Archive for the ‘spain’ Category


Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) was a Spanish writer and thinker from the early 1900s. He stood between two Spains: the old Spain of faith and the new Spain of Western science and reason. He was torn between the two – neither fully satisfied him. His thought was an early form of existentialism. He said, “Faith without doubt is dead.”

Unamuno was the head of the University of Salamanca, where he had once taught Greek. Twice he stood up to the generals who wanted to rule Spain. The first time he was sent to the Canary Islands, later escaping to France. The second time, against Franco, he was put under house arrest but died a few months later just as the civil war was starting.

His greatest work was “The Tragic Sense of Life” (1913). Unamuno said the root of every philosophy and every religion – in fact, of every human action and thought – is the fear of death and the desire for immortality, to live forever. It why people have children, why they want to get rich, why they want to be famous or powerful. The fear of the death and the desire to live forever drives them, whether they know it or not. It stands behind everything like a shadow.

In the past men have tried to prove that the soul is immortal, using reason alone and not religion. Aquinas tried, so did Spinoza and others. They failed.

Because it cannot prove immortality, reason becomes the enemy of man, of life. What is more, reason, which began as the golden road to the truth, in the end destroys the truth through doubt and scepticism.

Like Tolstoy, Unamuno wished he had the simple religious faith of country people. But he does not. Reason has destroyed his faith. Yet reason itself has also destroyed the truth and any hope for an afterlife. It is a dead end.

His head could not believe in Christianity, but his heart still did. In the end he followed his heart and his faith over his head. It did not make sense, but it was the only way out that he could see.

Unamuno once wrote a story about a country priest called “Saint Manuel the Good, Martyr” (1931). Every Sunday he told the simple country people about the afterlife, but he believed none of it. Yet he did not have the heart to tell them the truth – it would kill them, he said. The story tells about his fight between faith and doubt in his own soul. Just like Unamuno himself.

Unamuno also wrote an excellent character study of Don Quixote. Of course, it was about more than just a character in a book. It was about Spain itself.

Some wanted all of Spain to become like Castile in the centre of Spain. Unamuno, being a Basque, opposed it.

Unamuno knew 14 languages. He learned Danish so he could read Kierkegaard in his own language.

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The Lord’s Prayer in Catalan:

Pare nostra del cel,
sigui santificat el teu nom;
vingui el teu Regne;
faci’s la teva voluntat,
com al cel,
així també a la terra.
Dóna’ns avui el nostre pa de cada dia;
i perdona’ns les nostres ofenses,
com també nosaltres hem perdonat els qui ens ofenen;
i no deixis que caiguem en la temptació,
ans deslliura’ns del Maligne.

Catalan (900- ) is a language spoken in Barcelona and eastern Spain by about 11 million people. It is also spoken in Andorra, the Balaeric Islands, in bits of France near Spain and in Alguer, a town on the Spain-facing side of Sardinia.

The heartland of Catalan is Catalonia and Valencia on the east coast of Spain. Yet it is not a dialect of Spanish. In fact, it is less like Spanish than Portuguese is. You can think of it as being something like Spanish yet also something like French. It grew out of Latin just as they did, but took a road of its own.

The language that it is most like is Occitan, the old language of the south of France in which the troubadours once sang. The sort of Occitan they used was called Provencal.

Occitan and Catalan are so close that some argue they are two dialects of the same language. If you know one you can pretty much make out what people are saying in the other. They are certainly much closer to each other than either are to French or Spanish:

English Latin Spanish Catalan Occitan French
sing cantare cantar cantar cantar chanter
goat capra cabra cabra cabra chevre
cheese caseus queso formatge formatge fromage
key clave llave clau clau clef
night noctem noche nit nuèit nuit
place platea plaza plaça plaça place
bridge pontem puente pont pont pont

Catalan and Occitan are regarded as two separate languages more because they are spoken in two separate countries than anything else.

