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Studying Catalan

Why I Support the October 1 Catalan Referendum

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When in the course of human events a person makes potentially divisive political statements, especially a person who lives in another country, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them.

I have friends in Catalonia, and I have friends in other regions of Spain. Some of them support the October 1 Catalan referendum and some don’t. I also work in a very apolitical organization, and any expression of political opinion by me is a non-trivial matter; because of that of was very hesitant to publish this post, even though I wrote it a few days ago. Needless to say, my opinions are mine, and they have absolutely nothing to do with any other person or entity.

With that out of the way, here are my reasons.

1. I read Leopold Kohr’s “Breakdown of Nations”, and found its central argument pretty convincing: All things being equal, smaller countries are usually better than large countries for their citizens and for the world.

Economically, socially, and politically, there’s nothing inherently good in big countries. The bigger the country is, the more damage it can cause in wars and in economic crises.

According to this logic, a smaller Spain is better for Spaniards and for the world. Catalonia, which will be small to begin with, is good for the same reasons.

So sure: I studied the Catalan language, I read Catalan books, I listen to Catalan music, and I have many Catalan friends online and in real life, so I obviously have a personal bias when it comes to the question of Catalonia. But it goes further: I do believe that smaller countries are better for the world. Catalonia just happens to be a notable first example in what will probably we a continuing wave of regionalism in Western Europe and elsewhere around the world.

2. There’s nothing sacred about borders. Borders of modern independent states are a rather new and arbitrary thing. Countries pretend that they always existed, but in fact, the current world map is less than a hundred years old.

The current borders are not inherently good. In fact, a lot of them are awful. A lot of them are much, much worse than the borders of Spain, for example those in Africa or some parts of Asia. A lot of them should be changed according to a more sensible division of language, culture, and economics. Most ethnic groups and languages in the world don’t have a country; it makes the whole idea of a “nation state” rather problematic, even in its relatively better implementations, such as France.

The map of the world in 2017 is very different from the map of the world in 1950. The map of the world in 2050 will probably be very different from the map in 2017.

So why not start the change from a more peaceful place, so that the more troubled places would learn how to do it better?

(While I was writing this blog post, the New York Times published a piece that says pretty similar things: Learning to Live With a Changing World Map, by Joshua Keating.)

3. A referendum is a rather precise and fair way to ask for an opinion of a group of people about an important topic.

It’s more precise than an opinion poll on a sample of a few hundreds of people. When Mr. Rajoy says that most Catalans don’t want independence, he’s simply not telling the truth. He cannot know how many Catalans want independence or not. There is a precise way to know whether most Catalans want independence: A referendum.

I’m not a lawyer, but I acknowledge the possibility that the Constitution of Spain doesn’t allow it. But a constitution that doesn’t allow a referendum is not very democratic. If Mr. Rajoy cares about democracy, he should want to change this constitution.

Changing the Spanish Constitution is possible, but it’s so hard that it’s a Catch-22. While the bold move by the Parliament of Catalonia to break this Catch-22 is legally challenging, as far as democratic principles are concerned, it’s a reasonable way to make the people’s voice heard.

4. The Parliament of Catalonia had made its intentions very clear, and has given everybody ample and fair time to prepare for the referendum. Unlike, say, the Parliament of Crimea, when it suddenly decided to call a referendum on seceding from Ukraine.

For over a year, Spain’s only response to this was “it’s illegal, so we are ignoring it”. Spain has only itself to blame.

The Parliament of Catalonia certainly stretched its authority when it committed to declare independence if the result is “Yes”. It did so because not making this commitment would be a repetition of the abortive 2014 referendum, when under pressure from the Spanish authorities no such commitment was made. The “Yes” side won, but with a very low turnout. In 2017, the Parliament did make this commitment in order to raise the turnout. Higher turnout is yet another thing that is better for democracy, and, judging by the opinion polls, better for the supporters of remaining in Spain.

5. Spain has a much stronger point about the potential secession than it has about the referendum.

Preventing a referendum is undemocratic and immoral. Preventing a secession, which may be declared as a result of the referendum, is a whole different beast.

Indeed, a strong “Yes” result in the referendum may give Catalonia a moral mandate to ask for secession, but actually seceding means actually setting up borders, actually removing Spanish police, military, judges, and tax clerks. All of these things aren’t easy, and they shouldn’t be.

