Language Resistance 1 – Repressive Regimes

arbol de gernika(The tree of Gernika)


When a government actively represses, doesn’t care about or just doesn’t know what to do with a minorised language then the onus falls upon those individuals and groups who who wish to improve the sociolinguistic situation of the smaller language. This may be a case of fighting against the tide, not only because of the government’s attitude but also because of the attitudes of the general populace.

In most situations, the general populace has shifted away from the minorised language, not (only) due to economic pressures or sociolinguistic pressures but usually because of a ‘big event’. Something almost always happens that pushes the collective psyche of a language community to stop intergenerational transmission of a language and it’s usually not pretty and sometimes it involves a lot of people dying.

So without getting into that, we’ll look at what happens when those who refuse to make the language shift or those who want to stop or reverse it decide to act against the flow of the tide. What do they do? and how do they do it? We’ll take in examples of language management and planning under repressive regimes, under states that just don’t care too much and of course, closer at home, at states that simply don’t have a clue what they are doing. I might add that often there is a mix of these three reasons within one state and this is generally due to the pluralism of democracies, with different political groups hold differing views on the minorised language.

There are so many examples of linguistically repressive states throughout history that it would take a book to look at even a small fraction of them so in this first post we’ll concentrate on Spain during the Franco dictatorship, and look at what many term linguistic activism and resistance.

Contrary to popular belief, the Franco regime did not ‘prohibit’ Basque, as that would be almost impossible to enforce. However, it did ban Basque in almost every realm controlled by the state, that is schools, where children were beaten for speaking it (yes, they were beaten for everything else too, but were they beaten for speaking Spanish in Madrid?), in the media and cultural realms and of course in the justice system (oh, and you couldn’t officially name your child in any other language than Spanish!, so you know that famous Barça footballer Xavi, he would’ve been Javier).

Furthermore, local agents of the regime and its language policy, reported people who spoke Basque on buses or in public in general, or reported people who had had Basque inscribed on tombstones, who were promptly ordered to replace the tombstone with a Spanish only inscription. In essence, Basque was relegated to the private sphere during a time of huge change in society with the apparition of TV and mass media, meaning that an already partially eroded language was completely blocked out from modernity, reducing its prestige hugely and leading to a drop in intergenerational transmission. The regime, backed by the church at every step it must be said, created the circumstances for a huge drop in speaker numbers and indeed for language death. This did not happen though, for two main reasons.

Firstly, Basque speakers and cultural leaders, some sympathetic to the regime but against its language policy, organised clandestinely to carry on the cultural production of Basque through magazines and indeed through holding secret language classes for adults and children alike (in the University of Deusto these were held by the Jesuits), much like the hedge schools in Ireland. While some of these efforts were tolerated, many others were repressed which led to incarcerations and everything else that implied under a quasi-fascist regime. The regime itself did soften and lose many of its fascist characteristics during the 60’s and 70’s which led to more open toleration of Basque.

During the repression though, many Basques rallied around the language as a symbol of national identity and this union is still in place to this day. A famous clandestine publication of the time said, ‘fighting for a free Basque Country, but not Basque speaking one, would be like fighting for a beautiful coffin’.

And so the Basques resisted, organised in the shadows and taught and disseminated literature in their language until finally the regime dissipated with the death of Franco. This regime change is the second reason that Basque did not die out. The new democracy eventually led to a cultural and linguistic revival, which has led to the prosperous state of Basque in the 21st century. It allowed Basque to gain official status in Euskadi and Navarre, to be taught in schools and to be freely published in the media and in other contexts. This, though was only possible because of the clandestine cultural resistance that occoured under the regime. This resistance influenced future leaders in democracy and and swayed public opinion in favour of not only cultural and linguistic preservation but actual cultural and language revival.

Next up, we’ll look at minorised languages in states that are ambivalent to the language…..



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