, the egalitarian relations, the democratic means of participation, the courage, or the physical contact and the expression of uncontained emotions. The new project has revolved around the idea of letting people decide and build for themselves in a more democratic way something from below (as it occurs with castells), instead of receiving something imposed from above. Moreover, the new image is about speaking loudly and clearly and being responsible for others if the situation (whether social, economic or political) is unfair or feels that way, because speaking up is beneficial to the whole community (as in castells). It has sought to recognize the power of civil society (or the “pinya” of the castell) to make any structure possible (despite contradictions, frictions and differences). It has tried to challenge power and its limits, as well as to celebrate diversity in society, in the same way the casteller world usually celebrates and encourages diversity in shapes, sizes, gender, age or experience. And, finally, this extrapolation has also revealed a modern perspective of Catalan society that, despite being rooted in a historical and local activity such as castells, included aspects that had not historically been associated with Catalan cultural identity before (youth, maintained physical contact, unrestrained expression of emotions, competitiveness, and so on). This combination of elements has emphasized the changes that Catalan society in general experienced during the previous decade to build a reimagined sense of community that has increasingly appealed to a more diverse population.

58. The State of Nature in Language Ideologies

Kathryn Woolard


Linguistic naturalism is a belief found among professionals as well as laypeople that language is an autonomous natural entity not subject to speakers’ will (Joseph 2000). As an ideology, it conflates the is and the ought: naturalness is seen as good, with both social and linguistic implications. Although naturalization is a central topic in language ideology studies, it is less often recognized that it takes various and competing forms that are worth distinguishing since they may have different consequences for language and society. This essay will briefly characterize several variations, drawing illustrations primarily from Spanish and Catalan contexts, although linguistic naturalism is by no means peculiar to them.

At its most general, linguistic naturalization transforms history, the process by which things in the human world are made, into nature, a supposedly harmonious display of essences, as do all ideologies (Barthes 1972). However, rarely are all linguistic varieties treated as equally natural. In a familiar version, linguistic naturalism bestows the inevitability and transparency of nature almost exclusively on nation-state languages, and this courtesy extends mutually among independent states. For example, the British Guardian drew on linguistic naturalism to intertwine transnational immigration and the Catalan sovereignty movement as problems:

The influx of millions of immigrants into Spain…has transformed parts of Catalonia… The biggest single group is from Romania, followed by Morocco, Ecuador and Great Britain…..Those in Catalonia face an immediate problem: the language. This has put pressure on the education system as immigrant children have to learn Catalan before they can be taught anything else. (Burgen 2012)


This account erases the identical challenge of learning Spanish that Romanian, British, and Moroccan children would face before they could be taught in Spanish-medium schools. The naturalization of Spanish licenses a false implicit distinction between dominant and minoritized languages in Spain, even in English media.

Linguistic naturalness is often linked to linguistic superiority and dominance, but in two distinct ways. A linguistic variety may be represented as naturally superior in and of itself (stronger, more euphonic, or communicatively precise). The invisible hand of a linguistic free market supposedly moves naturally toward the most perfect form for communicative function, which thus becomes dominant naturally, not through arbitrary historical developments. Thus the Spanish academician Gregorio Salvador is quoted as writing: “a great part of Castilian’s success has to be attributed to its five cleanly differentiated vowels, the most perfect vowel system possible” (Moreno Cabrera 2010, 11).

If linguistic dominance is natural, then a multilingual state is unnatural. For example, in debates over language policies in the Second Spanish Republic, Miguel de Unamuno endorsed the survival of the fittest, in which “lawmakers have no business.” Unamuno argued that the problem of multiple languages would resolve itself because dialects would fuse with the “strongest language, in accordance with the laws of nature” (Monteagudo 2013, 111-112).

However, the causal arrow between the natural and the superior can be reversed, to hold that whatever is most natural is best. In the earliest example, Dante characterized the vernacular as nobler because it is natural to us, in contrast to Latin grammar, which is artificial. The 16th century Spaniard Juan de Valdés asserted that popular refrains revealed the true character of Castilian, whose unaffected essence couldn’t be deliberately learned because vernaculars couldn’t be represented in grammatical rules. In the modern era, professional linguists have often suggested that some linguistic varieties are the more genuine object of inquiry than others, because they are allegedly more natural, acquired without study and uncontaminated by the artificiality of grammar or literature (Joseph 2000).

The perspectives evidenced by Dante and Valdés lead toward a more specifically socio-linguistic naturalization that links each individual to a specific language variety. This version celebrates not the referential fit of language to the world, as do ideologies of linguistic dominance, but rather the iconic fit of language to the speaker or writer’s authentic self. There is only one true form for each person, usually the “mother tongue.” The consequence of sociolinguistic naturalism is that speaking in a language other than the first acquired may be felt as false, a betrayal of self, if not simply impossible. In turn, only native speakers can use a language whose value is based in this kind of natural authenticity (Woolard 2016). Entire languages are seen as almost impossible to acquire deliberately, as Valdés wrote; these are the minoritized languages of the modern period.

This naturalistic equation of language and the sincere self is the ethos of contemporary hip-hop just as it is of Protestantism and of Romantic nationalism, of which it has been a central feature.  The political theorist Judith Shklar summarized the social effects of Romantic naturalism generally, which apply to language par excellence:

Romantic morality may reflect…the anguish of people who leave the social world of their childhood behind them and adopt new manners and roles. The true inner self is identified with one’s childhood and family, and regret as well as guilt for having left them behind may render new ways artificial, false, and …a betrayal of that original self. This personal self is seen as having a primacy that no later social role can claim; and indeed the latter may be despised as demeaning…simply ‘fake’…less genuine than the primordial self. (Shklar 1984, 75-76)


This anguish of Romantic naturalism inhibits second language learning, as epitomized in Barcelona by the “monologic truth” espoused by some young working class Castilian-speaking men (Pujolar 2001). Their masculine sense of self could only be expressed in a direct voice they viewed as their own and as incompatible with Catalan, and possibly with any secondarily acquired language.

Is this sociolinguistic form of naturalism not simply natural itself? Undoubtedly, a primordial, habitual linguistic variety will feel more “natural” – available without conscious effort – to its speakers than some other forms they might acquire. But this kind of bodily and mental naturalness does not automatically confer value on a linguistic variety, which is the case in sociolinguistic naturalism. This linguistic window on the speaker’s primordial being could logically be disparaged as childishly unformed (and is in some other linguistic ideologies), but this specific naturalizing ideology valorizes it instead.

Naturalness in language is obviously not always valued, nor is artifice always seen as inauthentic (in the Spanish tradition, see Góngora’s culteranismo, for example). The late modern period has brought some ruptures with primordialist naturalism generally, as captured by the reflexive American novelist Philip Roth:

Being [myself] is one long performance and the very opposite of what is thought of as being oneself…. The whole Western idea of mental health…:[tells us that] what is desirable is congruity between your self-consciousness and your natural being. But there are those whose sanity flows from the conscious separation of those two things … recognizing that one is acutely a performer, rather than swallowing whole the guise of naturalness. (Roth 1986, 319-320)


Increasingly, sociolinguistic studies are finding a similarly non-naturalizing sense of linguistic authenticity. For example, In Catalonia in the 2000’s, some Castilian-speakers who had rejected Catalan when young came to embrace the language later, as an expression of a freely chosen self: “A person is a speaker of whatever languages s/he feels like speaking” (Veu Pròpia Bages 2008). Those I interviewed saw their youthful rejection of Catalan as immature foolishness and were proud of the personal growth that allowed them to take up a language they had considered alien. The Romantic relation of originary linguistic form to the self had broken down for them. Speaking Catalan was a different kind of act of identity that expressed not where they came from, but who they believed they had become: flexible, tolerant, mature, and above all, individual.

