October 11, 2004

Language rage in Spain

Miguel Ángel Moratinos, foreign minister of Spain, has asked the European Union (says The Economist: here by subscription; page 48 of the October 9th print edition) to make four of Spain's non-Spanish languages official: Basque, Catalan, Galician, and Valencian. So that would of course make the proud Basques (north central-east coast), Catalans (northeast coast), Galicians (northwest coast), and Valencians (central east coast) very pleased, wouldn't it?

No. Language politics are always a little stranger than you would think. The Catalans are furious. They regard Valencian as just a southern dialect of Catalan, so this move has actually undercut their status. Another crisis. Call in a linguist. (Not that linguists can hold out a lot of hope for exact, well motivated, and uncontroversial decisions concerning language boundaries.)

If the change is put into effect, it will be a new catastrophe for the EU's translation service. The number of translators the EU logically needs (assuming very optimistically that every translator from language A to language B can go the other way as well) goes up from the 190 conservatively calculated here on a basis of 20 languages, to a new figure of (242 – 24) ÷ 2 = 276 types of translator (you need Basque/Maltese, Galician/Latvian, Valencian/Dutch, Catalan/Estonian... and 272 others).

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 11, 2004 02:02 PM