Opinion, reflections and information

8. How do adoptees and the children of immigrants become Catalan?

Susan Frekko
Goucher College, Baltimore, United States


“Does speaking Catalan allow children whose physical appearance differs from that of other Catalans to be accepted as Catalan?  Through what processes can they become Catalan?  In which situations is their Catalan-ness questioned, and in which might they themselves choose not to be Catalan?” I sought to answer these questions in an anthropological research project that I carried out in the Barcelona area from 2011 to 2015.[1] In the project I spent time with two sets of people who are negotiating access to Catalan-ness: immigrant families and transnationally adopted children. Children from both groups in theory have access to the Catalan language, either through the school or through both the school and the home. Do both sets of children have equal access to “counting” as Catalan?

This research project grew organically out of my previous research project. In that body of work, I try to understand what it means for Catalan to have become a public language again after its exclusion from the public realm during the Franco dictatorship.  I argue that while in many ways, Catalan is now seen as a neutral public language available for all to use, many speakers still view it as a language with strong ethnonational ties that keep it from acting as the taken-for-granted language of public life.

My interest in adoption began when participants in my first study as well as other friends and acquaintances in Catalonia began to adopt children from abroad. I realized that I was witnessing a major social phenomenon, one that would permit me to continue to ponder the Catalan language.  If Catalan is a public language and Catalan-ness is an identity available to all, adoptees should have the same opportunity to “become Catalan” as children born to Catalan families. The fact that the boom in international adoption coincided with the boom in immigration—often from the same countries—allowed me to design a comparative study that would tease apart place of origin, physical appearance, and home language and culture.

Kids imagining themselves at age 30

From summer 2011 to spring 2015, I used a range of anthropological techniques for collecting data, including spending time with participants informally, observing them, asking questions and conducting formal interviews and focus groups. Here I will describe a technique that I used to compare the experiences of adopted and immigrant children. I wanted to know about young people’s experience of Catalan-ness, but this is not a question one can easily ask directly, especially of children. Instead, I devised a focus group activity in which participants drew a response to a series of questions and then explained their drawing to their peers. This approach gave children the opportunity to express themselves in two different modes, providing a richer set of data and also accounting for the needs of children who might be more comfortable in one mode than the other. For logistical reasons, for the adopted children I conducted four small focus groups of three children each.[2] For the children from immigrant families, I conducted one larger focus group with eight children. The participants ranged in age from 9 to 16.

I first carried out the activity with adopted children. The children were all from upper-middle class families from a Catalan-speaking neighborhood of a city in the Barcelona metropolitan area and they lived their lives in Catalan. I brought colored pencils, markers and blank paper to the sessions. I invited the children to draw a picture that would answer the following questions, “When you are 30 years old…What will you be like? Where will you work? Where will you live? With whom will you live?  Anything else?” I let the children draw for 15 or 20 minutes, emphasizing that artistic skills were not important. Children drew themselves in professions such as SWAT team member, banker, hotel manager, computer programmer, nuclear engineer and musician, and many drew themselves large detached single-family homes. Then I asked the children to interview each other about their imagined life stories and how they had come to this point in their lives (the imagined age 30).

Autoretrat a l’edat imaginada de 30 anys per una adolescent adoptada de la Xina. Llegenda de l’exemple 2: autoretrat actual i a l’edat imaginada de 30 anys per una adolescent immigrada del Pakistan.

Example 1: self-portrait at the imagined age 30, by an adolescent girl adopted from China

In setting up the activity, I did not mention adoption, physical difference, the Catalan language, or Catalan-ness; I wanted to see if these things would come up on their own. They did not. Not a single child mentioned his or her own adoption as an important life event (or in fact, at all). The adopted children participating in this activity were of Chinese and Moroccan origin. People of Moroccan origin and people of Catalan origin are not necessarily distinguishable by their physical appearance, but people of Chinese origin obviously are. Still, nothing in the drawings of children adopted from China marked a phenotypic difference. For example, none of them depicted themselves with almond-shaped eyes and one child drew decidedly round eyes (see example 1). Relatedly, these children took the Catalan language and their Catalan-ness for granted. Catalan is the only language that they used for the activity and the fact that they had begun life as something other than Catalans never surfaced. Of course this is unsurprising, since they had all been adopted at a young age. Only when I specifically brought up the issue of adoption or physical difference did the children mention limits on their ability to receive social recognition as Catalans—for example a child of Moroccan origin with darker skin and curlier hair than is common in Catalonia reported being called the racial epithet “Moor” by classmates.

When carrying out the activity with the children of immigrant families, I modified the technique slightly to account for the fact that I didn’t know these children as well as the adopted kids and I needed information about their current lives. I had them divide their paper down the middle. On the left they drew themselves now and on the right at age 30. The participants came from working and lower-middle class families from Morocco and Pakistan. Some of the children had been born in Barcelona, while others had immigrated.

Frekko ex 2 small-web

Example 2: self-portrait now and at the imagined age 30, by an adolescent girl immigrating from Pakistan

As with the adoptees, these participants did not mark themselves as different in their drawings, with the exception of a teenage girl who drew herself wearing a headscarf (see example 2). Their aspirations for themselves at age 30 were also quite similar; professions included included FBI/Guardia Civil, marine biologist, social worker and banker—the children did not see themselves as emulating their parents’ roles as grocery owners, taxi drivers, cleaners and housewives. Catalan was not taken for granted among these young people. Their drawings and speech showed a range of uses, with some of the kids using almost exclusively Castilian, one using exclusively in Catalan (because he had arrived two years previously and had not yet learned Castilian), and some speaking both languages comfortably.

At the end of the session, I asked about advantages and disadvantages of having parents from elsewhere. Most kids pointed to advantages, such as getting to travel and know other cultures. The only disadvantage was given by a 10-year-old girl who complained that her mother asked her to do her Castilian homework for her! When asked, the kids reported instances of racism—from being called “Moor” to being told to “go back to your country.” When asked if he felt Catalan, a 14-year-boy born in Morocco who immigrated to Spain at age five said he felt Moroccan but not Spanish or Catalan. A girl of Moroccan origin born in Catalonia said she felt Catalan and a little bit Moroccan, but not Spanish. Other kids reported feeling all three. And a teenage girl who was born in Pakistan and moved only recently to Catalonia Pakistani and not Catalan, but then added, “una mica sí perquè sé parlar el català.”

