Back to Index

SPAIN: The Disappearance of Arabic



The posting on languages in Europe, with special reference to Spain, raises some interesting parallels with the Balkans and its language-religious antagonisms. Spain was reconquered by the Christians, the Balkans were not. In Spain, Islam and Arabic were slowly pushed out. In the Balkans, Islam and non-European languages languages (Turkish and the two varieties of Albanian) survived, with the resultant chaos. Serbia under Milosevich was attempting a reconquest like that of Spain five centuries earlier. The history of this is horribly complicated. The Orthodox Chrcuh collaborated with the Turks in trying to suppress Albanian.

In Spain, Arabic was pushed out. The injunction "¡Habla cristiano!" (Speak Christian!) meant "Speak Spanish, not Arabic!" Kathryn Camp of the University of Michigan has sent very useful informaton on the disappearance of Arabic in Spain. "There were laws passed forbidding Arabic in the sixteenth century. Laws of 1501 and 1511 forbad the possession of most Arabic books, and the 1511 decree ordered that Arabic contracts would no longer be valid, though this does not seem to have been observed. The council held by Charles V in Granada in 1526 ordered that henceforth only Castilian would be spoken, used to create contracts, and used in the marketplace. But this legislation was suspended shortly after its creation. In 1566, the junta of Madrid and Philip II decreed that within three years all moriscos would only be permitted to speak Castilian, not Arabic.

The use of Arabic persisted in Spain up until the expulsion of the moriscos at the beginning of the seventeenth century, but Garcia Pedraza (for Granada) and Ciscar Pallares (for Valencia) demonstrate widespread bilingualism among the moriscos, particularly in the second half of the sixteenth century".

My comment: Now the special case of Catalan, which is an old language. Barcelona, rated among the best cities in Europe, is far older than Madrid; the legend goes that it was founded by Hercules. I have a special affection for Barcelona, having gone there the first time in 1932 to study Catalan with Pompeu Fabra, so distinguished that a university is named after him. I love Castilian as a language, and take a balanced view of the language problem in Catalonia, which some Catalan nationalists do not.

Montserrat Miller of Marshall University in West Virginia tells this story, which would explain the continuing resentment of Catalans at the language policies of Franco. With a name like "Montserrat" she must be Catalan, She writes: "Interestingly enough, it appears that the dictate "Habla cristiano!" was also occasionally used by Franco's civil servants in Catalonia in the first years after the Civil War. I have been told this by several unrelated individuals and some of the market vendors I interviewed while conducting dissertation research in Barcelona in 1992".

Finally, Spanish has the advantage over English of having a logical spelling. Rosa de Pena writes: "English has the disadvantage that it is almost impossible to spell correctly. Unlike French and Spanish where each sound has its own peculiar letter or letter combination, which is consistent through the laguage we have the case, as Bernard Shaw showed that you could spell "fish" as "ghoti" and be correct.

Some people calculate that dyslexia is aggravated by the haphazard spelling of English. If English is to become an universal language, it is time to consider spelling simplification.

The gentleman at the web site below is an great advocate of spelling simplification, and he can answer any questions you might have on the subject: http://pages.prodigy.net/aesir/index.htm". Good! I am a great believer in "EuroEnglish"!

For Spanish pride of language, see the four vuideo tapes "Biography of the Spanish Language, distributed in the US by Films for the Humanities and Sciences. The series will be the subject of a special posting.

Ronald Hilton - 4/9/01


Webmaster