A Castilian-speaking journalist similarly reported the pleasure he took in speaking Catalan with a Castilian-speaking taxi driver in Barcelona:

We both know that we’re making an effort to speak in Catalan, and even so, we know that it’s an effort that we enjoy. An effort that connects with a self that is not the one that life has given us randomly, but rather part of the identity that we have chosen. We’ve decided to be a person who speaks Catalan, and we do it with pleasure. (Puente 2016)


Commodification, hybridity, superdiversity, and a neoliberal emphasis on self-formation have all been described as characteristic of late modern language. One thing these all share is an anti-naturalist, anti-primordialist character that dissociates essence from origins to enable new projects of linguistic identity, in place of Romantic authenticity and its accompanying guilt. However, the rejection of primordialist sociolinguistic naturalism also naturalizes a narrative itself, just a different one. My interviewees’ accounts cast movement into bilingualism as the normal process in a diverse society (related to views found in communities described as “superdiverse” and “metroethnic”). This too is an ideology of linguistic naturalism, but it represents human beings as naturally choosing to acquire languages that are present in their environments. As a form of naturalization it is polyglot rather than monoglot, and it privileges agency, choice, and openness over primordialism, nativism, and eternal essences.



Barthes, Roland. 1972. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang.

Burgen, Stephen. 2012. Immigration complicates Catalonia’s separatist picture. The Guardian, November 20.

Joseph, John E. 2000. Limiting the Arbitrary; Linguistic Naturalism and its Opposites in Plato’s Cratylus and Modern Theories of Language. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Monteagudo, Henrique. 2013. Spanish and other languages of Spain in the Second Republic. In A Political History of Spanish: The Making of a Language, ed. José del Valle, pp. 106-122. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Moreno Cabrera, Juan Carlos. 2010. Lengua/nacionalismo en el contexto español. June 29, 2010. http://bretemas.blogaliza.org/files/2010/06/Texto_Juan_Carlos_Moreno_Cabrera.pdf.

Puente, Arturo. 2016. Una batalla cultural contra la demanda de drets polítics. NacióDigital, February 22. http://www.naciodigital.cat/opinio/12616/batalla/cultural/contra/demanda/drets/politics

Pujolar, Joan. 2001. Gender, Heteroglossia and Power; A Sociolinguistic Study of Youth Culture. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Roth, Philip. 1986. The Counterlife.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Shklar, Judith N. 1984. Ordinary Vices. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

Veu Pròpia Bages. 2008. Perquè un immigrant parla català?  Veu Pròpia Bages. May 13, 2008. http://bagesveupropia.blogspot.nl/2008/05/perqu-un-immigrant-parl-catal.html.

Woolard, Kathryn A. 2016. Singular and Plural: Ideologies of Linguistic Authority in 21st Century Catalonia. New York: Oxford University Press.



57. The inexpressible, expressed

Nigel Fabb
University of Strathclyde, Glasgow


Language enables us to describe what we know of the world. But it is a common view, held in many cultures, that it is possible to have knowledge of something ‘beyond’ which cannot be described in ordinary language, but yet where it is possible to do things to language to express that knowledge. What is known is ineffable, and it may be a knowledge of some reality beyond ordinary reality, sometimes part of a religious or mystical experience. Here is Wordsworth’s expression of such a view, in The Prelude (1805, book 12):

I discuss now what in language enables us to express our knowledge of the world, but also what ordinarily escapes language, why special knowledge escapes language, and how language can be manipulated to express that special knowledge. Similar manipulations appear to be used across cultures.

Our knowledge of the world is largely tied up in schemata, the components of our memory where each schema is what we know of the types of things and events in the world, such as cats, tables, happiness, marriage, death, and so on. The vocabulary of a language names those schemata. We can put words together into sentences which make statements about the world. When we know something which is ineffable, this usually means that we know of something which is not expressed by a schema in our memory, since schemata can in principle be expressed in words. In this sense, ineffability is an extremely common situation, because almost everything we know about unique objects and events in the world is a knowledge of tokens, not of the generalized types. When I look at a leaf, I can name it in general terms as ‘leaf’ because it fits into the schema for leaf, but the specific leaf in itself is not schematic – it does not have a name of its own, separate from the name of the leaf next to it – and in this sense, the unique things in the world which we can have knowledge of are almost always ineffable. There are exceptions; for example, a unique person can have their own schema, and their own unique name, such as ‘Clarissa Dalloway’. Names, in this sense, can escape the limits of language to express unique real objects in themselves. Another way of getting directly at the unique things in the world is to use pronouns or other ‘pointing’ words (demonstratives), such as ‘there’ and ‘she’. These are ordinary ways of getting round the everyday ineffability of the unique aspects of reality. Literature can exploit these special devices as a way of expressing something beyond ordinary ineffable uniqueness, to get at the special moments in which the world is revealed; here the profound knowledge is expressed using tricks of language. An example comes in the moment of vision in the final paragraphs of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925; this argument comes from Zhang 2014). In this moment, Peter sees an aspect of the world – here the reality of Clarissa Dalloway – in a profound way, and the text gets at this reality by using a name, a demonstrative and a pronoun.

The special status of names in many cultures can in part be understood in terms of their being windows into a reality which cannot normally be expressed in language. William Blake knew that there were dangers in opening up that window.

In this poem, which he engraved himself, using his own idiosyncratic punctuation system, Blake uses the only question mark in the whole of the collection from which it comes, Songs of Innocence (1789). And he uses it when the speaker tries to find a name for the child, which the child in a sense attempts to avoid by using a common noun ‘joy’ instead of the unique name by which it can be bound – a binding which the child undergoes in the parallel ‘Infant sorrow’ from the Songs of Experience (1794), a collection in which Blake engraved a great number of question marks. In many literatures and cultural practices, the problem of using words to refer to unique individuals is resolved another way, by using metaphors, descriptive phrases, or longer descriptions, which stand for the person. A characteristic practice is to use different descriptions in different parts of a poem, for the same person, sometimes in parallel sequences, such that the language appears to be circling around the reality of the person but rarely directly naming him or her. For example, in a Tswana praise poem discussed by Schapera (1965, cited Fabb 1997), the chief Bathoen I is referred to five times in a twelve-line sequence, but never directly – he is called leisantwa (after his age-set), rralesêgô (father of Lesego), segopê (elephant), lefenya (conquerer) and rramoswaana (the fair complexioned man). This may be a combination of two ways of using language to express the ineffable reality of a person: to use indirect descriptions, and to use multiple descriptions in parallel.

