Some time ago I was talking to someone who had been born in the Barcelona area and, although he spent most of his life in the United States, he spent some time every year visiting Spain. He is fluent in the Catalonian language and I was asking him some questions about languages in Spain.
He said that if you visit Barcelona and you don’t speak Catalonian, you should not bother trying to use Castilian (standard) Spanish. People there would prefer you speak to them in English.
He said if you’re a tourist, and you try to use Castilian with the locals, you’ll be told, “You don’t have to speak that Christian language here.”
So two questions:
“That Christian language” – People in Catalonia are largely Catholic, aren’t they? Why would they refer disparagingly to Castilian as “that Christian language.”
Do Catalonians really prefer English to Castilian Spanish?
I have absolutely no idea about your first question (though I suspect that the issue here will turn out to be linguistic, rather than religious), but I can certainly attest to Catalonians’ preference for English over Spanish. Or rather, their greater distaste for Spanish. Many restaurants in Barcelona will only print menus in Catalan and English, and speaking Spanish is generally viewed as an affectation.
If Catalans say that frequently, I’m surprised. You occasionally run into expressions like “Speak Christian!” in older Spanish works, which contrast “Christian” - i.e. Castilian - with regional languages or less prestigious dialects. But it surprises me quite a bit that that usage is alive anywhere today, let alone among speakers of Catalan.
I think it arose when there really was a “Christian” language or languages - the early Spanish languages - and a Moorish language, Arabic, spoken by Spain’s rulers in much of the peninsula. The Spanish never took that whole Moorish invasion thing well. Parents sometimes used to scold their children - perhaps some still do - to “Stop acting like a Moor!” - i.e. act civilized.
I’m sure some Catalans - real nationalist types - prefer English to Castilian. But I doubt it’s all that common. Virtually all Catalan speakers speak Castilian, and while the majority of those in Catalunya speak Catalan, it’s by no means universal. According to Wikipedia, there’s just under 7,000,000 people in Catalunya, and of them 5.8 million can understand Catalan and only 4.6 million can use it. So in most parts of the community at least, there’s plenty of native Spaniards who don’t speak it.
On the other hand, Catalunya is one of the wealthiest parts of Spain, at least at the moment; it’s one of Spain’s industrial centers, and as such, there’s probably quite a number of people who speak English as well. Barcelona is a major tourist center, and I imagine they must be pretty used to outsiders speaking all sorts of wacky languages - I’d be surprised if they resented Spanish all that much.
A couple of points related to Excalibre’s analysis, presented merely as possible insights and not as authoritative, “factual” observations:
From what I’ve been able to piece together, the medieval split was not so much Old Spanish vs. Arabic, two vastly divergent languages from entirely different stocks, but rather between the Spanish of the Christian kingdoms (Leon, Aragon, and Castile, for the most part, along with Navarre) on the one hand and Mozarabic, the highly Arabized and Islamicized Spanish dialects of the south. The “Christian language” was the Spanish that had not succumbed to those influences. I’d be mildly surprised but not totally so to find that that idiom survives 500 years later.
The Catholic Church in Spain was strongly behind Franco at the time of the Spanish Civil War and for much if not all of his rule. And Franco was very much a centralist, trying to subdue the ethnolinguistic minorities. It may be a Catalan thing to equate the Church, Phalangism, and Castellano as three related centralist tendencies trying to dominate them.
It’s not as obvious to me why Mozarabic would be considered “unchristian”, as the Mozarabs were definitely Christians. But perhaps that is also a part of the origin of the phrase, since the Mozarabs were not part of “Christian Spain” and they gave up their language in favor of northerly languages quite quickly.
I think it is not unheard of for Castillian speakers to refer to speaking “good Spanish” as “cristiano (Christian).” I am thinking in particular of some song lyrics by Mecano (early 1990s). The song is No Hay Marcha En Nueva York, roughly “There’s No Scene in New York.” The lyric is “mas de dos millones de hispanos, pero aqui no habla nadie en cristiano” which I translate as “more than 2 million Hispanics, but no one here speaks real Spanish.”
At least in Mexico (if not most of America), to say “Speak to me in Christian.” is as common as saying “Sounds Greek to me!” in the US. “Hablame en Cristiano.” basically means that either the speaker is using a language that the Spanish-speaker cannot understand or that the speaker, regardless of language, cannot understand. I am not sure of the origins of the phrase. But. Suffice to say that it has origins in the idea that Spanish, official language of an empire, was more Civilized and Godly as compared to the native “pagan” and “savage” laguages of the countries the Spaniards conquered.
As to the OP, question #1, it may be a nationalist sense of humor. Catalan is seen by some non-Catalan Spaniards as a provicial language. Since Castillian Spanish is seen as civilized language, Catalan is the opposite. So. It’s a way of saying, “Well. Now. Please don’t use that high falluting ‘civilized’ language (Spanish). Feel comfortable using the ‘savage’ languages.”
My experience is that in the first few years after Franco died Catalonians were much more hardline in their attitude. Even if it was obvious you were an outsider and that Spanish was not your first language, they would snootily reply to your efforts at Spanish in Catalan.
I cut them some slack - after all their language had been supressed for so long, it’s understandable that there would be some backlash.
Anyway, they soon got over it. Over the years since that first visit, I’ve visited Barcelona several more times and can say that this attitude has diminished, disappeared even. People still speak Catalan amongst themselves, but if you’re not a Catalan speaker and you address someone in Spanish they will reply in Spanish.
When I passed through Barcelona in 1973, I only spoke Spanish and I never ran into any problems. (Of course, that was when Franco was still alive and may have preceded any backlash the resulted when he became still dead.)
The notion that people in the Barcelona area (and it must be remembered that with migration and freedom of movement, quite a few of these people are not Catalans, and some of them not Spanish) won’t speak “Spanish” with a visitor from abroad is just not true. On a level as an urban legend with the idea that French waiters won’t speak to people from Britain in English. Before I went to Spain for several weeks in the 80s, including a week or so in the Barca area, I learned serviceable “Spanish” (not so difficult for me as I had studied Latin to University level). When I tried it out in Barcelona, there wasn’t one person who objected, and the proportion of those who switched the conversation to Englsih was on a par with what would be the case in places like Hong Kong. In other words, in a cafe in a suburb, the restarauteur who would speak little or no English would converse in “Spanish”, whether or not he was Catalan. Same with all the encounters I had on buses, in shops, etc, especially when they happened away from the touristy areas. I can’t even remember one person raising the nationalist/linguistic issue - they were as pragmatic as any other group of people I have met anywhere else in the world, and I have travelled quite extensively. While I discussed the various political issues with a member of the family with whom I spent some time (in English because her English was better than my “Spanish” or my Catalan), the overall impression I gained was that, like ordinary folk in the rest of the world (and people in many many places besides Spain have political/nationalistic and lingusitic problems to deal with), the ordinary folk in Barcelona and environs were far more concerned with getting on with their life and earning a living than beign part of a “struggle”.