Delegitimising positions towards regional languages in Spain have long been part of discourses on bilingualism and linguistic rights. Especially when laws are passed in the autonomous regions that are intended to preserve and promote language rights on the part of the minority, such positions usually become particularly visible in political debates and public media.
It is not surprising, then, that the decree for the normalisation of the use of both co-official languages in Basque institutions (179/2019 Dekretua) introduced in November 2019, aiming to guarantee the linguistic rights in the local administration, received extensive media coverage on a regional and Spain-wide level, and sparked vivid public debates about its consequences not only for the use of Basque but also for that of Castilian in the region. There were also indignant reactions from right-wing parties and organisations which perceive it as a serious threat to the hegemonic position of Castilian. Defendants of the latter often resort to arguments based on a rhetoric of “reverse discrimination” (DePalma/Teasley 2013, p.113), which goes hand in hand with a conception of language rights as individual rights that are being threatened as soon as any measures in favor of the minority language require a certain degree of accommodation from monolingual speakers of the majority language. A very striking example are the efforts of NGOs such as Hablamos Español (“We speak Spanish”), which invoke the right conferred by the constitution to lead a fully monolingual life in Spanish even in the autonomous regions.
By consciously or unconsciously communicating such positions towards minority languages, multilingualism and other related phenomena, people and institutions are shaping the public perception and thus ideologies of linguistic entities, a process which can have positive or, in the above case, negative social effects and which we refer to as language making (Krämer/Vogl/Kolehmainen 2022). Over the last two decades, digital platforms have provided a space that facilitates participation in such processes, as they are usually subject to less social control and offer the possibility for relatively spontaneous interactions and expressions. Therefore, online discussions on news websites and social media platforms have become interesting data sources for the study of metalinguistic discourses even though meta-data about a person’s individual background and the exact context of a posting is usually very limited.
In the case of the study published in issue 76 of the Revista de Llengua i Dret, Journal of Language and Law, we investigated how discourses about the Basque language are being shaped by reader comments on Spanish news websites, in particular how delegitimising positions in support of the minority language are elaborated and interconnected. We therefore focused on the media coverage of two recent events relating to linguistic rights: The first one connects to the decree introduced in late 2019 by the Department of Culture and Language Policy of the regional government of the Basque Autonomous Community (179/2019 Dekretua, azaroaren 19koa, Euskadiko toki-erakundeetan hizkuntza ofizialen erabilera instituzionala eta administratiboa normalizatzeari buruzkoa). The second debate addresses linguistic problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic: with schools being closed for several months, many children and youth from predominantly Castilian-speaking families had little contact with the Basque language for a sustained period of time since their exposure to Basque is usually guaranteed by the education system.
Very importantly, the delegitimisation of Basque is based on the principle of a reversal of roles between Spanish and Basque. The regional language is presented as carrying much more weight and power than it has, and is then challenged for it. Within this rhetoric, we find the recurrent motive of Basque as an imposed language, which in turn is linked to the view that the promotion of the regional language is an act of discrimination against Spanish-speakers.
The discursive elements that we carved out through our analysis do not stand alone, but rather constitute a network of argumentative patterns and ideological topoi which underpin and connect to each other. Very importantly, the delegitimisation of Basque is based on the principle of a reversal of roles between Spanish and Basque. The regional language is presented as carrying much more weight and power than it has, and is then challenged for it. Within this rhetoric, we find the recurrent motive of Basque as an imposed language, which in turn is linked to the view that the promotion of the regional language is an act of discrimination against Spanish-speakers. Despite the long-standing dominance of Spanish in the country and the retained right to use it in the Basque Autonomous Community (BAC), many readers perceive expanded rights for the use of Basque as an infringement on their personal choice. Discursive elements closely interrelated with the feelings of imposition are linked to the status and the relevance of the minoritised language. The value of Euskera and thus the benefits of learning and using it are put into question, and comments of this kind therefore contribute more or less explicitly to the authority of Spanish. On the other hand, Spanish is often constructed as a useful and necessary language, obtaining its hegemonic status from its global demographic spread. We often find recurring ideological elements that contribute to a construction of Spanish as what Del Valle (2007) termed lengua de encuentro, a problematic vision which suggests that histories of linguistic imperialism are stories of “natural spread”. With Spanish being presented as the victim of the promotion of Basque, some users deny the minority position of Basque itself. In extreme cases, this includes a denial of the linguistic and social consequences of the Franco era. Some users choose to erase the history of oppression from the concept of Basque and replace it by an ahistorical narrative in which Basque itself is an instrument of oppression against Spanish. Other commenters suspect more individual political or economic motives behind the decree and the promotion of Basque in general. Economised discourses of this kind can feed into speculations which rest on the assumption that interested parties supposedly expect economic benefits from favorable language policy. Against the backdrop of these discursive patterns, it becomes clear that the construction of minority languages is intimately linked to that of the majority language(s) in the respective society: the idea of what constitutes the non-dominant language is very often formed in a dialectical relationship with the dominant one(s).