This brings us to another way of using language, particularly in poetry, to express meanings which are otherwise inexpressible, which is by the use of parallelism. Parallelism is a way of expressing the same meaning twice or more, using different words (Fabb 2017). This basically means that the meaning is not expressed directly at all, because the repetition suggests that neither of the individual expressions is enough to express what is actually meant, but rather that the meaning is to be found somewhere in the space between the parallel expressions. Forth (1988) says this about parallelism in the Rindi language (a variety of Eastern Sumbanese, Indonesia), where “it may not be the simpler reference of terms and phrases… in ritual language… which is screened off or disguised, so much as the precise sense in which terms are appropriate to their denotata”. Parallelism thus has something in common with metaphor, which is another device by which meanings which cannot be directly expressed can nevertheless be pointed to in language.

And now we come to metaphor itself, and the broader fact about language which metaphor exploits. This is that when we use language, what we communicate is not necessarily what the words and sentences literally mean. Instead, the literal meanings of the words and sentences are partial evidence of what we intend to communicate, and the words can be direct or indirect evidence. In metaphors, the words used are indirect evidence of the meaning which is communicated. This means that in ordinary communication, in principle we could communicate meanings which escape from the schematicity of language, because the language is just evidence for the meanings, not necessarily a direct expression of the meanings. In this regard, all kinds of ineffable meanings can be communicated using language as indirect evidence for the meaning. This is another way in which ineffability is always with us as a possibility even in ordinary language. In literature, and other cultural practices, metaphors can be central to the ways in which deeper realities can be expressed. Religious and mystical beliefs can often be expressed by making statements which would be untrue if the words were taken literally, such as ‘this statue can hear me speak’. Instead, we must take these words as indirect evidence of a deeper meaning, perhaps a meaning which cannot be itself put into words. A variant of the use of metaphor is the use of deliberate paradoxes and nonsense as a way of expressing deeper but otherwise inexpressible meanings. One example is found in the 15th century North Indian poet Kabir, who wrote some of his poems in ulatbamsi, ‘upside down language’, which “are absurd, paradoxical, crazy, impenetrable, and yet they purport to be meaningful” and have to be understood either by esoteric interpretation or by direct intuition (Hess 1983). Hess notes that “Kabir’s upside-down poems are part of a long tradition in India and can be related to similar expressions across the world.”

There are other ways of trying to get language to express normally inexpressible meanings, and this includes the invention of a new language. One of the driving forces here is the view that it is possible to have a language, different from our ordinary language, which can express a true reality. Thus Wilkins (1668) thought that Adam had a language in which he could directly understand God, which was subsequently destroyed after Babel: “And ’tis evident enough that the first Language was con-created with our first Parents, they immediately understanding the voice of God speaking to them in the Garden”. The desire to create a new language can be found across the twentieth century avant-garde, in all the media, where the new language might be able to provide access to a deeper reality. For example the composer Earle Brown (1986) seeks “a notational system that will produce an aural world which defies traditional notation and creates a performance ‘reality’ which has not existed before”. However it is not clear that any of these special approaches are necessary: the language we already have does not prevent us being able to know or communicate the ineffable. They depend on too narrow a view of words as constraining our access to reality.

The view that we have access to a knowable reality which we cannot express in language has an interestingly contradictory relation to another common view, which is that our language shapes how we think. This is the ‘Sapir-Whorf’ hypothesis; it is disputed within linguistics and psychology, but sometimes adopted uncritically in other disciplines as Fabb (2016) shows for economics, and it appeals to a common-sense view that our native language expresses our own reality. But the same general aspects of language which enable us to express ineffable meanings are some of the same aspects which mean that language cannot really constrain how we think.

In conclusion, we can see that ineffability is a common characteristic of the gap between what we can know and what we can say, and a characteristic which we would expect given that our vocabulary is finite but the range of what we can perceive and know is probably not finite. Furthermore, language does not determine what we can communicate, but is just one of the kinds of evidence for meaning which is involved in communication. Literature and other cultural practices exploit these characteristics of language, to express the inexpressible.



Brown, Earle 1986 The notation and performance of new music. Musical Quarterly 72 (2), 180-201.

Fabb, Nigel 1997. Linguistics and Literature: Language in the Verbal Arts of the World. Oxford: Blackwell [Trans. Fabb, N. 2006 Lingüística y Literatura. El lenguaje en las artes verbales del mundo. Madrid: A Machado Libros.]

Fabb, Nigel 2016. Linguistic theory, linguistic diversity and whorfian economics. In Victor Ginsburgh and Shlomo Weber (eds.) The Palgrave Handbook of Economics and Languages. London: Palgrave. pp.17-60.

Fabb, Nigel 2017. Poetic parallelism and working memory. Oral Tradition 31/2.  Special issue on Parallelism in Verbal Art and Performance, ed. Frog & Lotte Tarkka.

Fabb, Nigel 2021. Experiences of Ineffable Significance In Elly Infantidou, Tim Wharton and Louis de Saussure (eds.) Beyond Meaning.   Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Forth, Gregory 1988. Fashioned Speech, Full Communication: Aspects of Eastern Sumbanese Ritual Language. In James J. Fox (ed.) To Speak in Pairs. Essays on the Ritual Languages of Eastern Indonesia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 129–160.

Hess, Linda 1983. The Cow Is Sucking at the Calf’s Teat: Kabir’s Upside-Down Language. History of Religions, 22 (4), pp.313-337

Schapera, I. 1965. Praise-poems of Tswana chiefs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilkins, John 1668. An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language London: Printed for Sa. Gellibrand, and for John Martyn.

Zhang, Dora 2014. Naming the indescribable: Woolf, Russell, James and the limits of description. New Literary History, 45 (1), 51-70.

56. The Mentality of Linguistic Subordination and Spontaneity

Xavier Lamuela
Universitat de Girona


My aim here is to recall the connotations particular to the conception of subordinate languages within the historical context of social-modernization processes and to observe how some of these connotations, valued negatively within that context, have a very different role in the current conception of linguistic subordination.

Ninyoles refers to the conception of subordinate languages using the expression “diglossic ideologies,” which subsequently, adapted to become “diglossic representations,” has been used by Occitan sociolinguists and, in general, within the revindicating sociolinguistics produced in the French context. Ninyoles (1971: 69) observes,

In the last century, “diglossic” ideologies have found a characteristic expression in the “nature” versus “culture” paradigm, based on which we could elaborate an endless series of dichotomies: “natural peoples” (= Naturvölker) and “cultural peoples” (= Kulturvölker), “people” versus “elite,” “mass” and “minority,” “popular culture” versus “high culture,” “feeling” versus “reason,” and so on. This pernicious dualism has survived through concepts of “natural language” and “mother tongue” as opposing notions to that of “language of culture.”

Based on the observations made by Ninyoles and others made by Aracil (1983: 55-56), I established (Lamuela 1994: 71-73) a list of opposite terms stuctured along the lines of those used in the semantic differential technique. Below I reproduce a version of this list accompanied by some labels that correspond to a series of summarizing categories:











Similarly, Gal (2018: 233) has established an axis of oppositions between the properties attributed to standard language on the one hand and those attributed to subordinate linguistic forms on the other:









If we make a brief comparison between the two lists, we see that mine, focused on the opposition between dominant and subordinate languages, is more detailed in some respects, such as the distinctions it introduces within the axes of rationality and practical value. By contrast, Gal pays particular attention to the properties that characterize the opposition between a codified language form and dialectal varieties: anonymity ↔ authenticity, universal ↔ particular/emplaced, homogeneous/unified ↔ various. I would highlight that the anonymity ↔ authenticity polarization conveys the series of oppositions established under my labels (3) and (4) of link to rationality and link to secondary relations.

