Linguistic self-hatred: Why I'm ashamed of speaking my mother tongue

by on November 13, 2015

The sun blazes on the patio. They park in front of the restaurant, where a young man prays in the direction of Mecca1. Kneeling amidst the leaves, he gapes at the massive tyres of the car as two men get out, oozing of arrogance from head to toe. Minutes later, they make their entrance into the restaurant like two bullfighters entering the ring in their fabulous raiment. They take a seat at the table beside mine as I await the change from my breakfast. They are dressed in suits with overcoats, and from nearby, they look like father and son. They even share a certain scruffiness.

¿Me traaae una manzanilla, por favooor? Would you bring me a camomiłe tea, płeeeaze?” asks the younger man, in a strange accent, opening his mouth wider than it should be.

¡Una mansanilla! A camomiłe!” exclaims the older man, mockingly. The waitress writes it down in her notebook. “Loss hombres no toman mansanilla. Men don’t drink camomiłe.”

I smile to myself as I play with the crumbs on the table. What a pair! However hard they tried, they wouldn’t be able to rid themselves of those strange velar ls. Nor of those sonorous ss. Not even if you were to leave them to their own devices in a lost village in Castilla, where they are said to speak the purest Spanish, would they lose their Catalan accents. As the girl brings them the warm drink, I tell myself that they are going to start speaking in Catalan soon, and that they had only spoken in Spanish for the waitress’ benefit but would return to what was clearly their mother tongue. But no: the men begin their chat in Spanish… a Spanish stained with sonorous ss, open vowels, and velar ls.

Could I be wrong? Perhaps my ear for accents isn’t as keen as I’ve always thought, and these men don’t speak Catalan at all.

Loss hombres de verdat beben servesa. Reał men drink beer,” laughs the father. Now I am sure: Catalonians to the hilt. While the l in Spanish is clean and purely alveolar (touching the roof of the mouth right behind the front teeth), the Catalan l sounds closer to the dark l in English (as in ‘real’), Portuguese, or Russian. Unmistakeable. As unmistakeable as the voiced s (zz sound) in los hombres, like the buzzing of a bee. And the unnaturally open vowels, the ds turning into ts?

Spain is one of the most multilingual countries in the European Union, with approximately 41% of the country’s population living in states with two official languages. Catalan is one of the country’s co-official languages, along with Basque and Galician. It is a Romance language (that is to say, belonging to the group of languages derived from Latin) spoken by around 10 million people. It is the native language of the region in which our narrative takes place, historically and culturally tied to its people. Today, however, Castilian Spanish is the language most widely used by the population in Catalan-speaking regions (Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands). In linguistics, this phenomenon is known as linguistic insecurity, or even linguistic self-hatred.

The concept of self-hatred was first used by the North American psychologist, Gordon W. Allport, to refer to the feeling of shame a person feels for possessing certain individual characteristics that she despises in her own community. However, it was the Spanish sociologist, Rafael Ninyoles, who pioneered its application to linguistics, which then evoked interest well beyond Spain. What does self-hatred mean in linguistics?

In a situation of self-hatred, the speaker feels ashamed of speaking his own language, which he considers to be inferior, and he substitutes it for another, usually the dominant language, which possesses greater social prestige. Far from being a phenomenon exclusive to Catalan, it is present in various linguistic settings around the world. It is found in languages like Breton (against French in France) and Quechua (against Spanish in Peru). Displaying a complete rejection of his mother tongue, the speaker not only attempts to switch to the dominant language, but also modifies his accent and his name (e.g. if the speaker is named Josep, he introduces himself as José); hiding, ultimately, any indication of his origin.

Even if it initially begins as only an individual linguistic behaviour, it often ends up rippling through an entire community. On the one hand, you have the speaker who decides to abandon her language, and feels a sense of disdain towards those who decide to remain loyal to it. On the other, there is the speaker who accuses the former of being unfaithful to her community and wanting to assimilate into the dominant culture.

In the case of Catalan, as with many other minority languages, many prejudices come into play. For generations, the language has traditionally been the language of provincial folk, and today, it is also seen as the language of radical separatists2. It has also long been a social convention to be hospitable to the foreigner and speak to him in Spanish, even if he understands Catalan.  Speaking Spanish suggests breaking free of the vestments of backwardness and embellishing oneself with a halo of cosmopolitanism. Because Catalan is an obstacle to progress. Because it has neither the prestige nor the importance of Spanish. Because it is too small and too rural a language to express the profound thoughts of some.

Where does one look for the causes of this phenomenon? Perhaps in the apathy of a people who no longer care about their language? Perhaps in the 40 years of the tortuous Franco regime, which took it upon itself to “unify” Spain, rapaciously fighting against regional culture, destroying linguistic diversity and making great strides towards the eradication of Galician, Basque, and Catalan?3 The roots of the phenomenon are no doubt deep; but that is another story altogether.

“How do I explain it? Catalan is…like the slippers you wear at home: comfortable, but old and ugly,” my grandmother once explained to me when I asked her why she had not brought my father up in Catalan, despite it being her mother tongue. “Spanish, on the other hand, is like the shoes one wears on Sundays. Leather shoes, elegant, and flawless. Nobody goes out into the street exposing oneself to the world in ragged and dirty shoes, don’t you see, dear?”

When a language becomes nothing grander than those slippers you walk around indoors in, when it has lost all prestige, it is only a matter of time before the speaker no longer feels comfortable using it—and abandons it entirely.

“Here you go,” says the waitress, placing my change on the table. The jingling of the coins brings me back from my thoughts. I had entered a trance, with my eyes glued to the two men, who look at me with furrowed eyebrows. One of them holds his gaze for a few seconds, and then turns his back to me.

Vaja bé,4 I blurt out, somewhat sad. I gather my change and leave the restaurant.


1 Every summer, the rest stops on the highways of Spain’s eastern coast fill up with French people of Maghrebi origin en route to their native countries.

2 Thanks to political strategy, the desire to defend Catalan identity is being mistakenly conflated with the desire to separate. Situated in the North-east of Spain, Catalonia is currently involved in a political battle to reclaim its independence from Spain (although the first such protests and demonstrations date back to the start of the 20th century). The separatist movement has gained strength since 2012, and the Catalan government is planning a referendum (which the central government opposes).

3 (Castilian) Spanish was the only language granted political recognition during the Franco dictatorship (1936–1975). During this period, the Galician, Basque, and Catalan languages and cultures were systematically persecuted.

4 A common Catalan expression to bid farewell.

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