In fact, when I asked explicitly, “Què vol dir ser català?,” the teenage daughter of a Moroccan mother and a Spanish father responded, “Parlar català.” When I asked if anyone had helped them to feel Catalan, the ten-year-old Moroccan girl responded, “Sí, a l’ escola ensenyant-nos a escriure el català.” These kids clearly see becoming Catalan as a process and identify access to the Catalan language as key. These data also point to the apparent success of the public school system: the kids seem to identify it as an institution that facilitates rather than impedes their ability to belong. Also, their aspiration to middle-class professions indicates they believe (correctly or incorrectly?) that they have a chance at upward mobility. The adopted kids, on the other hand, are not “becoming Catalan.” They take the Catalan language and their Catalan-ness for granted, although they do experience instances of racism and privately some of their parents shared their worries about what will happen to their children when they leave the protection of their schools and neighborhoods and engage with the world of strangers.

What I have described here are early findings and observations. As I undertake a more detailed analysis, it will be important to pay attention to nuances related to gender, country of origin, social class and locality. My hope is that this analysis will help social scientists think about the relationship between language, difference and belonging in Catalonia and beyond.

[1] Of these children, three were non-adopted friends or siblings of the adoptees. The present analysis focuses on the responses of the nine adoptees.

[2] This research was supported by summer funding and a research leave from Goucher College, as well as a grant from the Reed Foundation’s Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fund.

7. Remembering

Joan Miralles i Monserrat
Universitat de les Illes Balears


Working with oral history is both rewarding and enjoyable, as it gives knowledge, information and good vibes. I started doing interviews in 1969 – AD, of course – with people who would now be a century and a half old. The oldest person, who was from Llubí, was 103 and she was from the tribe of the wife of Gabriel Janer Manila, the writer. This tribe thing is absolutely true and correct. We’ll be judged by tribes, already we often are. My colleague at the Institut d’Estudis Catalans and friend, Joan Argenter, asked me for an article on something connected with my work on oral history or on popular culture. Straightaway I thought it might be good for me, and quite fun, to share some of the experiences that I’ve rummaged around for in the depths of my memory for this piece. They are anecdotes, in fact, about people who are often illiterate but frequently incredibly powerful, and it seems to me that their experiences, what they’ve lived through, could be turned into a fantastic life lesson. Such people would never have read Sartre or Camus, not to mention Marx or Mao’s Little Red Book (and what’s more they couldn’t care less), because their culture has been adjusted to suit their needs, like a skin-tight stocking.

Once, in Sant Joan de Sineu, I was trying to get to interview an old priest, the former parish vicar. It was a baking hot summer day in the early 1970s. I hadn’t learnt to drive a car back then, so my youthful body had to lug around the wonderful eight-kilo Grundig TK 14  tape recorder, which I’d bought on the never-never for 100 pesetas a month. The priest lived on the outskirts of town. It was harvest time. I didn’t know exactly where he lived. Suddenly, on the edge of the town, I could just make out a long cart coming towards me, loaded with bundles, all spilling over, like in a Botero sculpture. The cart slowly trundled towards me. Astride the driver’s seat was an anthropological Mallorcan specimen, chubby, hatted, ruddy-skinned, pensively smoking his pipe, sitting on his throne. A few metres before coming alongside me I gave him a friendly greeting: “Good day to you, sir!”. From the entrails of this example of ‘pithecanthropus maioricensis’ came a primeval, cosmic, full-on “oooou!”. The bundles made the cart swing alarmingly.  “Good day, what’s up?” “Would you be able to tell me where Father Bauzà, the old vicar, lives?” “I’ll tell you. You follow the road straight on, then you take a left turn, you go downhill and you cross a little bridge. Afterwards, when you get to a barrier, go left, you’ll see a path, don’t take it, go straight on, to the right, and after fifty paces, more or less – I’m not being exact here – you’ll find the house!” “Thanks very much, sir!” I followed his directions as best I could and after walking maybe two hundred metres I could hear the sound of animals, things and people. Turning round, I caught a glimpse of the cart coming straight for me at high speed, like a war chariot, with the driver standing on top, eyes glittering, face aflame and sweating. The road was narrow and it wasn’t going to be easy to shake this thing off. Defenceless, I saw that life’s too short, with all the things I still had left to do. I felt like Verdaguer’s worm.  I was asking myself what on earth I could have said to that little man to provoke such a reaction. Suddenly, when the war chariot was four paces away from me, I could see Ben Hur standing up with the reins in his hand yelling “oooooou!”, and once again I could see how flexible that war weapon was, as it swung back and forth but with its parts rigid. It turned out that it wasn’t a war cry and the man, by using these words, couldn’t have been wiser, kinder and more generous: “I’m so sorry, sir. I got it wrong. I told you to go left and you have to go right!” Dear reader, I was stunned, shell-shocked and rooted to the spot. As God is my witness, if that man had been Marilyn Monroe I’d have given him a kiss full on the lips.

One of the most interesting families or clans in my village is that of Can Rei. One of the members of this family married a girl from Montuïri who I was able to meet and interview.​ The couple got married by proxy because the man was in Mendoza working as a doctor and she was in Mallorca. When the bride went to Argentina to join her husband, she met the poet Josep Carner on board the ship and apparently she made a huge impression on him. Carner dedicated a piece to her, “Casadeta de Montuïri” (little bride from Montuïri), which is a good example of his humour. Later on, the doctor ended up going funny in the head and became a recluse in his home town. I had the opportunity to talk with the little bride and also with a brother of the doctor who ended up crazy. The experience shows you, I think, the flexible nature of memory and how memories from our childhood and our youth stick in our subconscious, unlike other memories formed closer to the present. This man, Joan Mateu ‘Rei’, told me various stories from his childhood, one of which was that his father had given him a bicycle when he was a child. He told me this apparently trivial anecdote in the early 1970s, when he was in his nineties, so it must date back to the late 19th century. Anyway, after two days his son, who worked in the Town Hall, turned up at my house and said: “Joan, you have to come to my house urgently and place the tape in front of my father!” “What, just like that, what’s happened?” “Nothing, but he hasn’t slept for two days because he says he told you his father gave him a bicycle when he was a child and he’s worried that his brother, who’s still alive, is going to get jealous.” (!)

