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Language and economy. Market for symbolic exchange and consumption of linguistic products in Euskera, by Benjamín Tejerina


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The collective identity crisis is the result of the processes of change and transformation that were occurring in the social structure of Basque society during the 50s and 60s. In reality, this cultural identity crisis is the identity crisis of the society itself, but, above all, the social definition of the said cultural identity, Euskaldun identity, whose reference point was the social structure of traditional society, rural society, where it was still possible to find parity or equivalence between cultural identity and Euskaldun culture. This identification between Euskaldun population and territory was effectively broken by the impact of immigration: "Immigration [basically migration within the Spanish state] which was already noted as a disruptive invasion within the original nationalism, was destined to become an authentic physical alteration of the potentially Euskaldun population. In the 60s the Euskaldun provinces of guipuzkoa and Biskay experienced increasing percentages of (Spanish) immigrant population in the urban industrial conurbations. The immigrants in question came from areas with no connection with Basque culture; at the same time there were large-scale shifts of population within the region which seemed to bring about unprecedented changes in a basic equation in Basque identity: that of Euskal­dun population and Euskaldun population." (Arpal et al., 1982:44).

It was in this context of Basque crisis of identity, raised to a conscious level, that, paradoxically, the need for cultural and linguistic recovery was articulated. The impact on Basque society was such that it came to mark a whole generation, a decisive moment of maximum demand for the participatory, communicative function of the language, which made any attempt to fully meet the demand to learn Euskera all but impossible.(5)

The third indicator of the culture renaissance is the growth in the bibliographic production in Euskera: the 25 books published, for example, in the year 1960 became 154 in 1975, representing a 616% increase in 15 years. From the 90s onward, around 1,200 titles have been published annually.

4. Intervention and planning in the 80s and 90s

In synthesis, an inventory of the linguistic changes undergone by Euskera in the Basque Autonomous Community would feature the characteristics that we consider here. To a great extent they are the result of public intervention and language planning (6) knowledge of Basque has extended in the last two decades. One in every three Basque speakers acquired Basque over this period. Knowledge of Basque is advancing in all of the counties making up the three Historic Territories of the Basque region: Araba, Biscay and Gipuzkoa: the percentage of Euskalduns (Basque speakers) has increased by ten percent. The greatest concentration of new Euskalduns is in Araba.

The changes that have occurred from one generation to the next are also very notable. While the percentage of Basque speakers is dropping in the oldest age group, among middle aged speakers this is remaining stable, and among young people there has been a marked recovery.

The decrease in the proportion of Basque speakers in the Basque Autonomous Community occurred in the middle decades of the twentieth century as a result of social and political pressure brought to bear on Euskera within the framework of a totalitarian regime, of the voluntary or forced abandoning of Euskera by some Euskalduns as an outcome of the pressure exercised within the educational and cultural system (an important aspect in this process of loss of attachment to the language was its absence or low prestige compared to other alternatives), the internal migrations from rural to urban areas and to other countries, and the demographic growth which made it possible for the Basque Autonomous Community to absorb significant influxes of population during the 50s and 60, boosting industrial and economic growth.

In recent years the transmission of the language from parents to children has been maintained, although in this respect there are big differences between one territory and another since the majority of those who have Basque as their mother tongue live in Guipuzkoa, while those who live in Araba (southern Basque Country) constitute less than 3% of the population. Reproduction of the language in the family is greater where the Basque speaking environment in which they are inserted is greater. Loss of Basque speakers is steady at 1%, while incorporation of neo-Basque speakers never ceases to grow.

The substantial increase in bilinguals would not be possible without the contribution made by the schools in teaching Euskera to the rising generations. The proportion of Euskalduns is significaticantly among the younger generation than among the elderly. As a result of the introduction of Basque in the compulsory education system, six out of ten of those aged under 10 are bilingual.

The linguistic change led by the new generation aged under 20 is due to the transmission of Euskera within the bosom of the family but, also due above all, to the contribution made by the educational system to the production of new Basque speakers. The informal education system and the ikastolas stemmed the loss of Euskera amongst adults, while among the youngest generation the linguistic models fostered in the course of compulsory schooling are responsible for the existence of one in three Basque speakers. The importance of the linguistic practices of these new neo-Basque speakers (7) is of the greatest significance for the future of Euskera, since in the coming years they will have to decide whether or not to transmit Euskera as mother tongue to their descendents, both because of its relevance and for the greater growth of the language. The significance of this group of Basque speakers is very great in the case of Araba and Biscay, while quantitatively and qualitatively less so in Guipuzkoa.

The progressive introduction of Euskera into the educational system in general and at the University of the Basque Land has contributed to its presence at the highest levels of scientific and cultural endeavour. The teaching of Euskera to adults has experienced a notable upturn as a result of the collaboration between the movement for recovery of the language, the private organisations and the Administration.

