Language is slippery. It drifts and eddies through time and space, toying gently with syntax and vocabulary. Scholars and leaders may try to tame and subjugate it, but language – the true living vulgar language of the people, the ‘langue des oisons’ – resists. No sooner is it caught and caged in learned texts, than it laughs gently and, like some mythical sorceress, shape-shifts before the eyes of its captors and flies free once more.
I live on an island, one whose shores were, for millennia, invaded and settled by tribes from North, South and East. Each left their marks upon our languages: Celtic and Gallic, Latin and Norman, Angle, Saxon and Norse. The river of language swallowed up or skirted around new words and concepts and flowed along regardless. When The Conqueror’s men, with swords and the mediaeval equivalent of clipboards, arrived to question their subjects about the places they newly owned, language was of limited use. The rational Normans were categorists. There had to be a name for everything.
“What is its name?” they would demand of locals, pointing, perhaps, at a river.
“River,” the bemused peasants would answer, for why should it need a name?
In their tongue, the word for river was ‘afon’. Thus the unsuspecting Normans duly wrote ‘River River’ on their maps – and England is littered with River Avons. If there were two rivers close by, of course, it might have been useful for the locals to have some linguistic means of differentiating between them. One might be fast-flowing, for example, while another less so. It takes little imagination, then, to understand why the River Piddle in Dorset is so named.
The fluidity of the vulgar language allows for local diversity. Where I grew up, in the south east of the land, we’d trot along the twitten to school. My children, born in East Anglia, would have used a folly. Elsewhere these are snickets, alleys, cuts, twitches and footpaths. This gives each area – each neighbourhood, even – a private way of conversing, one which excludes outsiders. Doubtless there have been many times in the history of this land when the ability to chat thus, beneath the radar of the highborn and oppressors with their Norman French, Latin or King’s/Queen’s English, has been of considerable value in preserving customs, secrets and even lives.
A recent visit to the island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean Sea revealed a similar linguistic heritage. Theirs too is a history of occupation and assimilation: the mysterious ‘Sea People’, Spanish, Moors, Romans, Knights Templar and others have come and gone. The current place names are a glorious mix of Arabic, Spanish and, most commonly, the two native languages of the island – Catalan (the island’s official language) and Mallorquin.
I was unaware of the existence of this latter tongue until I arrived there. When spoken, it sounds like no language I’ve ever heard, although there are elements of French and Spanish lurking within. Mallorquin is truly a ‘vulgar’ language – a language of the people. Its words and cadences vary from village to village, town to town. It’s not a language of books and scripts, but of concealed local gossip, heritage, history and legend – belonging to and confined within the island. Its fluidity and rusticity are its salvation. Outsiders will shrug and leave it well alone. That way, it will flow and flourish.