The glory days of both Occitan and Catalan were in the High Middle Ages, in the 1200s and 1300s. Catalan was then a language of trade in the Mediterranean and a language of court for the kings of Valencia and Aragon. Prose writers of the time called it Catalan. Poets, however, wrote in the dialect of the troubadours: it was understandable, but no one talked like that. Something that poets can get away with.

In time Catalonia and Valencia fell under Spanish rule. Ferdinand and Isabelle, who ruled Spain in the time of Columbus, wanted everyone to speak Spanish. In 1500 most books printed in Valencia were still in Latin or Catalan, but by 1600 most were in Spanish. From 1600 to 1800 Catalan had few serious writers.

The laws against Catalan did not ease till after the death of Franco in the 1970s. Now it can be taught at school, though everyone still has to learn Spanish so it still has the advantage.

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The Lord’s Prayer in Galician:

Noso Pai que estás no ceo:
santificado sexa o teu nome,
veña a nós o teu reino
e fágase a túa vontade
aquí na terra coma no ceo.
O noso pan de cada día dánolo hoxe;
e perdóano-las nosas ofensas
como tamén perdoamos nós a quen nos ten ofendido;
e non nos deixes caer na tentación,
mais líbranos do mal.

Galician (1200- ) is a language spoken in north-western Spain by about 4 million people. It is taught at schools there (but so is Spanish) and has its own television station. Galician grew out of the everyday Latin spoken in that part of Spain back in Roman times.

Some say Galician is just a sort of Portuguese with Spanish spelling; others say it is a language in its own right.

When you see Galician and Portuguese written out, they look like different languages, but if you wrote Galician according to Portuguese spelling rules they look almost the same. Galician seems like Portuguese with some Spanish words added.

For example, the Portuguese word for “old” is velho while the Galician word is vello. Different, right? But the ll is the Spanish way of writing the lh sound of Portuguese. So if you wrote the Galician word according to Portuguese rules, it would become velho!

In fact, people in northern Portugal have no trouble understanding Galician, though people in the south do.

Galician and Portuguese both came from the same language in the Middle Ages: Galician-Portuguese. It was spoken in what is now north-western Spain and northern Portugal. It had so many good poets in the 1200s and 1300s that even the poets of Madrid wrote in it instead of their own Spanish.

Some who spoke Galician-Portuguese stayed put and fell under Spanish rule. They became the Galicians. Others moved south as land was taken back from the Muslims. They founded the country of Portugal and became the Portuguese.

No one questions the standing of Portuguese as a language. It has had a country of its own for hundreds of years and now many countries speak it. Galician has not had that. It has become an ugly stepchild.

When Isabella and Ferdinand brought all Spain under their rule in 1492, most people stopped writing in Galician. The best and brightest of Galicia now went to study in Toledo and wrote in Spanish. Even today Spanish remains the road to success in Galicia.

There are two schools of thought about the way forward for Galician:

  1. Isolationists: Galician is fine the way it is and should be seen as a language in its own right, equal to Portuguese and Spanish.
  1. Reintegrationists: Galician should use Portuguese spelling and take its rightful place as a dialect of Portuguese, on an equal footing with Brazilian or African Portuguese. Forget Spain: Galicians should become part of the wider Portuguese-speaking world.

So the very way you spell Galician tells people which side you are on. It is not an innocent act.

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The Lord’s Prayer in Spanish:

Padre nuestro que estás en el cielo,
santificado sea tu nombre.
Venga a nosotros tu reino.
Hágase tu voluntad en la tierra como en el cielo.
Danos nuestro pan de cada día.
Perdona nuestras ofensas, como
también nosotros perdonamos a los
que nos ofenden.
No nos dejes caer en la tentación,
y líbranos del mal.

Spanish (900- ) is the main language in Spain and in Latin America outside of Brazil. More people speak it as a first language than even English. Yet, like Chinese and Hindi, few speak it outside its home region. It is one of the six languages of the United Nations.

Heat map of where Spanish is spoken as a first language.

Heat map of where Spanish is spoken as a first language.

