Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Bon Any Nou i Adeu!

It's funny how language and culture intertwine. I mean, I can't believe that either one is created whole and then shapes the other.

When the word computer came into popular use, it meant a counting machine. A few people came up with ideas of how to execute complex actions using simple binary addition, and the word computer naturally grew a new meaning.

Awesome and fantastic were both originally used to describe frightening things.

Being ignorant of social mores or societal expectations used to offer the risk of being perceived as rude. Now the two words are synonymous in most of the parts of North America in which they might be spoken at all.

It seems to me that this is the same pattern of cross-generational habit that I've described before. We use the behaviours unconsciously inherited from those around us during our childhood and we pass them on in the same unconscious manner... ...so long as they suit our purposes.

I've been wondering about this as I say my goodbyes to Vilanova i la Geltrù, the small Catalunyan town just south of Barcelona where I have been living for the past year. You see, I've been trying to learn Catalan, and have encountered a strange problem. Don't worry, this is one of my stories that ends well.

You see, the only people who speak Catalan are Catalunyans. This is a truism in their lives. The average Catalunyan, faced with a stranger, can predict one thing with certainty. The chatty old Canadian may be trying to talk with you in English or French or Russian or - most likely - in badly phrased, strangely-pronounced Spanish, but there is really no chance at all that he is trying to speak your proud and lonely language.

The next thing you have to understand is that there is a lot of overlap between the languages in this region. Catalan seems to me to be more similar to French than to Spanish, and less to Portuguese or Greek, and I think that most people would agree with that. But still, Spanish and Catalan have a fair bit in common, in much the same way as, say, Danish and German.

Furthermore, there is the matter of pervasive coexistence. In the same way that people in New Brunswick combine French and English words to make a sentence that they believe is exclusively one or the other, here in Catalunya, most everyone mixes the two languages in most every conversation. Now a couple of locals have told me that I'm wrong about this, but I heard the same thing from English-speaking New Brunswickers who insisted that only the francophones had that problem.

The result of this, and the first point of this story, is that native Catalan-speakers often assume that I am speaking to them in bad Spanish when in fact I am speaking to them in bad Catalan. Invariably, two things happen, and this is the leading up to the second and third points of this story, so please try to follow along for just a little longer. Invariably some other person who is listening in - a co-worker, or a fellow customer, a passer-by on the street or (best of all) a child waiting for a parent - invariably one of these members of the audience speaks up and points out to my collocuter that I have been speaking Catalan all along.

So the second point is that listener who is not dealing with the mind set of having to talk with someone who butchers the expected language, is able to recognise that I am in fact butchering a different language. It seems to me that this says something about how much our expectations shape how we understand what we hear. I think there is a lesson there, and it is calling for further examination. I want to sit down at google scholar or, better yet, in a really good reference library, and see what I can find out about this. Someday, between 12 and 18 months from now, I hope to do just that.

The third and final point of this story is the cool thing that happens about five or ten minutes later, after the original conversation has ended, once we are saying our goodbyes or, often, just afterwards. So many people here in Vilanova and in la Geltrù, men and women, young and old, have interrupted the rituals of farewell to tell me - often with hand on heart - that they are very touched that I am trying to learn their language.

The sincere warmth that I have experienced in these brief exchanges may be the single thing that I will miss the most about this lovely place.