ISSN: 1139-8736


Mª Luisa Calero Vaquera
University of Cordoba (Spain)

Following the "dark ages" of the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975) during which the authorities denied the populace, along with other rights, the most elementary linguistic rights, Spain entered a period of transition to democracy. This permitted and encouraged the recovery of a number of regional languages, whose use as social tools had been strangled until then by the imposition of Castilian Spanish as the exclusive (in both connotations of the word) official language1

In the course of the past quarter of a century, Catalan is perhaps the Spanish regional language that has enjoyed the greatest revival within its own geographical territory, thanks to a continued, and occasionally excessively demanding, linguistic policy which has sought to extend its range of use throughout all strata of Catalan society, which currently includes, as is well known, large nuclei of Castilian-speaking immigrants. The linguistic policy followed by the Generalitat (Catalan regional government) has been set out in two laws promulgated at different times by the regional executive: the Ley de Normalización Lingüística: the Linguistic Normalisation Act (which was passed by the Catalan Parliament on April 18, 1983), and the Ley de Política Lingüística: the Linguistic Policy Act (colloquially known as the "Catalan Act"), passed in December 1997.

The first of these laws was an immediate product of the nationalist-inspired policies announced by Jordi Pujol in his investiture address (in April 1980) as the first Prime Minister of the newly restored Generalitat de Catalunya:

Actuaremos con firmeza para que el catalán sea en la práctica [...] la lengua propia de Cataluña (cit. en Foro Babel, 1999: 39).

We will act decisively to make Catalan in practice […] Catalonia's own language (quoted in Foro Babel, 1999: 39).

Although the ultimate objective of this Act was to convert Catalan in the medium term into the only teaching language in the region (which led to an appeal regarding its constitutionality), in practice it was relatively flexible, since it allowed parents a wide margin of decision in their choice of language -Castilian or Catalan- for the primary cycle of the General Basic Education: E.G.B. (Primary School).

As a complement to the earlier norm, Basic Decree no. 75.1992 was promulgated on March 9, 1992 (and was succeeded by a further three decrees the following month); this signified the de facto end of the parallel linguistic system (Castilian Spanish and Catalan) by proclaiming that Catalan, as Catalonia's "own" language, must also be the language of compulsory education. These were the so-called "linguistic immersion decrees" which came in practice to radicalise the initial budgets of the Linguistic Normalisation Act, encouraging the development of a polemical climate which had widespread reverberations, particularly in the daily newspapers of the rest of Spain. For example, the front page of "ABC" of September 12, 1993 carried the following headline: Igual que Franco pero al revés. Persecución del castellano en Cataluña: "Just like under Franco but in reverse: persecution of Castilian in Catalonia".

On the basis of a judgement of the Constitutional Court, handed down on December 23, 1994, and ratifying the constitutional legitimacy of the Act of 1983 and the linguistic immersion decrees, Convergencia i Unió, the party of government in Catalonia, felt that the time had come to promulgate a new law, more ambitious in its claims to pursue a monolingual Catalan model, which replaced that of 1983. In February 1997 the various parties represented in the Catalan Parliament began to discuss a draft of the Bill which would regulate the use of the official languages of Catalonia. That year witnessed a series of occasionally tense political debates on the new law, which was finally approved, albeit not unanimously, by Parliament on December 30 1997 as the Linguistic Policy Act. The Act gives precedence to Catalan, not only in the civil service, but also in public and private companies, which are obliged to utilise it preferentially in their invoices and documentation; signs and adverts must be displayed "at least in Catalan", labelling must be exclusively in Catalan and, a provision that caused great outcry in certain sectors, sanctions may be applied if the provisions of the Act are not fulfilled.

