I was too short to reach the faucet, so to ask my mother for a glass of water, I said “un vas d’aigua, si us plau.” But if I had to ask the maid, I said instead “un vaso de agua, por favor.” Somehow I knew to speak to my parents, my aunts, and my grandparents in Catalan, a Romance language born of the sloppy Latin of the Roman soldiers who occupied the northeast of Spain. But to speak to the maid, who came from the south, I used Castilian, another descendant of bastardized Latin.
When Ferdinand and Isabella unified the various kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century, Castilian, known in the rest of the world as Spanish, became the official language of the new country, and a centuries-long suppression of regional languages such as Catalan and Basque began.Growing up under Franco’s dictatorship, my generation wrote and spoke Spanish, which was enforced as the language of public life, more correctly than Catalan. But for all his efforts to eradicate it, Franco could not erase Catalan from the dining room table with its cruet of olive oil and its bottle of dark red Priorat, or from the bedtime stories, the nightly prayers, and the lullabies.
Although as a toddler I didn’t think much about the difference between Spanish and Catalan, I was acutely aware of the distinctions between barceloní , the variety of Catalan spoken in Barcelona and by my father and his family, and lleidatà, the variety spoken in the province of Lleida, a mere eighty miles away, where my mother came from. Although as a city kid I should have spoken barceloní, my heart belonged to the horses, pigs and chickens, the wheat field and the grape arbor of my maternal grandparents’ farm, and I proudly spoke a countrified lleidatà.
But whether barceloní or lleidatà, I spent my childhood swimming in a river of language that flowed over and around me and sometimes threatened to engulf me. If you had asked me in my earliest years what adults did, I would have answered that they talked. At our house the radio was only turned on for selected programs, and there was no television. So people talked, all day and far into the night, as a kind of sport.
My mother and her sisters talked while they mended their stockings, ironed their blouses, or braided my hair. If one of them gave an opinion, the other countered it. If one told a story, the other corrected, expanded, and topped it with an even better one. When my father came home from rehearsal at the Liceu, the Barcelona opera house, he told us about the fabulous all-Black American company that had come to perform Porgy and Bess, or the amazing ballerina Maria Tallchief–also American, and a real Indian. Back from the bakery with the midday loaf of crusty bread, the maid relayed what she had heard the baker’s wife say as she stood in line.
After the meal I would sit on my mother’s lap while the adults lingered at the table, talking. With my head on her chest I could predict by her intake of breath when she was about to say something. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but I knew if she was feeling excited or angry by the rhythms of her breathing and the resonance of her voice inside her rib cage—the same rhythms and sounds that had lulled me during the nine months I had inhabited her body.
Words, followed by sudden pauses and then more words, swirled around me as I drowsily pressed a moistened fingertip onto the tablecloth to pick up the last crusty crumbs of bread. People gestured and exclaimed, burst into laughter, interrupted and talked over each other. This was not considered impolite, but rather a sign of interest and engagement. Failure to participate prompted anxious inquiries: “You haven’t said much. Are you coming down with a cold? You should have worn a sweater this morning. Let me feel your forehead…” (To be continued.)