This story is a reminder of the scope of historic memory. I’ll tell you another. Around thirty years ago the residents of our block of houses were summoned to a meeting at Montuïri Town Hall so they could tell us about the project for a road extension that would run through the middle of our properties. There were about a dozen of us altogether. At some point in the meeting, Joan Vermell, already an old man, launched an impassioned defence of the advantages of opening up the road. Suddenly, the chap next to me, Moreno, leapt up from his chair, strode up to Vermell and blurted out: “Look here Vermell, now you’re telling us it’s a really great idea to have this road coming through! You weren’t saying that in 1932, in the Republic, when we met right here. This is no time to change sides!”

Each interview is an unknown and we can always learn and have fun. I remember very well an interview in a farmhouse in Petra, on the outskirts of town. The old, old-fashioned house was inhabited by an elderly couple who had that typical wisdom for practical stuff coupled with a pretty sceptical view of the human condition. After the interview they showed me round the house, disparaging the old and singing the praises of modern life. At some point, they led me down a dark passageway: “And now we’ll show you something we think you’ll like”. As the old man said this, he stopped, pulled a large key from the depths of his trousers and opened the door… “Look, sir, this is called a bathroom. We had it done for our granddaughter when she got married two years ago. We’ve never needed it, thank God!” I don’t need to tell you that the bathroom fittings still had the polythene from the factory on them.

Another time, in Porreres, a tall, lanky old man with a hooked nose, a reincarnation of Quevedo’s Dómine Cabra, showed me the formula for curing warts and gave me the list of the town’s Falange members during the Republic, plus a lengthy account of the Republican disembarkation on the eastern shores of Mallorca by Captain Bayo and his troops in 1936. It appeared that this guy had had both the time and the inclination to get married three times, and in fact he had enthroned all three wives, like a Holy Trinity, over the sewing machine. He went on to introduce them to me post mortem: “Look, sir, this is Maria, a good woman, 130 kilos. This other one was called Antònia. She was good too… She weighed 120 kilos at her heaviest. And this other one, the last one, Aina, she was a bit skinny but she still made 100 kilos.”

For many interviewees, the tape recorder was a completely unknown tool, but some of the old people had clearly heard about these machines that recorded your voice. In Vilafranca de Bonany I interviewed a woman who was reputed to be a witch. I remember that it was the time of year when almonds were picked and cracked open. On summer evenings in the streets of Mallorcan villages it was normal to hear the sound of hammers striking stone as people cracked almonds open and extracted the nuts. The interview meandered through increasingly tricky but fascinating terrain, and we soon got onto taboo topics, like the Spanish Civil War, smuggling, intimate hygiene, witchcraft and the evil eye. At one point, the tape ran out and the recorder I was using at the time gave a rather loud “click!” Then the woman realised that I had been recording her voice. She hadn’t realised the purpose of the machine up to that point and she began to complain, then started to issue threats: “And what was that noise. Isn’t that one of those machines that takes your voice. Watch out, lad, I’m not joking and it’ll be the worse for you, you’ll pay for this!” I quickly came up with something for maximum dramatic effect, personally I think it was a master-stroke. On hearing these words, I quickly grabbed the hammer the old woman was clutching in her right hand, pulled out the used tape, threw it in the hippy basket on the stone block and took out a clean tape from the same basket. Wearing a furious and tragic expression, I then proceeded to hammer the clean tape to pieces on the stone block. It only lasted a few seconds and before the crone realised what was happening the tape was in bits. After my performance, her attitude changed completely: “Oh, oh, oh, now what have you done, lad? That’ll have cost you a lot. These things must be very expensive, you know. Look at it, good heavens and now what? Look, look…!”. So I now went on the attack: “Now you’re saying that, good woman, after you scolded me unfairly. I wouldn’t have misused what you told me, don’t worry…”

Other times, the experience involves new sensations. Anyone working with oral history needs to be prepared to put up with anything. For example, the place and the conditions in which the interview takes place. I think things are a bit better nowadays, but in those days it was quite common to find that the tanks where all human and animal excrement ended up would be located in the same courtyard where people stayed. I remember an interview I did with a poet and musician right alongside the privy or toilet and the resulting effluent flow. To make matters worse, the guy was reciting ditties about the healthy outdoor life. The sanitary conditions our old folk were living in were sometimes woeful too. Whenever I talk about this, I always remember the experience I had once on the outskirts of town with an elderly man who lived alone with his mother, aged nearly a hundred, a fountain of wisdom and good humour, and of patience too. She had a hole in her nose from a tumour and you could see the raw flesh through it, and the wound was always being sucked by a bluebottle. Every so often the poor woman raised her hand patiently and waved the beast away, but it was futile. After a moment the insect would be back making her life a misery. Back then, I used to wear Kissinger-style black rimmed plastic spectacles, and I had to invent something so I wouldn’t have to see the damned thing. The invention was simply to position my glasses so I couldn’t see the pierced nose and the invasive fly. Another experience: In Algaida I was interviewing the oldest woman in the town. It was extremely interesting. It lasted three and a half hours. My bladder was demanding to be emptied. It was no use. Whenever I tried to get up, the old woman would grab my arm with a strength I had no idea she could muster and keep me firmly at her side.

I think I’ve said enough for now.

In Montuïri, on 23 August, eve of the festival of St. Bartholomew, surrounded by the aroma of lavender and waiting for the medieval ‘cossiers’ dance to start.