This Act was not passed without a lively debate on the part of major social groups.This was reflected in the large number of pages that the press of Catalonia and the rest of Spain devoted to the linguistic question. As early as the early eighties, many voices were raised against certain measures that bordered on anticonstitutionality and which would later be unconditionally withdrawn in the Linguistic Policy Act. An example was the "Manifesto of the 2,300 signatures": "On behalf of the equality of linguistic rights in Catalonia", which was published in the daily "Diario 16" on March 12, 1981 and was promoted by intellectuals such as Federico Jiménez Losantos and Amando de Miguel, who denounced the discrimination that Castilian was suffering in Catalonia. In the nineties, Aleix Vidal-Quadras, president of the Popular Party in Catalonia between 1991 and 1996, criticised the enormous psychological and institutional pressure that was being felt by Castilian-speaking sectors, and demanded respect for the plurality of Catalan society. In agreement with this policy, a series of groups, such as the Pro-toleration and Anti-discrimination Association, the Association of Teachers for Bilingualism and the Federation of Regional Houses (societies for immigrants from other regions of Spain) warned of the danger that this new policy might have for the ability of Catalans of different languages to live in harmony together, an ability which, until that time, had been a model of development.

It is along this line of criticism of the nationalist proposals that were guiding the linguistic policy of the Generalitat that we need to locate the establishment of the Foro Babel (Forum of Babel), a debating group which was formally founded on December 13, 1996 in Barcelona's Centre for Contemporary Culture. Intellectuals of the left, university academics, and editors of and contributors to progressive cultural journals (such as Viejo Topo, Ajoblanco, etc.), were the three pillars that supported this "group for reflection and debate", as it defined itself. On February 28, 1997, the daily El Pais published an article which is regarded as the founding document of the Foro; this was entitled "Foro Babel" and signed by Francesc de Carreras (professor of Constitutional Law and a member of the Consultative Council of the Generalitat), Félix Pérez Romera and Miquel Riera (editor of Viejo Topo). The article set out the reasons for the creation of the Foro Babel (it expressed alarm regarding the course being taken by political activities in Catalonia, with the elevation of the nationalist ideology to the status of official ideology and the consequent exclusion of other equally legitimate ideologies), its founding principles (which centred on the "defence of the linguistic rights of the citizens, whether they exercised these rights in Catalan or in Castilian"), and its immediate objectives ("to analyse our current linguistic and cultural situation from the point of view of public liberties and democracy").

A few months later, this founding text was followed by a "Document on the use of the official languages of Catalonia", published on April 30, 1997 and signed by ninety well-known intellectuals (including Nuria Amat, Félix de Azúa, Victoria Camps, Francesc de Carreras, Cristina Fernández Cubas, José Agustin Goytisolo, Gabriel Jackson, Juan Marsé, Eduardo Mendoza, Anna María and Terenci Moix, Rosa Regás, Francisco Rico, Eugenio and Carlos Trías, and Esther Tusquet), representatives of the world of culture (such as Albert Boadella and Rosa María y Xavier Sardá) and editors of left-wing cultural reviews (Miquel Riera and Anna Nuño). The importance of this document lies in its revelation of the dissent with nationalist linguistic dogmas on the part of a considerable number of Catalan intellectuals, thus breaking what had been assumed to be this sector's uncritical acceptance of the linguistic policies of the Catalan authorities. On June 20 1998, Foro Babel published its second manifesto "For a new model of Catalonia", signed this time by more than five hundred people from an extremely wide range of social sectors. On this occasion the text ranged beyond strictly linguistic matters, in that it included a critical ideology of Catalan nationalism which, without respecting the linguistic, ideological and cultural plurality of the Catalan community, was attempting to impose on the community an identity unambiguously and exclusively Catalan.

In addition to the ideas set out by these texts, our primary concern is to underline the fact that the documents of the Foro Babel suggest to Catalan society that there do not exist -or should not exist- taboo topics that are excluded from public debate, as the linguistic question had been until that time:

El manifiesto del Foro Babel [...] pretende, ante todo, iniciar un debate sobre temas que, como si de algo sagrado se tratara, se exigía que permanecieran fuera de toda discusión (F. de Carreras, 29/julio/98).

The Manifesto of the Foro Babel […] wishes, above all, to initiate a debate on topics which, as if they were dealing with something sacred, it has been demanded should be beyond any discussion (F. de Carreras, July 29, 1998).