Gal (2018) presents certain uses of subordinate languages as practices that challenge their codification. Here is one of her examples (Gal 2018: 236-237):

A striking example is Urla’s (2012) [1] discussion of “pirate radio” in the Basque country. Young people who opposed middle class intellectuals and their creation of a standard register of Basque responded by organizing illegal broadcasting that deliberately mixed Basque and Spanish, used familiar and rural registers of Basque while playing decidedly unfolkloric, rock and other popular youth styles of music. The radio stations were unofficial, uncommercial and not middle class, thereby turning upside down the values of standardizing preservationists. Arguably, they were not traditional or backward looking. Indeed, they enacted another form of modernity.

In my view, this way of presenting the issue ignores the fact that over the last few decades there has been an essential, though not completely generalized, change in the values associated with linguistic uses and, in particular, in the series of connotations included under the labels of link to rationality and link to secondary relations. On the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, the dual conception of languages particular to modernization processes was entirely in force. It was closely linked to the political will to generalize knowledge and use of languages considered to be “national” where other varieties were generally used. It combined the economic interest of consolidating a state market (with a possible colonial extension), the principle of political authority associated with the nation-state, the principle of linguistic and cultural authority associated with the apparatus of state culture, and the ideological will to build a national unity requiring linguistic unification. In a context in which written language was the only significant vehicle for communication that went beyond direct interpersonal contacts, the project of generalizing the use of state languages, manifested in a voluntarist manner, adopted intellectual and socioeconomic elites as a model, strengthened reference to the principle of authority and emphasized the features that characterize the dual conception of languages.

This conception was included in the era’s common ground of thinking (Van Dijk 2003: 22), [2] and so it also played a significant role in the political positions that were put forward to achieve an egalitarian society. This is illustrated by the following Gramsci quote (1975: 1377), which is additionally representative of the dual conception of languages and in particular of the elements that I list under the label of link to rationality:

A person who only speaks a dialect or who understands the national language in varying degrees necessarily enjoys a more or less restricted and provincial, fossilized and anachronistic perception of the world in comparison with the great currents of thought which dominate world history. His interests will be restricted, more or less corporative and economic, and not universal. If it is not always possible to learn foreign languages so as to put oneself in touch with different cultures, one must at least learn the national tongue [well]. (translation reproduced from: Antonio Gramsci (1957) The Modern Prince and other writings by Antonio Gramsci. London: Lawrence and Wishart Ltd. p. 59.) [3]

Throughout the 20th century, however, compulsory schooling ensured general knowledge of state languages and various levels of familiarity with the culture they conveyed, and the expansion of audiovisual media consolidated linguistic standardization, understood as the population’s internalization of the linguistic forms proposed as a model for generalized use. Writing ceased to be the only vehicle of non-immediate interpersonal communication, and standard oral language became present everywhere. Writing itself, adapted to all kinds of media, was becoming less formal. In the last third of the century, it was common in the comments of scholars—for example, Kloss (1978: 21-22; see Lamuela 1994: 158-161)—to observe the linguistic consequences of these processes: relaxation of explicit rules, unself-conscious use of linguistic variation’s resources and a positive assessment of uses that were considered to be transgressive. These trends have experienced highly pronounced progress in recent years owing to computerized communication procedures, which have made immediate interactions without personal contact widespread and written uses completely commonplace (Coupland & Kristiansen 2011). At the economic level, state markets are increasingly subordinated to the globalized market, and commercial mechanisms have undergone radical changes. The relationship between economic interests and communication phenomena means that they are governed by marketing principles, which make the most of the possibilities of ICT. Publicity and propaganda, conveyed via the huge variety of media and their technical possibilities, govern the functioning of economics and politics.

In this context, the language associated with rationality (abstract, precise, denotative, rational, controlled, organized and elaborated) continues to be valid in certain areas, such as academia and law, where it maintains its association with certain mechanisms of power. By contrast, the dynamic and changing character—fluid, “liquid”—of general communication and the power that flows from propagandistic use of language are making traits that run counter to rationality (the world of the concrete, imprecision, connotation, emotivity, spontaneity, improvisation and naturalness) acquire positive value. In practice, we are witnessing a hypervaluation of these traits, and it is paving the way for all sorts of demagogic discourses. These are sustained on a common ground that also now includes revindicating discourses. With the claim of combating authoritarian positions, these discourses are on the fringes of a serious critique of language uses, and they idealize uses that are considered to be spontaneous but, in fact, only accommodate what is now perceived as (post)modern.

It is worth examining the situation of dominant and subordinate languages from this perspective. Standardization of dominant languages ensures, on the one hand, availability for elaborated uses that are still necessary and effective in our society, and, on the other, the generalized internalization of a “standard colloquial” language that forms the basis of spontaneous uses of all registers and also of the possibility of playing with linguistic resources of various origins, including those considered transgressive, such as the use of slang and oral forms traditionally proscribed in formal language. Subordinate languages, on the other hand, suffer from the deficiencies of a lack of standardization when it comes to their application in elaborated uses. In spontaneous uses they are the object of compensatory idealization when they are made to appear as the quintessence of naturalness, but they are marginal within propagandistic uses, subject as these are to the configuration of linguistic dominance, which relegates subordinate languages to intragroup use and communicative fragmentation within the linguistic community itself.


[1] Jacqueline Urla (2012) Reclaiming Basque: Language, Nation and Cultural Activism. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.

[2] Gal (2018: 222 and passim) speaks of sociolinguistic regimes and specifically of standard regime to refer to a conception of languages that privileges their standard form.

[3] “Chi parla solo il dialetto o comprende la lingua nazionale in gradi diversi, partecipa necessariamente di una intuizione del mondo più o meno ristretta e provinciale, fossilizzata, anacronistica in confronto delle grandi correnti di pensiero che dominano la storia mondiale. I suoi interessi saranno ristretti, più o meno corporativi o economistici, non universali. Se non sempre è possibile imparare più lingue straniere per mettersi a contatto con vite culturali diverse, occorre almeno imparare bene la lingua nazionale.”



Aracil, Lluís V. (1983) “El racionalisme oligàrquic”. In: Dir la realitat. Barcelona: Països Catalans. 47-65.

Coupland, Nikolas, & Tore Kristiansen (2011) “SLICE: Critical perspectives on language (de)standardisation”. In: Tore Kristiansen & Nikolas Coupland (eds.) Standard Languages and Language Standards in a Changing Europe. Oslo: Novus Press. 11-35.

Gal, Susan (2018) “Visions and revisions of minority languages: Standardization and its dilemmas”. In: Pia Lane, James Costa, & Haley De Korne (eds.) Standardizing Minority Languages: Competing Ideologies of Authority and Authenticity in the Global Periphery. Abingdon / New York: Routledge. 222-242.

Gramsci, Antonio (1975) Quaderni del carcere [1929-1935], 4 vols., edited by Valentino Gerratana. Torino: Einaudi.

Kloss, Heinz (1978) Die Entwicklung neuer germanischer Kultursprachen seit 1800, 2nd ed. Düsseldorf: Schwann.

Lamuela, Xavier (1994) Estandardització i establiment de les llengües. Barcelona: Edicions 62.