It is important to emphasise that Basque is exemplary of other minority contexts in which comparable mechanisms of language making do take place. If we look at online comments from groups such as Hablamos Español (“We speak Spanish”), we find argumentation patterns for all historical minorities in Spain that can be bundled under “„reverse discrimination”“.
It is important to emphasise that Basque is exemplary of other minority contexts in which comparable mechanisms of language making do take place. If we look at online comments from groups such as Hablamos Español (“We speak Spanish”), we find argumentation patterns for all historical minorities in Spain that can be bundled under “reverse discrimination”. We also recognise many similarities with debates in more distant contexts, for example discussions about Creole languages in French overseas territories like Guadeloupe or Réunion (see Krämer, 2017), or also about regional languages in continental France like Occitan, Alsatian or Breton. The ideas of an alleged lack of “relevance” of these languages, the supposedly reversed power relations in which the minority language becomes too ‘strong’ vis-a-vis the national language, the notion of a necessarily homogeneous nation state with one dominant language for everyone, all these arguments appear in these settings as well (the same is true for many other minority languages as soon as there are efforts to support and promote them). However, the situation of Basque is noteworthy with regard to its historical dimension, not only with Spain’s history in the 20th century but also because the argument of “who was there first” is fundamentally different in the case of Basque due to the language’s particular historical background. Finding out more about the discourses on Basque helps us understand better how these relatively generalised discourses against minority languages adapt to the particular context of a given situation.
What this analysis leaves open is the quantitative dimension of these discourses, as any information about the users in such anonymised debates remains hidden. However, if we look at the broad support that Hablamos Español and similar organisations receive for their activities, we can get a rough idea of the influence that such discourses have in Spanish society. In their introductory contribution to the Special Issue no. 76 of the Revista de Llengua i Dret, Rémi Carbonneau and Juan Jiménez-Salcedo aptly formulate that Spain’s language problem is not that the rights of Castilians in Catalonia and the other bilingual autonomous communities are not respected, but that Castilian speakers are the only group that can enforce an individual right enshrined in the Constitution that is denied to members of the other three major language communities. In this sense, they speak of “one-way bilingualism”, an understanding of bilingualism whose “one-wayness” is also clearly evident in the discourses we studied (p. 12). A new topic has recently emerged in the Spanish media landscape that fuels the idea of “one-way bilingualism”: the belief that it would be deeply discriminatory for Ukranian refugee children to be placed in Basque immersion classes (see for example Del Moral 2022). The fact that learning a minority language is perceived here as an imposition and even discrimination while the acquisition of Spanish is taken for granted, testifies to how deeply the supremacy of Spanish is rooted in Spain’s public debate.
Doctoral researcher at the Department of Pragmatics and Contrastive Linguistics at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder)
Researcher at Freie Universität Berlin
Del Moral, Rafael. (2022, March 29). Euskaldunizar a la fuerza a los niños ucranianos. El Español.
DePalma, Renée & Teasley, Cathryn. (2013). Constructing Spanish. Discourses of Language Hegemony in Spain. In Diane B. Napier & Suzanne Majhanovich (Eds.), Education, Dominance and Identity (pp. 101-118). Sense.
Del Valle, José. (2007). La lengua, patria común: la hispanofonía y el nacionalismo panhispánico. In José del Valle (Ed.), La lengua, ¿patria común?: Ideas e ideologías del español (pp. 31-56). Vervuert.
Krämer, Philipp. (2017). Delegitimising Creoles and Multiethnolects: Stereotypes and (Mis-)Conceptions of Language in Online Debates. Caribbean Studies, 45(1-2), 107–142.
Krämer, Philipp, Vogl, Ulrike and Kolehmainen, Leena. What is “Language making”? International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 274(2022), pp. 1-27.