Years ago I was in Montreal with an American friend, and we went into a cafe for lunch. I loved seeing the French language everywhere in Montreal, and as bad as my French was, I was content to damage the local culture by speaking French when I could. In the cafe, I ordered lunch in French (not all that sophisticated, as you could practically just point), and then my friend said, “I can’t order in French.” To which our waitress, in perfect English, said, “Oh, just try.”
Since the waitress spoke excellent English, why would she want me or my friend garbling like brain-damaged children through her language? Montreal is in the province of Quebec, where French is adamantly advocated as the proper cultural language of the province, and maybe it was important to our waitress to promote a language she felt was a part of her cultural identity.
If you think about it, it’s rather amazing how important language is to us. We do not merely want whatever will communicate, but rather we place enormous value on the exact form of the language we want to use. As a personal example, I am very attached to the word “yall” here in Georgia, and I appreciate when people can use it properly (and no, goddamnit, it is never, ever, ever singular). The symbolism of language is, to put it mildly, vast.
I discovered in Ireland a powerful instance of the symbolic importance of language. The Irish language (also called Gaelic) is an official language of Ireland, along with English, and although almost no one in Ireland really speaks the language, it is literally in front of you every day. If you’re not quite sure what the Irish language is, here’s a small sample: the phrase “baggage storage area” in Irish is “limistéar stórála bagáiste”.
Because Irish is official, everything the government does must be in both English and Irish. That includes all street signs, notices in buses, and information in train stations. Because I like languages so much, I thought that was pretty darn cool, but I’ll say that seeing Irish constantly created more of a feeling of being in a foreign country than I expected.
And yet all that teanga Gaeilge (Irish language) is mostly symbolic. In a week, the only time I heard a single word of Irish spoken was announcements made on the train intercom. There were a few times, granted rare, when knowing a little Irish might have been nice. In the fishing village of Kinsale, I saw that the doors of a public restroom were labeled only “Fir” and “Mná”. Fortunately by that point I knew a few words of Irish, so I strode boldly into Fir.
I was also thinking, on the bus down to Kinsale, that since every road sign is in both languages, with Irish always listed first, if you were driving along quickly and just caught a brief look at a sign, reading from the top, you might only see the Irish.
The two linguistic examples I’ve cited, French in Montréal, Québec, and Irish in Éire are only two of an enormous number that show the emotional power of speaking the right language. Language literally helps to create who we are, and if we do not have our proper language, we become like the earth on the first day of creation, “without form and void”.
Because of this fact—casting our gaze in the dark direction—those who wish to destroy the identity of a group of people often look first to preventing them from using their language. During the days of the Spanish dictator Franco, he declared that the Catalan language was merely “bad Spanish” and made it illegal. Just a few decades ago in Turkey, the Kurdish language was illegal for more than ten years, so that people speaking their native language could be arrested. The same sort of brutality was used here in America for many years to suppress the languages of native Indian tribes, and children in school well into the 20th century would be punished for speaking the language they had grown up speaking to their parents.
Though we are a more diverse and understanding country now, such intolerant nastiness still exists, of course. In the current presidential campaign, Donald Trump criticized Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish to a Spanish-speaking audience. Now granted, Trump is a cretinous xenophobic asshole, to be kind about it. This particular expression of his profound stupidity, however, illustrates the importance people attach to language for their cultural identity, even if it comes out as deep whining insecurity that someone else has a different identity.
Personally, I’m glad to hear people speak Spanish, French, Catalan, or Yupik. I don’t feel insecure about my own cultural identity, so I’m not afraid when I hear another language. And when you come here to Georgia, I’ll greet you with the proper “How yall doin’?”
If you want to read the title of this blog entry, here is the link for Google Translate. Ask it to translate from Irish.