6. Etundi Etundi Ambroise

Lluís Mallart i Guimerà
Centre for Ethnology and Comparative Sociology (CNRS – Paris X)


The Spokesman of the Evuzok (Cameroon) and other Masters of the Spoken Word

Etundi Etundi Ambroise had been chosen his country’s ‘zomolo’ or spokesman. He was called e ‘dzomdzomo dzal’, the equivalent of «the nation’s most important figure». He presided over all the clan’s daytime rituals, with Akoa Ignace and Atangana Dominik as his assistants. He opened up many doors for us, teaching us many things at a time when his authority and prestige were acknowledged by all. He gave us his blessing on several occasions. In the midst of a conversation at his home about certain plants’ social and symbolic connotations, he moved us by suddenly interrupting the conversation and starting to sing, improvising lyrics in which he thanked us for our visit. Indeed, many were the occasions on which I heard him improvise a song in the middle of a speech, at rituals to reconcile family members or clans, or at farewells and funerals. He was a discrete figure who lived in simple style in a mud house in a clearing by the Kpwa.

I shall only recall him here in his capacity as a superb speaker, although, through him, I would also like to remember all the Evuzok who so impressed me with their gift of speech, particularly when talking in public. I refer here to men and women. Obviously some were better than others, but generally the Evuzok had a command of the spoken word far greater than ours, here in the Western world. They knew how to improvise without stammering or getting nervous. They knew how to be coherent, to follow the thread of conversation or discourse, and to put forward arguments when proof was needed. And, if necessary, in their demonstrations, they would recall the words of their ancestors, quoting sayings or proverbs. In important speeches, the speakers would resort to established forms of speech in which a kind of dialogue was forged between the speaker and his or her audience. The latter would respond in unison by giving short or onomatopoeic replies, which I found spectacular. To cite an example:


The most conventional wordings are shown in bold.



Etundi Etundi Ambroise

On track 15 of the CD ‘Sóc fill dels Evuzok’ (‘I am a Child of the Evuzok’)[1], I give another example. We are in Aseng-Bede. It might rain (or the recording come out badly). We are at a farewell gathering. The following day, I am going to Europe. Etundi Etundi Ambroise begins to speak, displaying all his oratory expertise, this time in a somewhat entertaining way. He is a true showman. I had heard him many times at important rituals – in the midst of a gathering, generally badly dressed, perhaps to insinuate that he did not profit financially from the position that he held (I think that was the reason), allowing one group and then another to take the floor, picking up the thread of the discussion or discourse, inviting everyone to join him in agreeing or disagreeing, defying criticism, invoking ancestors, bestowing a blessing with his saliva, anointing a body with the blood of sacrificial goats etc. He was not the only one. Other Evuzok were skilful at doing the same, men and women. Although I have seen it less frequently among the women, it is also true of them and indeed everyone. Boys and girls are taught and encouraged to speak in public on evenings when stories and folktales are told. On such occasions, it might be the women who speak more and it is perhaps then that riddles come to the fore, when the children learn the language of metonyms and metaphors.

Instrument mvet

‘Mvet’ harp-zither

Having said that, the true maestros of the spoken word are the troubadours of the ‘mvet’ harp-zither, like the ‘griots’ of other parts of Africa, western Africa. This must be why on one of my returns to Europe, I spent the whole time carrying a ‘mvet’ round with me, like the bearer of a much valued gift. It had been presented to me by Ekundu David, a man from Zok. He was not a troubadour but a craftsman. Thank you Ekundu David, although the people that I would like to thank, if possible, are Owona Apollinaire, Ngul Zamba and Amugu Pancrace, troubadours who specialize in playing the ‘mvet’. It was them that I was no doubt thinking about when in ‘Sóc fill dels Evuzok’ (‘I am a Child of the Evuzok’) I wrote:

«The epic deeds of the genre known as the mvet were sung in exceptional style by poets of a kind relatively comparable to our troubadours.
Such evenings’ aesthetic enjoyment did not necessarily reside in being able to understand the sung or recited texts. On most occasions, I only understood less than half. I found the literary language, particularly when sung, very hard to catch. I was fortunate to have a tape recorder and time afterwards to listen, transcribe and translate them. The aesthetic enjoyment was derived from the atmosphere that was created. Mvet evenings were a genuine delight. In a clearing in the open air, under a well-lit moonlight sky, the audience formed a circle around a man seated on a chair, the troubadour, dressed in a grass skirt, with a bare chest and bunch of feathers on his head. His arms and legs were hung with bells and he held a harp-zither in his hands. A mvet troubadour’s instrument is made of a slightly curved raffia palm branch with four strings made from its fibrous middle and half gourds, forming a sound box, fixed to the outside of the other side of the branch.
On such evenings, the atmosphere was filled with a certain exoticism. Everything was foreign, different, strange and incomprehensible to me: the rhythm; what were almost certainly complex chords from a series of seemingly very simple musical instruments; long semitonal tales that recounted the epic deeds of Akom Mba fighting against imaginary beings and peoples; melodies sung by the troubadour and taken up by the audience to create an exultant dialogue; the poet’s gesticulations; the expressive acoustics of his onomatopoeias, the audience’s ingenuity when it came to the tale’s heroes, the encouragement, the lamentations inserted into the story to recall the unfortunate life of the troubadour, initiated in the art of singing and playing the mvest. Books on anthropology say little of the fascination that spectacles like this can arouse. When we talk of Others, we forbid ourselves from expressing anything emotional, subjective or impression related as if the Other should only be regarded from a rational scientific perspective and as if, at no time, should we reveal our feelings or emotions ».

But these two things are not mutually exclusive.

During that same period, in another corner of the Equatorial jungle, in Gabon, close to the border between Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, a ‘mvet’ troubadour, Zwè Nguéma, sang an epic ‘mvet’ song that lasted one whole night long, recorded, transcribed and translated into French for the ‘Classiques africains’ [2]. I set out to study a specific theme of this ‘mvet’: the interludes and troubadour’s lamentations [3]. In this case, they allude to another epic: that of the troubadour, who compares his life – the life of a ‘mvet’ poet – to a struggle with the world of the spirits-of-the-dead from which he gets his inspiration.