The very raising of this topic appears to be symptomatic of the complex sociopolitical situation thtough which Catalonia is passing, a situation in which the Generalitat is accused of having established a false identification of mother country with language: for the nationalists, abandoning this equation would require the renunciation of their own cultural roots. The advantage of breaking free of this identification is that:

se acabaría con una guerra lingüística estéril que obliga a ser traidor o mártir en función de la lengua que se hable habitualmente (J.A. Rodríguez Tous, 26/mayo/1997).    

it would bring to a close a sterile linguistic war that obliges the individual to be traitor or martyr as a function of the language that he normally speaks (J. A. Rodríguez Tous, May 26, 1997).

It is precisely in this identification that the romantic conception of language as a "way of viewing the world" lies, as an element of construction of national identity, an idea that has been fundamentally rejected by members of the Foro Babel:

[...] una patria, una nación o un estado cualquiera yerra cuando piensa que su principal signo de identidad es su lengua particular [...], pues, ante todo, acceder al lenguaje, sea el que sea, diluye hasta la pura anécdota el que la lengua sea románica o semítica, celta, germánica o eslava (J. Llovet, 15/octubre/97).

[…] any native country, nation or state is deceiving itself when it believes that its principal sign of identity is the particular language it uses [...], since, above all, the very employment of language, whichever it might be, renders trivial the circumstance that the language is Romance or Semitic, Celtic, Germanic or Slovenian (J. Llovet, October 15, 1997).

To believe, as pure nationalism does, that a language is the essence of a community, its unique distinguishing feature, is in fact to make a serious error, and one which is at its most serious in the case of Catalan society, in which such an assumption would have to exclude 50% of its members, i.e. everyone whose mother tongue is Castilian Spanish. Nationalism, in its extreme form, tends to be diverted into a dangerous sectarianism, in that it regards certain given features of the identity of certain parts of society as the only legitimate and characteristic ones. Jesús Royo (1991) has graphically sounded a warning note about these risks:

La lengua puede actuar como un selector social y equivale a un carnet de ciudadanía. En el extranjero, los obreros inmigrantes pueden ser explotados impunemente porque no son ciudadanos. Aquí [en Cataluña], como no tenemos Estado y no repartimos DNI, la lengua es un identificador equivalente. Pero la finalidad es la misma: si no eres del país, no puedes aspirar a participar en el poder [...] (cit. en Foro Babel, 1999: 185-186).

Language can function as a social selector and the equivalent of a proof of citizenship. Abroad, immigrant workers can be exploited with impunity because they are not citizens. Here (i.e. in Catalonia), as we do not have a State and do not distribute national identity numbers, language is an equivalent identifier. But the end result is the same: if you do not belong to the country concerned, you cannot aspire to participate in the (exercise of) power […] (cited in Foro Babel, 1999: 185-186).

And, as with language, so with ideology:

[Los nacionalistas] están construyendo una Cataluña que divide a los ciudadanos en buenos catalanes, los nacionalistas, y malos catalanes, los que no lo son [...]. Una Cataluña donde al discrepante se le acusa rápidamente de anticatalán (M. Zanón, 21/mayo/98).

[The nationalists] are constructing a Catalonia that divides its citizens into good Catalans; the nationalists, and bad Catalans; those who are not […]. A Catalonia in which anyone who disagrees is soon accused of being anti-Catalan (M. Zanón, May 21, 1998).

Members of, and sympathisers with, the Foro Babel are opposing such nationalistic tendencies, recognising in the first place that Catalonia is an ideologically plural society:

El nacionalismo al que me opongo es el que mutila y descarta parte de la sociedad plural a la que se aplica: el que quiere dividir la realidad nacional en propietarios y advenedizos, el que pretende inventarse [...] un "extranjero interior" contra el que luchar, el que quiere suprimir y monopolizar, poniendo en peligro la ejemplar convivencia de lo diverso que se da en la vida cotidiana de Cataluña (F. Savater, 15/junio/97).