Comparing again to Crimea, the thing that made Crimea’s de facto secession from Ukraine possible was not the referendum, but the Russian invasion, which pushed the Ukrainian military away. Nothing like that is imaginable for Catalonia. Spain has no compelling reason to remove its armed forces from Catalonia and no other country is going to intervene. This can only be decided in negotiations.

Readjusting Spain’s economy for the life after secession will be hard, but that’s OK. Spain has a strong legal standing to make actual secession hard, and that’s where it should focus: Making it hard for Catalonia to secede. Fair’s fair. Instead, however, Spain is making it hard for Catalonia to find out how interested it is in seceding.

6. The Catalan independentists’ commitment to non-violence is truly admirable. It should serve as a good example for all the other national movements across the world. Yes, this includes Palestine.

To sum up: I have nothing against Spain. I rode the Valencia–Madrid AVE twice, and it was probably the best train ride I ever had. Madrid is no less amazing than Barcelona. Don Quixote is one of my favorite books. Spain has some reasonable legal and moral points in this debate.

But Spain really shouldn’t waste them on preventing a vote and say that it’s doing it for the sake of democracy.


Written by aharoni

September 27, 2017 at 11:22

Posted in politics

Batiscafo Katiuscas

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This is Batiscafo Katiuscas, a song by the Mallorcan band Antònia Font, one of the biggest hit-makers in the Catalan language. First of all, do yourself a favor, and simply listen to all of it. (The video is not official. A nice amateur person on YouTube made it. The images roughly follow the lyrics.)

It is a kind of a Catalan “Space Oddity”. Here’s my attempt at translating the lyrics:

Batiscafo monoplaça,
Es teu focus a s’abisme
De ses aigües insondables
Només tu les averigües.
Single-place bathyscaphe
Your focus is on the abysm,
Its profound waters,
Only you investigate them.
Batiscafo socialista
Redactant informe tràgic
“Camarada maquinista
A institut oceanogràfic.”
Socialist bathyscaphe
Editing a tragic message
“Comrade engineer
To the oceanographic institute.”
Batiscafo solitari
Dus un ruting planetari.
Solitary bathyscaphe
You are carrying planetary routing.
“Retxes de sol atravessen blaus marins,
Ses algues tornen verdes
I brillen ses estrelles, que ja s’ha fet de nit
I es plàncton s’il·lumina
I cantes ses balenes a trenta mil quilòmetres d’aquí.
“Rays of sunshine penetrate the marine blues,
The algae turn green,
And the stars sparkle, it’s the night already
And the plancton illuminates itself
And the whales sing thirty thousand kilometres from here,
Retxes de sol atravessen blaus marins,
Ses algues tornen verdes
I brillen ses estrelles, que ja s’ha fet de nit
I es plàncton s’il·lumina
I canten ses sirenes aproximadament per no existir.”
Rays of sunshine penetrate the marine blues,
The algae turn green,
And the stars sparkle, it’s the night already
And the plancton illuminates itself
And the sirens sing approximately for not existing.”
Batiscafo socialista
Redactant informe tràgic,
Catedràtic Yuri Puscas
A institut oceanogràfic.
Socialist bathyscaphe
Editing a tragic message
“Professor Yuri Puscas
To the oceanographic institute.”
Batiscafo Katiuscas
Fas un atles visionari.
Bathyscaphe Katiuscas
You are making a visionary atlas.

Some curious notes:

  • I don’t know where do the names Katiuscas and Yuri Puscas come from. My guess is that the author tried to make Soviet names. They came out more Lithuanian than Russian, but than can still be Soviet.
  • You can easily notice the es articles, commonly used in Mallorca – es teu, s’abisme, ses aigües, etc. Antònia Font use them quite consistently in their songs. The Catalan band Glissando* performed a cover version of this song with el articles: el teu, l’abisme, les aigües.

  • Another easily noticeable Mallorcan property is the pronunciation of aigües “waters” as aigos.
  • The spelling retxes for “rays”, which appears in the CD booklet, is quite unusual. It’s pretty certain that the author refers to “rays”, but the standard spelling would be raig in singular and raigs or rajos in plural. The spelling retxes is probably a colloquial Mallorcan variation, but I couldn’t find in any dictionary.
  • The author uses at least two Spanish words: “averiguar” to investigate” and “atravesar” to cross, penetrate”. For the second word the corresponding Catalan word is travessar without ‘a’, but it is nevertheless spelled in the Catalan manner with double-s. For the first word there’s no direct correspondence. There’s probably nothing too deep about it: Even though this band only performs in Catalan, it is not really purist, but simply uses words naturally as they come, “barbarisms” or not.
  • I don’t quite know what “planetary routing” is. It may even be translated incorrectly. The original word is ruting, which sounds like an English loanword, but could refer to a lot of things.