I continue my research into this ‘mvet’. I have written a summary in Catalan, some fragments of which are shown below in English [4]:

“The people of the Engong or the Immortals are made up of thirteen big settlements. The troubadour mentions them one by one, indicating their location as you travel from the border that separates this group of people from the group known as the Mortals. Likewise, he mentions the leading figure for whom each group is known [5].
All the men of the Engong, without exception, leave their settlements to gather at the meeting point. The women leave their fields, watching as their warriors respond to the summons in all their magnificence, as if they were birds flying across the valleys, climbing the jagged high mountains, armed with spears that might touch the endless skies.
The people know the war drum only sounds with good reason. Some ask what has happened. Others comment that a brainless mortal has dared to defy Angone Endong Oyono and plans to kill him. The more levelheaded troubadour reminds them that «a tree is never disbarked on just one side», since if, on the one side, there are the Immortals, on the other the Mortals can be found.
Then, the troubadour invites them to contemplate that gathering of forces, which he describes in grandiose in-depth style.
The men, in their warrior gear, gather to form a single body. Along the way, the members of one clan or settlement meet up with those of another in response to the war drum. Some arrive like lightning or else they fill the esplanade like thundering drops of rain. The warriors proudly display their tattoos on their chests, backs, arms and legs. The so-called “Terrible Ones” arrive, the most powerful leaders, giving the impression of beings from another world. The people gaze at them, commenting on and approving of them, discussing things among one another as more warriors keep arriving.
The troubadour then begins a long soliloquy. The audience follows it, entering into dialogue with him. There is an exchange of sentiments. The wooden drums sound. The troubadour says that singing a mvet is like dying.
People continue to arrive. Medang arrives, making a spectacle of separating the clans when they argue. The voice of Mfule Engbang, a member of one of the three big families that make up the Engong, can be heard from the big river that acts as a frontier between the Immortals’ country and that of the Mortals. The troubadour describes this important figure. His long body swings from one side to another; his neck moves like a water snake; the pupils of his eyes look like those of a curved yellow-beaked hornbill. He is the strong man of his village, able to carry out work in a large piece of jungle all on his own. He arrives, passes in front of everyone and stops, he is here.
Now it is the turn of Otuang Mba, another leading figure from the country of the Immortals. He is an old man with a long white beard. He is bedecked with necklaces made of leopard’s teeth round his neck, forehead and ears. When he moves his head to one side or the other, the teeth jangle …kpazang, kpazang...
Suddenly the startled hens begin to cluck behind the houses. The lambs flee. The hairs on Otuang’s chest stand up. The earth trembles. A big din can be heard and the people jump. The elephant-contraption sounds loudly. The goats take fright. It is Angone Endong, known as «The iron bellows that smelt the iron » and «The odzam mammal from the rainy season that has thousands of lairs». He arrives with his elephant-contraption. Everyone draws near to see the great war machine arrive. The warriors form in three rows, raising their swords and piston-driven guns. Angone Endong says all of them must fear him, whether they are relatives on his mother or father’s side. And to ensure this, he lunges at them with his contraption. They dodge him and ring a magic bell that raises a big dust cloud. But the elephant-contraption comes at them once again. Then Elang Suga calls Mone Ebo and, with a tremendous leap, the latter lands in front of the elephant-contraption. He takes out his long, powerful, flexible sword and, as if it were a whip, he encircles and immobilizes it. Angone Endong gets out of the machine. «He is one of our leaders», exclaim the Endong people and silence falls.
Akoma Mba, the head of all the Immortals, stirs in his locally made bed like a wild beast. He gets up. He opens the door and gazes at all those people. Akoma Mba is bald with huge ears. He regards the throng of people and instructs them to wake up Engbang Ondo, the person responsible for keeping an eye on everything that happens in Engong, and to get him out of his house.
Everyone wants to see him come out of his house. His wife takes it as a joke, Akoma Mba insists. Then Akoma Mba’s order is transmitted from mouth to mouth until it reaches Nseng Ondo, a girl of outstanding beauty, with a long face, full cheeks and slender neck. «Women are beautiful in many ways», says the troubadour. In Nseng Ondo’s case, her skin is shiny like palm oil or the fruit of the adzab tree and of a colour like the branches of the raffia palm. She is a woman whose cheeks grow round when she smiles, and whose smile and words become one and the same when she talks. Her calves are big, as are her thighs. She has round knees like a fist, a navel that sticks out of her belly. She is a little shy and seems to be afraid of the men. She shines like the sun. She is more beautiful than anyone else and what makes her more beautiful than the other women is the luminous crevice that separates her right breast from her left one: a clear line like the vein of a banana leaf. Her hair shines so much that you might think she polishes her body with the rough leaves of a fig tree.
They ask her to wake up Engbang Ondo and to tell him that Akoma Mba has summoned him. She goes into his room. She pulls his legs, she touches his thighs, she shakes him but Engbang Ondo does not react. She pulls his legs again; she touches his thighs again, she takes him by the waist and shakes him again, saying: «I don’t like you when you are smug or play about with me. I know you are awake and just pretending to be asleep…» And she adds: «Some say you are cruel, bad, brave, astute and a liar; others say no one is better than you. I, on the other hand, find you feeble. How can you spend all day sleeping? Can’t you hear that Akoma Mba has summoned you to transmit great news to our country, that the wooden drums are sounding all around and that all the men are here?» Engbang Ondo takes a big leap and, all at once, he can be seen standing on the roof of Akoma Mba’s house, dressed in his warrior’s clothes with a bag full of magical objects under his arms. The men of the Engong watch open mouthed, without saying a word. He says: «Why did you call me?»
At this point, the troubadour embarks on a long soliloquy. The audience follows him and enters into dialogue with him. They exchange sentiments. The wooden drums sound. The troubadour recalls the more serious moments of his initiation and how he planned to reject the precious art of singing mvets….”