Ninyoles, Rafael Ll. (1971) Idioma i prejudici, 2nd ed. Palma de Mallorca: Moll, 1975.

Van Dijk, Teun A. (2003) Ideología y discurso. Barcelona: Ariel.







55. Languages and Linguistics: Scientific Paradigms and Hidden Devotions

Joan A. Argenter
UNESCO Chair on Cultural and Linguistic Diversity
Institut d’Estudis Catalans


In memory of Ferdinand de Saussure on the centenary of the Cours de Linguistique Générale (1916)[1]
C’est, en dernière analyse, seulement le côté pittoresque d’une langue, celui qui fait qu’elle diffère de toutes autres comme appartenant à certain peuple ayant certains origines, c’est ce côté presque ethnographique, qui conserve pour moi un intérêt.[2]
Ferdinand de Saussure

(Letter from F. De Saussure to A. Meillet, 4 January 1894. [É. Benveniste (ed.) “Lettres de Ferdinand de Saussure à Antoine Meillet publiées par Emile Benveniste”, Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure, 21: 89-135 (1964) – p. 95]


Historical-comparative linguistics aims to study the evolution of languages. This was the predominant current of linguistic science in the 19th century. The Swiss Indo-Europeanist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) put himself at the heart of it. Everything he published in his lifetime was the product of that intellectual interest. He moved with ease in this area. Saussure’s genius became apparent long before the appearance of the Cours. At the age of 21, he published Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (1879), a major contribution to Indo-European linguistics that shaped how this field evolved. In the field of comparative linguistic reconstruction, Saussure postulated that there was a need for there to exist in Proto-Indo-European an element that, although undocumented in any known language of the Indo-European family, allowed greater generalization in describing the Indo-European vowel system and made it possible to account for that system’s evolution in Indo-European languages. He called this element “sonant coefficients.” Unfortunately, Saussure would not witness the empirical confirmation of his hypothesis, which came about with the discovery and deciphering of Hittite, an Anatolian language that was probably the oldest among the Indo-European languages. From 1927, another great linguist, the Pole Jerzy Kuryɫowicz (1895-1978), developed his theory of “laryngeals”—the hypothetical “sonant coefficients” predicted by Saussure—based on Saussure’s theoretical and empirical foundations.

However, Saussure’s brilliant theoretical contribution to Indo-European and historical-comparative linguistics is often ignored owing to the spectacular shift he brought about in the discipline a hundred years ago when he taught courses on what he called “general linguistics,” an area in which, in contrast to his free movement within historical-comparative linguistics, he proceeded with great caution. Like many scientific questions, what Saussure asked was seemingly quite simple: What is a Language?

Until then—he thought— linguists had considered how our object of study evolves, and we have made progress in understanding the mechanisms of this evolution (phonetic laws). However, we did not ask questions about what the very nature of our object of study is. Answering this simple question entailed abandoning the historical-evolutionary perspective and approaching language from a perspective that decouples the state of a language at a given moment from its previous state—and its later one, where applicable. This is a “synchronic” perspective. “Synchronic” elements coexist in the minds of individuals of a generation or generations who live alongside one another. Consider, for example, the opposition between the sounds represented in Catalan by l and ll (alveolar lateral approximant [l] and palatal lateral approximant [ʎ]): col / coll ‘cabbage’ / ‘neck’ or fila / filla ‘line’ / ’daughter’. Synchronic elements stand in contrast to “diachronic” elements, which have existed in the minds of individuals of different and often distant generations. In the case of Catalan, consider, for example, libre [de les dones] (‘Book [of Women]’; Francesc Eiximenis) / llibre [de les dones] (today), or latí (‘Latin’; Ramon Llull) / llatí (today). The initial Latin sound l became ll in Catalan, unlike in Spanish: Cat. llei / Sp. ley ‘law’; Cat. lluna / Sp. luna ‘moon’; Cat. llac / Sp. lago ‘lake´. In Catalan the sound l from Latin changed to ll in word initial position. Nothing was lost: the l / ll opposition is typical of the synchronic sound structure of today’s Catalan. The two sounds differentiate words, as is shown by the aforementioned col / coll or fila / filla, and therefore both sounds are functional entities of the language’s sound structure. When the aforementioned change was no longer active, learned words borrowed from Latin were introduced, and this has led to the coexistence of synchronic pairs such as llengua ‘language’ / lingüística ‘linguistics’, llei ‘law’ / legal ‘legal’ and llac ‘lake’ / lacustre ‘lacustrine’.

The answer to Saussure’s question is well known: every language is a “system”, an autonomous and autotelic whole formed by a set of elements that are defined by their relationships and oppositions within the “whole.” It’s a “system of differences”: the elements are not defined “by what they are” but “by what they are not”—by the capacity for distinction and reciprocal relations, such as the l / ll opposition within Catalan’s phonetic system. They do not work or evolve separately from each other. All this marked a paradigm shift, and that is why Saussure is considered the initiator of “modern linguistics.” Since then there has been other paradigm shifts in linguistics, but at bottom these are all still indebted to Saussure’s.

One way of looking at things would be the assertion that throughout its development linguistics had its Darwin before its Linnaeus.

But we all have hidden vocations; views of an object that are different from what we convey because it is “scientifically plausible,” “academically sound” or “politically correct”; vague intuitions; inclinations; and hidden intellectual affections. At one moment or another, everyone has likely wanted to do or see things or approach facts in a different way.

Such a moment came about as a personal, chance manifestation in Saussure’s case. Saussure wrote the lines that begin this article in a letter to his disciple Antoine Meillet. Despite his scientific approach to the study of language—this was already emerging in his Indo-European work (in fact, the letter predates the lectures of the Cours)—Saussure was fascinated by what makes one language different from another; by what links it to a land and a people, to particular origins and to a history; by its ethnographic dimension. All these things are far removed from an extremely formalist conception—one that he himself had promoted and which others would carry on—centred on a formal “structure” that is independent from speakers, their environment and their sociolinguistic history.

Saussure added:
et précisément je n’ai plus le plaisir de pouvoir me livrer à cette étude sans arrière-pensée, et de jouir du fait particulier tenant à un milieu particulier. ”[3]

His profession kept him from the joy and pleasure of studying or considering language from an ecological point of view, taking into account the habitat, its organisms and its interactions—that is, its people and its uniqueness. And, in my opinion, he could still have turned everything on its head: a language unfolds in an environment, in particular social surroundings, but it is also an environment in which the activities and thoughts of those who speak it unfold.

As with any scientific discipline, the aim of linguistics is to discover the invariant elements of its object of study. The tension between invariance and variation is innate in language and linguistic research, as is the universality and diversity of language in its empirical manifestation. And so is the tension between the reduction of language to a formal object or to a very specific cognitive structure of the human mind and the recognition of its public dimension. The lack of such recognition in linguistic study can only be sustained not only if previously that reduction has served operationally to delimit and to define the object of study but also if that object of study has been identified exhaustively as “language”—a strategy explicitly followed by authors whose works have not been around for a century.

