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Kathryn Woolard1
Department of Anthropology
University of California, San Diego
Aida Ribot Bencomo
Department of Anthropology
University of California, San Diego
Josep Soler Carbonell
Institute of Communication
Tallin University
Institute of Estonian and General Linguistics
University of Tartu

Whats So Funny Now? The Strength of

Weak Pronouns in Catalonia
John Gumperzs foundational analyses of linguistic convergence and of code-switching in
bilingual and multilingual settings continue to influence work in interactional sociolinguis-
tics, where these phenomena are seen as systematic mobilizations of the bilingual repertoire to
cue interlocutors to the ongoing construction of situated meaning. However, the utility of
Gumperzs approach is not restricted to interactional, micro-social questions. As Gumperzs
own earliest work showed, varying patterns of code-switching and of linguistic convergence
can reveal significant macro-social differences in communities across space as well as changes
within a community across time. In earlier work, I have used code-switching and convergence
as tracers to help gauge sociopolitical change in Catalonia across several decades, particularly
by examining the changing patterns of mixed-language practices that make people laugh. In
this article, I analyze new Catalan mass-media data (20062013) in order to assess the
evolution of the serio-comic situation of Catalan three decades after I first investigated it as a
student of Gumperz at the moment of the return to Catalan political autonomy. [Catalan,
bilingualism, language ideology, language change, social change]


J ohn Gumperz indelibly marked the study of language in society by focusing analytic
attention on nonstandard, hybrid linguistic practices in multilingual communities.
Looking closely at speech that was regarded, in popular and even expert views, as
ill-formed, incompetent, or careless, Gumperz convincingly and influentially pro-
posed that these were in fact linguistically systematic and socially meaningful strategic
practices. He gave us foundational analyses of code-switching and of convergence
among linguistic varieties in settings as diverse as Norway and India, and his concep-
tual framework continues to influence work on linguistic repertoires today.
Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Vol. 23, Issue 3, pp. 127141, ISSN 1055-1360, EISSN 1548-1395. 2014
by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/jola.12024.

128 Journal of Linguistic Anthropology

Although Gumperz is most often appreciated as a founder of interactional socio-

linguistics, the utility of the analytic approach to bi- and multilingualism that he
developed has never been restricted to the micro-interactional scale, as his own early
work shows. Gumperzs perspective can also allow us to shed light on issues more
often seen as belonging to the larger social order, not only the interactional order.
Particularly through his early comparative work, he pioneered the linking of what we
now refer to as different scalar phenomena. For example, in a comparison of the
verbal repertoires in the two communities of Khalapur (India) and Hemnesberget
(Norway) (Gumperz 1964), Gumperz showed that different patterns and degrees of
linguistic compartmentalization found in interaction in the two communities
expressed the different social structures, particularly the difference in ritual barriers
to interaction in the two societies (1964:148). Susan Gal further demonstrated the
utility of the Gumperzian approach to code-switching for understanding political-
economic conditions in her comparison of varying patterns of code-switching across
European communities (Gal 1987).
As Gumperz and Gal showed, nuances in the way the bilingual repertoire is
organized, and particularly in tolerance for hybridity, can reveal telling detail about
how groups of speakers place themselves in the larger social order. In my own work,
I have tried to apply this insight not in synchronic comparisons across different social
settings, but diachronically, tracking changing patterns in the mobilization of the
Catalan and Castilian languages within Catalonia across time. In tracking change in
the sociolinguistic and ethnopolitical situation over more than thirty years of Catalan
political autonomy, one gauge that I have found useful is the kind of linguistic forms
that people laugh at. In question is both what is considered to be funny about
language and, at least where mass-mediated humor is concerned, what is permissible
to poke fun at publicly.
The answer has been that people often laugh at code-switching, convergence, and
other forms of linguistic hybridity, but the hybrid forms that draw attention in the
media are different in different periods. Humorous performances are not direct
reflections, but rather distorted refractions, of actual community speech practices; as
such, they offer metapragmatic commentary on contemporary language practices and
policies. Such linguistic jokes can point out social jokes, that is, contradictions in the
social structure, as Mary Douglas wrote long ago (cited in Woolard 1995). Changes in
the bilingual practices that people laugh at publicly can be one indicator of changes in
the social-structural alignments of languages in contact, and of speakers own align-
ments not only to these languages but also to each other, commenting on how they
see themselves in a sociolinguistic world (Woolard 1995:225). In this article, I address
some changes that have emerged in public linguistic humor in Catalonia over the past
30 years of political autonomy within Spain.

Three Moments in Catalan Linguistic Comedy

In the wildly popular comedy of the code-switching Catalan performer Eugenio in
1979, the very fact of code-switching and convergence was what many people explic-
itly found funny. You cant tell what language hes speaking, one informant told
me, even though Eugenios use of Catalan was actually limited and judicious
(Woolard 1988). The ritual barriers between the Catalan and Castilian languages were
quite high at that time, as Catalonia and Spain emerged from the repression of the
Franco period. Except to accommodate interlocutors from different linguistic back-
grounds, conversational code-switching was rarely found in the everyday speech of
the Catalan-speaking community at that time, and interference and mixing were
negatively sanctioned. I argued then that Eugenios code-switching was welcome
because, at the same time that it publicly pointed to the language problem that
worried many Castilian speakers during the return to Catalan political autonomy
(would everyone have to speak Catalan tomorrow?), the distribution of the languages
Whats So Funny Now? The Strength of Weak Pronouns in Catalonia 129

