miércoles, 30 de mayo de 2018

Split tongue personality

Language is like an overcoat. It can be too wide, comfortable or too small. It can be old, it can be new, beautiful, ugly or mere functional, adabtable to other styles or rigidly seeking its own truth. Speaking more than one language implies one can choose the coat that fits the day. I like thinking in one of my later acquired languages, English mostly but Spanish also, Catalan only when I feel very lucid, while speaking whatever the moment calls for, Dutch reserved for breakfast and weekends. Did you know that thinking in a language is much easier than speaking it? To my ears, the Spanish language is of the rigid type. It's a well-organised language which allows for improvisation and wordplay but not much for interpretation. Spanish is clear, as is the law. Speaking unclear, in fact, is quite difficult in Spanish. Most politicians are easily caught out for beating around the bush. Thinking in Spanish makes me feel smart, analytical and bright, but lacking in attention for the unexpected. Catalan sounds warmer, coincidental, a language looking for solutions, perhaps because it's very much on the move now that non-natives have cautiously started using it. Spanish has its solution ingrained. It's a settled language, its latest inventions of little weight.

English gives me power. Understanding English is the road to information these days. Being able to read German and French keeps a modicum of free sourcing possible. I enjoy working on my English, maintain it rather as there seems to be a glass ceiling hanging just over every non-native's abilities. I'm not really sure I like the language. It's quite a hypocrite tongue, hiding its truth behind would be's and false intonation. Being a language of stage actors, always knowing the right words for any moment, speaking English proficiently requires becoming English. I thought about the latter possibility when I was writing a novel in English, Jungletown, some years ago. Could I be temporarily English? Should I pretend to be fluent in Estuary for a while? It made sense, yet I felt I couldn't cut off my Dutch roots completely without misinterpreting the younger characters I had in mind for my book. English had only seriously entered my realm after thirty, when I began speaking it on a daily basis, a language of adulthood. If I wanted my yoots to sound right, it was going to be Dutch based English, an English version of my Dutch way of thinking which still was able to dig deep into previous versions. I set out inventing and writing my own Dunglish, allowing for non-existing phrases which nevertheless sounded English to give colour. I wasn't totally satisfied with the results. A shine of artificiality took the lure away. I understood I needed to dig deeper into my past and find the earliest root I could base my private English on, to give the impression I had learned it at such young age, which wasn't the case but that being the point of the whole exercise. So I turned to Gronings, the language I spoke until I was seven, at which age I chose to stick to Dutch exclusively. My Gronings isn't particularly good, but I have been fed with its rhythm, heard in the North-East of Netherland adjacent to the German border and of a Saxon cadence. Saxon being one of the constituent languages of English and Dutch merely an off-shoot with Spanish, English, French, Jiddisch, Malay, Surinamese and assorted influences, it made sense to see if I could get closer this time, make my English more real. I certainly feel my Groninger phrases fit English better than the former Amsterdam inspired ones, the differences less pronounced and therefore more palpable. I sort of quietly shove them in. I also sense my dialect connects better with the Northern tongues, from Manchester up to Scotland. But I'm drifting. I wanted to write about Spanish.

Spanish is the language which these days tells the Catalans they cannot speak or think in their own tongue. Their language was severely damaged after forty years of strict prohibition and it has found its way back in society thanks to a strict policy of educating in Catalan. Many people speak it, old and young mostly, though Spanish is the language of Barcelona's streets. It's a rebellious language, as it's Italian in nature. It gives the speaker the power of individuality whereas Spanish gives the power of state. Spanish, once called the language of god, is always right. It has forced this position on whomever it found on its way and its success certainly comes in part thanks to its inherent qualities. It's a clear and concise language which particularly fits judicial Spanish well.
The Spanish of state is not spoken by many people, I must say. People who speak a lesser Spanish, like me but many with me, lack the education and insight to understand all of its intricacies. In the current state of affairs, their Spanish is quite inconsequential, a tongue merely meant to laugh in and show emotions with. Nobody listens to them. Well, we do, out of politeness, but we forget such words instantly. State Spanish, on the other hand, we listen very carefully to. State Spanish has become a dangerous language recently, some say it always was and that it's simply showing its ugly face again. We fear how the state plays wordgames with our convictions and desires, when translated into Spanish. Quietly protesting in the streets has become rebellion, venting your opinion is incitement, wanting to break free from the inertia of living with a hostile government scores accusations of nazism and terrorism, people being left to rot in jail or forced into exile for speaking their mind are considered enemies of state. We feel we can no longer trust the Spanish language. It even forced the new president of the Generalitat into a rather harsh rebuff of the non-Catalan speaking crowd. The Spanish press, including once pro-Catalan El Periodico, were all over it.
I live it on the street. My Catalan mostly absent, I turn to Spanish without hesitation when I address someone, and I have come to register a growing resentment under Catalan speakers to even listen to me (as I always encourage them to stick to their own tongue), my excuses meaning little since it has to do with the language more than with me. I have to accept this, of course, and I do. It makes me try Catalan a bit more.

Spanish speakers meanwhile have felt emboldened by last year's developments, one gets the impression. They had become quiet when Rajoy was turning up the heat, afraid to show their diverging thoughts to their increasingly agitated fellow citizens, but after his apparent win they started speaking their mind in public. I'm happy this is happening, but I must say it is not beautiful what many of them are thinking. After building a life here, and for many this came with hardships most native Catalans never had to endure, they now turn their back on their neighbours. They are willing to sacrifice the society they too have created, a mostly succesful and relaxed society, on the altar of their supposed Spanishness. But what can Spanishness be if one doesn't speak the language sufficiently, a language which mercilessly stratifies its users into levels of influence? English is very similar in that respect, by the way, Dutch much less so. What will our españolitas get back for their meekness? Don't they understand they are sawing off the legs from under their own seats? Are they that sure their language will save them? Is this what the death of the real god leads to? I feel we are starting to misunderstand each other.

Meanwhile, American companies and individuals are investing heavily in Barcelona. Now isn't that weird?

Photo nicked from Débora De Sá Tavares

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