With this extract of this ‘mvet’ song that I am studying, I would like to pay tribute to these maestros of the spoken word, who are capable of spending a whole night singing and reciting the marvellous adventures of their heroes and entertaining their audiences [6].



1. Published by La Campana (2004, 3rd edition).
2. A ‘mvet’ by Zwè Nguéma. ‘Chant épique fang recueille par Herbert Pepper réédité par Paul et Paule de Wolf (Armand Colin, 1972)’.
3. Les interludes du mvet de Zwè Nguéma” in ‘Journal des Africanistes’, 79-1, p. 209-240.
4. A summary of the initial study, published electronically by URV Press (Servei de Publicacions de la Universidad Rovira i Virgili): ‘Un cant epic africà. Una crítica al poder absolut’ (2014).
5. The fragments written in normal print have been summarized, whereas those in italics have been translated more literally.
6. Oral archives. Lluis Mallart Guimerà Collection, Bibliothèque Enric de Dampierre, Université Paris X (Nanterre). http://www.mae.u-paris10.fr/index.html: CD 2.3.1. – 2.3.7. (troubadours: Owona, Amugu, Bikoe, Baana and Ngal Zamba).

5. Why save endangered languages, and what for?

Julia Sallabank
Endangered Languages Academic Programme, SOAS, University of London


My interest in language endangerment and revitalisation is long-standing. Ever since I was very young I have been fascinated by Guernesiais (“Guernsey Norman French”),  the indigenous language of Guernsey (in the Channel Islands between England and France), which I consider to be my “heritage language” because my mother comes from the island and my father spent some of his formative years there. I always wanted to learn it, but it was not until the age of 40 that I had the opportunity. I had always assumed that the aim of learning or knowing a language is to use it as much as possible, but I’ve recently found that this is not the case for everyone.

Even when I was a teenager I was aware that the number of speakers of Guernesiais was declining and that they mainly belonged to the older generations. I watched displays of traditional-style dancing and wondered why there were no young people taking part, whereas just across the water in Brittany, Breton dancing and ‘fest-noz’ (night festivals) were highly popular among young people in their late teens and early twenties. At the time of writing (2015) there are thought to be only five people under the age of 60 who are capable of holding a sustained, impromptu conversation in Guernesiais. So, I wondered, aren’t young people interested in traditional language and culture? Or is there some other reason why these are not being passed on effectively?

From an early age I was also aware that Guernesiais (and its speakers) were regarded with affection, but also with ridicule. It became clear that attitudes play a key role in the maintenance and loss of languages. As with many other minority vernaculars, until the last 30 years or so Guernesiais was seen as “not useful” compared to French or English, and even as an impediment to social advancement. Nevertheless, by the end of the twentieth century it became clear from anecdotal reports and the media that attitudes towards Guernesiais were becoming increasingly positive. I became interested in how attitudes can change, and in ways of “saving” endangered languages.

Much of the coverage of language endangerment, in both the media and in academic literature, has been fairly pessimistic in that it highlights “language death” and the “threat” to linguistic diversity, rather than on the numerous language revitalisation movements that have arisen in the last few decades. Media coverage also often focuses on the “last speakers” of a language. Both of these tendencies reinforce the impression that endangered languages belong to the past and there is “no hope” for the many small languages of the world. An interesting recent newspaper article, which seems to follow these trends but then challenges them, is “A Loss for Words: Can a dying language be saved?” by Judith Thurman, published in the New Yorker on March 30th, 2015. The “last speaker” that Thurman starts off by interviewing is aged  just 21, and the wide-ranging discussion is upbeat, focusing on indigenous people’s reasons for wanting to keep their languages alive and some examples of success stories.

I want to focus on efforts to raise awareness of language endangerment and to challenge, even reverse it, looking at the example of Guernesiais. I also want to look at why people want to maintain, learn and revitalise endangered languages, and what it means to “save a language”: particularly what it means to the people involved. All too often linguists forget that languages are not just patterns of words but are spoken by people: so it’s important to investigate people’s reactions to language loss, and their motivations for trying to reverse it.

The term ‘language policy’ is often used to refer to such reactions, especially at governmental level. But individuals and families also have language policies, although they are often not overt or conscious ones. For example, several people have told me how when Guernesiais speakers married non-speakers, English tended to become the family language. They explained that they wanted to avoid a situation where one parent felt left out of the conversation. But where one language has much lower social status than the other, societal attitudes must surely play a role in the choice of family language. One speaker recounted: ‘When I was little it [Guernesiais] was the first language that I learnt and my mother took a lot of stick for allowing me … it was early 50s, the war was over and so on and it wasn’t fashionable at the time. A lot of the other mothers [said]: “oh gosh you know you’re letting her speak patois and when she goes to school she won’t be able to learn – she’ll be a dunce” and all the rest of it.’

The influence of educational institutions on language attitudes and practices cannot be underestimated. Schools reinforced the belief that Guernesiais was merely a peasant dialect, fit only for illiterates. Many older people report that children who could not speak English had unhappy experiences at school, so parents started speaking English in the home to prepare and protect their children. These kinds of comments  are common in endangered language contexts:

‘My younger brother and sister were smacked at school for speaking Guernesiais – even in the playground.’

‘My daughters understand everything but they don’t want to speak it – because their friends made fun of them at school.’

‘I was put down at school for being from the country and didn’t admit to speaking Guernsey French’.

Because schools play such a major role in reinforcing the low status of minority languages, revitalisation movements often try to reverse this by promoting languages through the school system. Another reason is because language campaigners see that the future of the language is with young people. They recognise that the language is no longer being learnt in the home, and hope that school- teaching will enable the language to “skip a generation”: that the children will go on to speak it with their own children.

There is a wide range of ways in which endangered languages can be included in formal education.  In the most effective cases, such as Welsh in the UK or Māori-medium schools in New Zealand, all subjects are taught through the language (‘immersion’ teaching). Then there is bilingual education, with varying proportions of languages. In other cases, minority  languages are taught as school subjects. The minimum option (like in Jersey and Guernsey)  is extra-curricular “language clubs” taught by volunteer teachers.  All of these options require varying amounts of resources for teacher training, materials, etc. if they are to be done effectively.