across the information structure of Eugenios jokes made them accessible to a broad
This easy cross-linguistic communication provided a comfortable reassurance
about the anxieties of potential language problems. This effect is related to what
Ben Rampton (1995) later dubbed language crossing, in that Eugenios bilingual
comedy acknowledged ethnolinguistic differences at the same time as it trans-
gressed their boundaries. It publicly enacted a claim to cross-group understanding
that Eugenio represented metaphorically in one of his most acclaimed stories,
which he called a fable rather than a joke. In that fable, he humorously depicted
the warm cross-linguistic, cross-species friendship of a man and an urbane pigeon.
This boundary-crossing social effect was in a sense the opposite of the social effect
that Gumperz saw in Kupwar, where structural linguistic convergence was masked
by lexical/morphophonemic distinctiveness at the surface level. Such surface
linguistic differentiation enacted an assertion of social difference and an observance
of ritual barriers to communication that were crucial to preserve in that caste
After a decade of Catalan political autonomy and language-policymaking, much
more extensive and radical code-switching could be found in mass-mediated comic
performances in Barcelona. In a study of linguistic humor in the late 1980s, I proposed
that greater political security for the language and its speakers had made Catalan a
less sacred language and allowed its public profanation in more hybridizing perfor-
mances. Paradoxically, because it was more secure in its public status, Catalan was
also less inviolable (Woolard 1995).
The mediatized (Agha 2011) linguistic humor that I have found in 21st-century
Catalonia is distinct from both earlier moments. Here I will discuss two themes of
current comedy, touching only briefly on the first and focusing closely on the second.
The first theme is the parodying of non-native speakers of Catalan, a new develop-
ment in public humor. The second theme echoes Gumperzs studies in that it plays on
morphosyntactic convergence and divergence. The two themes are intertwined in
some media comedy, as examples will show.
The speech of second-language (L2) speakers of Catalan can now be treated pub-
licly as a source of amusement, although there are still not many distinct cases in
mainstream media humor. Castilian-influenced Catalan was parodied across the
decades, but the parodies that I found in earlier periods were all of native (L1)
speakers, or what might be called autochthonous heritage speakers, of Catalan.2
The emergence of public comedy about L2 Catalan speakers can be traced most
directly to the parliamentary selection in 2006 of an immigrant-origin, Castilian-
speaking politician, Jos Montilla, as the president of a coalition government of
Catalonia. Montilla himself acknowledged that he was a very poor speaker of Catalan,
despite his 30-year career in Catalan politics. Although there was debate about the
seemliness of ridiculing a non-native speaker, Montillas linguistic shortcomings
were treated as fair game for comedy because he was a politician and, as president,
the public face of Catalonia. The permissibility of this humor may also owe to the fact
that Catalan education policies of the past several decades have made competent L2
Catalan a relatively routine expectation and nonfluent Catalan marked as a result. (See
Ribot Bencomo 2012, 2013; Woolard 2012; and Woolard and Ribot Bencomo 2012 for
detailed consideration of the ambiguous social meaning of comedy at the expense of
L2 speakers, nonfluent and fluent.)
An extremely successful weekly Catalan television program of political satire,
Polnia, regularly treated Montillas poor control of Catalan as fodder for hyperbolic
linguistic humor. Many of its skits about Montilla illustrate not only the L2 speaker as
target, but also the second frequent trope of linguistic humor, the morphosyntactic
forms that will be the focus of the rest of this article. They are an extensive set of
cliticizing unstressed object and adverbial pronouns called the pronoms febles, weak
pronouns. Linguists have described the weak pronouns as the most intricately
exacting aspect of Catalan grammar (Wheeler et al. 1999:167). In standard Catalan,
130 Journal of Linguistic Anthropology

there are multiple allomorphs of each pronoun, depending on their combination and
their position in relation to the verb.
In a running gag across many episodes of the show, Polnias faux Montilla
recurringly tries and fails to produce weak pronouns, creating long strings of pre-
posterous combinations and nonlinguistic sounds. In Ex. 1, Montilla appears before
the Catalan parliament, shown in stock footage from the actual parliament, to propose
the abolition of the weak pronouns in order to make Catalan a more efficient language
and allow him to get work done.
Ex. 1: Montilla abolishes the weak pronouns3 (Polnia, Episode 35; DVD 9.3)
(skit may be viewed at
Bones tards.
((laugh track))
La moci que presentar avui al plenu s una mesura que Catalunya necessita com l'aigua de
Es tracta de la derogaci ad eternum dels pronoms febles.
((laugh track))
De manera que un President de la Generalitat
Que li digui a la seva secretria que el dia de ahir
Va demanar un informe
No es vegi obligat a fer-se la pixa un lio
Amb elocucions del tipu: Vaig demanar-li-lo-la?
((laugh track))
O per exemple: Vaig demanar-li-sho-lo-ho? Hi?
((loud laugh track))
Comena la votaci. Vots a favor?
((camera shift to stock footage of stone-faced members of real parliament, none voting in
favor; laugh track))
B, ja veig que no els shi-ho-um-als-la-s-f-th-rur-tehk-l'he-ho convenut.
((laugh track overlaps))
B, era el meu deure intentar-lo-shho-lo-qu-ho-l'hi-li.
((loud laugh track))
Veuen com shan de . . . abolir? Moltes grcies! ((laugh track throughout))
Good aftnu.
((laugh track))
The motion Ill present today to the Congressu is a measure that Catalonia needs like the
spring rain.
It is about the derogation ad eternum of the weak pronouns.
((laugh track))
So that a President of the Generalitat
Who tells his secretary that yesterday
he asked for a report
Doesnt find himself obligated to tie his prick in a knot
with locutions like Did I ask him that it?
((laugh track))
Or for example: Did I ask him his that it that? There?
((loud laugh track))
Begin the vote. Votes in favor?
((camera shift to stock footage of stone-faced members of real parliament, none voting in
favor; laugh track))
Ok, I see that I havent you-them-it-that-um-them-her-s-f-th-rur-tchk-it-I-it convinced.
((laugh track overlaps))
Well, it was my duty to try that sh-there-that-it-what-it-there-him.
((loud laugh track))
You see how they have to . . . be abolished? Thank you very much! ((laugh track throughout))
It is obvious that the skit makes fun of Montilla, but it also lampoons a feature of
standard Catalan as so unduly complex and absurdly difficult that it gets in the way
of work. The faux Montilla depicts standard Catalan pronouns as inefficient and
unsuited to the managerial office, in a humorous echo of the familiar criticism about
Whats So Funny Now? The Strength of Weak Pronouns in Catalonia 131

