My Friend Spanish: How, when and where not to use it

Here’s a good one.  And a clever one.  I mean you really have to be familiar with Spanish culture to pick this one up.  Yesterday the Basque Culinary Center was inaugurated in the Basque Country, of course, in the city of San Sebastián.  It was a special event for all of us who like food.  Up to this point, there is little notable about the news.  Basque cooking is probably the most highly regarded cuisine of all those you can find in this country, and its chefs consistently rate among the most innovative in the world.  It only makes sense that Spain’s first major cooking school, which features a degree in Gastronomic Sciences, would open its doors in that part of Spain.  So far, so good.

         What made me scratch my head was not the exhaust pouring out of the two-hundred and seventy-six buses that pass by my apartment every day, but three simple words: “Basque Culinary Center”.  Doesn’t that sound great. 

          Those  of you with business minds might consider that to be a clever bit of marketing.  After all, English is the lingua franca of the world, why not give the new center for culinary instruction and investigation a nice international boost with a name that sounds inviting to people from all over?  That was probably what they partially had in mind, but if you think that this is the only reason, then you are making a big mistake.  People who are familiar with the language scene in Spain, know better.  And this one is a beaut. 

        It helps to know what is behind that all.  You see, while Spanish enjoys enormous success throughout the planet as one of the four most widely spoken languages in the world, back home some citizens honor this prestige by simply refusing to speak it.  That’s because there are several other regional languages in this country, all of which are as old as Spanish if not older. They have struggled to keep afloat as they have had to compete with the dominance of Spanish.  Part of this has to do with a natural evolution inherent in linguistic groups, and part of this can be attributed to an intentional effort in the past to suppress the local tongues.  At least on an official level.   As a backlash, not only has there been a concerted effort to recuperate them, some speakers have tried to go further by attempting to oust Spanish from their borders.  There are certainly many practical reasons for wanting to know Spanish, but they don’t seem to matter. 

         The most popular language of all is Catalan, which is used in Catalonia, naturally.  Barcelona is its capital, which is why some foreign students are taken by surprise when they arrive there expecting to learn how to understand Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy reruns and leave rather disappointed.   Catalan is also spoken in parts of Valencia and the Balearic Islands.  Its geography is a fun topic, so I’ll tell you about it one day.  Other official languages include Gallego, a mix between Spanish and Portuguese, and Basque, which doesn’t look like anything in the world.  Just to illustrate my point, take the word “no”, which in Basque is “ez”.  Ez.  What a bizarre word.  It doesn’t even look like a word.  It looks like the symbol for the periodic table.  

         Try something more sophisticated, something I might hear every day at a Basque school if I worked there as a teacher.  “Irakasleen, bainugelara joan dezaket?”   “Ez.”

          Now, being the good students that you are, you already know the second part.  But here is what the student asked:  “Teacher, can I go to the bathroom?” “No.”

         Other than “Joan”, which you may have surmised incorrectly was the name of the teacher, the rest could have been a request to kick a classmate for all we know.  Of course I am being lighthearted here because I love languages.  And I am not belittling Basque in any way because I love the way it looks and sounds.  But let’s face it, you can’t pick it up too easily.   

            Getting back to the culinary school, finally, I realized that the founders had a dilemma.  Spanish would have been the normal choice if it weren’t for the fact they hated using it so much, even though that is the native tongue for most Basque people.  Basque is written and expressed all over the place, but most people pretty much stick to Spanish.  As Benjamin Franklin once remarked when he heard the suggestion that the Americans should make Greek the official language as a show of absolute repudiation of everything English, that (taking a breath) “it would be easier to make the English learn Greek than for us to do so ourselves.”  And that is why Franklin is on the cover of all of those one hundred dollar bills.  

            It is also why the creators of the school ruled Basque out.  Here’s why I think they probably turned that down.  I don’t have a 100% accurate translation but this is something your eyes and mind would have had to tackle instead of “Basque Culinary Center”: Euskal Sudalgaritza Zentroa.    

          Nope.  Doesn’t work.    

         What’s my beef?  Well, it’s simple.  Not always, but sometimes, I get the feeling that a love of Basque rests more on a disdain of Spanish than anything else.   Because when push comes to shove, as we can see here, suddenly Basque doesn’t cut the mustard.  I really hope you appreciate my effort to involve food-oriented expressions.  I’ve put some thought into this, I’ll have you know.    With that’ll give you something to mull over for the rest of the day.

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