October 2017 has been seismic for Catalonia – Spain’s richest and most disputed region. After an illegal referendum, a declaration of independence, and the prosecution of government officials, the situation has calmed. Somewhat.
While this is perhaps the first time that the Catalonian situation has gained international recognition, it is the latest episode in a long dispute about language, politics and identity. The crux of this is that Catalonia has its own national identity, distinct from the rest of Spain and deeply tied in to this is its unique language.
This has historically been of little concern to businesses dealing in foreign markets. But with scores of businesses having pulled out of Spain’s richest region, it’s clear that these issues of language and politics are having a big impact on business and finance.
Is it time overseas companies took notice of the history and background here and adjusted their approach for the sake of peace and profit? Perhaps. Read on to decide for yourself.
Is Catalan a real language?
The Catalan language now has legal protections unrivalled in the developed world, but this was not always the case. As recently as the 1970s, under Franco’s reviled dictatorship, the language was brutally suppressed; banned from use in most of public life. For most of Catalan’s life, it was scarcely even considered a language; usually being considered a vulgar dialect of Castilian Spanish.
Nation state boundaries are drawn on political lines, which historically pay little attention to the linguistic diversity of the citizens within them. The truth is Catalan is, and always has been, a distinct language from Spanish, being more closely related to Occitan spoken in southern France. Franco’s historic refusal to accept this, and the suppression of this language almost certainly helped fuel the nationalist sentiment that pervades today.
Is the moral of the story therefore that businesses should just keep clear of uncertain markets like Catalonia? Possibly. But there are opportunities to be had here as well in acting on the knowledge that not all citizens within the same political country are the same in outlook, culture and language.
What this means for UK businesses
Speakers of two languages from two countries can often be more similar than diverse peoples within the same country – and these differences must be acknowledged and catered to for your overseas marketing campaigns to have the best chance of success.
When politics and language meet
Boundaries between languages are often a lot more complicated than the names we give them suggest. That’s precisely why the old regime managed so successfully to pretend that Catalan wasn’t a real language.
When a nation state is created, its leaders almost invariably try to make it seem like its citizens speak a single, unified language that’s distinct from everyone else’s. All over the world and throughout history you can find examples of this, from the unification of the English kingdoms to the expansion of the Third Reich.
In some cases, languages that are almost identical are considered distinct identities, because their respective countries want to distinguish themselves from each other, and artificially create sharp linguistic boundaries that align with state boundaries. This article from The Economist provides an extreme example from Europe’s former Yugoslavian countries, where products are labelled in three separate ‘languages’, each with identical spellings.
Another example of this occurs in Scandinavia, where speakers of three separate languages, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish can all understand each other with ease. Political reasons explain this as well.
When Norway gained its independence from Denmark in 1814, its own national language ‘Norwegian’, essentially a localised Danish dialect with pre-colonial influences, was born. It was absolutely, definitely a distinct language from that of its former colonial overlords, thank you very much … except the written languages remain almost identical, and the spoken variants are highly mutually intelligible.
In Catalonia, the opposite is true – a language that by all reputable linguistic logic is distinct from Spanish was, for many years, erased, because linguistic diversity wasn’t politically convenient for those trying to impose a one-size fits all, centralised, nation state.
What this means for UK businesses
As a business, these complex political movements matter to your expansion strategies and your marketing. A broader moral of this story is perhaps to remember that we cannot lump a single nation of people into one.
These messy disparities between political and linguistic boundaries are abundant across the world, from Irish and Welsh in the UK all the way to the Kurdish of Eastern Turkey. The problem is that, even when you take politics out of the equation, you’re still left with a messy spectrum of languages, dialects and people that are impossible to categorise and it takes local linguistics experts to know the best words to communicate with each group.
At the end of the day, we’re talking about people… and great marketers know one thing for sure; it’s that people are anything but simple!
Where does a language begin?
If you really want to get in to the details, we’re looking at what language fundamentally is (and is not) and how a single language evolves.
German is a good example of this slippery continuum. You might think it a single language, but that is distinctly not the case. German is more accurately described as a dialect continuum, which starts in Schleswig Holstein, Germany’s northernmost state, travels the Southern Allemanic and Bavarian regions, through Austria and Switzerland, and culminates in minority languages spoken in the North of Italy.
While most of these speakers understand the centralised standard ‘Hochdeutsch’, the local dialects form a steady spectrum. Can local ‘German’ speakers from Northern Italy and Hamburg understand each other? Almost certainly not. But where do you draw the line?
Linguists, by and large, don’t bother – labelling the whole thing a ‘High German Dialect Continuum’ and moving on with their lives. Life, evidently, is too short for even the experts to bother trying to unravel this mess.
What this means for UK businesses
So you as a business owner or marketing manager are going to need to pay a great deal of care and attention to how you communicate with a new market and think beyond borders.
What does this mean for international marketing?
Localised, native knowledge is vital to success here. You can try displaying a Spanish advert in Catalonia, or a Bavarian advert in Hamburg, just because it seems easier than creating targeted advertising for each group – but we can guarantee you won’t see the same levels of success in your campaign that you would if you took the time to speak your audience’s true language.
Language, politics and identity affect the people you’re selling to. If you want to navigate these hurdles in your international marketing strategy, you’re going to need help from people who understand them, with local expert knowledge. Like the team here at Bubbles Translation. Trust the experts.