Spain: The Language Problem
Language is an important factor in national unity, which is threatened by a
linguistic babel. Spanish, or Castilian, was carried from Castile to
Andalusia and the New World with the advance of the conquistadores; in
1492 Antonio de Nebrija described language as the instrument of empire.
Now Spain itself is threatened with linguistic chaos as Catalan, Basque,
and even Gallego assert themselves. The new law of Catalan is unacceptable
to the Madrid government, while mysterious Basque, once viewed as a
hill-billy language, is asserting itself as an official language of the
region. The problem is that few Castilians understand Catalan, and
virtually no one understands Basque.
Surprisingly, this has given official importance to La Rioja, a province
on the upper Ebro, just south of the Basque country, which few visit. The
reason is that it is the birthplace of Castilian, which developed from
Latin under the influence of Basque. The great master of Roman oratory,
Quintilian, was born in Calahorra. He too realized the importance of
language to the empire, and he protested against provincialisms, presumably
referring to Basque words which had crept into the Latin of la Rioja. In
1997 the Spanish government staged an international conference on
Quintilian at Calahorra.
In January 1998 prime minister Felipe Aznar and his cultural ministers
toured the Logrono area , and he made speeches praising it as the
birthplace of Spanish. He spoke in a sad tone, without the nasty French
resentment over the international supremacy of the English language, which
Spaniards graciously accept that. His sadness was clearly inspired by the
thrust of Basque by the terrorist ETA, which had just committed one more
murder. Aznar was returning from the victim's funeral. He almost broke into
tears when he referred to it; the sympathetic audience applauded him. To
stress the importance Madrid attaches to language, the monastery of San
Millan de la Cogolla was declared a cultural shrine.
Ronald Hilton, 03/15/98