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02/04/2010 - 22:09

Fear and vested interests in the face of change


The 3rd conference organised on the last Friday in February by the Sociolinguistics Cluster essentially focussed on prejudices, motivations, level of use and changes in habits with respect to language. And, almost simultaneously, the citizens of Usurbil (Gipuzkoa) decided with their votes in a referendum held on 27 and 28 February whether or not to continue with the novel door-to-door waste collection system in place for the last year.

Although these are two questions concerning widely differing areas, I feel that they have various similarities worthy of mention.

At the Cluster conference, an analysis was made of the attitudes and opinions of Spanish-speakers towards the Basque language, Euskara. The study run by the University of the Basque Country in collaboration with Unesco Etxea showed that most Spanish-speakers have a positive attitude towards Basque, with half of them considering it to be the main language of the country, while the other half consider Basque to be at least one of the country's languages. The majority therefore favours Basque and its normalization. This said... while the tendency shows itself largely in favour of the language, what are these people prepared to do to turn their attitude into a reality?

Applying the same to the waste management endeavour mentioned above would translate as follows: everyone is in favour of saving ecology, of recycling as much as possible... And yet, here again, we come up against the question of what we're prepared to do to achieve progress in this area.

In his talk (given in Basque) Juan Carlos Moreno Cabrera, a linguist at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, listed some of our prejudices towards language and gave an explanation of how they prevent us from adopting a more positive attitude. Among these prejudices, he mentioned the idea that Basque is an enormously difficult language; that it's one thing to know it but quite another and more difficult thing to speak it; that unified Basque language is artificial...

Coming back to the waste, when Usurbil Town Council decided to introduce the door-to-door collection system, all sorts of prejudices came to light: that the system was enormously difficult to implement; that it would take us back forty years (to the time when organic waste was collected as txerri-jana, or feed for pigs in the local farmhouses); and even, if the new system did work properly, that it wouldn't stop the installation of an incineration plant near Usurbil, and so on.

Many of our prejudices are caused by fear of change, and are the consequence of our resistance to change. Nevertheless, these prejudices can also be stoked by authorities interested in keeping things the way they are, authorities that condition public opinion with the aim of preventing change.

In the field of linguistic normalization, as explained by the sociologist Iñaki Martinez de Luna at the above-mentioned conference, it is essential to sway public opinion if we are to start understanding, activating and changing habits of language use. I believe that, from the specific field of managing household waste, the citizens of Usurbil have taught us a very good lesson.

Malores Etxeberria
Basque language technician in the Town Hall of Hernani