Institut Ramon LLull

Learning Catalan with a touch of humour

paperllull.  BARCELONA, 19/07/2020

The linguist Míriam Martin Lloret talks about the need to play with Catalan language and the benefits of promoting it in a kinder way. And also wonders what we do with the “saviors of the language” that our language has, especially on Twitter




Who wouldn’t rather learn a language through humour, without any knowitallism or condescension? Now, for those reading the English translation of this article, in the Catalan original, I used the word mestretitisme for knowitallism. One of my favourite compound words in the Catalan language is mestretites, meaning ‘someone who shows off about knowing a lot’, formulated from mestre [teacher] and tites (a children’s word for hens). From there, we can derive the word mestretitisme to refer to this characteristic or way of doing things. It doesn’t appear in any dictionaries. Scandalous, right? Well, not really: it’s a perfectly formed word. It’s not hard to promote Catalan, or any other language for that matter, in a friendlier way. And I don’t mean forcing the matter with linguistic jokes (though you can make them if you want to) or constantly playing the clown. No, I’m talking about passing the language on with tools and resources that allow for more didactic, competence-based learning, and less memorisation. You’ve caught me: I like the word mestretites, even though I’m not one at all.

So, why am I talking about mestretitisme, anyway? Because Catalan is blessed with a few ‘saviours of the language’: people who get up every day at the crack of dawn, log on to social media – mainly Twitter – and set about correcting spelling mistakes and even foreign loanwords that have been used in Catalan since the year dot. Can you imagine? This reality is not as alien as you might think in other nearby European countries. In Greece, for example, I am told there are plenty of language mestretites, but there are no specific personalities known for it (or they keep a lower profile on social media). In early twentieth-century Italy, there was a trend of rejecting neologisms and so-called ‘purist dictionaries’ were written, with the main aim of recording neologisms so that they wouldn’t become part of the language. Let’s hope we don’t regress and start making ‘Catalan purist dictionaries’. This fundamentalist trend is no good for us because it makes the speaker feel insecure, so let’s move away from it.

Let’s start with the fact that Catalan, unlike English, French, German or Spanish, is a minoritised language: a restriction of its usage contexts and functions is imposed, to the extent that it isn’t necessary in most situations and contexts. One of our biggest concerns is that the younger generations will stop speaking Catalan and that, therefore, elements of the language such as weak pronouns will disappear. Because Catalan without weak pronouns would not be Catalan. So, a methodology involving humour and play to promote the language unpretentiously, without force-feeding it, is arguably the most intelligent strategy. In fact, gamification – involving resources that use the psychology of games for educational purposes – is already being used in the classroom.

It’s not all about standard speech and formal registers. Standardisation to bring morphosyntactic and orthographic aspects into alignment is key so that a language can have a solid base (thank you, Mr. Fabra). But equally, a language without a wealth of dialects or colloquial registers or informality or different pronunciations simply isn’t a language (thank you, Mr. Alcover and Mr. Moll). Catalan is all about saying llavors [then] in a thousand different ways (llavòrens, llavons, llavontes…); it’s saying on or a on [where] but pronouncing ‘avon’ or ‘agon’; it’s saying rosella or pipiripip [poppy] interchangeably; it’s pronouncing estiu [summer], ‘istiu’. For a language to function in all contexts, finding a balance between these two criteria is key. Catalan is a language rich in more colloquial dialectal variants. We need to promote informal learning and the oral transmission of all the Catalan-speaking territories’ lexical wealth. Let’s not waste all the valuable descriptive work Alcover and Moll did in their great project, the Diccionari català-valencià-balear [Catalan-Valencian-Balearic Dictionary]. On the contrary: let’s put it into practice and emulate them, but with digital tools. The time has come for all of us to get this sentence tattooed: ‘Catalan is valid in all contexts, even at the bar’. There’s no need to make a joke in English or write a placard in Spanish for it to be catchy. Catalan is much more than a formal or neutral register, and much more than a standard we only learn at school.