minoritized languages that they are not modern and not suited to modern life.4
Comedy such as this makes aspects of the Catalan language itself a target of humor
and even ridicule, and the weak pronouns are often in the bulls eye, for reasons that
will be examined here.

The Weak Pronouns

The Catalan weak pronouns are the frequent focus of sociolinguistic stereotyping,
prescriptive commentary, and linguistic-complaint-writing, and of mediatized paro-
dies and humor as well. The intricacy of these pronominal clitics is well illustrated in
the tables typically provided to describe or teach the prescriptively correct forms,
even in basic second-language learning materials such as Teach Yourself Catalan (Yates
1975). These tables array up to 169 cells (in arrangements of 13 13 units) to show the
proper forms for combining two object pronouns, varying according to position in the
clause. (A somewhat simplified example from an online teaching source appears at
The didactic charts follow the norms set by the modern standardizer of the Catalan
language, Pompeu Fabra, in the early 20th century. Fabra generally claimed to base his
decisions about a literary standard on the language as it is spoken now (DiGiacomo
1999:112), but that was a stretch in the case of the weak pronouns. As an engineer by
training, Fabra had a strong logico-semantic bent (Segarra 1985). He held that the only
forms admissible in a clear literary language were those not in conflict with the
universal laws of thought, and he strove for a one-to-one relation of form to logical
function (ibid.:182183). Fabra was so motivated by logical criteria that he was willing
to combine elements from different spoken dialects to make his written standard;
thus, it may have been the language as spoken today, but not by any one speaker.
Segarra argues that the consequences were those to be expected of such hybrid
prescriptions: rejection by speakers and difficulties in learning, and thus in appli-
cation, for the written as well as spoken language (ibid.:186).
Despiteor, more likely, because ofthis difficulty and ensuing colloquial rejec-
tion of the weak pronouns as prescribed, they are treated by many commentators as
emblematic of the Catalan language. Occasionally, a commentator still celebrates
Fabras linguistic logic, as shown in Ex. 2, from a blog in which a linguistic critic
complained that a front-page headline of the Catalan edition of the principal news-
paper of Barcelona, La Vanguardia, hurt his eyes.5 The blogger reproduced the
headline as El TC pren un regidor a CiU i LHI dna al PP (The Constitutional Court
takes a city council position from CiU [Convergence and Union party] and gives it
THERE to PP [Popular Party]), capitalizing the offending HI (there/to it/to them)
to highlight the error. While some might have been concerned by the political news,
what bothered the author was a linguistic solecism; the hi should have been sup-
pressed as redundant with al PP (to PP).
Ex. 2: Miquel Colomer: Pronoms febles
I admit that Im in love with the system of weak pronouns that Fabra established. . . . There
are few things that fit logic more perfectly than this impeccable system. And few things, then,
that help people more to structure their minds in a logical manner. Who knows if its not the
bad use we make of the weak pronouns that explains the illogical and poorly organized
behavior we have for a country, a nation, that aspires to freedom. (Colomer 2011; translation
An ironic representation of the weak pronouns as the terrible essence of Catalan
appears in the blog of Isabel Sucunza, a Castilian-speaking former journalist for TV3,
the Catalan government-sponsored channel on which Polnia appears. Sucunza
draws on the trope of the weak pronouns to epitomize her Madrid friends
unshakeable conviction that Catalan is forced on everyone associated with TV3,
despite her repeated denial of this. Sarcastically voicing her Castilian friends fears,
Sucunza writes that babies in Madrid will grow up with their mothers telling them
132 Journal of Linguistic Anthropology

how the Catalan government bloodily forced the weak pronouns into the little heads
of pure little Castilian children (Sucunza 2012).6
Another illustration of the negative iconization of the weak pronouns comes not
from the electronic media but from one of my most Castilian-oriented informants,
Josep, who in 2007 discussed his own linguistic biography:
Ex. 3: Josep: Archaic, unlearnable Catalan
The Catalan turns of phrase, the- the weak pronouns . . . A Castilian is never in his life going
to master those. The- the weak pronouns, this is mother-freaking complicated. Because on
top of it, Catalan has- its archaic, its very archaic, and it has some phrasings that are very
complicated, they have a complicated resonance for a Castilian speaker.7

Joseps view of weak pronouns as complicated and archaic echoes the presidential
comedy sketch in Ex. 1. His claim that the pronouns are impossible for a non-native
speaker to acquire is also not very far from the view offered by the faux president in
another Polnia skit, in a rather literal rendering of the idea that grammatical forms
are inscribed in the bodily habitus (Bourdieu 1991). In this episode, while speaking to
his vice-president, Josep-Llus Carod-Rovira, the Montilla character compares the
weak pronouns to circumcision:
Ex. 4: Montilla speaks Catalan in private (Polnia, Episode 34, 22 December 2006)
(skit at
Carod-Rovira: Pepe, remember what we said. You have to work harder on your Catalan, eh?
Montilla: Carod, buddy, I do work hard. Its just that I have a problem with the weak
pronouns, you know? Its like circumcision. If its not done to you when youre young, then
when youre older . . . ((grimaces, shakes head))

