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Galician TV and the politics of language

October 15, 2008

On a recent trip to Lisbon I turned on the TV in my hotel room and zapped for the latest financial news. I was struck once again by the TV language used in the neighbouring Spanish region of Galicia. I was raised near Madrid, and often went with my family to Galicia (Spain’s ‘Celtic fringe’) to escape the summer heat, so I am very familiar with Galician accents and intonations, particularly those from the province of Lugo. The curious thing about the news programmes on Galician TV is that, although they are technically in Galician (galego), they sound exactly like news programmes from Madrid or Castile: the intonation and stress are indistinguishable from those of the Castilian news. The only thing that changes is the insertion of Galician words (e.g. ‘o’ in lieu of ‘el’) into a discourse that is almost fully intelligible to a Castilian viewer.

The question is: why? Why did those responsible for these programmes (presumably with close links to Galicia’s regional government) choose to erase Galician intonations and stresses when setting up the regional TV centres after Franco’s death in 1975? If the aim was to ‘normalise’ and strengthen the region’s vernacular after decades of Francoist repression, why leave out what is most distinctive about Galician – its unique musicality – given this language’s close lexical and grammatical similarity to Spanish?  Was it an unconscious emulation of standard TV Spanish? Or was it a deliberate political strategy from the region’s pro-Spain conservatives so that the Galician language would remain yoked to Spanish?

All leads on this intriguing issue are most appreciated.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2008 6:16 pm

    just a quick comment that derives from practice rather than academic background: when i was working as tv-journalist i had to take classes in speech training – any regionalism (intonation, dialect etc…) we were told, might refer to where we came from. however, to sound/ be credible (THE main feature in a news programme), we should better adapt to a more objective, impartial posture, i.e. the manner of the speaking used in the main news-programmes.
    most of it actually derives from breathing techniques and a specific rhythm, this makes you speak like “them” even after a while. even if you use a dialect or else. just a technical feature that leads to a characteristic style. very easy to tell if someone ever “learned how to speak”.
    in contrast to this – the cultural programme i worked with used trained actors for the voice over. broader range of breathing and intonation techniques due to their trained ability to act out various human “emotions”. as i said, this was culture and should not be impartial at all. very easy to tell if it is a cultural programme without listening to what they say… 🙂
    very technical annotation though… : )

  2. October 15, 2008 8:59 pm

    Thanks, Angela, I think what you say makes a lot of sense within a German context (I take it you are referring to Germany?) whose federal Laender make no claims to be speaking a distinct language but rather dialects of German – with the exception perhaps of Ost Friesland or parts of Schleswig Holstein?. It would also work for those Spanish regions that do not claim a separate language but a dialect of Spanish, eg Andalusia or the Canary Islands.

    What is odd about the Galician programmes is that despite the official, constitutionally recognised backing for Galician as a distinct language (NOT a dialect of Spanish) they then chose TV Spanish as the oral/aural model to copy instead of inventing their own standard TV Galician based on vernacular intonations, cadences, accents. The result is that instead of sounding Galician – neo-Galician if you like, but Galician all the same – it sounds exactly like TV Spanish but with the oddity of Galician terms thrown in.

    So there is a contradiction between the claims and practices of linguistic distinctiveness on Galician TV news – a contradiction that does not seem to have arisen in other Spanish regions, as far as I’m aware.

  3. angela permalink
    October 16, 2008 11:51 am

    hey john,

    my question would be if the galego grammar is different from the spanish.

    i am not familar with galego or mirandese nor am I a linguist as such, this is just what practice taught me on speaking news…

    news is often considered a meta-language, very sure it can be considered a “parole”. parole here mixes grammar, intentional aspects (what is important, where are object, subject, action etc. located…) with a certain news profile or, e.g. the latest international trend in “performing news”.
    usually the intentional aspects are believed to be the same as they are considered “core news”. however, all of these factors may vary the intonation but they wont overcome the general attitude in a manner of speaking (news).

    hence, as long as the grammar structure of galego isnt too different from standard spanish, it will very naturally sound similar. this makes it a matter of “performing news”, i.e. choice, which profile to choose for speaking news.
    whatever policy/ strategy might be behind that.

  4. October 16, 2008 10:18 pm

    Hi Angela

    Same here, I’m no linguist but I think grammar and intonation are two different things entirely, and they can therefore be subject to different political and linguistic pressures. Galician grammar is indeed very close to Spanish grammar, but that doesn’t explain why Galician TV newsreaders have ended up sounding exactly like their Madrid counterparts. After all, Galicians sound very different from Castilians – even when they’re speaking Spanish! For some reason, someone in a position of power decided that Galician newsreaders should drop their regional accents even when speaking their own language!!

    It’s rather like asking that a Danish-speaking TV newsreader in Schleswig-Holstein (Germany), where Danish is a minority language, adopt the exact intonation and accent of a German newsreader in Hannover while reading the news in Danish! The result would be bizarre.