The nationalism that I am opposing is the nationalism that mutilates and rejects part of the pluralistic society to which it applies: that which wishes to divide national reality into proprietors and upstarts, which claims to invent […] an "internal foreigner" with whom it is struggling, which wishes to suppress and monopolise, putting in danger the exemplary cohabitation of diversity which we observe in the daily life of Catalonia (F. Savater, June 15, 1997).

The Foro also recognises its linguistic plurality: the Catalonia of today is a bilingual society, in which Catalan and Castilian are each used by 50% of the population; a legitimate point of view, therefore, is that from a territorial perspective, Castilian is as much a language of Catalonia as Catalan itself.

¿Acaso Cataluña no se presenta en la comunidad hispana con toda naturalidad y participa de sus beneficios en Iberoamérica utilizando el castellano? ¿Acaso Editorial Planeta, Aguas de Barcelona, Gas Natural o Freixenet han entrado en el mercado hispano de la mano de Ausias March? (J. Ribas, 4/agosto/98).

Does not Catalonia present itself as part of the Hispanic community as a matter of course and participate in its benefits in Iberoamerica through the medium of Castilian? Have Editorial Planeta [publishers], the Barcelona Water Company, Natural Gas Limited or Freixenet [sparkling wine] entered the Spanish market at the hand of [15th century Catalan poet] Ausias March? (J. Riba, August 4, 1998).

And from the perspective of the individual, not a few Catalans regard both languages as their own:

En mi relación con los otros [...] conversamos en las dos lenguas indistintamente, ininterrumpidamente, mezcladas entre sí en la conversación social y sin conciencia alguna de este cruce constante del habla (N. Amat, 16/junio/97).
Los responsables culturales del Gobierno catalán actual insisten en separar las dos literaturas autóctonas. Yo sigo sin estar de acuerdo. ¿Cómo voy a dividirme por en medio? ¿Qué parte de mi aliento interior pertenece al aire catalán o castellano? (Ídem).

In my relationships with others […] we converse in both languages without distinction, uninterruptedly, mixing them in our social conversation and without conscious awareness of the constant crossover from one language to the other (N. Amat, June 16, 1997).
The people who are responsible for culture in the current Catalan Government insist on separating the two indigenous languages. I still disagree with this policy. How am I to divide myself into two parts? Which part of the breath in my body belongs to the Catalan as opposed to the Castilian air? (Ídem).

For the Foro Babel, then, Catalan and Castilian should be allied languages, equally valued vehicles of transmission of Catalan culture. The law should recognise and reflect this plural, diverse, society: it is not legitimate for the political authorities to impose a single cultural model on a multiple society which is a "cross-breed" in its cultural manifestations. Precisely for this reason, and in the specific field of education, the Foro Babel is a proponent of a bilingual educational model, in which both Catalan and Castilian would be the languages of teaching and learning. If Catalan is a bilingual society, the most reasonable solution is to offer a bilingual education to its members. This is the reason for the vigorous reaction of the Foro Babel to the Linguistic Policy Act of 1997 which, by making Catalan the unique tongue of Catalan institutions (this is the interpretation that nationalism makes of the expression "own tongue") and the preferred language of the Civil Service of Catalonia, tends shamelessly in the direction of official monolingualism which, besides the legal consequences that this implies, refuses to reflect the linguistic reality of Catalonia.

La democracia consiste en responder a las necesidades actuales de los individuos que componen una determinada sociedad y, para ello, no debe tratar de ser fiel al orden político, cultural y social del pasado, sino atender a las necesidades del presente expresadas libremente por sus ciudadanos a través de sus representantes (F. de Carreras, 19/abril/97).

Democracy consists of responding to the current necessities of the individuals who make up a given society and, for that reason, should not attempt to be faithful to the political, cultural and social order of the past; rather, it should look to the needs of the present as freely expressed by its citizens via their representatives (F. de Carreras, April 19, 1997).

We may insist, then, on the dangers of prioritising collective or territorial rights over individual rights and liberties:

La razón última de la política son los individuos. También ellos son la razón última de los derechos, aunque los llamemos derechos colectivos. La discriminación consiste en no ver a las personas por sus características individuales, sino por su pertenencia a este o aquel grupo (V. Camps, 28/septiembre/98).

