Taking language policy into their own hands: How Catalan speakers are changing their language from the ground up using Facebook groups

UoE PhD student Stephen McNulty explores the ways in which Catalan speakers reform their language by trying to rid it of perceived Spanish (Castiliian) influence. Specifically, he looks at the dynamics in Facebook groups dedicated to speaking ‘authentic’ Catalan, investigating the mechanisms by which users work together to change the way they speak Catalan.

Stephen writes a post in one of the Catalan language Facebook groups he has joined for his research, introducing himself and explaining his purpose. Though not a firm Catalan speaker himself, having become familiar with the way the group works, he carefully crafts his message, hoping to avoid “castellanisms” (Catalan words that have a potential Spanish origin). It doesn’t take long for the first comments to appear:  Some people are welcoming him into the group and appreciate his interest in their project. Another person is already going to work on his post: he shouldn’t say “usuari” (“user”, SP: “usuario”), as this is most likely a Castilian borrowing. The same goes for “enllaç” (“link”, SP: “enlace”). Instead, he should say “membre” or “lligam”.

These are the kinds of interactions that can be found in some of the social media groups that Stephen is investigating for his PhD project. Stephen’s project explores the ways language policies are created, negotiated and resisted in everyday interactions on social media platforms such as Facebook, focussing on Catalan. These groups are examples of how many Facebook users and speakers of minority languages, including some Catalan speakers, increasingly start to take language policies into their own hands. Frustrated with what they perceive to be the increasing ‘castilianisation’ and ‘francisation’ of Catalan, the groups’ purpose is to rid Catalan from “foreign” influences. This is done by identifying instances of catanyol (catalanised borrowings from Castilian) or francatalà (catalanised borrowings from French) and substituting them with “authentic” Catalan equivalents.

Taking language policy into their own hands

We usually associate language policies with institutions with higher regulatory powers such as governments and prestigious language-overseeing institutions. For Catalan this is the Institute for Catalan Studies. The institute works to standardize Catalan and prevent further Castilian borrowings. For some speakers of Catalan this however does not go far enough. They feel that Catalan speakers not only nowadays but also in the past have been too ready to borrow Castilian expressions even where suitable Catalan expressions were readily available. The social media groups are a way for Catalan speakers to gain agency over their language and revert it to the authenticity they imagine it to have had in the past. They represent a more flexible means for language management, making the process more democratic, transparent and agile. It is no longer an opaque, prestigious institution taking a long time to make a decision. Instead, the users of a group can make suggestions and corrections, discuss them and decide on the spot whether they want to implement them or not.  This is why Stephen looks at these groups in the frame of social or lifestyle movement: people taking matters into their own hand effecting wider social changes, starting with themselves.

Who are the language managers?

But online spaces often all too quickly receive the “democratising” label – and language policy groups are no exception here. Though speakers join the group proactively to have an influence on the process, not everyone is in the same position. Some members seem to have more authority than others to engage in language policing. This is one of the most interesting questions for Stephen: who are the language managers and how do they claim, maintain and assign authority?

Authority in the groups is a complex phenomenon, as it is constantly being negotiated: Admins claim authority, as they are the ones organising the groups. Stephen found that in arguments over the acceptability of particular expressions, it is often the admin who would assign authority to one side or the other or who is called on to decide in a particular case. Other claims to authority are made by speakers who refer to their education or claim to have had “years of experience”.

Speakers can also see their authority being withdrawn based on their background or identity: One user, in the heat of an argument over the “correctness” of a specific instance of language use, had their authority revoked by another group member, who pointed out their Castilian name “Carlos” instead of Catalan “Carles”[1].

Since users join these groups to ‘improve’ their Catalan, many often accept the corrections they are being offered. Some discussions, however, escalate. Defenders of words and phrases deemed to be of Castilian-origin can experience a lot of abuse if they do not accept corrections. Sometimes the admins will block them or they get called “criminals” or “catanyolaires” (a seemingly offensive term for Catalan speakers accused of speaking a Catalan that is heavily influenced by Castilian).

The issue of echo-chambers

The picture is further complicated when taking the issue of echo-chambers into account. Echo-chambers is a phenomenon where beliefs are reinforced through communication in closed spaces, such as groups and fora on social media. Due to the lack of opposition or challenging of the shared belief of these spaces, there is a potential for increased polarization and radicalization and they become a potential ground for disinformation. Social media platforms in recent years have received more and more criticism for allowing such environments to arise.

Stephen finds echo-chamber dynamics in the Catalan language groups as well. The groups cater to a very specific demographic that already shares a common interest namely taking a more active role in language policy. This is what Stephen calls “collective self-management”. They collectively coordinate the management of their own language practices and beliefs in order to effect social change. This is achieved for instance through constructing a common frame. The frame consist of identfying a common problem (the castilianisation of Catalan), a common solution (ridding the language of Castilian influence) and a common frame for action (correcting each other).

The frame that group members construct for themselves, however, clashes with that of many Catalan speakers outside the groups. These other speakers reject the group’s claim to authority over the language. They would accuse group members of speaking medieval Catalan, because they insist on using older Catalan forms instead of more common contemporary (possibly Castilian) forms. To many people outside (and to some inside) the group, Castilian borrowings are nothing bad at all. They are but a sign of inevitable language change.

[1] Names have been changed in order to conceal individuals’ identities.

Bibliographic references available on request

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