This is not the first instance of media humor that plays on the weak pronouns as a
source of physical pain. Susan Frekko has already shown very well that they serve as
a trope for a popular representation of the Catalan language as inordinately difficult
(Frekko 2009:82), characterized by an arcane fussiness in the language itself and also
in the language professionals who protect it. As an example, Frekko discusses a
Catalan parody of the CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) television shows, in which a
series of murders is perpetrated by a punctilious and not incidentally unattractive
Catalan philologist who sets verbal traps for the victims. When they respond to his
questions by trying to produce combinations of weak pronouns, the effort causes
their heads to explode.
One recent effort to counter this negative image of the weak pronouns promoted
a view of Catalan, and specifically of the weak pronouns, as both decidedly modern
and learnable. Internet publicity for a workshop on the weak pronouns in Barcelona
in March 2013 asserted that these linguistic devices make Catalan uniquely well
adapted to that most late-modern of communication systems, Twitter:
Ex. 5: Weak pronouns make better tweets
Our language has a linguistic mechanism that other languages dont have, the weak pro-
nouns, which allow us to condense words and write and tweet ideas using fewer characters.
(Catal UGT 2013)8

Whereas the Polnia Montilla represented the weak pronouns as demanding a lot
of superfluous linguistic forms (in implicit contrast to his native Castilian), this
Twitter-oriented campaign asserts they are actually more streamlined than other
languages, by which surely Castilian is also meant. The exact basis on which the
author projects this claim is not clear. It perforce involves as much erasure of the
obligatory insertion of adverbial forms not found in Castilian as it does iconization of
orthographic contraction. The claim that the mechanism is not found in other lan-
guages also involves erasure of very similar French adverbial pronouns, with which
many Catalan speakers are familiar.9
Whats So Funny Now? The Strength of Weak Pronouns in Catalonia 133

The salience of the weak pronouns in prescriptively oriented linguistic complaints

can be seen in running Twitter commentary on the televised debate among candidates
for the presidency of Catalonia in the November 2012 parliamentary elections.10
Catalans are prolific tweeters, and there was a record-breaking number of tweets
about that event. Amid the political comments, prescriptivist viewers monitored the
candidates solecisms, singling out weak pronouns. Progressive or conservative, L1 or
L2 speaker, Catalanist or anti-Catalanist, all candidates could be subjected to criti-
cism. However, the Catalonia-born, Castilian-dominant candidate from the conser-
vative Popular Party, Alicia Snchez-Camacho, was the prime target. Her use of the
prescriptively nonexistent -lis, apparently in place of the third-person-plural direct
and indirect object -los, drew the most frequent and biting criticism. (In the following
English glosses, thim approximates the solecism lis.)
Ex. 6: Tweets on the Catalan presidential debate
Marc Arza: Joan Herrera assassinant pronoms febles a tort i a dret.
Joan Herrera [progressive/Green party candidate] assassinating weak pronouns right and
Franc Lluis: Cada cop q un candidat a la presidncia de la Generalitat de Catalunya es menja un
pronom hi ha un follet del Montseny q es mata.
Every time a candiate for president of the government of Catalonia eats a pronoun, a fairy
in Montseny kills himself.
Muts i a la gbia!: La secci filolgica de lIEC ja estudia la combinaci de pronoms febles dalguns dels
The philological section of the [Institute of Catalan Studies] is already studying some
candidates combinations of weak pronouns.
Marta Tonisastre: #SanchezCamacho premi lletres catalanes per joies com: les deutes i
[Alicia] Snchez Camacho prize for Catalan literature for jewels like the [f.] debts [m.]
[error in gender agreement] and move thim [lis]
Ganyet: trasladar-lis ha dit TRASLADAR-LIS
move [CS form] thim [lis] s/he said MOVE [CS form] THIM [LIS]
@ PepSurroca: Cada vegada que lAlicia fa servir lis pensant que s un pronom feble es moren 10
Every time that Alicia [Snchez Camacho] uses thim [lis] thinking that its a weak pronoun,
10 cats die.
Josep Braut: Alicia Snchez Camacho maltracta els febles, els pronoms febles.
Alicia Snchez Camacho abuses the weak, the weak pronouns.
AhMerc Kozlov: @josepruana: Jo vull dir-lis #debatTV3 #lamortdelPronomFeble
I want to tell-thim [lis] #debateTV3 #thedeathoftheWeakPronoun
Guillem Clua: CiU diu fem-ho possible, per ning no em sap dir qu vol dir aquest ho. Mai un
pronom feble ha estat tan feble.
CiU [Catalan nationalist party] says Lets make it possible, but nobody can tell me what
this it is. Never has a weak pronoun been so weak.

The Strength of Weak Pronouns

It may seem an ironic accident that a feature literally labeled weak should be treated
as emblematic of Catalan and Catalanness, not just by antagonists, but also by Catalan
writers. However, the label is actually resonant with other such emblems. A certain
kind of weakness is part of the strength of the Catalan linguistic and cultural profile
as refined, victimized, and economical (in multiple senses), in contrast to an image of
Castilian and the Spanish as crude, bullying, and bombastic. Catalan commentators
themselves often poke fun at the fact that Catalonia celebrates as its national holiday
the date in 1714 when it fell to centralizing forces and lost its distinct political identity.
Catalan refinement is part of a recursive pattern of stylistic opposition between that
134 Journal of Linguistic Anthropology

