The Northern Neighbours: the Catalan language in France

Post by Talia Bagnall

The Northern Neighbours: the Catalan language in France

If you look up Perpignan on Google, you’ll find stock photos of brightly coloured buildings, the regal castillet standing proud in the city centre, or the palm trees beside the canal.  What you won’t see is the Catalan flags hanging from balconies, or the bilingual French-Catalan road signs, or the bakeries selling Catalan delicacies alongside French baguettes.  Perpignan is the only city in Roussillon, which along with the districts of Vallespir, Conflent, Capcir, and Cerdagne, form Northern Catalonia.  This region has been part of France since the signing of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, but it remains a País Català (Catalan country), and maintains the Catalan culture and language.  It’s a language that appears similar to French and Spanish, but it’s a beautiful language in its own right, and has its own rich vocabulary, literature, and history.

For many years, Catalan was the main language of the region, and French was the official language of the state.  But after the Revolution, the new government tried to unify their country by enforcing French throughout the country.  When education became compulsory, French became the only language taught in schools, and it was the lingua franca for French troops in the First World War.  These days, just over 35% of the population of Northern Catalonia speak Catalan, although 61% understand the language.[1]  You are more likely to hear Catalan chatter in the villages or communes rather than in Perpignan, with the exception of the Sant-Jaume quarter.  This is home to the multilingual Roma community, who identify as Gitanos, and who continue to speak a distinct version of Catalan as their main language. 

Of course, Catalan is not the only minority language in France.  Breton, Alsatian, Basque, and Occitan are just a handful of the languages heard on the mainland, not to mention Corsican, various Creoles, and many more indigenous languages of French territories overseas.  Despite the diversity of France in geographic, population, and linguistic terms, it remains heavily centralised.  On the one hand, this has created a strong national identity that carried France through the revolution and post-war rehabilitation.  On the other hand, it has resulted in many minority groups feeling forgotten, and the loss of local tongues and traditions.  French is the only official language of the state, and France is still to ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. 

And yet, Catalan is still surviving, albeit not thriving.  Even those who do not speak the language might sing along to the rugby anthem “Cantem mes Fort” when supporting USAP, the Perpignan rugby team, or listen to Catalan music on Radio Arrels, or watch a Catalan play at the theatre or at the Catalan culture centre.  Perpignan is just two hours from Barcelona, and the emergence of the Catalan capital as a vibrant, modern metropolis has improved the image of the language in the eyes of new learners.  Despite political tensions, the possibility of a future independent Catalonia may also encourage more business, cultural, and linguistic exchanges with their French neighbours. 

On the surface, Perpignan is a sunny southern French city, but listen closely, and you might hear a “bon dia” amongst the “bonjours”. 


[1] Enquesta d’usos lingüistics a la Catalunya del Nord 2015

Comments

  1. So interesting. There are parallels with te reo Māori in New Zealand.

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