The ultimate reasons for all politics lie with individuals. They are also the final grounds for assigning rights, although we call these collective rights. Discrimination consists of not seeing persons in terms of their individual characteristics, but rather as members of a particular group (V. Camps, September 28, 1998).

What may be the clearest charge against the legal infringement implied by the Act has been laid by one of the political architects of the Spanish Constitution of 1978, Gregorio Peces-Barba (April 24, 1998), who categorises as "disloyal legal engineering" the linguistic policies of the Generalitat, which is unjustifiably trying to exceed the limits set by Article 3 of the Spanish Constitution: "Castilian Spanish is the official language of the Spanish State. All Spaniards have the duty to know it and the right to use it", and the Statutes of Catalonia themselves: "The Generalitat guarantees the normal and official use of both languages".

The members of the Foro Babel, on the other hand, emphasise the benefits of bilingualism:

A la mayoría de los catalanohablantes no nos importa tener que cambiar de lengua para hablar con quienes se expresan más cómodamente en castellano. No sólo no nos importa, sino que nos parece que ese es el punto enriquecedor del bilingüismo. Un bilingüismo tan espontáneo que debiera ser causa de orgullo, pues seguramente carece de parangón en el mundo (V. Camps, 23/abril/97).

It does not matter to most Catalan speakers that we need to change language in order to talk to people who express themselves more comfortably in Castilian. Not only does it not matter, but we regard this aspect as a source of enrichment due to bilingualism. Such spontaneous bilingualism should be a matter of pride, for it is probably without parallel in the world (V. Camps, April 23, 1997).

This bilingualism is actually regarded as a matter of course by the immense majority of Catalans, to the point at which many people would deny that any linguistic problem really exists in the day-to-day life of the community (as is easily experienced by anyone who arrives from outside the region). This situation is in contrast to what we observe within the political sphere: the speaking of Castilian by any member of Parliament has come to be regarded as an intolerable aggression against the politicians present in the House. The Foro Babel thus believes that the sanctions and impositions foreseen by the Act to encourage the use of Catalan imply an intrusion into private life on the part of the public sector, which should never assume the right to intervene in the matter of personal linguistic expression. For all that, the Foro believes that the Act's mania for intervention is counterproductive rather than effective:

[...] Los ciudadanos de este país vemos cómo se está consiguiendo que una lengua, el catalán, no sólo esté dejando de servir para que la gente que la habla se comunique entre sí, sino que se está (la están) convirtiendo en todo lo contrario, en motivo de agresión y discordia (A. Mª Moix, 30/diciembre/97).

[…] The citizens of this country can see how what is happening is that one language, Catalan, is not only failing to help the people who speak it communicate with each other but is (they are) turning itself into the very opposite phenomenon; a source of aggression and discord (A. Mª Moix, December 30, 1997).

However, this criticism of the compulsory imposition of Catalan does not imply any suggestion that this language should be abandoned to its fate: on the contrary, the Foro Babel clearly advocates the idea that Catalan, as a minority language, is deserving of special protection and treatment.

These, in brief, are the proposals and objectives with which the Foro Babel launched its existence in 1996. The Foro, as has been pointed out above, makes no claim to be a political organisation, but is rather a forum for debate where questions of language and nationalism, topics hitherto taboo in Catalonia, can be discussed without complexes and with total freedom of expression.