which is canonically Catalan and that which is Spanish, similar to the recursively
stylized contrasts that Gal and Irvine describe for Wolof nobles and griots, or for
German-speaking craftsmen and farmers in Hungary (Gal and Irvine 2000). Another
manifestation of this stylistic recursion is the contrast of stereotypical national-dance
forms. Whereas the emblematic dance adopted by politico-cultural Hispanism is the
passionate, seemingly unbridled flamenco, the Catalan national dance is the sardana,
whose dainty, mathematically precise steps are counted out for the group by a leader
(Brandes 1990). Similarly, in recent years, the Catalan nationalist cause has been
symbolized by the small Catalan burro (ruc), which is an endangered species. This is
in self-conscious contraposition to the hyper-muscular and masculine image of a
black bull that has evolved from commercial origins in roadside billboards for
Osborne alcohols (a brand based in southern Spain) to become an emblem of assertive
Hispanism across Spain. The burro and bull icons now signal Catalan vs. Spanish
political sympathies on bumper stickers and high-schoolers cellphones. Correspond-
ing to the Catalan images of delicacy, various studies have shown that, since political
autonomy, the Catalan language has become increasingly enregistered as formal,
refined, and even finicky, elegant but lacking in the rude force of life (Pujolar 2001;
Frekko 2009; Woolard 2009). In the simplifying ideological play of stylistic opposi-
tions, the weak pronouns resonate with this distinctly Catalan profile in their small-
ness, precision, and complexity of form as well as in their name.
As suggested in some of the examples given above, the weak pronouns are not
only prescriptively intricate, they are an area of maximal morphosyntactic distance
from Castilian. For this reason, they have become a principal focus of language
purists efforts to resist linguistic convergence, resulting in the critical scrutiny exem-
plified in the comments about the presidential debaters in Ex. 6 above. Prescriptivist
complaints focus particularly on the two impersonal adverbial pronouns en and hi,
which are prescriptively obligatory in some Catalan constructions, such as partitives,
but have no counterparts at all in Castilian. These distinctive pronouns are precisely
the ones that were singled out for the Twitter workshop of Ex. 5: The activity, which
will be very practically focused, addresses cyber-activists and everyone who wants to
learn and practice the weak pronouns at a basic level (especially the pronouns en and
hi) (Catal UGT 2013).11
Anxiety about linguistic convergence and resulting loss of these most divergent
pronoun forms is explicit on the website El catal com cal (Catalan as it should be)
(2008), which asks, Do you speak Catalan or do you translate Castilian literally? The
kind of word-for-word calquing and syntactic convergence that Gumperz found in
Kupwar is here explicitly rejected as not Catalan. Not surprisingly, the topic of the
page is the weak pronouns that are most distinctive from Castilian:

Ex. 7: Catalan as it should be

One of the most serious problems that Catalan is currently suffering is the loss of the weak
pronouns en and hi, owing to literal translation from Castilian, which doesnt use them.12

Even among sociolinguists, the term pronoms febles is sometimes used to refer
only to these two maximally distinctive pronouns that have no Castilian counterparts,
rather than to the entire combinatorial set of pronominal clitics, elements of which
overlap with Castilian. As occurs in many situations of cultural-linguistic boundary
marking, only that which is contrastive is salient; shared areas are overlooked.13
The ideological salience of the divergent weak pronouns to Catalan defenders,
critics, and humorists is noteworthy given Gumperzs work on convergence. In
Gumperzs classic analysis of convergence and creolization in the Indian village of
Kupwar (Gumperz 1971), syntactic convergence and word-for-word calquing
between languages that were originally grammatically distinct generally escaped the
speech communitys notice and opprobrium, as long as lexical and morphophonemic
distinctions were intact. For the Catalan authors of the Web page in Ex.7, however,
syntactic convergence crosses a red line, effectively reducing the bilingual repertoire
Whats So Funny Now? The Strength of Weak Pronouns in Catalonia 135

to a single language. Calquing from Castilian means that one is not speaking Catalan,
in this representation. Divergent syntactic forms are treated as a last redoubt for
language defenders, who feel that, if Catalan is to be kept alive, it is necessary to
maintain the few places where it is syntactically distinct from Spanish.
In this first look, then, the degree of tolerance of syntactic convergence in Kupwar
and Catalonia seems quite different. Should we attribute this to the considerable
differences in patterns of social distinction and ranking encountered in the two
communities? Or is it more likely to owe to the narrow linguistic distance between the
languages in Catalonia and the broad swath of lexicon they share, in contrast to
unrelated languages in Kupwar? Or is it simply a matter of the researchers analytic
focus? Whereas Gumperzs evidence for tolerance of convergence came from every-
day speech practices, my evidence of censure and hilarity comes from metalinguistic,
and particularly, mediatized, commentary. All of these factors are likely to be in play.
But I suggest that what may have been an underground translinguistic battle in
Kupwar is brought into the spotlight in Catalonia through language policys empha-
sis on formal instruction and, in particular, through mass-mediatization.

Whats So Funny about Weak Pronouns?

The media humor around the weak pronouns insistently calls attention to differences
between Catalan and Castilian and sometimes mocks those who do not control those
differences. But it also ironizes the prescriptivist criticism with a Bakhtinian double-
voicing (Bakhtin 1984) whose ultimate evaluative stance can be difficult to pin down.
At least as much, and probably more, of the humor also aims mockery at those who
insist on preserving the weak pronouns and who defend the formal differences that
others see as finicky. Frekkos example of a CSI parody, discussed above, shows this
clearly, and there are more such examples in recent media data.
For example, another Polnia skit spoofs an official announcement that the Catalan
police (Els mossos) will crack down on the urban-squatter (Okupa) movement,
depicting it as a crackdown on misuses of the weak pronouns (Ex. 8).
Ex. 8: Els mossos seran ms durs amb els okupes (Polnia, Episode 33, DVD 9.1)
Okupa (Squatter) youth spray-paints graffito, incorrectly using the informal imperative+weak
pronoun Diguem (Say to me) instead of the inclusive imperative form Diguem (Lets

