Linguistic Self-hatred.

Karina Picó Català writes about “Why I’m ashamed of speaking my mother tongue”; after describing being in a restaurant and hearing two obvious Catalans speaking Spanish for the waitress’ benefit, she says:

The concept of self-hatred was first used by the North American psychologist, Gordon W. Allport, to refer to the feeling of shame a person feels for possessing certain individual characteristics that she despises in her own community. However, it was the Spanish sociologist, Rafael Ninyoles, who pioneered its application to linguistics, which then evoked interest well beyond Spain. What does self-hatred mean in linguistics?

In a situation of self-hatred, the speaker feels ashamed of speaking his own language, which he considers to be inferior, and he substitutes it for another, usually the dominant language, which possesses greater social prestige. Far from being a phenomenon exclusive to Catalan, it is present in various linguistic settings around the world. It is found in languages like Breton (against French in France) and Quechua (against Spanish in Peru). Displaying a complete rejection of his mother tongue, the speaker not only attempts to switch to the dominant language, but also modifies his accent and his name (e.g. if the speaker is named Josep, he introduces himself as José); hiding, ultimately, any indication of his origin.

Even if it initially begins as only an individual linguistic behaviour, it often ends up rippling through an entire community. On the one hand, you have the speaker who decides to abandon her language, and feels a sense of disdain towards those who decide to remain loyal to it. On the other, there is the speaker who accuses the former of being unfaithful to her community and wanting to assimilate into the dominant culture. […]

Where does one look for the causes of this phenomenon? Perhaps in the apathy of a people who no longer care about their language? Perhaps in the 40 years of the tortuous Franco regime, which took it upon itself to “unify” Spain, rapaciously fighting against regional culture, destroying linguistic diversity and making great strides towards the eradication of Galician, Basque, and Catalan? The roots of the phenomenon are no doubt deep; but that is another story altogether.

“How do I explain it? Catalan is…like the slippers you wear at home: comfortable, but old and ugly,” my grandmother once explained to me when I asked her why she had not brought my father up in Catalan, despite it being her mother tongue. “Spanish, on the other hand, is like the shoes one wears on Sundays. Leather shoes, elegant, and flawless. Nobody goes out into the street exposing oneself to the world in ragged and dirty shoes, don’t you see, dear?”

When a language becomes nothing grander than those slippers you walk around indoors in, when it has lost all prestige, it is only a matter of time before the speaker no longer feels comfortable using it—and abandons it entirely.

Sad but illuminating. (Via the Facebook feed of Slavomír Čéplö, aka bulbul.)

Incidentally, she ends: “‘Vaja bé,’⁴ I blurt out, somewhat sad. I gather my change and leave the restaurant,” and the footnote says “A common Catalan expression to bid farewell.” I first thought the verb must be a Castilianism for vagi, but this discussion showed me it’s authentic, if archaic/regional.


  1. At least in France, it was of course reinforced by the official policy aimed to suppress all non-French languages: the infamous “No spitting on the floor, no speaking Occitan/Catalan/Breton/…” posters in schools, etc. But the feeling seems to have penetrated deeper than that.

    I have recently helped to translate a study of regional languages in France (mostly concerning the cases of Occitan/Provençal and Savoyard/Arpitan/Francoprovençal) which contained some wonderful examples drawn from interviews with the speakers. It appears that by the middle of the 20th century, in many families, the parents would still know their respective “local” language but wouldn’t teach it to their children. (It is of course very similar to numerous Russian-Jewish families where Yiddish was used as a parents’ secret language, or to many émigré ones.)

    Anyway, the families in question were mostly rural or very recently urban: the children were for instance routinely sent to their grandparents’ country for summer holidays. Where they would of course be given some work commensurate with their forces: such as minding the cow.

    Now the cow did not understand French! So on the one hand, the children would have to learn at least some patois to be able to do their job, but on the other hand, they would get an impression that it was a language to speak with the animals in, not really fit for human beings.

  2. Gordon Allport discusses the concept of self-hatred in The Nature of Prejudice, published in 1949. But before Allport there was Theodor Lessing’s Der jüdische Selbsthaß, from 1930.

  3. Where does one look for the causes of this phenomenon? Perhaps in the apathy of a people who no longer care about their language?

