“WITH THE stroke of a pen” is a phrase usually used metaphorically. But just a single stroke differentiates the two forms of the name of a Spanish city: “Valencia” (in Spanish) and “València” (in the regional language). A left-wing regionalist party recently kicked off a debate in Spain’s Senate by insisting on “València” as the only spelling—even in Spanish (which does not have the letter è).
Spain’s regional squabbles are often this tiny. Some Catalans detect an insult in the use of the letter ñ, which is used only in Castilian (Spanish), but not in Catalan. Barcelona’s second-biggest football club was named “Español” on its founding in 1900, to distinguish it from FC Barcelona, whose founder was Swiss. The club renamed itself Espanyol to appease local sensitivities in 1995.
In recent weeks language wars have reached high politics. The same Valencian party that insisted on València also pushed to be allowed to use “Países Catalanes” (Catalan countries) in the Senate—a loaded phrase beloved of separatists, which includes the Valencia region, Catalonia and the Balearic Islands, all of which speak Catalan.
Meanwhile, the Socialist-led minority government needed the support of regionalist parties to pass its budget last week. It did so in part by promising more children’s television in Basque, and by agreeing to require streaming platforms based in Spain to offer 6% of their content in Spain’s main minority languages, Basque, Catalan and Galician. (Details remain murky. Content dubbed into those languages will count; subtitles apparently won’t.)
Rather more seriously, a row over schooling now threatens a constitutional conflict. Catalonia’s immersion model has generally required all subjects to be taught in Catalan, except Spanish itself. This annoys families from elsewhere in Spain. But on November 23rd Spain’s supreme court ruled that 25% of courses must be in Spanish—and the Catalan government’s education boss immediately told schools that there should be “no change” in practice. The national government stayed calm, saying the Catalans should respect the courts. The leader of the main opposition party, Pablo Casado, said that if they did not, the Senate should revoke Catalonia’s right to set its own education policy.
Many ordinary people in Spain are happily bilingual in Spanish and a regional language. But when dealing with Spain’s identitarian politicians, whether in Madrid, Valencia or Barcelona, you must choose your accents carefully.
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Accenting the negative”