Most importantly, it’s a great song. The odd intro has disparate notes that collect themselves into an arpeggio over a minute, and this arpeggio becomes the songs main hook. On the CD the intro is actually a separate track. The guitar climax in the second chorus, as simple as it is, is a wonderful rock moment.

Finally, I have a sweet personal memory of listening to this in a lesson in my 2010 Catalan summer course, right there in Mallorca – it was, in fact, part of the curriculum. Now that’s a good way to teach young people a foreign language: Rock’n’roll.

Written by aharoni

September 28, 2014 at 20:55

How to say toothache in Catalan

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When i want to write a quick email or a Facebook status update in Catalan and i want to check whether the expression that i want to write is correct and i don’t find it in a dictionary – or am too lazy to look for it – i google it.

I searched for “mal de dents”, hoping that it would be “toothache”, much like “mal de cap” is “headache” and “mal de panxa” is “stomachache”. And i found that it is, indeed, toothache – but in French! Even adding “amb” to the search didn’t help. Adding “amb” is a trick that i learned from the Esperantists, who often add “kaj” to every search.

I did find it on a few Catalan sites, but still wasn’t completely sure, so i overcame the laziness and checked a dictionary. UB English-Catalan dictionary suggests “mal de queixal”. “Queixal” is “molar” and it actually makes sense: I don’t remember that i ever had any incisor or molar ache.

Written by aharoni

December 20, 2009 at 21:32

Posted in dictionaries, Internet


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I returned from the VIII Catalan Language University Campus 2009 and i have a lot of things to write about it and i hope that i’ll have the time, but here’s a little and very important thing. Miquel Àngel Tortell, one of the monitors – group guides, whom you can see at the photo at the article linked above – gave me an excellent CD of a Catalan indie rock artist, whose name is Eduard Canimas. The album is called Noh iha crisi (sic) and it is one of the best albums i heard this year in any language and probably the best Catalan i heard ever.

Written by aharoni

September 2, 2009 at 11:31

Northern Catalan accent

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Look: NetTVCat Catalunya Nord.

They speak fluent Catalan, but the accent sounds French. I only started studying phonology this semester, so i can’t make further comments.

Written by aharoni

December 14, 2008 at 21:22

Catalan on Packaging

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“ATENCIÓ: Les bosses de plàstic poden ser perilloses. Per evitar el perill d’asfíxia, mantingui-les fora de l’abast dels infants.”

On packaging of consumer you can often find instructions, ingredients or warnings in various languages. La Troba Kung-Fú used this artistically, calling the booklet for their album a “manual” and having it written in Catalan, Spanish, English, French, Japanese, Danish and some other languages. However i haven’t yet seen Catalan on real packaging until today.

I’ve seen it on the plastic bag of a Kung-Fu Panda doll from McDonalds’ kids meal. (No relation to La Troba Kung-Fú.) It was also the first time that i saw Maltese on packaging, but Maltese is the main language of Malta, although English is official there, too. Catalan, however, has equal legal status to Spanish in Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands, and Spanish also appears on the packaging, so—not that there’s anything wrong with that—why would they bother to add a line in Catalan? I can think of several options:

  • The government of at least one of the Catalan-speaking communities of Spain demanded Catalan on the packaging.
  • The government of Andorra demanded Catalan on the packaging. Andorra is the only official language of Andorra.
  • A Catalan speaker was involved in the production of the packaging. Curiously, the Spanish on the packaging was labeled as “Castellano”; usually it’s “Español”.

Written by aharoni

July 27, 2008 at 20:39

Recorda la llet

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Remember The Milk is a very nice service, which i started using today. It is available in many languages—English, Russian, Japanese, Latvian. Not in Hebrew, but that’s probably understandable—Hebrew has right-to-left issues in addition to the translation itself. It is available in Bosnian, but not in Serbian or Croatian, which is weird, but whatever.

