Logotip de la revista Noves SL





Sociolingüística catalana
Summer 2001

Sociolinguistic Investigation into the Use of Catalan in Service Stations,
by Jaume Farràs, Josep Lluís C. Bosch and Diego Torrente

Catalan is still in a fairly precarious position in the fuel sector. This is one of the conclusions of this study. The objective of the research was to ascertain the language in which signs, posters, advertisements and both internal and external communications (oral and written) are carried out. Also to contrast how these uses vary and detect lack of Catalan in function of variables such as site of gas station, brand and ownership of the establishment. At the same time, we wished to establish an index use in following and evaluating the evolution of language use in the sector.



1. Introduction and aims

2. Design and execution of fieldwork

3. Language use in petrol stations, analysed by area of service station, territory and brand name

1. Introduction and aims

As of summer 2000 there are more than one thousand service stations in Catalonia (1).

Up to the present time, unlike the manufacturing, business and service sectors, both private and public, the fuel sector has not been the subject of sociolinguistic analysis. However, Article 32.1 of the Language Policy Act explicitly states that "those companies and establishments devoted to the sale of goods or services whose activities take place within Catalonia must be able to serve customers expressing themselves in either of the official languages of Catalonia". This Act also provides that "any signage of a permanent nature or any written matter offering services to customers and people using establishments that are open to the general public must, at the very least, appear in Catalan" (Article 32.3).

Commerce and communication are two highly prominent facets of the fuel sector; there is a very close aural, oral and written communicative relationship between customers and vendors in service stations, with an abundance of orientative and propagandist messages using logos, displays featuring the company brand and product names and prices, opening hours and services on offer – daily or 24 hour-service, self-service or with staff on hand – as well as other information located right at the entrance to the petrol station. Pulling up under the canopy, close to the petrol pumps, we come across another series of messages in the form of signs and posters, telling us how to operate the petrol pumps as well as informing us of any products on offer at that particular time. Once we have been served by the petrol station staff – or once we have served ourselves – and moving across to the cashier in the office, or shop, or store, or bar, we find ourselves once more the target of advertising, often for accessories or parts for the car. We cannot leave the premises without being made aware that we can check our tyre pressure, fill up the radiator, wash the car, buy something to eat or drink or visit the toilet facilities. From many different aspects, therefore, language is very much present in the various spheres of a service station, whether in terms of greeting and offering information verbally, in writing or pictorially, or by means of commercial, informative or advertising signage.

Apart from being actively involved in communication, the fuel sector is in a state of constant growth, updating installations and increasing the range of services it offers. As the number of vehicles increases, the implantation of new service areas in line with the expansion and transformation of the road network and, from a commercial point of view, petrol is becoming just one more product to be sold to the customers travelling to any of the big shopping centres to do their shopping. It has to be said that with the privatization of the sector, the old monopoly has managed to maintain a strong hold on the market by means of hair-splitting strategies adopted by the State!

The Repsol, Campsa and Petronor group controls between 35 – 40% of petrol stations in Catalonia. The second big Spanish fuel company, Cepsa/Elf, controls around 13% of the Catalan market, often registered under a different brand name. With more or less half of all petrol stations under the control of these two groups for some considerable time, this gives a standard presence throughout the territory.

With around fifty sales outlets, the Catalan company Petrocat holds a market share of about 4%, similar to that of the North American company Shell and the Italian Agip (3.3%). As far as foreign companies are concerned, the English BP and the French Total/Fina stand out, with around a 7% market-share each. The remaining quarter of the market is made up of small businesses with one or more sales outlets, belonging mainly to associations, co-operatives, supermarket chains and/or individuals.

It is unusual to find a service station that does not have, at the very least, an all-purpose shop – the alternative 24-hour drugstore, as it has also been called – selling basic necessities that you might need at any given moment. There is often a small bar and a restaurant, and some establishments even have a hotel, alongside other installations more closely related to vehicle maintenance: tyre-repair shops, parts outlets, car-washing facilities or spacious parking areas for lorries, particularly on motorways. Basically, the whole road network forms the modern-day stagecoach route, and petrol stations are the one-time roadside inns for traffic, as well as being centres of contact and communication between those passing through and the staff serving them.

The relationship between the service station and its customers is communicated by means of a mass of verbal, aural and written messages, transmitted by a number of methods: signs, posters, warnings and pictograms. The increasing use of pictograms and/or forms and terminology that are difficult to categorise linguistically hinder the task of professional observers who have to conclude whether these are written in Catalan, Spanish or some other language.

One of the aims of this investigation was to identify in which language all the signs, posters, advertisements and internal or external communications are written or spoken. Another was to compare how these uses differed and to identify where Catalan was lacking using variables such as the type and location of service station and the brand and/or ownership of the establishment, as well as establishing a benchmark to facilitate the evolution, monitoring and evaluation of linguistic usage in the sector.

1 de 3