Spanish grew out of Vulgar Latin: not the old-fashioned book Latin that Cicero and Caesar wrote, but the street Latin that traders and soldiers spread to the West. It was a looser and simpler Latin. Some of the words were even different. For example, house was casa, not domus, horse was caballus not equus and carry was portare not fer.

Between 500 and 1000 Vulgar Latin became Spanish in the north of Spain, Galician-Portuguese in the north-west and Catalan in the north-east. In the middle of Spain, then ruled by the Moors, Vulgar Latin had become Mozarabic. The Moors were Muslim Arabs and Berbers.

From 1000 to 1492 the Christian armies took back what is now Spain and Portugal from the Moors. Mozarabic died out as the languages of the north spread southward.

Although they pushed the Moors out, they kept the Arabic words for sugar, coffee, alcohol, algebra, zero and much else.

English Latin Portuguese Galician Spanish Catalan
sing cantare cantar cantar cantar cantar
goat capra cabra cabra cabra cabra
cheese caseus queijo queixo queso formatge
key clavem chave chave llave clau
night noctem noite noite noche nit
place platea praça praza plaza plaça
bridge pontem ponte ponte puente pont

The differences are not as great as they seem on paper because Spanish and Galician spell words one way and Portuguese another.

Notice that Spanish and Portuguese are much closer to each other than either is to Catalan. They are so close that some who speak Portuguese can understand spoken Spanish – though it does not work the other way round.

Portuguese is almost a dialect of Spanish. It is only because Portugal had its own kings that it has a life as a separate language. We know that from looking at the sad history of Galician and Catalan after their home regions fell under Spanish rule. From 1600 to 1800 they had no serious writers.

Even today they are at a disadvantage compared to Spanish: In the schools of Spain everyone learns Castilian, the Spanish of the capital city, Madrid, regardless of what they might speak at home.

Spanish in Latin America came from the south, so it is not Castilian. Yet the difference is no worse than that between British and American English.

– Abagond, 2007.


Click to watch the spread of languages from 1000 to 2000.

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St John of the Cross

Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591) is a Spanish saint who lived in the time of El Greco. His book “The Dark Night of the Soul” and others has helped to inform Catholic thinking about the experience of God in this world. He also helped St Teresa of Avila to make the religious order of the Carmelites think more about God and less about their shoes.

He was born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez. His father was a noble who had fallen in love with a poor girl and married her. His family was against the marriage and cut him off. But once his father died, it got much worse. John, the son of a noble, grew up a hungry boy in the richest city in Spain.

When he was 14 he went to work in a hospital. There he took care of the sick and the mad. He learned to look for beauty and joy not in this world but in God.

While he worked in the hospital, John learned Greek and Latin at a Jesuit school. He became a brother of the Carmelite order and continued his studies at the University of Salamanca. There he learned Thomist philosophy, which affected him deeply.

The Carmelites had a bad name in those days. They lived well and did little work. They hardly seemed to be living for God. He was thinking of leaving, but St Teresa of Avila asked him to stay and help her to change things. He did. Their Carmelites lived such a strict and poor life that they did not even wear shoes!

Not all the Carmelites were happy about these changes. They locked John in a small, dark cell. It just had one small window, too high for him to look out. They whipped him three times a week. There he remained for nine months.

Most people would be bitter and angry – or lose all hope. Not John. He knew it was part of what God had in mind for him.

He had nothing, but he still had God. His faith and love burned more strongly. God filled his heart with joy. There he wrote some of the most beautiful Spanish ever written.

At last he escaped. He hid from his enemies in a convent. There he read his beautiful words about God to the nuns.

From that time on he wrote about his experience of the love of God and led his order of Carmelites, which in time became independent of the bad old order of Carmelites.

John wrote not just about his experience of God but also gave everyday advice about how to grow in faith and prayer. His two most famous books are “The Dark Night of the Soul”, a book that Pope John Paul II loved, and “Ascent of Mount Carmel”. The book he wrote in the cell is “The Spiritual Canticle”.

His feast day is December 14th, the day he went to heaven.

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