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Styling Castellà: Mock Spanish Catalunya Style

Written By: Adam Mendelson on July 14, 2009 4 Comments

This summer I’ve spent a substantial portion of my time in and around Barcelona, Spain, visiting in-laws and friends. For those of you unfamiliar with the history of Spain, like many European countries, it was unified somewhat artificially and is home to a variety of fairly different cultures and languages. For example, Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya, a region where both Spanish (i.e., Castellano) and Catalan, a closely related but nonetheless different romance language, are spoken. As Barcelona has become an increasing cosmopolitan city, at least in terms of the daily happenings of the city (politically things are a bit more complex), Spanish and Catalan share fairly equal footing, with most locals speaking both languages quite comfortably and a lot of mixing and switching going on. However, outside of Barcelona, things are different. In smaller cities, towns, and rural areas, Catalan dominates. Everyone still understands Spanish perfectly (national media plays a role here), but it’s common to find people who are much more comfortable speaking Catalan than Spanish.

Early in the summer, my wife, children, and I spent a weekend in a rented cabin (or “casa rural”) with two of my wife’s best friends from high school and their respective husbands and children. The cabin was about an hour north, northeast of Barcelona in a rural area of Catalunya called La Garrotxa. One day we all went to a local farm and yogurt factory called La Fageda where we toured the factory, sampled the yogurt, and the kids pet and fed the cows.

As is to be expected given the location, the tour was entirely in Catalan, or almost entirely I should say. Occasionally, and I dare say strategically, the tour guide would slip in a bit of Spanish (or “Castellà” as it’s called in Catalan). I was reminded immediately of the notion of styling that I had been exposed to in Claire Kramsch’s course on language and identity (e.g., Coupland, 2007; Rampton, 2003). When the tour guide spoke Spanish, she seemed to be performing an alternative identity, a caricature of sorts that was clearly to be interpreted as representing someone that was unlike herself or the rest of us. The Spanish that she used included an exaggerated Andalucian (i.e., southern) accent as she apparently played the role of a dumb outsider that didn’t understand what was going on (the north-south stereotypes in Spain are similar to those in many other parts of the world).

For example, after her often overly technical explanations (a great portion of her audience were children under the age of six), she would ask in Catalan if everyone had understood everything. In response to the combination of head nods and blank stares she received, she would then say in her exaggerated southern accent “má o meno” (“más o menos,” literally translated to “more or less” but situationally meaning “not really”). Through these performances she was both drawing on a reproducing a stereotype of the less educated southern Spaniard – a Spaniard that was being positioned as different from the cultured (no pun intended) and educated Catalans.

The more I thought about this styling Castellà I found myself also thinking about mock Spanish (Hill, 1995), referring to sayings like “no problemo” and “hasta la vista baby” that sneak their way into American English and implicitly belittle our neighbors to the south. Mock Spanish is generally grammatically incorrect while this Catalan tour guide’s Spanish was not, but the effect was similar. In exaggerating the differences between her Catalan and somebody else’s Spanish, and especially by using that Spanish to index a lack of understanding of her technical explanations, she implicitly belittled both the language and its speakers, especially those in the southern-most regions of the country.

Coupland, N. (2007). Style. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hill, J. H. (1995). Mock Spanish, covert racism and the (leaky) boundary between public and private spheres. In R. Harris & B. Rampton (Eds.), The Language, Ethnicity and Race Reader (pp. 199-210): Routledge.

Rampton, B. (2003). Hegemony, social class and stylisation. Pragmatics, 13(1), 49-83.

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4 Responses to “Styling Castellà: Mock Spanish Catalunya Style”

  1. Youki on: 17 July 2009 at 6:21 pm

    fascinating post! Does this occur in mainstream media as well? Examples would be great if you have any! You mentioned this was in a rural area, so I wonder if the stereotypes are more or less common in urban areas (which are presumably more diverse).

  2. david on: 18 July 2009 at 9:31 am

    interesting. check out kathryn woolard’s work. she’s a linguistic anthropologist at UCSD, and she has written extensively about language ideology, style, bivalency, etc., in particular as they relate to Catalonia.

  3. cesc on: 3 August 2009 at 1:01 pm

    yeah, I’ve been to Catalonia twice and there’s a minority of Catalan nationalists that are like that… they’re overly patriotic to the point they sound like bigots… I honestly found the Spanish speakers friendlier.

  4. Adam Mendelson on: 26 August 2009 at 8:27 am

    whoa there cesc… my intention with this post wasn’t to bash catalans as nationalist, overly patriotic, bigots, or unfriendly. to me what was interesting was the way in which this styling of castellano had become part of daily discourse in catalan. i stand by my claim that this styling implicitly belittles spanish and plays a role in creating insider/outsider distinctions in catalunya, but i suspect that for most these negative implications are unintentional and unnoticed. it’s the sort of the same with mock spanish. would you call every american that’s ever said “no problemo” a bigot?

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