The Awakening of the Minorities. From a Vernacular to a National Language

Print of a popular pilgrimage in the 19th century.

The 19th century was a period of upheaval all over Europe. One of the phenomena that experienced an important surge was that of the nationalisms which in many cases went hand-in-hand with a demand for cultural and linguistic rights of the different people. In Galicia, the “Rexurdimento” (resurgence) meant that an important number of writers and intellectuals defended the recovery of Galician and its use in literature and other prestigious public areas. Rosalía de Castro is the most celebrated figure of the Rexurdimento.
Summary
  1. The Peak of Nationalisms
  2. Demands for Own Language
  3. The First Pamphlets and Printed Works
  4. Rosalía de Castro and the “Rexurdimento”

1. The Peak of Nationalisms

The reactions from the peripheral ethnic communities to the policies of state "nationalization" followed quickly. From then on, the conquering nationalisms of nineteenth century Europe proliferated, especially within anachronistic multiethnic empires such as the Austro-Hungarian. The chain of argument in many of these cases is exactly the reverse of what was outlined before: people who have their own language consequently have their own culture and therefore make up a nation and as such are entitled to their own State. One must however bear in mind the caveats stated above, i.e., of not accepting the schematic, mechanic and literal meanings of the State > Nation > Language/Culture sequence, which in this case will be in reverse order, namely, Language/Culture > Nation > State. The chain of reasoning was by no means this simple, nor did it happen suddenly and in the same manner everywhere. To be more precise, the connections and their corresponding projects were established in a gradual, meandering, irregular and intermittent way, with various nuances and variations that depended on the contexts.

2. Demands for Own Language

For ethnic nationalists, demanding rights for their own language was attractive for various reasons. Firstly, such a demand is very visible and unmistakably identifying. Secondly, it is a cultural property shared by the whole community. Thirdly, thanks to its capacity to adapt, it represents a bridge and not a constraint, to the past. Thus it makes tradition and modernization compatible. This same capacity for adaptation provides language with an access to international contemporary culture without diminishing its own specific nature. Lastly, unlike other ethnic attributes (such as race), language does not form an impassable barrier for foreigners or those who have become alienated (those sectors of the community who have lost their culture) who wish to become “nationalized”: a language can be learnt and with this, one gains power over it. Also, a language is the material nourishment of another central element in any culture: literary creation, both popular and oral, and written and scholarly.

3. The First Pamphlets and Printed Works

In the first steps towards the process of demanding rights for suppressed languages and communities, one often finds a purely instrumental use of the vernacular language, research into folklore (remember that this word, and its corresponding discipline, ethnography, are fruits of the 19th century) and antiquated scholarly research. But underneath it all, there was always the romantic preference for the picturesque, the popular and the medieval, which was continued by the realist fondness for describing customs. The early Galician printed works appeared in Galicia during the heat of struggles, first in a war against Napoleon and then in a fight of an ideological and political nature (the liberals against the traditionalists), that stirred up the first three decades of the 19th century. But this first work was a completely utilitarian, propagandistic use of the language: pamphlets to be read out at gatherings of neighbors and sympathizers and directly represented dialogues amongst popular characters (the titles are indicative: gathering, colloquium, conversation). These texts are surprising even today for their liveliness and faithfulness to everyday speech; however they lack literary ambition and any type of will to live on any longer than the circumstances and motives paraphrased in the text.

4. Rosalía de Castro and the “Rexurdimento”

It was only around the middle of the 19th century and largely stimulated by the works and ideas of Martín Sarmiento, and under the influence of the didactic current and even the aesthetics of neoclassicism, that there was a use of the language with cultural intentions. But this path (the one that Xoán Manuel Pintos attempted to take) soon disappeared. Rosalía de Castro, whose text, Cantares Gallegos (1863) had a clearly folkloric connection and was slightly more successful, although there was no clear movement demanding language rights and use of the language in literature (actually, it was basically poetic) until the decade of the 1880s. During this decade, as with following ones, the efforts of the folklorists, antiquarians, historians, committed linguists, communicators and writers all converged. It is here that the so called “Rexurdimento pleno" (full resurgence) flourished, where poets such as Rosalía de Castro, Manuel Curros Enríquez and Eduardo Pondal all stood out, as did the narrators such as Marcial Valladares, versatile publicists like Valentín Lamas Carvajal, grammarians like Xosé Antonio Saco y Arce, scholars such as Antonio María de la Iglesia and Andrés Martínez Salazar, historians such as Manuel Murguía and Antonio López Ferreiro and folklorists like Xosé Pérez Ballesteros, etc.