    Really? My understanding is that in the last few decades, Catalan govts have gone out of their way to facilitate Catalan as the language of daily use, and that proficiency has increased.

    Is the situation of Catalan/Spanish really comparable to the situation of Quecha/Spanish?

  4. I don’t know. I too was surprised by her pessimism, but maybe it’s more a personal thing, and other Catalans would disagree.

  5. I would imagine that the dynamics of the linguistic self-hatred is most powerful in the immigrants or internal migrants, especially adolescent, since that’s where the societal pressures to conform are the strongest even in the absence of any official language-use policies?

    There is also a positive feedback loop quality in the developing self-rejection, since it’s hardly possible to shed the vestiges of the ancestral language and culture completely, and then a self hatred-prone individual is tempted to ascribe all one’s failures and disappointments to one’s own incomplete assimilation, only deepening the rut of anxiety and self-blame over one’s “bad roots”.

  6. I’m not a linguist but isn’t ‘self-hatred’ going too far. We are certainly self-pliable, aiming for a shape that fits our chosen group. (I am well aware of the paradoxical tendency of students to rebel by conforming to the uniform of a rebel identity. “I’m different, like all my friends”).
    Then there is the influence of dominant and prestige cultures. We may not hate ourselves but we may borrow a bit of power and status when it suits. Surely it is also a very human characteristic to want our children to succeed in life and, if that involves encouraging them to speak a different language, who wouldn’t, (even if that encouragement involves denigrating the ancestral language)? This may, sadly, reduce language diversity but self-hatred is not its cause, surely it is more to do with social beings, seizing opportunities.

  7. David Marjanović says

    Self-hatred is the extreme of a large continuum.

  8. Trond Engen says

    David M.: Self-hatred is the extreme of a large continuum.

    Or, just as often, anything less than the extreme of a large continuum.

  9. Two things about the article linked: first, it rests on an assumption that it can be deduced from their pronunciation of Castilian that both individuals not only grew up in a Catalan-speaking milieu but are necessarily fluent Catalan speakers as adults. That may be right (and she’s supposedly the scholar in this area), but it doesn’t seem impossible in principle for me that someone could have grown up to speak Castilian with a Catalan-inflected regional accent (because that’s how everyone around him spoke Castilian) but not personally as an adult be completely comfortable speaking Catalan (although perhaps having a larger capacity for passive understanding of Catalan as a listener).

    Second, she ignores the possibility that a pair of people who are both bilingual in languages A and B may privately speak A with each other in some contexts and B in other contexts — she seems to be assuming that if these people were speaking B on this occasion where there was no obvious-to-her need to accommodate a B speaker with limited-or-no fluency in A, they must uniformly speak B with each other even though they could speak A, thus they must be deliberately shunning A because of self-hatred. That just doesn’t follow, unless it is assumed the only way to demonstrate absence of self-hatred as to A is to deliberately shun B to the maximum extent possible, which seems a reductionist and tendentious view.

  10. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    The article never says the scene takes place in Catalonia and I doubt it does. I’ve only lived in Barcelona for six years, but I don’t think anyone here says Vaja bé instead of the normal Adéu, que vagi bé. The subjunctive vaja strongly suggests a speaker from Valencia, and in fact the author is a student in Alicante (or Alacant), which is pretty much the southern extreme of the range of Catalan. A little googling suggests she is from Callosa d’En Sarrià, a nearby small municipality.

    If the two men in question are also from Valencia or Alicante, I find her reasoning much more persuasive. In Catalonia both the government and the intelligentsia forcefully promote Catalan. My impression is that people here today are more likely to be proud than ashamed of it. I am told the situation is very different in Valencia, and if anything the promotion of the language by Catalan nationalists to the North is making it worse — I’m pretty sure from the author’s description she expects the two men to be PP (conservative) voters and quite possibly Spanish nationalists.

  11. Giacomo Ponzetto: Thanks for an extremely informative comment.

  12. Alon Lischinsky says

    @Giacomo Ponzetto: spot on.