Interestingly, in a certain sense and to some extent, this contrast between the invention of a new linguistic paradigm and a divergent personal inclination within the Swiss scholar is the opposite of the relationship that has often been attributed to Pompeu Fabra, with or without basis. It has been stated that if Fabra had not set himself the overriding goal of bringing about the codification of modern Catalan and social and institutional acceptance of this language—“the straightening of the language”—he could have had a brilliant career as a linguist. That is, he might have been a scholar of language with no prescriptive aim. We do not know whether this could have been so: the truth is that he completely gave himself over to that task until he absolutely achieved it. We know that Fabra was familiar with the works of his contemporaries Ferdinand de Saussure and Otto Jespersen, as well as with the works of the historical-comparative Romanists who first inspired him. Ferdinand de Saussure laid the foundations of what would later be called “structuralism”; Otto Jespersen reformulated the foundations and analytical practice of “traditional grammar.” But Fabra also did linguistics in a modern sense. Establishing the normative image of a language is to set out a certain model of language, namely “a totality,” with more or less precise or more or less blurred margins; to define its elements; to exclude outside elements from it; to bring out its functioning and internal regularities; to discover its “system”; and—this is where the divergence comes about—to intervene in it, prescribing its legitimate form and reorienting its evolution. All this is to be done according to scientific criteria, though not with the primary intention of advancing a discipline or shaping the description of a language as a “linguistic system,” but instead with that of abiding by the “dimension that makes it different from all others in that it belongs to a particular people with particular origins” and endowing this people with a common linguistic reference point.

Saussure uses the term “ethnographic” with a hint of condescension: the use and expansion of ethnographic method and theory were soon to emerge (Bronislaw Malinowski received his doctorate in London in the year when the Cours appeared). In any case, from a perspective that does not forget the public dimension of language, what is of interest are the things that make one language different from another, that root it in a people and a space, that give it a historical validity, that make it inseparable not only from what its speakers say but also from what they do. What is of interest is the role that language plays in its speakers’ communicative and cultural practices, in the value of its uses and its silences, in the interaction between the way in which people speak and how the social and natural world is represented, in how through language a category of person is culturally constructed and a social order is reproduced or challenged, in the verbal resources that the members of a community engage with, in the solidarity and the social cleavages created by the use of these resources, in their maintenance or replacement, in their vitality or decay—in short, in their expansion or potential extinction. When he wrote to Meillet, Saussure likely did not think a great deal about all this. But it all leads to “find[ing] joy in a particular fact attached to a particular milieu”—or in understanding it.

[1] This text was drafted in 2016 but had never been published. After conquering some academic qualms, I decided to let it see the light of day.

[2] “In the final analysis, it is only the picturesque dimension of a language—an almost ethnographic dimension that makes it different from all others in that it belongs to a particular people with particular origins—that retains my interest”.

[3] “I no longer have the pleasure of being able to engage in such study at face value, or to find joy in a particular fact attached to a particular milieu.”

54. Contemporary legends, fiction and reality in a global world

Carme Oriol
Universitat Rovira i Virgili


A contemporary legend, also known as an urban legend or a modern legend among other names, is one of the genres of folk (or ethnopoetic) literature that is enjoying great vitality today. It is a fictional story of an extraordinary, surprising and curious nature, but it is presented as an account of something that may have really happened. Transmission of a contemporary legend basically takes place in two types of communicative situations: in our daily conversations and in informal spaces where social interaction takes place among a group—for example, young people at summer camps or in recreational groups.

Contemporary legends derive their appearance of reality from the conviction with which they are described by their narrator, who, in fact, will believe them to be true. The listener, on the other hand, can react in various ways: with credulity, scepticism or even disbelief. And this is so because the debate over whether or not it is true is an implicit part of the legend, unlike the dynamic in play in other genres of folk literature such as the folktale, whose audience clearly perceives that what it is being told did not happen.

Contemporary legends have certain stylistic features that reinforce the appearance of reality. First, the stories they tell are set in a specific space and time—for example, a busy shopping centre, a nearby road, a trendy restaurant or a foreign country. Second, their protagonists are specific person or groups—for example, a film actor, a famous singer, a village resident or the police. Third, they start with a formula that, with some small variations, is summed up as “This happened to a friend of a friend.” This stylistic hallmark is why in the English-speaking West the contemporary legend has another name that is catching on: “FOAF legend” (Friend of a Friend Legend).

Contemporary legends have the function of warning or alerting us to possible dangers and channeling our fears about things that are unknown to us or that we cannot understand. The use of literary devices (the poetic function of language) makes what is told through these stories very effective—much more effective than any message expressed in a purely informative way.

The issues raised by contemporary legends have a very close relationship with the reality that we are familiar with as we experience it in our personal relationships or as it reaches us through the media (press, radio and television), social networks and the Internet. The themes of contemporary legends concern, among others, travel abroad, organ transplants, the emergence of new diseases, the dangers posed by drivers, purchases of exotic pets, unexplained phenomena, ghostly apparitions and terrorist attacks. Contemporary legends arise from the need to account for inexplicable or curious things that happen around us, and they allow us to express the feelings, concerns, uncertainties, needs and fears that such things bring about within us.

Due to their brevity and surprising nature, as well as to the topicality of the subject matter, these narratives are easily shared and, in this process, each individual recreates them and explains them in his or her own way. In an increasingly interconnected world, contemporary legends deal with global issues, but they do so according to the particularities of the culture within which they are told. One feature of these stories is therefore their variation. In fact, we find different versions of the same legend told in different countries, as existing collections, catalogues and specialized databases of contemporary legends demonstrate.

On the international scene, contemporary legends have been studied by folklorists such as the American Jan Harol Brunvand, author of several books on urban legends, including the Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (2012); the German Rolf W. Brednich; and France’s Véronique Campion-Vincent and Jean-Bruno Renard. The International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, founded in 1988, organizes an annual congress and has been publishing the journal Contemporary Legend since 1991. Outside the academic sphere and on a more mainstream level, it is worth mentioning Snopes <snopes.com>, a website that offers very comprehensive and up-to-date information on this type of story. From an academic standpoint in Catalonia, a key work is «Benvingut/da al club de la sida» i altres rumors dactualitat (2002), written by the Grup de Recerca Folklòrica d’Osona and Josep M. Pujol. It contains an extensive introductory study and a varied collection of widely documented legends.

One of the things that research on contemporary legends has addressed is these stories’ connection to real events. In De source sûre. Nouvelles rumeurs d’aujourd’hui (2002), Véronique Campion-Vincent and Jean-Bruno Renard explain how a legend can be based on events that actually happened. Building on that premise, they have studied the processes of transformation that create a legend from a real event. One of these mechanisms, amplification, makes it possible to distort reality through exaggeration and so heighten people’s fears and increase their perceptions of dangers. Another mechanism, displacement, makes it possible to change a real fact’s context and, therefore, to connect different places and circumstances to that fact. These mechanisms are often used to create legends. However, to be able to corroborate that a story of this kind really is a legend, two requirements must be met: variants of the story must circulate, and the story must include some strange element that makes it possible to doubt its authenticity.

These connections between reality and fiction can be seen in a legend that circulated a few years ago and is related to the problem caused by the palm-weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus) infestation that began to spread throughout the Catalan-speaking land and killed many palm trees here. The legend was created in an attempt to offer an explanation for the infestation, but that explanation was not always the same. Rather, different versions of the legend attributed different causes to the problem.

