Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock


January 27, 2018

The Catalan Chronicles: Lost in Translation 1

Many years ago I was lying by a pool in Torrevieja, Alicante, a large and spectacularly unrefined summer resort town in the southeast of Spain.  Torrevieja’s tourism population swells to the hundreds of thousands in summer, not unlike the way the  marabunta might descend upon an unsuspecting baby boar on its last leg.  This is why seeking refuge in a relatively lowkey pool, away from the hassles of humanity out on the beach.  The pool area teemed with vacationers from all over Europe: Brits, French, Swedish, Russian, German and Italians.  A consequence of this impromptu congregation was a cacaphony of tongues filling the air, mainly parents barking out instructions and warnings to their children.  The Spanish, who also happened to be there, had no problem with this because, since the 1960s, beach-fringed coasts filled with sangria-seeking visitors from abroad had become a natural feature of the landscape.  They are the “guiris”, a slangy, affectionate (although, on occasion, derrogatory) nickname for foreigners.


There was also a young boy from Galicia there who ran up to his father and shouted, “Papá.  Non teño as chaves.”  (Dad, I don’t have the keys.), in the language that is commonly used there.  Galicia is a region just north of Portugal, so for simplicity’s sake, I’ll describe gallego as a mesh between Spanish and Portuguese.  It’s as old as Castilian Spanish and it has an official status in that region.


Well, the mere utterance of those otherwise innocuous words used in an otherwise everyday situation must have sounded like someone ripping a fart the size of rocket blast, because a man sitting in his beach chair nearby, raised his head, let his draw drop to the ground and groused, “Hey kid!  We speak Spanish around here, got it?”


The man happened to be from the Basque Country, by the way, which also has its own very peculiar tongue.  Yeap.  You read right.  Under the warmth of Spanish summer sun, all languages are equal, but some are more equal than others.  Such is the paradox of a country like Spain where linguistic plurality is a reality, a surreality, an irreality.  And it is the source of innumerable problems and debates.


But first, a little lesson on the subject, so this mess makes a little more sense to you.  Despite what we learned, or didn’t learn, in our Spanish classes, Spain is actually home to a whole slew of languages, the most widely spoken of which are co-official languages in their corresponding regions.  Spanish is official all over the country.  Galician is spoken in Galicia.  Basque in the Basque Country and some parts of Navarra. Aranese, which is a version of Occitan spoken in the Pyrenees.  Catalan in Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and Valencian, which is virtually identical to Catalan but fiercely defended as a different tongue by it’s users.  It is one of the most bizarre debates in this field and worthy of its own post, so we will have to wait a little longer.


Those are the Big Five…but it doesn’t end there.  You also have a dozen other minor and moribund dialects and varieties which are struggling to fight off extinction.  These include Asturian (commonly known as Bable), which shares certain traits with Galician, Leonese (la ancient language of the kingdom of Leon), Montañés in Cantabria, Estremeñu in Extremadura, Fabla in Aragon.  While they have not reached the status of full officialdom, they are recognized as culturally significant in their regions and are protected and will remain that way until they, I hate to say, die off.


So, when Catalans purport that they have their own language, they are certainly being truthful.  But it’s hardly a one-man club.


It pains me to say this because I feel that one of Spain’s diverse linguistic wealth is one of its greatest attributes.  I like to pick up some of the languages when I’m in those areas, and I’ve become quite proficient in Galician.    It should be a source of national pride.  For many it is…but not for everyone, which is why you have knuckleheads like the man at the pool scolding the boy for speaking Galician when five feet away another child is asking his mother for a sandwich in Finnish and is exmpt from untold scorn.  It just doesn’t seem fair.


You see, few things define a nation like a language.  Hard to think of anything that brigns people, or peoples, together more.  I have nothing to do with South Africa, but you can bet your pack of biltong that the fact were share a common tongue already creates an affinity that bonds us more than I think I could ever have with citizens from Bulgaria, say.  But in the same way that it brings some individuals together, it can also serve to divide others.  Speaking the same language not only helps to determine who you are, it also sheds light on who you are not…or choose not to be.  The Generalitat was very much aware of this when it started to adopt an aggressive pro-Catalan policy just about everywhere within its jurisdiction.  The purpose was threefold: enhace the presence of Catalan, recover lost ground and, let’s not kid ourselves here, eradicate Castilian, because nothing says more about not being a part of a country than claiming you don’t speak the same language.  And it makes sense, until someone raises their hand and asks a devastating question: What about Switzerland?


First of all, you have the name.  Spanish in its own language is known as “español”. While this innocent word might appear little more than a subject you opt to study in school, it too is the object of controversy.  Many nationalists become very testy about the use of the word as it suggests it is the language of all of Spain when in fact there are many different tongues.  They think castellano (or Castilian) is a more appropriate word as it refers to the lanaguage of the people from Castile, as opposed to those from other places like Aragon, Asturias and Valencia.  And, of course, Catalan.  These are all romance languages, each in widely varying stages of existence, and all have about the same age.  The oddball is Basque, which is a world unto its own and has no definitive relationship with any other language.  Theories abound, but none of them is fully convicing.  The most likely scenario is that it is non-Indo-European, making it the sole survivor of an age that disappeared a long, long time ago.


You have to chalk one up for the nationalists on this point.  They have a good point there.  Even the people from England, who liked to dominate the world in just about every way possible, never called their own way of speaking “British”, but rather the way it’s known today, “English”.   Hardcore Spaniards get all bent out of shape about this.  They clench their fists and pound tables arguing that it has always been called Español.  Dear God, it’s that Big Bang thing again.  Everything in Spain started since the universe was born.  I can’t be bothered. All I’ve noticed is that there is a growing tendency to use castellano, even in the Spanish-speaking areas.  I wonder if it’s being politically correct or just a resurgance of pride in the word Castile.

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