    A quip I often heard when discussing the matter with locals was a Barcelona, el patró parla català i els treballadors castellà; a València, el patró parla castellà i els treballadors valencià. The prestige of Catalan in Catalonia has to do not only with the strong institutional support, but with the large influx of Castilian-speaking, socially disadvantaged industrial workers throughout the 20th the century, which meant that Catalan was associated with the urban elites. In Valencia, where no such immigration took place, Catalan became increasingly restricted to the low-prestige rural milieu.

    There are a few towns south of Valencia where Catalan remains important in daily life (such as Sueca, hometown of Joan Fuster), but they are far and far between, and I know of none in Alicante.

  13. Alon Lischinsky says

    The funny thing is, the accent of the two men Picó Català describes is clearly Catalonian, not Valencian. The Western dialects lack /l/-velarisation and have merged /ɛ/ into /e/.

  14. if anything the promotion of the language by Catalan nationalists to the North is making it worse


  15. Hi, Giacomo! Yes. Molt bé. La pobra noia té problemes.

  16. Fisheyed: I take it to be because the identity of Valencia is to a great degree a matter of being Not-Catalonia, which is why politicians who don’t speak Catalan tend to be the ones who insist that Valencian is a separate language from Catalan, whereas the Valencian Academy of Language says just the opposite. So if Catalan is promoted in Catalonia, Valencian/Catalan is going to be marginalized in Valencia on principle.

  17. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I was in Valencia in September, at a time when the newspapers were obsessed with the then forthcoming election in Catalonia. I asked people if the Comunitat Valenciana would want to secede from Spain if Catalonia succeeded in doing so, and was answered with a very emphatic no. The feeling of being not-Catalonia appeared to be quite strong.

  18. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @Alon Lischinsky: What you write rings true, but doesn’t the different success of Catalan in Barcelona and Valencia date back to the 19th century? If we go back two hundred years, surely the aristocracy spoke Spanish and the peasantry Catalan in both places. I believe one of the standard explanations for the greater success of the Renaixença in Catalonia than in Valencia is that only in the former it enjoyed the support of a rising bourgeoisie that found language a convenient means of asserting its cultural and political importance vis à vis the old nobility. Within this narrative, I agree it would then be natural for Catalan to acquire further prestige as the language of the local bourgeoisie once working-class immigrants from the rest of Spain started flowing in.

    However, I remain hesitant to embrace this neat story because in Barcelona the captains of industry seem much less Catalanist than the intelligentsia, both culturally and politically. There’s little doubt they’re less independentist today and were closer to Franco back in the day. Language-wise, I hardly have any contact with captains of industry, but I might note that Barcelona’s Círculo Ecuestre always had and retains a Spanish name.

    @fisheyed: I have little direct knowledge of Valencia, but I suspect there are two related reasons.

    First, as John Cowan and Athel Cornish-Bowden have already remarked, Valencia hates playing second fiddle to Barcelona. This hatred is probably even greater than Barcelona’s hatred of Madrid’s primacy and more impotent: Madrid is a bit larger than Barcelona, but Barcelona is three times the size of Valencia. Willingly or unwittingly, the Catalan promoters of Catalan end up presenting it as the language of Països Catalans centered on Barcelona, pace Joan Fuster. I can imagine many Valencians would rather speak a major world language than a regional language dominated by their larger northern neighbor.

    Second, as I was hinting at, the conventional wisdom is that a large majority of Valencians are perfectly happy with Spanish national identity, and perhaps not a few are Spanish patriots or nationalists. Catalan promoters of Catalan make the language a defining feature of their rival Catalan national identity and a driving force for independentism. Hence, Valencian conservatives are driven to Spanish in the same spirit as Sarah Palin demands that people in the U.S. should “speak American.”

  19. Alon Lischinsky says

    @Giacomo Ponzetto:

    in Barcelona the captains of industry seem much less Catalanist than the intelligentsia, both culturally and politically

    they were, as long as they had hopes of setting economic policy throughout Spain, which they did until the beginning of the 20th century. When they realised they could not stand up to Madrid, they pushed the nationalist angle as a way to coax increased federalism from the Crown. There’s a good treatment of the matter in Balcells, A. (1996). Catalan Nationalism: Past and Present. New York: St. Martin’s, especially chapters 5 and 7.

    doesn’t the different success of Catalan in Barcelona and Valencia date back to the 19th century?