There is a central core strategy on which the possibility of extending the Basque language for the next generations rests: the constant growth of the bilingual teaching models (B) and the Basque speaking population (D), and the reduction of the Spanish teaching model (A), could be interpreted as a firm backing by parents in favour of the well-being of Euskera, of a desire for the linguistic normalisation of the language and, in many cases, for a pragmatic calculation of the exchange value of Euskera on the job market. It would not seem that instrumental, affective or political reasons will mean an immediate change in the progressive substitution of Spanish model (A) by the Euskaldun (D), rather there are numerous indicators to the contrary. If we observe the evolution of such linguistic models over the last two decades, we can state that pressure for bilingualism has gradually shifted from infant and primary education to compulsory secondary and the university, at least in public education. The private sector has shown itself so far to be somewhat less permeable than the public to the process of euskaldunización –that is, the change-over to Euskera.

Neo-Basque speakers with incomplete fluency represent the future of Euskera and the ensuring of its intensive recovery and revitalisation. On their response to the social and political pressures vis-ŕ-vis Euskera will depend the immediate progression and transmission of Euskera to future generations, if we take it for granted that native Basque speakers and balanced bilinguals will maintain their fidelity to Basque.

It is in intimate circles that Euskalduns make most frequent use of Basque. As we move out of the family and the circle of friends, the intensity of use of Euskera decreases. The most institutionalised and formal spaces are those which generate greatest resistance to the use of Euskera.

Both if we approach the utilisation of Euskera by means of census information or if we do so by means of questionnaires, the patterns of language use of the Basque speakers varies according to four variables: age, ability and facility in the use of Euskera, the density of Euskera speakers in the family and the demographic density Basque speakers in the environment. Young people speak Euskera less than adults and elderly, tend to use it less where they have les fluency in Basque than in other competing languages -less ability equals less use– Basque is used less in families where fewer than 80% know it and, lastly, there is less communication in Euskera by those that can speak it in geographical areas where less than half the population is bilingual.

The characteristic features of the process of recuperation of Euskera and the structural conditions of point of departure are the social limits which language policies aimed at the obtaining of a bilingual society come up against. The youngest speakers –neo-Basque speakers in many cases– use less Euskera than adults because while being bilinguals they have greater competence in Spanish. Their distinctively greater ability in Spanish takes them into a linguistic economy which takes them away from Basque in the absence of other personal or collective incentives. Many new Basque speakers have no one to speak to in Euskera at home, given that most family members will be exclusively or mainly Spanish speakers, and where that isn’t so, custom and language habits do the rest. What is more, the great majority of the neo-Basque speakers live in geographic areas where Spanish clearly predominates, making it complicated to maintain, or simply find, a Basque-speaking social setting. In any case, competing with Spanish in the environment, when one has previously interiorised the shrunken linguistic frontiers within which Basque operates in a good part of the Basque Autonomous Community, is both difficult and complicated.

Despite these objective and subjective difficulties the future of Euskera seems bright. For the first time in many decades, what becomes of the language depends on the attentions and temptations of the Basque-speaking community and, to an increasing extent, on the neo-Bascophones –the new Basque speakers, a strategic and privileged milieu for language change and deserving of a thorough scientific investigation in the future.

5. Market, value, production and consumption of the language

In the two previous sections we have seen some of the consequences arising from three aspects of relationships between economy and language: language as an institution that generates habits, classifications and objectifications of a linguistic nature among speakers, the political economy of the language market structurally linked to economic and political power, and the political economy of the agents who promote a particular type of practice and linguistic exchange between social actors. We will now turn to the analysis of relations between value, market and language, or, to be more exact, the value of the language in the market.

Public intervention -in the form of planning, in linguistic processes- has led to a significant extension of the knowledge and use of Euskera, and a change in the social evaluation of the language. Given that the economic value of a language (that is, a language as an economic resource) comes about as a result of its market positioning, (8) my intention here is to take a closer look at these relations.

A writer who has known, more than most, how to capture and describe the evaluation of objects that is made in consumer societies is Jean Baudrillard. For Baudrillard consumer objects can have:

a) an use value
b) an exchange value
c) a symbolic value
d) a sign value – social prestige

One thing is use and another very different is use value. The term use refers to the handling of objects, of things, in this case the language and, therefore. Although in this sense all languages are similar, use value depends on other factors such as communicative usefulness, its easiness, scarcity or rarity, its beauty, and so forth. Values, these, which could vary from social context to another, from one group to another, from one point in history to another. In general, the more a language is used, the greater the possibility of encountering a higher use value, and a more positive evaluation of knowledge or use of that language.(9)

Together with its use value, a language or language variety takes on an exchange value. Such evaluations are based, in part, on the use values and, in part too, on pragmatic, instrumental and utilitarian considerations of a non-linguistic nature which move people to learn or to use a language to attain other ends (enjoyment, culture, employment, etc.). The symbolic value of a language has to do with what we have termed the participatory function of language. It involves a subjective projection of an affective nature such that we attribute a value to the language as a symbol of belonging, of identity, as happens on numerous occasions with the mother tongue or ancestral tongue. These ratings or evaluations are relatively independent, in principle, of use value and exchange value. On occasions, high symbolic value can be attributed to a language which has been lost, or fallen into disuse, but which enjoys a special position for the symbolic value it has.


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