The Flow of Language

Homilies d'Organyà: First manuscript in Catalan 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?

English: River Piddle Behind Affpuddle Church

River Piddle  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

English: The Mediterranean Sea in Banyalbufar,...

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.

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Doing the Gratefuls

A depressed man sitting on a bench

Charlie was stuck.  He recognised it.  He just didn’t know what to do about it.

I’m sure it’s a fairly familiar tale.  He’d given up a well paid managerial position in his late twenties to study for a degree in a subject he loved. He met his girlfriend at university.  They graduated, though, at the time the recession really kicked in.  Both of them had applied for plenty of jobs, but nothing came up, so both moved back in with their respective parents, hundreds of miles apart, and applied for job-seekers allowance.

Eventually, both found regular jobs.  These were not highly paid, not anything connected to their degrees or aspirations, but enabled them to save a small amount each month, pay their way at home and put together enough money to visit one another every month or so.

That wasn’t too bad for a start, but it dragged on year after year and both became thoroughly fed up.

“I’m 33,” Charlie announced miserably, when he came to stay with me last month. “I haven’t done anything yet.  I’m bored with my job, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life living with Dad, I miss my girlfriend and I’m fed up.  I’ve applied for loads of other jobs but nothing comes up.  Nothing is going to change.  There’s no way out.”

On the surface of it, his situation didn’t look great.  He didn’t earn enough to move into a place of his own.  He certainly didn’t earn enough to keep his girlfriend while she relocated and searched for a new job.  He spent his evenings trying to write a best-seller and learning carpentry, but – as I’ve said, he was stuck.

I hated seeing Charlie this miserable.  I toyed with the idea of talking about how we create our own lives with the way we think about them, and about the nature of reality, but he wasn’t in a space where he could hear that.  I thought back to the time I’d been at my lowest, and the teacher who had rescued me.  He’d instructed me to go and write the words

I’m grateful for all in my life

on a sheet of paper, to look at it at least three times a day, and to repeat it five times on each occasion.  To say I’d been sceptical would be an understatement, but I’d done it, and the turnaround had been amazing.

I told Charlie the story.  His reaction was exactly what I’d expected – exactly what mine had been.

“Am I allowed to say it through gritted teeth with deep irony?” he asked, grimly.

“Sure,” I said.  “Say it any way you like, but say it.  As you say it, challenge yourself to think about the most depressing, horrible, unpleasant situations in your life, and work out what they’re teaching you or showing you.”

We tried a few together.  He named a particularly hated manager at work, listing the ways she undermined others, sloped off early leaving them struggling to meet deadlines, bad-mouthed others behind their backs while being sweet as sugar to their faces.  The list went on.

“So what is she teaching you?  What lesson does she have for you?” I asked.

He thought for a while.  “How not to be a manager?  How not to handle people?”

I suggested he turned those to positives.

“So… she’s showing me that people matter, that they deserve respect and that if I end up managing others I lead by example rather than giving orders and doing something else.”

“Valuable help then,” I grinned.  “You can be grateful for Jenny.”

“I’m grateful for Jenny,” he snarled, but at least he was smiling as he said it.

I reminded him of the sentence a few more times during the holiday.  He dutifully repeated it, but with a fairly bad grace.

English: Tropical Rucksack Side View

Before he left, I had the opportunity to slip that sheet of paper I’d written the original message on into a pocket of his rucksack.  At some point he’d find it.  It might jog his memory…

Last night, Charlie phoned me.

His girlfriend had been given a large pay rise.  She’d calculated that it was enough to rent a house in a lovely town close to where she works.  He had handed in his notice and was heading up to view properties with her this weekend.  They’re planning to move in together at the start of June.  His boss has promised him a glowing reference and he’s going to search for a job there.

He’d written 40,000 words of his book, he said.  He was happy with the way it was going.  His latest wood carving project was a large green man.  That was going well too.

I asked how he felt about uprooting and moving across the country.  He admitted it had been difficult at first.
“I’ve worked through it now, though,” he said. “Friends and people at work have been very supportive and now I’ve actually committed to it, I feel hopeful about the future.”

There was a pause while I took all this in.

Quietly, almost shyly, Charlie added, “Oh, and I’ve been doing the gratefuls and that every day…”

Charlie is my son.

I’m grateful for all in my life…