    I’m afraid I’m not familiar enough with the details to have a well-founded opinion, but my dim recollection of what I’ve read is that Llombart’s attempt to start a Valencian Renaixença flew quite well with the local bourgeoisie. They never pushed the independentist line, but for the most part neither did ethnolinguistic Catalanism.

  20. Thanks everyone for the explanations.

    Frankly, they make me feel justified in my skepticism about the article. Without discussing the context of regional rivalries, the Catalonian govt/intelligensia support for Catalan and so on, without the admission that Catalan self-hatred is not some universal norm, the article comes across as propaganda for self-hatred, rather than an examination of the emotional dynamics of linguistic shift.

  21. Well, I think it was more of a personal lament than an attempt at scholarly analysis, but yes, more context would definitely have improved it.

  22. Steve — thanks for sharing this article. Karina’s piece was meant to be light reading based on her experiences living in Valencia. You’re absolutely right though, the article could definitely have benefited from greater context.

    J.W., Alon, Giacomo — thanks for the incredibly incisive comments. I edit for the magazine that published the article, and edited and translated this piece from the Spanish. Your comments have definitely given me pointers on what to look out for in future submissions.

  23. A couple of years ago, an immigrant from Albania complained to me that her teenage daughter forbade her to use Albanian in public (in the supermarket, at the bus station, etc). It’s also true that many people of foreign background introduce themselves using another version of their original name (for example Sergios instead of Sergei) or a totally different name (I knew of an Armen who introduced himself as Alekos). To me, this is just another expression of the human need to be accepted and to fit in. Also a way to avoid confrontation or an “interrogation” right from the start. It’s depressing, unjust, unnecessary, harmful, even fascistic, but all too common and perfectly understandable.

  24. It’s one thing to do this by your own decision, another to be coerced or emotionally blackmailed into doing it (as by the teenage daughter).

  25. J. W. Brewer says

    Teenage daughters often have elaborate theories about how their parents should and should not behave (esp. in public where OMG they might EMBARRASS the child), but not all parents accede to 100% of the daughters’ demands in this regard.

  26. A couple of years ago, an immigrant from Albania complained to me that her teenage daughter forbade her to use Albanian in public

    I had a Dominican cab driver the other week. He asked me I was Dominican, and despite (?) the fact that I said no, proceeded to cry on my shoulder about his younger daughter, who refused to speak Spanish and pretended not to understand, which meant she refused to speak to her Spanish-monolingual grandmother, which presented difficulties when the gmother had to mind the child etc. My reaction — perhaps uncharitably — was what has gone wrong with your parenting that the kid turned out like this.

    And frankly I don’t find it “perfectly understandable”. Yes of course, if speaking a language will get you killed or jailed or tortured, I understand. But presumably that is not the case for the Albanian teen or Dominican pre-teen, the Dominican girl was living in the Bronx, so I find their attitudes silly and disrespectful.

  27. Karina’s piece was meant to be light reading

    Light reading about self-hatred.

  28. Silly and disrespectful is what teenagers do, as well as younger kids often enough.

  29. Language shame is an important topic and no one should be ashamed to speak their language. Also I understand that this article is more about the author’s personal reflection than about linguistics.

    However, she is making assumptions about those two men speaking Spanish. I believe these assumptions come from a common misperception that there is one standard way to speak a language (in this case Spanish), and that anyone who doesn’t speak the standard cannot be a proficient speaker, or has to have some other language they feel more comfortable in. Just because those men have accents doesn’t mean they can’t express themselves in Spanish and doesn’t mean they are ashamed to speak some other language.

  30. t doesn’t seem impossible in principle for me that someone could have grown up to speak Castilian with a Catalan-inflected regional accent (because that’s how everyone around him spoke Castilian) but not personally as an adult be completely comfortable speaking Catalan (although perhaps having a larger capacity for passive understanding of Catalan as a listener).

    Indeed, this is a very moderate form what has happened in South Wales and in most of Ireland, where what began as a Welsh or Irish accent in L2 English has now become a variety of L1 English, still showing its Welsh or Irish roots even when actual knowledge of those languages has been lost for centuries.

