Asturias: the Spanish right's other linguistic front

The regional government is open to reforming the Statute to make Asturian a co-official language

Mireia Esteve
4 min
One of the posters that Vox has hung in Oviedo against the co-officiality of Asturian.

Madrid"Gijón, not Xixón, Mrs Castañón". Just two weeks ago, a People's Party MP for Asturias Paloma Gázquez casually referred to a debate that has not yet surfaced in Parliament but that has been open for months in Asturias. She was addressing Sofía Castañón, a Unidas Podemos MP for Asturias, reproaching her for her defence of the co-officiality of Asturian in this community. For the first time in forty years of democracy, the Asturian government has broached the subject of making Asturian and Galician-Asturian, the two languages spoken in Asturias apart from Spanish, co-official. The president of this region, the socialist Adrián Barbón, is willing to reform the 1981 Statute and give them the rights of an official language that several Asturian cultural entities have been demanding for years. As expected, however, Barbón's intentions have met with rejection from the right. In a similar way to the crusade against immersion in Catalonia, the PP, Cs and Vox are also opposed to any attempt to give Asturian more rights.

According to the latest sociolinguistic survey carried out in Asturias, in 2017, 62% of the population speaks Asturian. Diglossia – using the dominant language for formal matters and a minority language for informal situations – is a common phenomenon among Asturian speakers, but also the fact of mixing Castilian and Asturian interchangeably. "The problem of Asturian is not orality, everyone speaks it sometimes, but writing it and going deeper into this language", admits the well-known Asturian writer Xuan Bello. And the data corroborate it: although the percentage has grown in recent years, only 25% of those surveyed say they understand, read, speak and write Asturian.

To ensure the language survives, it must be transmitted from parents to children. But it is also necessary that people are not ashamed of speaking it in public. As several of the people consulted explain, Asturian is still considered a rude language. "Generational transmission is not guaranteed. There is a danger that young people will not speak it", says Inaciu Galán, member of Iniciativa polo Asturianu, one of the organisations that defend co-officiality. For this reason, Galán sees the reform of the Statute as a historic opportunity to protect this language and go beyond the "protection" and "promotion" that is provided for in the current statutory text, which still speaks of "bable" to refer to the language, a term that is now considered pejorative.

But what model of co-officiality does the Asturian government defend? Barbón's cabinet speaks of a "friendly officialdom". Government sources point out that this involves a "recognition of rights", but also a "non-imposition of obligations". The co-officiality would have to be specified in a subsequent law of linguistic use, and it is here where the model would have to be established. None of the parties nor the Academia de la Llingua Asturiana, which also defends co-officiality, want to make comparisons with the Catalan or Basque model: they consider that Asturias has its own reality and that, therefore, a co-officiality that adapts to it has to be established. In schools, for example, Asturian is an optional subject and parties like Podemos believe that reaching the point where the subject is compulsory would already be a victory. "Once you have obtained officialdom, the rest can be negotiated," says Hugo Garcia, from Podemos Asturias.

The parliamentary arithmetic

Are there real possibilities that the reform of the Statutes will go ahead? The Asturian Parliament is made up of 45 members and it would take a supermajority of 27 parliamentarians for it to prosper. At this point, the government is assured 26: members for PSOE, Podemos and Izquierda Unida. It is also very likely that one of the two Foro Asturias MPs, Adrián Pumares, would end up opting voting in favour, as he announced in October. However, he asks in exchange that the subsequent language law also requires a reinforced majority of three-fifths to be passed, the same as is needed to reform of the Statute. The party also demanded tax changes. Consulted by ARA, Foro Asturias did not want to specify its position.

Pumares's support has turned him into the target of an aggressive campaign led by Vox. By way of example, at the beginning of this month Vox put up billboards with an image of Pumares and Barbón kissing accompanied by a pun on tongues and languages, which was reported to the Prosecutor's Office by several organisations, as it was considered homophobic. But the offensive has been going on for a long time. Shortly after the elections, Vox put up billboards equating Asturian with independence and placed the photograph of Barbón next to that of the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and Basque pro-independence leader Arnaldo Otegi.

The PP censures and dissociates itself from the far right's campaign and the secretary general of the party in Asturias, Álvaro Queipo, considers it "of an unnecessary bad taste, and it does not contribute anything". But the Popular Party also opposes the co-officiality of Asturian because they believe that the current Statute already protects it: "The only law that protects Asturian is the law of linguistic use approved by the PP, and it does so according to the freedom of each Asturian to use it or not. The rest is imposition". All this should be resolved in January at the latest, since the reform would then have to be validated in the Spanish Parliament and supporters of the co-officiality want to take advantage of the progressive majority in the lower house for it to prosper.