What do speaking a foreign language and cooking have in common? Technique, triumph, embarrassment and a ton of substitutions, when you can’t come up with the desired ingredient or word. I’m in the Basque country, a part of the world famed for its inventive cooking – the challenge being to combine as many flavours and textures as possible in a single mouthful. But, I find that people are just as inventive in the way they speak. Sentences can begin in euskera (Basque), end in castellano (official Spanish dialect) and be bolstered by a couple of words from other Spanish dialects in the middle.
A Handful of Regional Words:
The first language of the Basque country, is of course euskera, an ancient language without Indo-European roots, which means that it sounds nothing like the Spanish and French regional languages that surround it. For example, the basque word for breakfast is gosaria, whereas the Spanish is desayuno and the French, petit dejeuner. Even the name of the city sounds completely dissimilar, being Donostia in Basque and San Sebastián in Spanish. Basque is the official language of schools and local institutions and is therefore on the rise after the Franco years when it was repressed. Certainly Basque is no decorative appendage; amongst youths it’s often the language of gossip and graffiti and I wonder if you’d get mugged in it? But don’t let the cool kids fool you, grammatically complex, with wild regional variations, Basque is difficult to master. Unless you’re going to enrol yourself in a language academy, you’ll be getting by on a few choice expressions, the kaixo (hello), agur, (goodbye) eskerrik asko (thank you) and the all important, on egin (bon appetit). This might seem a trifling effort, but making it gives you a regional passport. You have, as the graffiti reads, acknowledged that you are in Euskal Herria as opposed to Spain and while you could never pretend to be an insider, it’s important to be interested.
I’m conscious that I’m passing with San Sebastián’s second official language: castellano. This language doesn’t have the happiest history in the region: it snuck in there with industrialisation in the 1800s and was imposed during Franco’s dictatorship between 1939 and 1975, when euskera was banned and driven underground. Still, despite the efforts made with primary school education in Basque, castellano is the globalised language preferred for connection with the rest of the country and hispanophone world.
The more exposed I am to Spanish, the more I see that there are numerous ways of communicating the same concept, the same word, even. It’s like deciding whether to cook with a red or yellow pepper. Or should that be a green? I’m the most indecisive when it comes to the letters c and z– whether to pronounce them with my tongue between my teeth as Spanish people tend to (thhe) or in a sibilant hiss as Latin Americans do. In the company of older, more proper people, the kind that might call you cielo (heaven), the tongue goes between the teeth. In a freer, more playful mood, I convert c to s, because it’s the way of Shakira and Luis Fonsi.
I’m not alone in stealing from the Latin Americans, who are prominent in the city both in person and culturally, through their music and throng of salsa academies. Lately, the Argentinian expression ¿y vos?, which literally means and you?, has become a breezier, dare I say, a flirtier replacement for the Spanish equivalent, ¿y tú?. Spain may have conquered much of the Americas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries out of a sense of cultural superiority, but with time and distance, Spaniards have come to view Latin America with a mix of nostalgia and fantasy. It’s funny to me that people in Spain, imagine Latin America quite a lot like Britons picture Spain : a hot mess of violence, sensuality and men who dance when they’re sober. It’s funny how this fantasy is continually deferred to another place, one that you probably couldn’t live in, but are comforted to know exists. What’s more, you can approach it linguistically.