Police: Eh eh eh. Aturat! Vine cap aqu. Qu fas?
Okupa: Res. Mira. Este s desodorante, mira! ((sprays paint under his arm)).14
Police: Per tu qu thas cregut? Et penses que em mamo el dit?
Okupa: Nooo.
Police: Aix est mal escrit!
Okupa: Per qu?
Police: Com s que diguem porta apstrof?
Okupa: s pronom feble, no?
Police: Aqu lunica cosa feble que hi ha s el teu catal! ((hits Okupa))

The Catalan police will crack down on squatters

Police: Hey hey hey! Stop! Come over here. What are you doing?
Okupa: Nothing. Look. This is deodorant, see? ((sprays paint under his arm.))
Police: Who do you think you are? Do you think I was born yesterday?
Okupa: Nooo.
Police: This is written wrong!
Okupa: Why?
136 Journal of Linguistic Anthropology

Police: Why does Diguem [Lets say] have an apostrophe?

Okupa: Its a weak pronoun, no?
Police: The only weak thing here is your Catalan! ((hits Okupa))

In one final example, Polnia (DVD 7.3) ridicules the conservative Catalan nation-
alist partys proposal to reward foreign immigrants for efforts to assimilate to Catalan
culture and society by issuing points toward a Catalan identity card. In this skit, the
nationalist presidential candidate Artur Mas is shown deducting points from an
immigrants citizenship application as a penalty for including one superfluous weak
pronoun within a chain of them in an elaborate, hypercorrect syntactic construction.
It is not only Polnia that mines the weak pronouns as a source of humor. In her
analyses of a recent situation comedy on TV3 (Dues Dones Divines 2011), Ribot
Bencomo (2012, 2013) highlights a running gag about an immigrant-origin L2 Catalan
speaker, Rosario, who is caricatured as having an obsession with correct use of
the weak pronouns. In one episode, Rosario mounts a 24-hour hotline to Save the
Weak Pronouns, which she wails are in their death throes all over Catalonia! (Dues
Dones Divines 2011, Episode 3; viewable at
_1I_yjf-s&list=ELEEIHlVOBo7U). In another episode, Rosario attempts to teach
Catalan to immigrant textile workers in a crowded sweatshop. Completely ignored by
the harried workers, Rosario dwells absurdly on the details of the weak pronouns
written on a makeshift blackboard (Dues Dones Divines 2011, Episode 6; viewable at

Why do these morphosyntactic elements repeatedly appear as a trope in mass-media
humor? One reason is that language-internal patterns as well as contrasts with Cas-
tilian place the weak pronouns at one of those uneasy points in the sociolinguistic
system that Mary Douglas might have called a structural joke. As examples above
have shown, their structural distinction has made the weak pronouns emblematic of
Catalan and Catalanness (in contrast to Castilian language and character) in the eyes
of serious commentators as well as humorists. Thus the jokes are often as much about
Catalan and Catalanness as about whether a particular speaker controls a grammati-
cal form.
The weak pronouns are probably also an irresistible target of humor for television
scriptwriters because the editorial policy on the regimentation of style has made them
unavoidably salient in the writers own professional practice. (This was an impossi-
bility at the time of Eugenios popularity in 197980, before there was a Catalan-
medium television channel.) The section of the TV3 style manual that treats weak
pronouns distinguishes four registers (formal, colloquial, markedly informal collo-
quial, and subtitles) as well as the category never acceptable for determining the
acceptability of a given form for a particular media use. (The manual indeed catego-
rizes as never acceptable the -lis form used by the candidate Snchez Camacho and
ridiculed on Twitter.) Applying these five categories, the manual presents fourteen
complex tables displaying the acceptability level of different forms and combinations
of weak pronouns, as well as a list of further questions about specific forms (CCMA
2013; see The complexity of
the manual suggests that the weak pronouns are a shared professional nightmare and
thus a professional joke for scriptwriters.
A Catalan sociolinguist has pointed out to me, based on personal experience, that
weak-pronoun jokes bring a laugh not just from language professionals and strug-
gling L2 speakers, but from almost anyone who has attended school in Catalonia
since autonomy and the restoration of Catalan teaching.15 Despite the faux Montillas
conviction that the weak pronouns are less painful if acquired early, L1 Catalan
speakers as well as L2 learners feel hectored about them by teachers. A heritage-
language but Castilian-dominant Catalan speaker from Mallorca once described the
Whats So Funny Now? The Strength of Weak Pronouns in Catalonia 137

