Originally published in Vilaweb on 9 Oct 2012
Sociolinguistics warns that when two languages coexist in the same territory, one always ends up eliminating the other
There are no known cases in the world in which two languages coexist in the same society in which one doesn't end up disappearing relatively soon. That's what the prestigous English linguist, Robert Malcolm Ward Dixon, now in Australia, says, along with many other academics, and what is proven in the book The Rise and Fall of Languages. Among other things it says that when two languages coexist in a single territory, one always ends up prevailing over the other, through demographics, prestige, violence... The world is full of examples, from the indigenous languages of Australia and the Amazon, to Gaelic, in Ireland.
Dixon, the ex-director of the Centre for Research on Language Diversity in Melbourne and currently a professor at James Cook University in Queensland, is not by a long stretch the only researcher who makes such a claim. In fact, it is the general opinion among sociolinguists and language historians, who warn of the danger of giving the same institutional ranking to two languages spoken in the same territory by the same people. It's not a surprise then, that the article written yesterday by Oriol Junqueras, head of Esquerra Republicana, made such a ruckus in social media. Just look at the mentions received by Junqueras on Twitter (@junqueras).
The Flemish case
For Dixon, "every language is a token of its community" and every language that doesn't have a guaranteed sphere and territory where it is predominant is doomed to disappear.
An example? Flemish. French and Flemish were declared co-official in the Belgian State and it wasn't until the 30's, one hundred years after Belgium's independence from Holland, that Flemish universities decided to recover the Flemish language as a principal language, at the same time that the political parties made a firm step in favor of the country's language. In the meantime, French had asserted its dominance over such important parts of the territory as Brussels.
As Dixon explains, the process is simple: when one language enters the sphere of another (be it by migration, occupation, prestige), the linguistic situation enters into disequilibrium until, sooner or later, the equilibrium is reestablished in favor of one of the two languages, and to the detriment of the other, which disappears. All historically known cases confirm this pattern.
And what about Switzerland, Lithuania, Estonia, Ireland, Finland... and Andorra?
In Europe, there are many diverse situations and models, but none contradicts the general sociolinguistic position. We can't look to Switzerland, since each of the three official languages in the confederation is dominant in its territory and none coexists with the other two. Despite that fact, and despite the agreed upon protection by the state of each language, German has gained ground in the last decades over such solid languages as French and Italian—and that's without mentioning Romansh, which does find itself in a situation of coexistence, and on top of that, does not have official status throughout the confederation.
The linguist Gabriel Bibiloni mentions some European cases in this post in his blog: in Ireland, Gaelic and English are both official, with the result that Irish is losing speakers every year; in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, each of which have important Russian minority populations, Lithuanian, Estonian and Latvian are the only official languages, respectively, and in Finland, Finnish is the only official language while Swedish enjoys co-official status in certain situations. With respect to all of these cases, Bibiloni is clear: "I believe that what will normalize Catalan's situation is not only the state but the unique official status of the language and the fact that it is, and is perceived to be, the national language."
And he adds, referring to Catalan: "if some (perhaps substantial) portion of the judges, civil servants, police officers, doctors, and all of those who earn a living from the society they serve draw a line in the sand, and if they do so on the side of their Spanish monolinguism and with the legal basis of its official status, then the trip will have been for nought. What is more, I believe that a society in which some insist on Spanish monolingualism would be fraught with conflict."
A post by writer Toni Cucarella circulated widely through social media sites yesterday, in which he recounted the case of Gaelic in Ireland, contrasted with Flemish in Flanders and French in Quebec. "In spite of part of Ireland becoming independent 90 years ago, which gave Gaelic legal status as Ireland's own language, keeping English on a similar level facilitated the virtual disappearance of the Gaelic language in Irish territory. The big fish eats the small one. Completely different situations from Gaelic are that of Flemish in Flanders and French in Quebec. In both cases they were able to stop and reverse the linguistic backsliding when the Flemish banished French and the Quebeckers did the same with English, by declaring as sole official languages in their respective territories Flemish in the first case and French in the other."
Another recent commentator was Joaquim Arenas, an educator, in an article in the Ara newspaper. Arenas is the former head of the Catalan Education Service of the Generalitat and ex-dean of the Summer Catalan University. "If independence depends on this factor [co-officialdom of Spanish], it is clear and obvious that it's too high a price to pay. It would mean a dissolution of the nation. General Franco knew that, and his followers, who still remain, know it too."
For now, Catalan is the official language only in Andorra. And no one questions it, even though the proportion of Catalan speakers in Andorra is less than that in the Principality [Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, Tarragona].