Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Cornwall is officially beautiful; it feels steeped in mythology and legend. It is very, very different to the rest of the country, and feels as if perhaps centuries haven't really gone by.

When I was teaching English in Barcelona, we did a special day about language, somewhat a sensitive topic between Catalans and the rest of Spain. The Catalans particularly go on about Catalan being an older language than Castillian; it is incredibly important to them to have history anchored before that of Spain, to be authentically in their geography. Another teacher and I - he was an Aussie - did a special session on the "other" British languages and aboriginal languages from Oz. So I learned about the different groups of Celtic languages - the "p" ones and the "k" ones, the grouping into Manx, Gaelic and Scot, and Welsh, Cornish and Breton. The traces of Cornish names we end up with are glorious - Trescothick, Trethillian... and they could only come from Celtic origins.

Identity through language is particularly intriguing to me and, I think, incredibly important, having lived in Barcelona and now seeing the debates here over whether or not it is discrimination to force people to speak in English. Moreover, it is fascinating given that I speak an almost ubiquitous language, yet there is some primordial patriotic nerve within me that feels some twinge of frustration when it turns out that people are learning Americanised phrases and that my language is becoming obscure, useless in comparison. So in a small sense I do feel that a part of my identity is threatened by having continually to translate, to not be understood unless I modify how I speak. Which does, in some sense, change me. When I was getting near fluency in Costa Rica I would think differently, because the language and structure means that you think a different way. My dear friend Xopo wrote yesterday a beautiful post about the blurring (or not) of national identities through language, and I will not attempt to write anything on that topic. Chatting with another friend the other night, whose relationship is conducted in his language but not the native tongue of his girlfriend, it did bring home an appreciation that someone's language does help to define who one is and, in a way, I can understand people's sensitivities about a nation's tongue - be it those Mexicans who refuse to speak Spanish to Xopo, or those Anglophone Americans who are upset with the prevalence of Spanish.

For me, living in Barcelona, I never really felt accepted by those locals who tried to engage me in the gym and were disappointed at my stumbling Catalan and far more fluent Castellano. Yet Catalunya has a far stronger power and autonomy than any of the other nations that have been gobbled up by Britain, and so that desperate clinging onto language and locality can seem far more important yet far more futile. Which leads to desperate measures. Which is how I started on this topic - some bloke from the National Cornish Liberation Army has attempted to threaten Rick Padstow and Jamie Oliver out of Cornwall. Now I know those Jamie Oliver Sainsbury's adverts were annoying, but still... So a desperate measure, but probably not a desperately successful one. And young rich outsiders will continue to buy up property and turn villages into ghostly echoes of their former selves. Not quite the shadows of Aciman's imagination, I presume.

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