I bought this land without words. Witlessly I negotiated down the price of a house and land in a country I’d never heard of. I thought I was in Spain but Spain is an English word. I’d learned España from a book but España is a word for people who believe in España. I get ahead of myself. I, wielding the few Spanish short course words I had, stood before him speechless; my partner beside me with fewer words than I. The numbers I understood: quince mil, fifteen thousand, but he saw our doubt. With a faceful of weary wrinkles he blurted trece mil, thirteen thousand. He had some shrewdness to him. He’d allowed us to camp over on the land for a long weekend, clear our own paths in its wordless wildness and fall completely in love with it. And now he wanted us to buy it. Thirteen thousand euros is a good price. I didn’t know what to say. I stuttered and looked at Andru who shrugged. Sure; we’d probably take it for thirteen thousand. We probably would have taken it for fifteen; we were just nervous about committing there and then. I looked into the void for words; there was nothing. My tongue had been torn out; my mouth, hollow. The tools I was raised with to communicate were useless. This wrinkled, weary anarchist ready to be rid of the land panicked: doce mil, he said. Twelve thousand. I opened my mouth but nothing came out. He wrung his hands nervously and then, after a wordless pause, raised both of his hands, fingers splayed— each finger representing a thousand euros: diez mil. Ten thousand.
Shocked, we shook on it.
Words are my most primitive technology and without them I feel profoundly naked. I didn’t like the feeling and was determined to learn some more words.
España is a word that belongs to a state, a powerful state with a judiciary, legislature, an army and a handful of police forces to keep it together, but together is what it barely is. For decades Basque separatists bombed almost every organ of that state trying to wound it into submission.
Now Catalunya seems set on voting out.
Our country, the one I didn’t know existed, is one of Spain’s forgotten nations. Galicia is the word we use in English most commonly. Galicia in the Spanish language. It’s funny that it’s the same word: a sort of grand colonial joke from one empire to another. This country has its own indigenous list of words tied together by the threads of grammar and culture and its list of words is very different to the ones you might find in Madrid. It is a very different language, the oldest of the Iberian romance languages and in its own tongue the word for this country is Galiza.
The kingdom of Galiza is older than Castile-Leon, the Spanish crown that eventually consumed Galiza when it fell into chaos. It’s social structures were deliberately dismantled; it’s lands divided up by Spanish lords who never lived here. It became a colony of the Spanish crown. The independent culture, language and nation of Galiza was systematically repressed from that time, all the way through the twentieth century under the fascist rule of Franco, the predecessor to the modern Spanish state. And yet remarkably the words survived so that even today, our neighbours speak to us in Galizan, not Spanish.
It is a miracle that the air here is still thick with these words, but it is a miracle that is drying up. The words are evaporating at an ever increasing rate. New ones from Spanish are emboldening themselves; they sense weakness in the moment. Now is the time, after more than five hundred years, to finally kill the native tongue. Our neighbours speak Galizan but they are old. Only 5% of children under 12 now speak the language.
We might just be about to see the successful culmination of centuries of colonial policy. And just like that, another one of the world’s many beautiful languages will be snuffed out. Extinct. The ways of thinking it contains, the poetry and flow of its words, the richness with which it describes the land it is suited to and evolved in will be the domain of a few academics cataloguing Europe’s dead tongues.
We’d heard of the communities of English emigrants who settled in the south of Iberia. Little towns of English speaking people brimming with cultural conflicts.The internet is full of Brits in Spain, clucking away that the Spanish are too lazy to speak English to them: one going so far as to say he emigrated to get away from the immigrants. Somehow, somewhere, somewhen, the unity of the two words emigrant and immigrant got lost in the English mind. It reminds me of an American I overheard once in a London airport queue arguing that he was being sent to the wrong queue, pointing up to the sign he shouted, This one’s for foreigners, I’m not foreign, I’m American!
Appalled by these ghettos of arrogance and determined to confound English linguistic imperialism, we threw all our energy into learning Spanish. We wanted to integrate. Then one day we travelled to a nearby city for a political meeting. We sat down to listen and heard nothing. The words seemed like forms we should recognise, but distorted, twisted, like someone was speaking to you in a language you know but you’ve forgotten how to hear it. We understood nothing. And from that day we have slowly pulled ourselves up the mountain of learning the wonderful language of this country, not Spanish, but Galizan.
Like a monkey who’s learned to imitate words, we are a novelty. Our cheeks get pinched, mira que fala Galego! Fala melhor que nós! Look how well he speaks Galizan, better than me! They always say. It’s not true of course, but I understand why they say it. We’ve had to learn the language and, to speak good Galizan, we take pains not to use the Spanish words eating their way into this language.
Not all are thrilled. This stateless country, summoned by the word Galiza, is not an idea all who live here admire. There are many defenders of the Spanish project. You can often, though not always, tell them by the size of their house, their flash cars and their fine dress.The vast majority of Galizans find our attempts to speak their language charming, humorous or, admirable. They are often grateful, often surprised that we would speak Galizan. But a small number react strangely: overtly hostile.
The short, fiery shop owner quivered as she spoke, Soy Española. I am Spanish, she said, and you need to learn to speak Spanish. Another woman in another office looked at me with profound disgust. But why do you speak Galician? She asked. All our neighbours speak Galizan, I explained. With fierce disappointment she said, but the two languages are very similar, if you speak one you can understand the other. Speak Spanish. She inexplicably then told my partner that he should speak Spanish because not everyone understands Galizan.
The politics of Spanish are irrational. Their arguments are irrational but the Spanish language is winning and those who support the destruction of the Galizan language know that all they have to do is carry the momentum.
I wish I had been braver in that moment and I promise to myself that next time I will be. The next time someone asks me, with disgust in their face, why I speak Galician I will respond: because I live here, in Galiza, and because the language must be spoken to survive.
Opening your mouth to speak is the most primordial existential moment and we face it perpetually. What are we going to say? What words will come out? What world shall we make with them? Does the word lazy prelude Greek? Does the word man refer to humanity? Do I refuse to take responsibility for my words, allowing them to tumble out unbidden? I make the world as much as it makes me.
How wonderful it is to find I have been ignorant of something and to learn it. And once I have learned I have no excuse to not alter my tongue, to describe the world a little better, to intervene on the side that needs it.
I am an immigrant and I understand the desire to not ruffle feathers in my new home country, yet we cannot sit on the linguistic fence. When you open your mouth to speak, some words must come out. And before you can even decide what to say you must decide with which language to say it. If we choose to speak Spanish we are deciding that Spanish is the default language of this country and our words help kill the natural born language of this place.
When we use the word Galicia in English we are deciding that the colonial state, the colonial language trumps the local language. We take our cue from the fellow empire. All whose sentiments lie with the underdog, with the colonised, must reject that word in English. Leave Galicia to the Spanish language and let us use the indigenous name; the one that contains some of the culture and essence of this place.
When I wordlessly bought a mountain home I had no idea it was so wonderfully placed. Nestled along the Atlantic, this country sits through its rain soaked winters with gentle pessimism. Sure there’s modernity but also bagpipes, celtic dances, fishing villages and rolling, sheep filled hills. It’s home to a warm, humble culture, sometimes suspicious, often cautious, almost always generous. Here, like anywhere else, there is conflict and stubbornness; affection and joy; disappointment and hope. I am an immigrant and I am thankful to the people of this country for welcoming us warmly. We are lucky to have made our home here, in Galiza.