  5. October 16, 2008 10:38 pm

    I’ve just picked this up from a Galician blogger which confirms my suspicions that some sectors of Galicia’s political class and media journalists try hard not to sound Galician but rather Castilian even when speaking ‘galego’ – but this is all anectdotal evidence, I will continue to investigate:

    “Algo evidente, al escuchar la televisión de Galicia o a nuestra clase política e intelectual. Se esfuerzan por hablar un gallego sin trazas de acento gallego. El caso más claro es el del topónimo Coruña. Las fuentes orales y escritas son claras: el gallegohablante decía habitualmente Cruña; pero como eso les sonaba a “paleto”, normativizaron el castellanismo A Coruña.”

  6. February 12, 2009 6:50 pm

    Update: I’ve been doing a bit of informal TV viewing and radio listening via the internet of regional stations across Spain (Catalonia, Valencia, Murcia, Basque Country, and Galicia) and it seems to me that the influence of standard (Prado del Rey) radio/TV Spanish is greater than I had anticipated.

    I suspect there is more political autonomy than linguistic autonomy in many of these regions, but again this is all sheer speculation at present. Resisting a lingua franca like Spanish (or English in the British Isles) strikes me as very much an uphill struggle even in regions such as Catalonia with a strong regional language where there is a great deal of political will to strengthen that language.

    On the other hand, do parents in those regions want their children to acquire fluency in Spanish? Most of them probably do, whatever their political ideals.

  7. André permalink
    May 30, 2009 4:06 pm


    Galego and portuguese are two variants of the same language:


  8. Míriam Rodríguez permalink
    June 17, 2009 1:39 pm

    This is an empirical demostration of how to destroy a language. You change the rules often and you do it similar to the prestigios language: the spanish. You can see the decresing porcentage of speakers of the new generations. And now they are thinking to remove the language from some of the schools.

  9. June 17, 2009 9:47 pm

    But how would the Lusophone (and Lusophile) alternative proposed by some nationalists in Galicia work in practice, in the long term? Wouldn’t a future Galicia with close links to Portugal be subsumed under Portuguese language and culture? More importantly, why do regional nationalisms in Spain insist on what appears to be a Romantic, nineteenth century understanding of language as the soul of a people?

    Look at the Scottish nationalists, they don’t base their nationalism on Gaelic being the soul of their people. This fixation with language seems a peculiarly Spanish phenomenon, and it’s spread from the “nacionalidades historicas” (Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country) to virtually every region, including Murcia, Aragon and Asturias where nationalists are now claiming unique languages.

  10. Míriam Rodríguez permalink
    June 19, 2009 9:53 am

    More than half of the population in Galicia speak Galician. In Scotland the language was successfully repressed a long time ago, and then, it is not the same case. We still can maintain our language alive (I consider the galician our language using the arguments employed in the democracies), but we need to want to. And this is not possible without prestigious and educacion. As the Portuguese is a prestigious language (not as our language that was repressed during long time), maybe it is the only way of saving the Galician. Although I am not convinced of this at all.

    Regarding the special emphasis in Spain about the different nationalities and languages, I believe that this is a consequence of a not so ideal democratic transition as we thought in the beginning. We are hearing the same arguments to avoid our languages: if you do not speak Spanish you are impolite, rude, anti-patriot and even violent and terrorist. And this is radicalising the society in both directions and you cannot remain in the middle because at some moment you feel attacked for one or other part of the society.

  11. June 21, 2009 10:07 pm

    I think it’s important to be aware of the radical difference between a common language or lingua franca and the other languages with which it shares a territory. All around the world we find regional lingua francas (e.g. Swahili, Fulani/Fulbe, Malay, French, Spanish) coexisting with more localised languages. In most situations of multilingual contact, people will resort to the regional (e.g. French) or global lingua franca (English) for purposes of business, education, mass communication, collaboration, love, etc.

    It is very difficult indeed for a small language to thrive under such conditions, even where there is strong political will and an entrenched bourgeois nationalism as in the case of Catalonia.

    Something that’s striking about the language issue in Spain is the utter lack of humour: people on both sides of the debate (pro- and anti-Spain) take their language(s) extremely seriously – almost with religious fervour. In Britain, you walk into a bookshop and you find books poking fun at the local dialect, e.g. Geordie, Cockney, Brummie. In Spain, you’ll find serious books about the regional ‘language’, even in cases such as murciano (panocho) or bable/asturiano where a mixture of wishful thinking and nationalism appear to be at work in claiming the existence of a living language, see current wikipedia conflict over murciano:

  12. June 22, 2009 9:20 am

    PS This is an example from a website devoted to the murciano ‘language’:

    “Er Clú e Fulibán Arlético Zudiá, (Club de Fútbol Atlético Ciudad en castellano) es un clú e fulibán d’España, e la Rigión e Murcia. Comencipió a rular en 2007. Aboricamesmo juba en la Sigunda Devisión B.

    Dimpués e la güena campaña en Sigunda Devisión der CF Zudiá e Murcia, en la que queó er quarto crasificao, er presidior der Zudiá e Murcia, Quique Pina, mendió su praza ar empresario granaíno Carlos Marsá, que tresmuó l´equipo a Graná y lo rinombró como Graná 74, equipo e Treciera Devisión qu’el mesmo presidía.”


  1. Media and regional languages in Spain « media/anthropology
  2. Galician TV and the politics of language (Part 2) « media/anthropology

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