prescriptive pronoun charts to me as pure science fiction. According to Wheeler

et al. (1999:167), it is in part the discrepancies between widespread colloquial habits
and formal, written conventions that make this the most exacting aspect of Catalan
Indeed, one study (Argenter i Giralt et al. 1998) found that young speakers from
urban areas, regardless of whether they were L1 or L2 Catalan speakers, did not
control the obligatory adverbial pronouns as well as rural speakers of either language
background did. However, rather than showing higher frequency of incorrect forms
of the pronouns, the urban speakers appeared to avoid using them altogether in
challenging contexts by substituting circumlocutions that are likely to have a one-to-
one correspondence with Castilian. In this sense, then, there is selection for, and
tolerance of, syntactic convergence, as Gumperz would have predicted, based on his
Kupwar data. However, the avoidance of circumstances of error suggests a much
higher level of metalinguistic awareness and anxiety about the prescriptively correct
forms in Catalonia than was documented in Kupwar.
Native Catalan speakers own lack of control of the weak pronouns, rather than
that of L2 speakers, is actually the principal target of the broad linguistic humor in the
television program that Ribot studied. The character Rosario, the martinet who
mounts a 24-hour hotline to save the weak pronouns and who attempts to instill them
in immigrant sweatshop workers, is an improbably hypercorrect, immigrant-origin,
working-class, L2 Catalan speaker, who is represented as acquiring the language
through assiduous formal study. She repeatedly mounts verbal attacks on the native
Catalan speakers around her for their careless participation in what she calls, taking
the language-death trope a step further in anthropomorphism, genocide against the
weak pronouns (Ribot Bencomo 2013). In one episode, she holds an apocryphal
book suitably titled The Genocide against the Weak Pronouns, and the graphic design of
its cover is a visual joke easily recognized by those who have tried to master standard
Catalan through bookish diligence. The cover design clearly (but falsely) places it in
the well-known Pompeu Fabra Collection of pocket guides to linguistic correctness
from Editorial Claret, along with actual titles like Speak Catalan Well: Vocabulary of
Incorrect Forms; Speak Catalan Better; and The Catalan Verbs Conjugated.16
This ridiculous running joke plays on the fact that when it comes to the genocide
against the weak pronouns, the average urban native Catalan speaker is as much or
more of a (natural-born) killer as the Castilian-origin language learner. As a ritual
linguistic barrier, the weak pronouns are a social leveler. The different linguistic
constituencies in Catalonia sometimes get the weak pronouns wrong in different
ways, sometimes in the same ways, but most ordinary speakers do get them wrong,
one way or another, at one time or another. 17 As hilarious as the faux Montilla and the
real Snchez-Camachos inability to produce weak pronouns may be, the insistence
on getting them right is represented in the media humor as equally hilarious. The
televised comedies suggest that a campaign to abolish the weak pronouns is absurd,
but so is a campaign to save them as if they were an oppressed people or an
endangered species.
The meaning indexed by the humorous troping on the weak pronouns is arguably
a more socially and linguistically sophisticated version of the effect that I posited for
Eugenios code-switching in 1979. The more detailed linguistic humor refracts social
and sociolinguistic changes and considerable movement of the goalposts in both
fields over recent decades. The threshold of Catalan linguistic competence in the
general population has been raised (albeit precariously) through thirty years of politi-
cal autonomy and language-policy making.18 A significant proportion of the citizens
and denizens of Catalonia who are not native Catalan speakers have moved well
beyond incomprehension, and even beyond receptive competence, to active produc-
tion of Catalan. This changed pattern and higher standard of expected linguistic
proficiency leaves those longtime residents who have not acquired Catalan liable to
mockery if they step into the public limelight as Montilla did. Yet, at the same
time, the comedy suggests ambivalence about this higher standard. At the rigorous
138 Journal of Linguistic Anthropology

standard of production represented by the weak pronouns, public humor once again
suggests, as it did in Eugenios time, that native Catalan and Castilian speakers are in
this together, and that perhaps one really shouldnt be too troubled about demands
of and for the language.

In fall 2012, as I was first drafting this article, Catalonia broke into the international
news with an effervescent movement for sovereignty that enjoyed surprisingly broad
support across the population, which now includes more people of immigrant,
Castilian-speaking descent than of autochthonous Catalan origins. Whereas only
about a third of the population is of Catalan-speaking ethnolinguistic origin, 50% to
80% supported Catalan sovereignty in the first months of the movement (depending
on how the question was asked).
In December 2013, as I finish revisions, Catalonia has again appeared in interna-
tional headlines. A broad coalition of parties in the Catalan parliament has approved
a question and a 2014 date for a referendum on independence, in the face of intran-
sigent opposition and bald threats of punitive action from the Spanish government.
Polls show that 75% or more of the voters of Catalonia now support the demand for
a referendum and the right to decide. Varying widely with the polling agency,
actual support for an independent state currently runs at about 45%, higher than the
rate that would vote against independence (36%) (El Peridico 2013).
The strength of the current Catalan sovereignty movement has caught almost all
observers by surprise. For those who understand nationalism in primordialist terms,
it has been especially baffling, given the ethnolinguistic makeup of modern Catalonia
as well as ongoing efforts of the conservative Spanish governing party (and smaller
parties within Catalonia) to paint Catalan nationalism and linguistic policy as illiberal
and oppressive to Castilian speakers.
How to understand this? Clearly, the upwelling of the sovereignty movement
responds to the European economic crisis and a sense of economic and political
grievance in a region that consistently gives considerably more in taxes than it gets
back in government services from the state. The cultural and linguistic grievances that
have long motivated core supporters of Catalan independence are not the primary
motivations for relatively broad-based current support of the Catalan right to decide
on this issue. However, the Spanish governments intransigence on linguistic, cul-
tural, and social matters, and a number of its recent moves to trim back Catalan
autonomous powers over language, culture, and education, contribute to backlash
support for the referendum.
The linguistic humor that I have discussed may seem trivial in light of the ambi-
tions, animosities, and anxieties of the intersecting crises of the Catalan nation, the
Spanish state, and the European Union. They do not motivate this broad-based
Catalan independence movement, but I propose that the larger linguistic patterns and
changes flagged by this humor do enable the political movement and defuse potential
fearful resistance to it.
As in earlier eras, mediatized linguistic humor is a metapragmatic refraction of
social conditions. The humor surrounding the weak pronouns recognizes, but also
ironizes, the conceptualization of Catalan and Catalan nationalism as archaic,
backward-looking, and belonging only to those who come by it natively. Catalan-
initiated jokes about the awkward joke in the Catalan linguistic system play on the
continued desacralization of the Catalan language, which has become less of a ritual
barrier to social interaction across groups. This linguistic stance parallels a similarly
more open stance toward the possibility of being Catalan within a late-modern world,
a stance that some of my formerly resistant Castilian-speaking informants have
grown to take up over the last two decades (Woolard 2011). These kinds of sociolin-
guistic, social, and personal changes make Catalan sovereignty thinkable among a
surprisingly broad constituency.
Whats So Funny Now? The Strength of Weak Pronouns in Catalonia 139