But the weirdest thing is that it has no Catalan translation. Usually Catalan is one of the first languages to which websites and program that accept translations are translated.


Written by aharoni

July 6, 2008 at 20:43

Review – Diccionari Barcanova de la Llengua

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  • A monolingual dictionary
  • Purchased in FNAC Barcelona
  • Rating: 8.1

I bought it, because that was the only one-volume monolingual Catalan dictionary that i found in FNAC Barcelona that had etymology. The official IEC dictionary looked more professional, but it didn’t have etymologies. The etymology in this dictionary is far from perfect—quite a lot of words mysteriously don’t have any etymology instead of saying “unknown etymology”, a huge number of words give the Classical Latin word and add “mat. sign” = “mateixa significació” = “same meaning”, which is quite a waste of paper, and what’s worse—it says “mat. sign.” even in cases where deeper explanation would be beneficial, for example at the lovely word elucubració. It also has a concise grammatical appendix which is OK for quick reference, but very far from perfect, and a few pages of history of the Catalan language, though it doesn’t have a bibliography. The verb conjugation tables in this dictionary are rather puzzling and weird, and i strongly prefer those in DIDAC. Also, its coverage of Valencian seems to be patchy—it has hui and meua (today, my f.; avui and meva in standard Catalan), but not huit (eight; vuit in standard Catalan). Of course it is possible that it’s just my impression. Despite these shortcomings its definitions and examples appear to be more serious than DIDAC’s, and it’s the one that i use most of the time.

Written by aharoni

May 8, 2008 at 19:29

Review – DIDAC

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  • A monolingual dictionary
  • Purchased in FNAC Barcelona
  • Rating: 8.7

This is a dictionary for school children. It is colorful and richly illustrated. The printing quality is excellent. The definitions are simple and not terse as in regular dictionaries for adults. Examples of usage are simple to understand, but they appear to be written especially for the dictionary and not taken from real written literature, which would be better. Unfortunately, it has no etymological data and no detailed grammar, but it has very good tables of verb conjugation, pronouns, articles and prepositions. It also appears to have pretty good coverage of Valencian and Balearic words, although only standard forms are given in tables of verbs and pronouns. Overall, this is a very good dictionary for students, but its childishness is sometimes felt.

Written by aharoni

May 8, 2008 at 19:21


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A dig into Jewish history brought up an interesting, but confusing Catalan connection.

Nahmanides is one of the best known medieval rabbis. In Hebrew he is usually called Ramban (רמב”ן), an acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman – Moses, son of Nahman. Apparently he was born in Girona, hence “Gerondi” is sometimes added to the name above. So far, so good.

Apparently he has another name and that’s where it becomes confusing. I am not sure whether to call this name Latin, Spanish or Catalan, so i’ll just say “foreign”. This name has two parts. The first is easy – it’s something like Bonastruc, which i also saw spelled as Bonastrug, but that’s understandable. The second part is the toughest. It is given in various sources as one of those:

  1. Bonastruc ça Porta – Catalan Wikipedia and some Google results
  2. Bonastruc de Porta – Gran Enciclopèdia Catalana online. It doesn’t mention the “ça” spelling in the article about Ramban himself, but it does have an article about Centre Bonastruc Ça Porta, an institution in Girona dedicated to Jewish history, which means that the Catalan Wikipedia spelling is more than just a typo or a random whimsy of someone who likes weird medieval spellings.
  3. da Porta – JewishEncyclopedia.com article about Ramban doesn’t mention the Bonastruc name, but it does say that he was a brother of Benveniste da Porta.

Another proof that “ça” may have real meaning is the big Diccionari Català-Valencià-Balear, which says that it’s a variant of the feminine article “sa” (nowadays sometimes used as the Balearic version of “la”) and gives a couple of examples which look like personal names.

But the plot thickens even further. Ariel, my Catalan “mentor” on Twitter, says – if i understood him correctly – that it should actually be spelled Saporta, and that it is related to the last name Sasportas, which some people in Israel have today. JewishEncyclopedia.com has an article about the Sasportas family, which says that it comes from the Spanish “seis portas” – “six gates”, but it also says that “Aaron Sasportas, the earliest known member of this family, was a descendant in the tenth generation of Nahmanides”.

So – can anyone point me to reliable sources that may help me solve this mistery? Or are those just two versions which are equally possible?

Written by aharoni

April 2, 2008 at 14:08