With regard to the reality of the infestation, the Department of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries, Food and the Natural Environment of Catalonia’s regional government offered the following information on its website: The palm weevil is a beetle native to Southeast Asia and Polynesia. It has spread continuously to other areas with a temperate climate, colonizing different palm species. The first appearances in Spain, in 1995, were recorded in the provinces of Granada and Málaga. It was later detected in 2004 in the Valencia region. In 2005 there was a major spread of the infestation and, at the end of December, a first instance of it was identified in Catalonia, in the town of El Vendrell. As insecticide treatments are ineffective against the weevil, rapid detection of outbreaks is essential in order to proceed with the uprooting and destruction of affected palms and prevent the spread of the infestation. Due to the danger posed by this infestation, the law requires that, in order to be transported in Spain, palm trees are covered by a phytosanitary passport that guarantees that they are free of this infestation and others.

The legend arose from the existence of a real infestation and spread through several versions. I will discuss two of these, which came to me through friends from Valencia in 2012. The first explains how the palm trees were slowly dying because people were putting drops of gasoline in their crowns. This act was apparently motivated by real-estate speculation, since very large, protected palm groves were preventing large construction projects. If the palm trees died, they had to be cut down. Homes could then be built on those sites.

In fact, 2012 was one of the peak years of Spain’s housing bubble; building was taking place everywhere. In the case of this legend, the explanation given for a worrying development, namely the death of palm trees as a result of an infestation, connects with another development that came about at the same time, namely real-estate speculation. For someone aware of the need to safeguard the environment, such as the person who had told me the legend, real-estate speculation, which in those years was happening all around us in a way that was excessive and troublesome in all kinds of respects, the legend offered a very logical explanation for why palm trees were being cut down. However, according to this version, palm trees were not dying because of weevils but because of the drops of gasoline poured on their crowns. This is the strange element that creates scope for doubting the story’s authenticity.

An acquaintance told me the second version of the legend via e-mail. He said that a friend of his, a maintenance worker for the local council of Albalat de la Ribera (in the Valencia region) who worked on all kinds of things (from gardens to water supply and electricity), told him that the weevil was introduced by insecticide companies that wanted to increase their sales, but things got out of hand and they did not have a way to control the infestation. In the maintenance worker’s eyes, this infestation was no different from others, such as that affecting orange trees; he attributed them all to the same cause.

The legend speaks of the weevil infestation and equates its origin to that affecting orange trees. In the case of orange trees, the pest, known as the Japanese citrus scale (Unaspis yanonensis), affects citrus trees and can even kill them. It would seem that in the Valencia region the Japanese citrus scale infestation was detected a little earlier than the weevil infestation. In any case, the legend attributes the origin of the problem to certain companies that, through their unlawful practices, apparently caused the infestation and made more money by selling the insecticides used to treat the infestation. In this version of the legend, stating that the two infestations had the same origin reinforces the story’s apparent reflection of reality by means of the repetition (duplication). At the same time, it also gives an intensity to the idea that alleged fraudulent acts committed by large companies have created a danger to the population through these infestations.

The two variants of the legend explain the origin of the death of the palm trees in a different way, but what they have in common is their underlying rationale: certain people’s speculation, malpractice and, ultimately, greed. We could all be hit by the consequences of this new infestation that is causing enormous damage to the economy and that we cannot control. And the feeling of insecurity caused by a situation like this is what leads to the creation and subsequent dissemination of the legend in its various variants.

Very often, legends’ motifs are reused and updated, thus becoming part of new stories that have emerged as a result of new problems that have arisen. So, for example, the reason behind the intentional introduction of the infestation, which we saw in the latter version of the weevil legend, can be found in a legend that arose as a result of the current situation that we have been facing in Catalonia since February 2020 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. A characteristic of this pandemic is that it is evolving over several waves, so that, when it seems that we have it under control, there is another outbreak of it and a rise in case numbers.

There is a legend that, based on this real fact, seeks to explain why the pandemic is evolving in this way. The legend, which a student sent to me a few months ago, holds that COVID-19 came into our lives because of planes whose role is to spray the civilian population with biological or chemical agents. From time to time, these planes apparently fly over the country and release the virus, and that is why these waves of contagion occur when everything seems to be going well.

According to this legend, the pandemic has been caused by the acts of people who have absolutely no scruples and are endangering the population. The legend also includes a strange element that allows us to question its truthfulness. In this case, that element is the difficulty posed by releasing a virus from an airplane (that is, from a considerable height) so that it gets inside human bodies. One of the recommendations that health authorities have made during the COVID-19 pandemic is to avoid close contact with other people inside closed spaces and, instead, to opt for interacting in open spaces. In addition, a distance of two metres is apparently enough to prevent airborne contagion.

Through these brief examples, we have seen how legends can be created from real facts and can be identified by applying particular criteria to them. Contemporary legends allow us to indirectly manage the uncertainties and insecurities we have as humans in the face of facts that are difficult for us to explain. This is their function. And that is why it is so important to study them.

53. My encounter with Hebrew

Joan Ferrer
Universitat de Girona


In 1977, at the age of 17, and feeling more worried and scared than joyous, I began my university studies at the Faculty of Theology in Barcelona and at the University of Barcelona. There I found myself enrolled in a Hebrew course—it was a compulsory course in the first semester for theology programmes. It was one of those courses that everyone passed and that (like most university courses) was forgotten with incredible speed. But I found it fascinating, and it changed my life.

Historically, Hebrew was taught as a dead language that gave access to the original text of the Hebrew Bible, which Christians often call the Old Testament. Normally, you had to memorize paradigms—in the case of verbs, these can be rather complex—and lists of words. Historically, the results of this teaching had been catastrophic: (almost) never did anyone manage to reach the end of a verse without becoming entangled in Hebrew roots, which in some cases were virtually impossible to identify. But I was fortunate to have a young teacher, Dr Enric Cortès, who had spent time in Israel, where he had learned modern Hebrew. He had been in a kibbutz in 1968, that legendary year and returned speaking the language of the Bible! A language that had been “dead” for millennia was once again being spoken in one corner of the world: Israel. For me, a young man who was moved when he heard Raimon sing Espriu’s line «Però hem viscut per salvar-vos els mots» (“But we lived to save your words”), this was a kind of revelation: a human community had managed to save words! With Enric Cortès’ help—I will never be able to thank him enough for it—, I immersed myself in studying the world he had introduced me to.

Hebrew is part of the group of so-called “Semitic languages.” This was the name that the linguist A.L. Schloezer gave in 1781 to the set of languages spoken by the peoples whom Genesis 10:20-31 classifies as the sons of Shem. The term really caught on.

According to E. Lipiński, Semitic languages can be classified as follows:

  1. North Semitic

1.1. Paleoassyrian  1.2. Amorite  1.3. Ugaritic

  1. East Semitic

2.1. Old Akkadian  2.2. Assyro-Babylonian  2.3.Late Babylonian

  1. West Semitic

3.1. Canaanite

3.1.1. Old Canaanite

3.1.2. Hebrew

3.1.3. Phoenician

3.1.4. Ammonite

3.1.5. Moabite

3.1.6. Edomite

3.2. Aramaic

3.3. Arabic

  1. South Semitic

4.1. South Arabian  4.2. Ethiopic


Hebrew is the language of the people who inhabited the geographical area that the Bible calls “the Land of Canaan” (Gen 11:31) from 1000 BC onwards. During the first millennium BC it consisted of two main dialects—Israelite in the north and Judean in the south—, but the text of the Bible retained almost no dialectal features. The oldest Hebrew-language artefacts that have survived to the present day are epigraphic (the “Gezer calendar,” tenth century BC, several ostraca, the Siloam inscription from about 700 BC, stamps, coins, funerary inscriptions, and so on).