In any case, the existence of the Foro Babel has beendogged by severe criticism and biased interpretations on the part of representatives of Catalan nationalism, who have accused this civic platform of "anti-Catalanism" and "Spanishism". An article by Albert Manent entitled "The fellow-travellers of Babel" (October 6, 1997), for example, describes the members of the Foro Babel as "an amalgam of chemically pure 'Spaniolards', Catalans lacking the essence of Catalanism, visceral anti-Pujolists, professional snobs, sons of Falangists or Carlists, who (…) have inherited from their parents a phobia for Catalan nationalism". On other occasions, the pages of the newspapers have gone as far as personal insults and the defamation of some of the intellectual members of the Foro. Positions close to those defended by the Foro Babel are also the object of all types of censure, not to speak of actual attacks on the liberty of expression; recently for example, on December 16, 1999, a group of radical students forcibly prevented the holding of a debate on nationalism in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Barcelona, a debate that had been organised by the Association of Professors for Democracy. Aleix Vidal-Quadras, (who has been quoted above), currently a Popular Party MEP, and Professor Jon Juaristi, director of the National Library, were due to speak in this debate, which finally could only be held a month and a half later in a hotel in the city (El País, February 5, 2000).

In spite of all this, membership of the Foro Babel keeps growing throughout Catalan territory, with the creation of local and regional sections. For the time being, and after more than three years of existence, its objectives continue to focus on maintaining a debate at public level and on openly denouncing attacks on the linguistic rights of the individual; achieving a dialogue with the nationalists, although this appears to be impossible; and extending reflection and debate to any other new discriminatory phenomena that appear -as is happening in so many other western societies as well as in Catalonia- such as the resurgence of outbreaks of racism and xenophobia.


Amat, Nuria (1997). "¿Qué lengua pertenece a quién?" (El País, 16 de junio), reprod. en Foro Babel (cit.), pp. 142-145.

Camps, Victoria (1997). "La lengua, otra vez" (El País, 23 de abril), reprod. en Foro Babel (cit.), pp. 134-136.

----- (1998). "Libertad individual, derechos colectivos" (La Vanguardia, 28 de septiembre), reprod. en Foro Babel (cit.), pp. 229-231.

Carreras, Francesc de (1997). "Lenguas: democracia y libertad" (El País, 19 de abril), reprod. en Foro Babel (cit.), pp. 130-133.

----- (1998). "¿Qué dice el Foro Babel?" (El País, 29 de julio), reprod. en Foro Babel (cit.), pp. 209-213. Foro Babel. El nacionalismo y las lenguas de Cataluña (1999). Estudio preliminar y selección de textos: Antonio Santamaría. Ediciones Áltera, Barcelona.

Llovet, Jordi (1997). "Lenguaje, humanidad y patria" (El País, 15 de octubre), reprod. en Foro Babel (cit.), pp. 151-153.

Lodares Marrodán, Juan Ramón (2000). El paraíso políglota. (Historias de lenguas en la España moderna contadas sin prejuicios). Taurus, Madrid.

Manent, Albert (1997). "Babel, compañeros de viaje", El País, 6 de octubre.

Moix, Ana María (1997). "Leyes socialmente peligrosas" (El País, 30 de diciembre), reprod. en Foro Babel (cit.), pp. 157-159.

Peces-Barba Martínez, Gregorio (1998). "Lamentos en el veinte aniversario" (El País, 24 de abril), reprod. en Foro Babel (cit.), pp. 248-254.

Ribas, José (1998). "Babel, cultura y democracia" (La Vanguardia, 4 de agosto), reprod. en Foro Babel (cit.), pp. 214-216.

Rodríguez Tous, Juan Antonio (1997). "Lengua sin patria" (El Mundo, 26 de mayo), reprod. en Foro Babel (cit.), pp. 140-141.

Royo, Jesús (1991). Una llengua és un mercat. Edicions 62, Barcelona.

Santamaría, Antonio (1998). "Lengua propia, conducta impropia" (El Viejo Topo, mayo), reprod. en Foro Babel (cit.), pp. 181-197.

Savater, Fernando (1997). "El nacionalismo obligatorio" (El País, 15 de junio), reprod. en Foro Babel (cit.), pp. 241-243.

Zanón Simón, Miguel (1998). "Sobre el nacionalismo en Cataluña" (Diari de Tarragona, 21 de mayo), reprod. en Foro Babel (cit.), pp. 198-200.

More information on the Foro Babel can be found at:


0 This paper was published in South Bank European Papers nº 5/2000.
1  However, see a somewhat more nuanced version in Lodares Marrodán (2000).

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ISSN: 1139-8736