Catalan: Linguistic Suppression under Franco

by Dan Spragens


The Flag of Cataluña

The regime of Francisco Franco was not the first Spanish government that attempted to impose Castellano on Cataluña. After Philip V won the War of the Spanish Succession, becoming the first Bourbon king of Spain, he issued the Nueva Planta decrees (1707-1716) which banned the public use of Catalan. This was partly retribution for the Catalans’ support of his rival Archduke
Charles of Austria. Charles III (r. 1759-1788) would later ban the use of Catalan in primary and secondary education. None of these measures was particularly effective as the people ignored the decrees and the state did not have the capability to enforce them. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, the increasing cultural prestige of Castellano began to displace Catalan among the upper and middle classes, aided by the expansion of the centralized state-controlled school system.

By the late nineteenth century this trend had begun to reverse as the Renaixença revitalized Catalan literature, and Catalan nationalism started to gain ground. Catalan academics and politicians began to call for making Catalan the official language of Cataluña and permitting its use in various public functions. The dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera attempted to stifle this movement by enacting laws to require the sole use of Castellano in all official documents and explicitly making Castellano the official language of Cataluña. This policy only stoked nationalist sentiment among Catalans which showed strongly in the explosion of the Catalan-language publishing industry. By 1930 there were 15 Catalan dailies compared to just two in 1923, when Primo de Rivera took office. Also, in 1930 there were 308 books published in Catalan, often with print runs of 3,000 copies. With the establishment of the Second Republic in 1931, Catalan continued to gain ground. Cataluña declared autonomy in accordance with the new constitution, and Catalan became co-official with Castellano. It was also made a permitted language of instruction in Catalan schools, first in kindergartens and primary schools then later at the secondary level.

Franco's Policies

Francisco Franco in Reus, Cataluña
Francisco Franco in Reus, Cataluña

The language policy of Francisco Franco was intended to promote a culturally, hence politically, unified Spain. The Catalan language in particular was a symbol of Catalan nationalism, and so Franco’s policies were predictably harsh where it was concerned. Upon his army’s entry into Catalan territory he decreed (5 April, 1938) that Cataluña was no longer autonomous. He subsequently voided all legislation of the Catalan parliament and jurisprudence of the Catalan supreme court. This reestablished central authority and paved the way for more specific measures against Catalan.

One main focus of Franco’s policies was the education system. The teaching of and in Catalan was forbidden in schools, and even private teachers faced revocation of their license if they did so. In the universities whole departments of Catalan studies (e.g. literature, philology, and history) were abolished, and professors had to be approved by the Falange party. Students were required to join El Sindicato Español Universitario, a Falangist youth organization which ran various propagandistic educational programs. At the primary/secondary level these policies were intended to prevent Catalan youth from learning and perpetuating their language, while the measures taken against universities were aimed at devaluing Catalan as a language of scholarly discourse.

Also targeted was the Catalan media. The publication and sale of books in Catalan was at first prohibited, and many books were confiscated and burned. After the Allied victory in WWII however the restrictions were relaxed to give the impression to the world at large that Franco’s regime was tolerant of Catalan culture. Even so, books still had to be approved by government censors before they could be published, and some categories remained off limits. Among these were children’s books, scholarly works, and anything deemed to have a social or political message. The publication of Catalan periodicals was banned too, as was the importation of periodicals published by the Catalan diaspora. Radio and cinema were off limits to Catalan as well, but the publication of a limited number of stage plays was permitted, however they were allowed to be staged in only a couple of theaters in Barcelona and all publicity had to be conducted in Castellano.

Although M. Primo de Rivera prohibited the use of Catalan in official contexts, Franco’s policy excelled this by prohibiting the public, but non-official, use of Catalan. Private companies and other such corporate organizations were required to use Castellano for their names, articles, and regulations; in meeting notices and at the meetings themselves; and in their forms, letterheads, etc. This extended to advertisements and shop signs, as well. Public lectures in Catalan, while not explicitly forbidden, were not as a matter of course granted permission.

The Jocs Florals, the main Catalan literary festival which had been held in Barcelona since 1859 and figured prominently in the Renaixença, was also banned. This ban kept the festival out of Spain, but it was held abroad without interruption from 1941-1976. Other local competitions were allowed to continue, but on condition that they permit works in C
astellano and that the prize for the best patriotic poem go to one written in Castellano.

Even the private use of Catalan was targeted. In the early phase of Franco’s rule, it was common for Falangists to harass Catalans with insults such as “Habla en cristiano!” (“Speak Christian!”) a phrase with roots in the Moorish occupation of Spain. Censors would write similarly snide remarks on private correspondence in Catalan, and interrupt phone calls with obscenities.

Toward the end of the ‘50s Franco began making moves to liberalize his dictatorship somewhat, but while greater leeway was given in some areas such as publishing and university study of Catalan, it was kept out of primary and secondary schools until shortly before Franco’s death. For a more personal perspective on the topic, here is an interview with Anuncia Escala who grew up in Barcelona under the Franco regime.


- Pere Anguera, "Denied Impositions: Harassment and Resistance of the Catalan Language" Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 4 no. 1
(2003) 77-94. doi:10.1080/1463620032000058695
- Josep Maria Batista i Roca et al., Memorandum on the Anti-Catalan Policy of General Franco's Government: Submitted to the Delegates of
the Seventh Assembly of U.N.E.S.C.O. (Paris, November 1952). Cambridge: Cambridge Express Printing Co., 1952.
- Albert Branchadell, "Language Policy in Catalonia: Making Liberalism 2 Come True" Language & Communication 19 (1999) 289-303.
- Kathryn Ann Woolard, Double Talk: Bilingualism and the Politics of Ethnicity in Catalonia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.

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