We can distinguish two major periods in the history of the Hebrew language of the Bible: pre-exilic Hebrew (until the fall of Jerusalem to the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 587 BC) and post-exilic Hebrew. In the post-exile era, Hebrew changed markedly due to the influence of Aramaic, which became the language of Jews’ daily life. The most advanced stage of biblical Hebrew is found in the Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the two books of Chronicles.

The text of the Bible, along with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Mishnah (c. 200 AD), and Tosefta belong to a time when Hebrew was still a spoken language, at least in some parts of Judea.

The original text of the Hebrew Bible was only consonantal. Vocalization was added to it later and represents the pronunciation of the rabbinical schools of the city of Tiberias in around 900 AD. The Hebrew Bible uses a lexicon of 8,253 words (F.I. Andersen – A.D. Forbes). At the time of writing, and as a result of more than ten years of work, my student and collaborator Daniel Ferrer and I have completed a version of a large Biblical Hebrew-Catalan and Biblical Aramaic-Catalan dictionary that extends to over a thousand pages, which we are currently revising.

From the first century AD onwards, a Hebrew different from that of the Bible emerged in written texts: Mishnaic Hebrew. Some scholars thought it was an artificial language created by Aramaic-speaking Jews. Today, we know it is a language based on the spoken Hebrew of that time. It contains a large number of words that come from the language of the Bible and a set of about 14,000 words, most of which we can be sure come from the biblical era but are not found in the text of the Bible.

At the time when the era changed, the Jews of the Diaspora spoke the languages of the various countries where they lived. In Palestine, Jews mostly spoke Aramaic or Greek.

In the fourth century AD, Mishnaic Hebrew ceased to be spoken but continued to be used in texts written in prose, in the same way that Biblical Hebrew was used in poetic texts. Hebrew was the language of prayer and the language educated people used for written expression in the Jewish communities of the Diaspora countries. Jews’ mother tongue, however, was the same as the one used by the community among which they lived.

The scientific and religious prose used by Jewish sages during the Middle Ages took Mishnaic Hebrew as a model and developed it. It should be noted, however, that the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula who lived on regions under Muslim rule generally wrote their prose works in Arabic. Liturgical prayers, poetry and literary narratives were written in a biblical style that, as knowledge of the language of the Bible deepened, became a perfect imitation of Biblical Hebrew.

Medieval translators’ needs in terms of expressing scientific concepts and philosophical arguments—these were initially expressed in an Arabic heavily influenced by Greek—compelled the creation of many new words and linguistic expressions.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the Jewish Enlightenment in France and Germany promoted the use of the biblical language in texts such as newspapers and scientific works. In the nineteenth century, novels began to be written in biblical Hebrew. These dealt with aspects of everyday life, and characters who needed to be “real” had to express themselves in a solemn style, like the great patriarchs of Israel’s history did. This caused very talented writers such as Sholem Yankev Abramovich to abandon Hebrew as the language of literary expression and to begin writing in Yiddish. Sholem Yankev Abramovich did so under the pseudonym Mendele Mocher Sforim.

In 1879, an article published by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda unleashed the idea of creating a Jewish cultural centre in Palestine where Hebrew would become the language spoken in everyday life. The notion emerged into a world where ideas of national and linguistic independence among the peoples of Central and Southern Europe were boiling up. The Jewish world was not indifferent to these ideas, and Jewish societies began to appear throughout Eastern Europe. In Palestine, Ben-Yehuda started speaking Hebrew within his family and began elementary education in Hebrew.

The spirit of Jewish nationalism led Mendele Mocher Sforim to rewrite his novels in Hebrew in 1885, although he did so in Rabbinic (Mishnaic) Hebrew, a language that was more familiar to moderately cultivated Jews than purely biblical language was. In 1890, H.N. Bialik used Rabbinic Hebrew in a poem for the first time. In 1908, Ben-Yehuda began to write his great historical dictionary of the Hebrew language, the Thesaurus Totius Hebraitatis. This work brought together for the first time the words and structures of the rabbinic and medieval languages, which became the basis for the modern written and spoken language.

Modern Hebrew in Israel is, in fact, a natural continuation of medieval Hebrew, energized by the spoken language’s strength. The canonical opinion in Israel about the origin of Israeli Hebrew is that Mendele made a synthesis of two dead languages: the Biblical and the Mishnaic, the latter as it was written between 100 AD and 600 AD. According to this view, the morphological and syntactic rules of these two stages of the language are those applied in contemporary Hebrew. Until very recently, school grammars contained rules borrowed from the Hebrew of the Bible.

The language of Hebrew literature until the 1950s was Rabbinical Hebrew, which constantly recalled the language of the Bible and of Mishnaic-Talmudic Literature. S.Y. Agnon, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is the writer who wrote in this type of language most charismatically.

It seems that from the moment when Hebrew began to be spoken among the Jewish communities established in a Palestine dominated by the Ottoman Empire, grammar, syntax and vocabulary that were independent and distinguishable from the language of earlier periods began to develop. This informal language has been a constant source of enrichment for modern Hebrew. The path to a written version of this new Israeli form of Hebrew was not easy. Some writers began to experiment by introducing the language of Sabras—Israelis born in the Land of Israel—into dialogues within novels and plays. During the War of Independence (1948), some young Israeli-born soldiers and writers such as Moshe Shamir began writing stories in a more informal register. But consolidation did not come until the mid-1960s, and when it did, it was based at first on translations of foreign literature, with informal elements. Out of this experimentation, the spoken language began to appear as written word.

Written standard Hebrew exhibited a rather notable difference relative to informal speech. Schools strove to inculcate the rules of the written language, but the spoken language followed a parallel path, and so informal language was what was used in daily life, while “correct” language was what was used in formal situations. The distinctive features of the spoken language have been gaining ground in the world of written expression, first through journalistic language and then in works of literary creation.

Modern Israeli Hebrew is one of the most unique linguistic phenomena of all time. It has inherited more than 3,000 years of history but is a present reality, one full of life.

The first translator of modern Hebrew into Catalan was Eduard Feliu (Sant Feliu de Llobregat, 1938-Barcelona, 2009). The first translated novel was El meu Mikhael (My Michaelמיכאל שלי) by Amos Oz, first published in 1973 by Barcelona’s Edicions Proa (volume 166 of the “Biblioteca a tot vent” series). At that time, Edicions Proa was run by Joan Oliver, who wrote poetry under the name Pere Quart. The work was something totally new in Spain’s literary milieu, so much so that Joan Oliver commissioned Ramon Planas to produce a Spanish-language translation of Eduard Feliu’s Catalan version and subsequently published it.

With this novel, Eduard Feliu triggered the creation of Catalan-language literary translations of prose written in modern Hebrew. He was also the author of the first translations of poetry and children’s stories.

Eduard Feliu, Pere Casanellas, M. Antònia Nogueras and I have drafted the Diccionari Girona (hebreu modern-català), a modern Hebrew-Catalan dictionary. The work has been completed, and following a long process of revision, we hope to be able to publish it in 2021. It is our attempt to strengthen ties between two languages that strive to “save words.”

1 2 3 7