Monday, 9 October 2017

Catalonia: an appeal for peace with simple words to say it

It was good to see Catalans, or at any rate a great many people both Catalan and non-Catalan, demonstrating on behalf of dialogue in Catalonia this weekend. Thats to get out of the crisis brought on by demands from the Catalan government for the independence of their region. The marchers wore white, the colour of no party but of peace, they carried no national flags, and they had only one demand: let’s talk. Hablamos in Spanish. Parlem in Catalan.

Marching for peace and dialogue in Barcelona
The absence of flags was a good move. Flags stand for nations and nations stand for far more than just the good. You can point with pride to a DalĂ­ or a world-cup winning football team? Just remember that you also have to take on board the persecution of Jews and Muslims and nearly four decades of Fascism.

Instead they sought communication. “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war,” Winston Churchill said, and the words ring particularly true at a time when the Catalan leadership has pushed its case to the brink of conflict, and the Spanish government has stepped right over the line into violence which, if it wasn’t lethal in its police action against a referendum on independence deemed illegal, was nonetheless brutal.

So “let’s talk” sounds like an eminently sensible response. Watching people demanding it was heart-warming. It left me feeling hopeful for once, as few political developments do.

Though I have to admit it wasn’t just the sentiment that touched me. The words themselves struck me. They awoke memories from decades ago, memories of an amusing discovery during my student days.

It may seem odd that of the two great languages of antiquity in Europe, Greek and Latin, only the former is still spoken. There is apparently no “modern Latin” as there is a “modern Greek”. That is, however, only an appearance. The only reason there’s no modern Latin is that there are, in fact, multiple modern Latins.

Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, even French are all in fact the descendants of the language spoken across the Roman Empire at its height, altered by the successive waves of incomers that have affected some regions far more than others. French, for instance, has come a long way from the original language, heavily influenced by the Germanic speech of the invaders from across the Rhine – Burgundians, Goths, and of course the Franks, who gave the country its modern name.

The Latin from which those languages developed, however, wasn’t the elevated language spoken from the Senate. “Latin’s a dead language, as dead as dead can be,” goes the schoolboy doggerel, “it killed the ancient Romans and now it’s killing me.” Even those ancient Romans realised it was far too complex a language. Pliny the Elder admitted he spoke a different language in the market than in the Senate.

The language of the marketplace was, above all, far simpler. For instance, the word for ‘to talk’, loqui (think of ‘loquacious’ or ‘eloquent’), is particularly painful. Its form is called ‘deponent’ so it looks passive when it’s actually active (so a classical Latin scholar would say ‘I have been talked’ when what he meant was ‘I have talked’).

The more sensible kind of people who would sell you a water melon or repair a broken shoe don’t speak that way. So they looked around for different words to us.

Two are particularly simple. To tell a parable – ‘parabulare’ – and to tell a fable – ‘fabulare’ – are nice, easy, first conjugation verbs that are entirely regular and therefore behave predictably. The common people chose one or other of those two to mean “to speak’ in preference to loqui

The Italians, the French and the Catalans chose ‘parabulare’, shortened to ‘parlare’ (the word in Italian), giving the Catalan ‘parlem’.

The main branch of the language in the rest of Spain chose ‘fabulare’. The Spanish have a way of replacing the initial ‘f’ by an ‘h’ – smoke, for instance, which is ‘fumo’ in Italian is ‘humo’ in Spanish. The Spanish for ‘to speak’ morphed into ‘hablar’ and hence ‘hablamos’.

The marchers in white were therefore demanding that the two parties tell some fables or some parables to each other. What they meant was that they should speak. Any of those would be great.

Isn’t it great that they chose to say it with a particularly easy word – not a derivative of the ghastly Latin ‘loqui’?

In the end, chatting to each other instead of fighting isn’t all that difficult. It just takes a simple word. And a bit of goodwill.

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