Until 2007 there was little or no official support for Guernesiais, and most language support activities are still run by voluntary groups and individuals. The activities focus on two main areas: performance in cultural festivals and extra-curricular lessons for children. Volunteers go to schools once a week to run half-hour extra-curricular sessions in lunch hours or after school. These lessons are popular and have spread to eight out of 14 primary schools (public and private). The big problem with this kind of lesson, however, is that it provides too little, not often enough. The American Army Language School estimates that 1300 hours’ exposure to another language is necessary for fluent acquisition, even if the teaching is of high quality. It is clear that neither the quality nor quality requirements are being met in Guernsey: with 30 minutes per week, for a maximum of 40 school weeks a year, it would take at least 50 years to produce fluent learners. So far there is no evidence that any of the learners have progressed beyond beginner level.

In Guernsey, as in many other places, school-based teaching has not led to widespread use of an endangered language; indeed, it is often found that a focus on schools tends to replace home-based learning. People find it easier to campaign to change the school curriculum than to change their own and their neighbours’ behaviour.

Voluntary and charitable work is a strong tradition in Guernsey, but it also has disadvantages:  in the extracurricular lessons there is no syllabus, no teacher training, little coordination and no accountability. Another potential problem is that the lessons take up most of the available time and energy of the relatively small circle of people involved in language-related activities, which may have led to a decrease in other activities. As the volunteer teachers are mostly retired, there is concern that there are not enough proficient younger adults to take over in the future. It could therefore be argued that it should be a priority to increase the number of younger adult proficient speakers. There are evening and lunchtime adult Guernesiais classes available, but they currently extend no higher than elementary level. Language learning can also be carried out in less formal and more community-based ways, e.g. mentoring or buddying schemes. Recent examples in Guernsey have included pairing Guernesiais speakers with songwriters for a song project which culminated in a concert, and ‘language speed-dating in the pub’ sessions.

The main annual language event in Guernsey is the “Guernsey-French” section of the Eisteddfod, a general cultural competition named after the Welsh festival. This is now one of the few opportunities to speak and hear Guernesiais publicly. It includes recitations of poems, short stories and Bible readings, songs, sketches and plays, and has classes for beginners, intermediate and fluent speakers. The number of schoolchildren taking part has increased hugely in the last ten years; while the increase in participation from both children and their parents in the audience is to be welcomed, due to space restrictions it has become necessary to hold the children’s section on a separate evening, which has reduced interaction between older speakers and young learners. In the adult sections, participants and audience members welcome the opportunity to celebrate what they see as their traditional culture. Many participants dress up in old-fashioned clothes (not necessarily traditional dress) and there is a strong feeling of nostalgia, in the words of the 2011 adjudicator, for “the language of our youth … of our grandfathers”.

Although cultural festivals are an important expression of linguistic pride and identity, and provide an opportunity to meet speakers and to use the language during the event, the focus is on linguistic identity as display rather than on language as a living part of everyday life; even people who win prizes for their recitations cannot necessarily hold a conversation in Guernesiais. As more non-speakers enter who have learnt set pieces without much other knowledge of the language, judges “help” them by commenting in English, and so the Guernesiais environment is diluted.

This leads to the question of what it means to “save a language”. Local languages and dialects are often called “vernaculars”, which  means the language spoken by ordinary people (often contrasted with formal written languages). But highly endangered languages are usually no longer spoken in everyday life, and no longer passed on to children in the family. Linguists are increasingly referring to them as “post-vernacular languages”, which also opens up a range of other possible motivations for using a language, where communication is no longer the primary purpose. In this context, a major focus for language-related activities is the performing arts, which as mentioned earlier, do not necessarily require language fluency.

Returning to attitudes, the prestige of Guernesiais is growing, and it is generally now seen as a valuable part of island heritage. For example, local cheese, beer, coffee, etc. are given local-language names or slogans. Similarly, on the neighbouring island of Jersey, the government web page devoted to its indigenous language, Jèrriais, describes it as “precious because it is a treasury of information about the past as well as a symbol of Jersey’s independent identity in the present and something of value to pass on to the future”.

This reason for “saving” endangered languages is for their symbolic value as markers of local identity rather than for communicative purposes. It may be no coincidence that the main language-related activities in both Jersey and Guernsey, extra-curricular language lessons and language festivals are also, for all intents and purposes, also symbolic in nature. This is not necessarily a conscious decision, and people involved may sincerely believe that they are “doing something to save our language”. Nevertheless, such activities are unlikely to lead to Guernesiais becoming a primary language of socialisation again. Indeed, in an interview in the ‘Guernsey Press’ in 2004, Jonathon Le Tocq, a Guernesiais-speaking member of the island parliament who promoted the extra-curricular lessons (and who was elected Chief Minister in 2014), said: “I’m under no illusion that it’ll become our business language, but it is a vital part of our culture”.

Are greetings and symbolic phrases enough to “save a language”? They are a common feature of language revitalisation movements in Australia, where some indigenous languages are being pieced together from fragmentary records after not being used for up to 200 years. In such cases, any use is more than none. But Guernesiais still has native speakers.

It is important to learn from the experiences of language revitalisation in other places.  A book published in 1971 to inspire supporters of Celtic languages stressed that “A language cannot be saved by singing a few songs or having a word printed on a postage stamp. It cannot even be saved by getting “official status” for it, or by getting it taught in schools. It is saved by its use …”. The Māori Language Commission in New Zealand issued guidelines in 2007 stating that what they call “regenerating” a language involves:

(a) raising people’s awareness of language and language issues,

(b) having positive attitudes towards and valuing a language,

(c) learning the language,

(d) continuously developing the language, and

(e) using the language.


This illustrates the vital importance of thinking about why we want to save our endangered languages and what we want them for, before they slip into minimal symbolism without our noticing.