What we should be worried about is losing the morphological, syntactic and phonetic aspects of the language. Foreign loanwords will always turn up (especially in technological and scientific fields), and we can translate the ones we deem necessary. Adopting terminology from other languages doesn’t impoverish our language, quite the contrary: it enriches our lexicon. Catalan is not impoverished by foreign loanwords or by young people’s slang. This slang is another necessary layer of colloquial language that can easily coexist with the other registers: informal and formal Catalan. We need to be aware of this and explore colloquial Catalan lovingly. Because speaking Catalan is cool, if you commit to it. It’s just as cool as speaking English because, even though English is a Germanic language, the two have plenty in common: we share words with related roots (afer – affair; albergínia – aubergine; arribar – to arrive; pixar – to piss; xoc – shock; tastar – to taste, oncle – uncle, etc.) and similar sounds (the x in peix or xivarri is pronounced like the sh in ship; the z in zona is like the one in zone). Then there’s the use of the hyphen in numbers (trenta-dos – thirty-two; cent vuitanta-quatre – one hundred and eighty-four) and of quarter-hours when telling the time (in Catalan, though, we refer to the hour to come, not the one that has just passed: un quart de cinc – quarter past four). And yes, we even have portmanteaus – see, even English has loanwords – a device widely used in English (boirum [smog] from boira [fog] and fum [smoke], and cantautor [singer-songwriter] from cantant [singer] and autor [writer]).

To keep the flame of Catalan alive, cultural references urgently need to be created for young people, especially in the audiovisual and technological spheres: video games, streaming platforms, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and so on. Digital platforms have long been promoted where young people create content for YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, etc., but we need to create more educational content and language promotion channels that combine creativity and humour for young people, with an irreverent, cheeky feel. We need to play with the language and talk about everything openly in it: music, sex, feminism, social conflicts, rights, etc. This aspect is key: let’s invest more in this, please.

It’s a bit of a cliché, but who doesn’t love our quirky Christmas traditions: the ‘shitter’ nativity figure (el caganer) and the log that poops presents (caga tió)? We’ve seen them raise eyebrows internationally. The Catalans are a scatological people, and we have plenty of fun insults. For example, to tell someone they’re a nobody or a nonentity, we could call them a reed peeler (pelacanyes), a piece of junk (trasto), the last turd (el darrer cagalló de la tira), a half-shit (mitjamerda), or even accuse them of urinating in the brambles (pixabardisses)… And there are plenty of words deriving from cagar [to shit] to say the same thing: ets un cagall, cagalló, cagarró, cagallot, cagarro, cagarro sec, cagandanes, caganaies, cagandances, cagarri, cagacalçons... And we have a thousand ways of talking about having sex: we can card wool (cardar), load down (catxar), fill a hole (boixar), drill (barrinar), or even plant a seed (fotre un pinyol). Then there’s masturbating: alongside various hand-related expressions (fer el ditot, fer la mà, fer ralet-ralet), we have shining the pearl (llustrar la perleta), making a plum (fer-se una pruna) and rummaging around (fussar-se-la). Yep: we can be pretty vulgar. And we mustn’t forget our long list of words for ‘shitting on things’ to express our frustration when we get annoyed (cagondeu, cagondena, cagontot...). All of this, too, is Catalan, my friends. We like our euphemisms in Catalan, but we can also get straight to the point, with a host of expressions deriving from fotre [to fuck], including tant me fot or tant se me’n refot when we don’t care about something, and enfotre’s, meaning to make fun of someone. And if you haven’t already, you will fall in love with Catalan forever when you learn to tell the time with the chiming clock system, which isn’t as complex as it seems. Once you have delved into this world, you’ll never be able to leave again.

I’m presenting Catalan as an attractive language because it is one. Over history, Catalan has taken loanwords from Spanish, French, English, Italian... Yes, we have plenty of endearing barbarisms: guixeta [locker, ticket office], for example, is not as Catalan as it might look. It’s a Gallicism. We’ve got to a point where, frankly, bickering over whether or not to accept foreign loanwords is not the priority. We have a more serious problem at hand, and we as individual citizens can’t solve it because it’s not up to us. The Catalan language has to contend with a host of legal, economic and social obstacles. But that’s an article for another day. I long for the day we are no longer surprised by someone learning and speaking our language. This will be a sign that we are looking after our linguistic rights, that we are all on the same page.

Meanwhile, let’s explore the colloquial aspect of our language and the slang young people use. And let’s invent words if we need to! Let’s look for tools to invigorate the language and our own linguistic resources. Let’s use our bags of creativity to make the most of Catalan compound words! Let’s go for rosegallibres [book nibbler] or colzepelat [peeled elbow] to call someone a swot; remenacassoles [pot stirrer] or bufafogons [hob blower] to say someone is handy in the kitchen; and fregitalla when we fancy some fried food, rather than the Spanish alternatives (empollón, cocinillas and fritanga, respectively). Everyone knows the best way of learning a language is speaking it at the bar or in the street. Let’s be proud of our language and share it playfully and unpretentiously.

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