Acknowledgments. Data collection for this article began while I was a visiting researcher
affiliated with the Department of Catalan Philology at the Universitat Autnoma de Barcelona.
I thank the Agncia de Gesti dAjuts Universitaris i de Recerca de la Generalitat de Catalunya
(grant #2005PIV2-31) for its support, and Professor Joan Argenter for sponsorship. I am also
grateful to the Wenner-Gren Foundation (grant #7563), to the University of California, San
Diego for support of the field research, and to Adrianne Saltz for helping me gather television
data. The paper was completed with support from the Netherlands Institute for Advanced
Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences and enhanced by my participation in the theme
group on The construction of local identities through language practices (Leonie Cornips and
Vincent de Rooij, organizers). I have discussed some of the video data and benefitted from
comments in several forums, including the 6th International Workshop on Spanish Sociolin-
guistics at the University of Arizona, 2012, and Sociolinguistics Symposium 19, Berlin, 2012. An
earlier version of this paper was presented in the panel Gumperz at 90: The Ethnography of
Communication and Its Legacy at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological
Association, San Francisco, November 2012. Many thanks to Sandro Duranti for his discussion
of the presentation, to two anonymous reviewers for helpful suggestions, and to Susan Frekko
for thoughtful comments on the first draft, unfortunately not fully reflected in this revision.
1. Kathryn Woolard is the authorial I of this article and is responsible for the analytic
assertions advanced, particularly any errors in those claims. Aida Ribot Bencomo collected and
analyzed the data from the recent situation comedy that is discussed here; the other data were
collected by Woolard. Josep Soler Carbonell assisted in the analysis of the video data from
Polnia, supported by the la Caixa USA Fellowships Program.
2. E.g., the petit-bourgeois figures of the radio personalities Pere and Ricki in the late 1980s
(Woolard 1995), or the comedienne Lloll Bertrans spot-on parody of an upper-middle-class
Catalan pija (preppie), Sandra Camaca, in the mid-1990s.
3. Underlining in the original indicates notable phonological, lexical, and idiomatic transfers
from Castilian, as well as hyperbolic syntactic errors in the faux-Montillas Catalan. Underlin-
ing and solecisms in the English gloss approximate the most glaring solecisms in the Catalan.
Double parentheses (( )) enclose contextualizing added comments.
4. Criticisms of Catalan and Catalan language policies as un- or even anti-modern have
indeed been launched by Castilianist partisans in the past decade, despite Catalonias long-
standing leading role in the industrialization (and post-industrialization) of Spain.
5. La Vanguardia, the leading newspaper of conservative Catalonia, was traditionally pub-
lished only in Castilian. Since May 2011, there has also been a Catalan edition based in
automatic translation, which more than half of the overall readership chooses.
6. cmo la Generalitat meta con sangre pronoms febles en las cabecitas de pequeas
criaturas puras y castellanas.
7. No- los- los giros del cataln, el- los pronoms febles . . . Un castellano no te lo va a dominar
nunca en la vida. Los- els pronoms febles, eso es complicao como la madre que los pari. Porque
encima, el cataln, tiene- es arcaico, es muy arcaico, tiene unos giros en el lenguaje muy
complicados, tiene- una sonoridad complicada para un castellanoparlante.
8. La nostra llengua disposa daquest mecanisme lingstic que no tenen altres llenges, els
pronoms febles, i que ens permet escurar paraules i escriure i piular idees fent servir menys
9. Some readers will note, as did a reviewer for this article, that the distinctive weak
pronouns en and hi correspond to French rather than Spanish. There is general awareness of this
relation in the educated adult Catalan population, especially among those over age 45, since
French was the principal foreign language studied up until the last decades of the 20th century
(as well as the medium of instruction in one of the most elite private schools). Early in that
century, some Catalan philologists stressed grammatical resemblances to French and grouped
Catalan in a linguistic subfamily with French rather than Castilian. However, the relation of
Catalan to French has not been a live issue in the professional or popular imagination in
Catalonia in the last several decades.
10. Examples cited here were found through searches of the Twitter website for pronom
OR pronoms OR feble OR febles #DebatTV3 for the day of and the day following the debate,
1819 November 2012.
11. Lactivitat, que senfocar duna manera molt prctica, sadrea a ciberactivistes i a
tothom que vulgui aprendre i practicar els pronoms febles a un nivell bsic (especialment els
pronoms en i hi).
140 Journal of Linguistic Anthropology

12. Un dels problemes ms greus que est patint el catal actualment s la prdua dels
Pronoms Febles EN i HI, a causa de la traducci literal del castell, el qual no els fa servir.
13. It is conceivable that this also owes, in part, to further connotations of the label weak,
which may suggest vulnerability to loss under language contact, rather than the original
meaning of phonological reduction of unstressed syllables.
14. The squatter character speaks a mix of Catalan and Castilian here; the latter is indicated
by underlining, and bivalent elements are italicized.
15. Eva Juarros-Dauss, personal communication, April 2012.
16. The book Rosario holds depicts it as volume 7 in this series, but the actual volume 7 is
Escriviu B el Catal (Write Catalan Well).
17. Native speakers do not necessarily simplify the system in a way that converges with
Castilian. Colloquial patterns show as much divergent overuse of hi as convergent loss of it, as
seen in the news headline that set off the complaint in Ex. 2. Roughly comparable phenomena
might be prescriptively incorrect uses of whom or of conjoint nominative pronouns in object
position in American English.
18. At the same time, there is a generalized perception that the quality of Catalan among
native speakers has degraded in this same period.

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