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Opinion & Analysis

After Babel: The Language Debate

Charles Durante.

I must start by acknowledging a debt to George Steiner for the title of this opinion piece. His book of that name is one of the most profound studies of language and translation I have ever read, and relevant to the topics I hope to tackle here.

Recently, there has been a flurry of activity in Gibraltar in the sphere of language and language studies. This renewed interest in our language heritage has been partly the result of the visit of two Spanish academics, Elena Seoane and Cristina Suárez Gómez, who have been researching Gibraltar English for some years now. Intriguingly, they are also both advocates of Yanito, and have a very healthy commitment to studying and propagating interest in our own language.

There are still some among us who consider the Babel confusion of tongues as an unmitigated disaster. Mythically, the pre-Babel world was strictly monolingual. One language, presumably Biblical Hebrew, was spoken worldwide so that communication was easy, and co-operation guaranteed. However, this comforting myth is belied by the thousands of languages which have always characterised the human species. Homo sapiens is nothing if not a linguistic marvel. Homo loquens is more truly human than homo faber or homo erectus. It is language, in all its richness and complexity, which distinguishes man from the rest of the animal kingdom. Noam Chomsky, the most eminent living linguist, has repeatedly stated this and claims we are hard-wired to develop and acquire language.

Linguistic plurality is here to stay and, despite the predominance of world languages like Mandarin Chinese, English and Spanish, we all value our own language or languages, regardless of how restricted their use might be. Until recently, Gibraltar was characterised as a bilingual community, though there was a great deal of debate as to what extent we could rightly claim this distinction. English and Spanish were both accepted as our two languages, though which was your preferred language depended on your level of education, social class and even political views. Linguistically, both languages are equally valid and are practised in different social, academic, familial and professional circles.

But a new language consciousness has arisen recently. We were quite happy with the bilingual label, though some people preferred one language to the other, depending often on non-linguistic factors, family background or language proficiency. There are always dissenters and sceptics who, against all the evidence, labelled Spanish a foreign language in Gibraltar. And, disappointingly, some individuals advocate linguicide, a determined attempt to consign Spanish (and Yanito) to limbo. These language conservatives are in the minority and usually lack sophistication and haven’t moved on since the Gutenberg revolution! They import their supposedly intellectual superiority to what they consider the linguistic imperialism of English, in the process denigrating other languages, especially Spanish and Yanito. Predictably, they treat Yanito with scorn and condemn it as a ‘bastard’ concoction. They are unaware that a similar process of assimilation of two languages, Anglo-Saxon and Old French, gave rise to Middle English, the precursor of our modern English. Languages are not hermetically sealed, but porous and blend and meld in complex and startingly creative ways. The encounter between Anglo-Saxon and Old French was even more dramatic than that of English and Spanish. Anglo-Saxon was stubbornly Germanic; Old French, derived ultimately from vulgar Latin, was a romance language. Moreover, the two languages were typologically different: Anglo-Saxon was an inflectional language with word endings defining meaning; Old French was analytic where word order was paramount. The result was the loss of nearly all the inflectional endings so that we now only have ‘s to show possession and s to indicate the third person singular of the present tense of the verb. Thankfully, the changes made English the vibrant, succinct and flexible instrument it is now.
By comparison, the encounter between English and Spanish in Gibraltar is relatively undramatic: two analytic languages but derived from different origins-Latin for Spanish, Germanic for English. How fortunate we are to have two great language families at our beck and call!

We now have Yanito as a third language and this new status has been confirmed with Yanito becoming another and separate category in the Short Story Competition, sponsored by the Cultural Services and the Gibraltar Chronicle. Yanito now is on a par with English and Spanish.

As one of the judges of the competition, I can honestly say that, having had the privilege of reading all the Yanito entries, they are as exciting, innovative, ambitious, linguistically challenging, and expertly crafted as the English and Spanish entries.

A mainly oral form of expression has now acquired the kudos of the written form. The narratives I have read refute categorically the allegation that Yanito is gibberish, the accusation that it lacks grammar, and that it is not rule-based. The slightest acquaintance with linguistics would convince the most stalwart opponent of Yanito that calling it a language is correct and not wishful thinking.

Some of the stories had language notes appended to them to aid comprehension (after all, it’s the first time Yanito has been officially recognised, previous attempts having been mainly humorous). These notes leave one in no doubt one is dealing with a language, with its own rules, peculiar idioms, idiosyncratic turns of phrase, and that unique blend of Spanish and English which transcends a mere amalgamation of the two languages and becomes something different. In fact, Yanito casts its lexical net beyond our two recognised languages: words which we would assume are derived from standard Spanish can be traced to ‘caló,’ gypsy slang. One can only surmise they made their way to Spanish argot and from there to Yanito. I am talking about such common words as chorbo, dabuti or dabuten and feten. They have an earthy sound about them which points to their origin in marginalised communities and among the illiterate. But their special flavour gives them oomph and power.

Grammar has a hierarchical, nested structure, involving units within other units: words form phrases, phrases form clauses, clauses form sentences. Arguably, Yanito has this structure and those who deny this are prejudiced and allow their linguistic blindness to obfuscate their understanding of their native language. Usually, this linguistically untenable position is dictated by considerations which have nothing to do with language: an entrenched snobbery, the mistaken notion Yanito is only used by the uneducated, or it’s the result of bad English and even worse Spanish. But Professor Seoane put it very succinctly and pointedly, ‘You are,’ she said, ‘not English, not Spanish, but Yanitos.’ And the language which inalienably belongs to us is Yanito.

The cultural health of a society is intimately bound to its language. Sloppy, tired, banal language usually reflects a society which has lost its intellectual bearings and is happy to stagnate. Condemning a language because you have a personal problem with it - you feel you don’t have sufficient command of its grammar, syntax or vocabulary, is short-sighted and unjustified. The praiseworthy reaction is to improve your knowledge of the language; belittling the language is cowardly and only increases ignorance and neglect.

We can start with maintaining the difference in meaning between two words which are often confused: disinterested and uninterested. Blurring the difference is a solecism and shows a lack of linguistic finesse. The same applies to the way ‘escuchar’ has almost ousted ‘oir.’ I know these may appear to be trifling matters, but Orwell, who was especially sensitive to how language could be manipulated for nefarious means, would agree that keeping language healthy and vibrant is essential to maintain a society where we mean what we say.

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