  31. gwenllian says

    Isn’t it the case pretty much any time a large community switches en masse to another language? So it has happened pretty much everywhere. It’s just easier to notice it, establish it, or study it in such recent cases with the language that’s been replaced still surviving.

    Of course, education, changes in the population, or other factors, can change things after a while. I often see Irish people complain about Hiberno-English, including its Irish-derived features, disappearing in Ireland. Not sure about the current state of things in South Wales. Scouse is apparently spreading further and further westward in the north.

  32. Isn’t it the case pretty much any time a large community switches en masse to another language?

    Substrate effects like this apparently need special circumstances, though we don’t know exactly what they are. In most cases, language shift is just language shift: there is no Slavic substrate underlying eastern varieties of German, nor can the phonological peculiarities of French (when compared to the other Romance languages) be attributed to either Frankish or Gaulish. Even vocabulary is only trivially affected: there are perhaps 150 Celtic words in French, and in English less than twenty (not counting modern borrowings).

  33. gwenllian says

    I’m surprised. I’d have definitely expected such effects to be, at the least, very common. What sorts of circumstances are speculated to be important?

    Even vocabulary is only trivially affected

    I actually would have expected more of an effect on phonology, or syntax. Not based on any facts or research, just going by gut feeling.

  34. In the case of Spanish, common wisdom is firmly on the side of Basque substrate influence (most of all, to explain the f > h shift), but Larry Trask made some strong arguments against this idea.

  35. Lazar: The /f/ to /h/ shift in Spanish as an instance of Basque substrate influence was definitely NOT common wisdom before Larry Trask attacked it. Allow me to quote myself, from a comment I left seven years ago right here at Casa Hat…

    “…the /f/ to /h/ shift is also found in many varieties of Aromanian and Southern Italian, which cannot have had a Basque substrate, obviously: furthermore, there is a matter of chronology: loans from Germanic with initial /h/ have zero in Castillian, which suggests that at the time of those loans the /f/ to /h/ shift had not yet taken place. Moreover, the shift in Spanish did not take place if /f/ was followed by /ue/ (from Latin stressed short /o/), but the diphthongization of this Latin phoneme is a specifically Castillian innovation, not found in its neighbors (Gallego-Portuguese, Catalan or Gascon), which again suggests the shift to /h/ took place too late to be explicable through substrate influence. Also, Basque itself replaces Latin /f/ by /b/, not /h/, in Latin loans (hence BABA “bean” from Latin FABA), which is especially problematic from the vantage point of substrate explanations, since this sound change is alien to any Romance dialect spoken in the area.
    Don’t forget: the above is one of the *stronger* substrate hypotheses in Romance!”

    Gwenllian, John Cowan: what has to be remembered is that the prestige differential whereby speakers of language A shift to language B means that speakers of language A are very motivated NOT to have any feature of language A show up in their version of language B. This doesn’t mean that such influence will not exist, but rather that it will tend to be subtle (intonation, realization of certain phonemes, specific choices in complex sentences/phraseology, some non-core vocabulary dealing with local realia which language B lacks), and thus (I suspect) undetectable (leaving aside individual vocabulary items) if this language shift took place long enough in the past.

    Indeed, the most convincing attempt I know of in Romance linguistics to explain a sound change as being due to substrate influence involves a change which requires at first the transfer, from the substrate to local Latin/Romance, of a purely allophonic feature.

  36. Well, I wouldn’t know how common it was in the past, but I’ve seen it treated as gospel by far too many well-informed people.

  37. I think the Basque substrate, if not actual Spanish < Basque, is indeed the common wisdom, though not among linguists.

  38. David Marjanović says

    there is no Slavic substrate underlying eastern varieties of German

    That’s because those are mostly derived from immigration, not so much from language shift.

    In contrast, the sound system of Carinthian German is simply a subset of the Slovene one, with the hypercorrection of [h] for every /x/ that isn’t syllable-final. Language shift there has been going on for centuries.

  39. This is where the idea of two kinds of language shift comes in: the “normal” language shift described by Etienne, and the “inverted” kind where a speakers of a high-prestige language shift to a low-prestige one, where lexical borrowings are massive (French > English in England, Middle Chinese > Proto-Viet-Muong in what will become Vietnam).

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