A Brief History of Spain – Part 31, Regionalism and Language Politics in Spain (up to 1936)

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In Spain, besides Spanish (Castellano), three other languages are officially recognised: Basque, Catalan, and Galician. Spain is a large country with regions that have developed their own identities to some extent, and in some cases, their own languages. This regionalism played an important role during the Civil War.


Galicia sits in Spain’s far northwest corner. To its south, Portugal’s presence subtly influences the Galician tongue with hints of Portuguese. While much of Spain basks under a sunnier clime, Galicia enjoys a maritime weather pattern, with frequent rain showers. The vast coastline of Galicia has long anchored its economy in fishing. For many local families, the sea wasn’t just their livelihood—it was life itself. However, the jagged, rocky coasts combined with tumultuous storms made fishing both a profitable and perilous endeavor. Over the centuries, the waves have claimed many lives, earning a part of Galicia’s coastline the haunting title of Costa da Morte (Coast of Death), a stark contrast to the sunny allure of Costa del Sol or Costa Blanca.

Back in the sixth century BC, Celtic settlers laid down roots in Galicia, and even today, the region exudes a certain Celtic aura, thanks to its climate and landscapes. The extent to which the Celts influenced Galicia remains a subject of debate. By the second century BC, Roman legions had stamped their authority on the area, later incorporating it as the province of Gallaecia within Hispania Tarraconensis.

When Moors set their sights on Spain, their influence barely trickled into northern Spain, which staunchly held onto its Catholic beliefs. Western Galicia’s Santiago de Compostela emerged as a beacon for pilgrims, with a route stretching across the northern Spanish coastline. In the backdrop of the Reconquista, the Kingdom of Asturias rose in prominence in northern Spain, with its dominion, for a time, extending over Galicia and the Basque Country. With the union of the Reyes Católicos in 1469, Galicia was woven into the fabric of the Spanish Kingdom.

Galicia’s history is also marked by the shadows of the feudal system and vast church-owned lands. Factors which cast long spells of poverty and hunger over its people. As a result, Galicia has long been a cradle of emigration, with many of its sons and daughters seeking futures in Northern Europe and South America. Interestingly, in Argentina, the term “Gallegos” is often used to refer to Spaniards. Galicia’s economic challenges meant that the cries for secession here were softer compared to wealthier regions like Catalonia and the Basque Country.

1936 was a pivotal year. Galicia was poised to gain a measure of autonomy as enshrined in the Statute of Autonomy of Galicia. But destiny had other plans. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War that year, followed by the iron grip of General Franco—a son of Galicia—ensured that Galicia’s autonomy remained more an aspiration than a reality.


Catalonia’s identity crystallised in the Middle Ages. Under the leadership of the Barcelona counts, it burgeoned into a formidable maritime force, casting its influence across the Mediterranean. While tethered to Aragon, Catalonia maintained its distinct legal and taxation systems. However, after supporting an unfortunate choice for an heir—a Habsburg—and subsequently facing defeat in the War of the Spanish Succession, Catalonia found itself under the iron grip of the ascendant king, Philip V of Bourbon, in 1714. Subsequently, the Catalan language was proscribed.

Related: History of Catalonia

Cogesa Expats

Industrialisation painted a transformative arc for Catalonia in the latter half of the 19th century, setting it on a faster development trajectory than the rest of Spain. Alongside a burgeoning sense of “nationalism,” economic interests—both commercial and industrial—fuelled Catalan regionalism. The sting of losing colonies in 1898 plunged Catalonia into an economic downturn.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the embers of Catalan nationalism had started to gather political momentum. The conservative Lliga Regionalista, under the Catalan Solidaridad banner, made significant inroads in local and regional elections post-1908. However, the winds shifted in 1923 with Primo de Rivera’s ascent. Consequently, leading to the suppression of Catalan nationalism and significant facets of its culture. The establishment of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931 brought a fresh breeze of autonomy to Catalonia. Meanwhile, in regions like Galicia and the Basque Country, drafts of autonomy statutes were drawn up. However, these remained largely unenacted due to the Civil War’s eruption in 1936.

The Basque Nationalism

Basques, as they often say, are not Spaniards. Genetically, Basques are different from the French and the Spaniards. Basques are unique, and their origins are uncertain. Their language, Basque/Euskera, has no similarities to other European languages. Linguistically Basques might be related to the Huns and Vandals, some historians suggest. Another theory suggests that the Basques might have been the original inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula before the arrival of Celts, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors.

Throughout history, the Basques have been fiercely independent, successfully defending their territory against Romans, Visigoths, and Moors. When the Kingdom of Spain emerged at the end of the 15th century, the Basques retained a significant degree of administrative independence. During the Carlist Wars, the Catholic Basques sided with the Carlists. The ancient rights (fueros) of the Basques within the Spanish empire, which the Carlists supported, were partly the motivation for this alliance. After the defeat of the Carlists in 1876, Alfonso XII forced the Basques to adopt the Castilian language and customs. However, Carlist and ultra-Catholic sympathies remained strong among many Basques.

Related: The Basque Country is quite unlike the rest of Spain

Subjugation to central Spanish rule led to the emergence of Basque nationalism in the 19th century. In 1895, Sabino Arana founded the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). The PNV sought an independent, strictly Catholic Basque state. Arana deemed Spaniards inferior to the Basques. The Basque language was promoted as a tool of unity. Furthermore, Arana introduced some new words, such as Euskadi (Basque Country) and Euskera (Basque language).

The thriving mining industry in the Basque Country attracted a large influx of Spanish immigrants. This nearly doubled the population between 1877 and 1930. This immigration further fuelled nationalism, especially among the traditional rural population. Because of the “diluted” native population due to immigration and the lack of establishment support for the PNV, the party always remained a minority.

Baycrest Wealth

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