The next few decades will be a challenging period for highly endangered small languages like Guernesiais and Jèrriais, as practically all the traditional native speakers pass away. With the foresight to record them while we still can, and a core of committed language enthusiasts to keep them going, local languages might be retained and re-established as a core value: hopefully not only as symbols but as an accepted part of everyday language use.

4. The Emmaus movement: A common mission in different languages

Maria Rosa Garrido Sardà
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, UAB


“Qui vulgui conèixer Emmaús que vingui a dinar” [Whoever wants to get to know Emmaus come have lunch]

El menjador d Emmaus

The communal and dining room of Emmaus Barcelona. Photography by Maria Rosa Garrido under Emmaus Barcelona community license

My first contact with the Emmaus Barcelona community was at a communal dining room bustling with conversations in different languages among over thirty people from different social backgrounds and geographical origins sitting there. I immediately could not help but wonder what brought all those seemingly diverse people together around that table. Unbeknownst to me, the answer lay in front of me: the painting of the Abbé Pierre (nickname given to Henri Grouès, 1912-2007) presiding over us on the wall. This image symbolizes the origins of the international solidarity movement that this French working priest founded, together with Lucie Coutaz and Georges Legay, in a similar community of rag pickers on the outskirts of post-war Paris.

During my visit to the first ever Emmaus community in Neuilly-Plaisance a year later, everything looked familiar there, not only because of the Abbé Pierre pictures and quotes but also because of the communitarian organization and the social diversity among the “companions” that I met there. All over the world, Emmaus is a social movement dedicated to the (re)insertion of marginalized people in live-in communities doing recycling and recovery work to finance solidarity projects, both locally and abroad. My subsequent visits to other communities in England further confirmed these shared aspects among local communities situated in different socio-political and linguistic contexts. How do you create a common identity within the Emmaus movement across borders?

I found answers to my initial question about what unites people at the Emmaus Barcelona table, and at many other similar tables all over the world, in what I had been observing from the first day: daily social interaction. If anybody wants to get to know a community or the Emmaus movement, they are always invited to lunch and, in actual facts, the drapaires d’Emmaús present themselves in a local press article in this light: “Qui vulgui conèixer Emmaús que vingui a dinar” [Whoever wants to get to know Emmaus, come have lunch] (2006). Social interaction, as for instance in communal meals and assemblies, is central to the creation and maintenance of a feeling of belonging to “the community” and to the larger Emmaus movement. On the one hand, the encounter with others in this live-in and working community embodies the central value of solidarity through the creation of affective bonds among the people who form part of it. On the other, established members tell well-known stories about the Emmaus movement and the Abbé Pierre to visitors and newcomers.

The founding story of Emmaus: “A reason to live” 

The central aspect that articulates local Emmaus communities is the founding story of the movement, which narrates the first encounter between the Abbé Pierre, a Resistance hero and French parliamentarian born to a bourgeois family, and Georges Legay, a former prisoner who tried to commit suicide and decided to help the Abbé Pierre build houses for unprivileged families. This story about encounter and solidarity with others inspired the Universal Manifesto of the Emmaus movement, adopted in 1969, as a central text that fixes the shared mission of all Emmaus groups  since the beginning of the movement. This institutional text circulates in different translations into languages such as Euskara, Italian or German.

Our name, “Emmaus”, comes from the name of a village in Palestine where despair was transformed into hope. For all, believers and non-believers alike, this name evokes our shared conviction that only love can unite us and allow us to move forward together. The Emmaus Movement was created in November 1949 when men who had become aware of their privileged situation and social responsibilities in the face of injustice and men who no longer had any reason to live crossed paths and decided to combine forces and take action together to help each other and come to the aid of those who were suffering, in the belief that it is by saving others that you yourself are saved. To this end, the Communities were set up, working to live and give. Groups of friends and volunteers were also set up to continue the struggle in the private and public arena.
(Extract from the Manifesto Preamble, taken from the Emmaus International  webpage < http://www.emmaus-international.org/>)

The founding story links the encounter between people from different social backgrounds with personal transformation that brings about new “reasons to live”. This shared story, which is (re)told in communitarian spaces and adopted in institutional texts at the communities, shapes the biographical narratives that the Emmaus “companions” tell. In these personal narratives, we find the same encounter and self-transformation motifs, often expressed with the same words as in the founding story. As a token, a Catalan “companion” in the Barcelona community, with higher education and from a privileged family, explains her affiliation to it within this frame: “per què estic aquí?, perquè m’he volgut quedar a Emmaús, primer vaig venir per desesperació perquè no sabia on posar-me, i después va arribar un moment que vaig dir, però molt aviat, eh?, al cap d’uns mesos vaig dir, pues, la meva vida ja passa per Emmaús, i crec que ho vaig dir amb aquestes mateixes paraules i continua passant-hi, vull dir perquè perquè he trobat un motiu per viure, o per seguir vivint” [why am I here?, because I wanted to stay in Emmaus, first I came because of desperation because I did not know where to go, and later it got to a point when I said, but very early on, huh?, after some months I said, so, my life goes through Emmaus, and I think that I said it with these same words and it still goes through it, I mean because I have found a reason to live, or to continue living].

The version of this history in the Manifesto, as you will recall, calls for the creation of communities among diverse people surrounded by groups of volunteers. In practice, all the communities have socio-communicative practices in which the Emmaus encounter is (re)told and embodied, as in the shared table that opened this note or in the reflexive assemblies among the members. When asked about what unites different people in the movement, an Emmaus “companion” from a community situated in an indigenous area in Peru, who was then working in Emmaus Pamplona, answered: “Pienso que nos une el hecho de que nuestra vida se siga repitiendo aquel primer encuentro entre el Abbé Pierre y Georges” [I think that what unites us, the fact that our life continues to repeat that first encounter between the Abbé Pierre and Georges]. What is interesting is that this encounter is repeated in different languages depending on the sociolinguistic context and the linguistic repertoire of speakers who participate in it, because geographical mobility has greatly changed the make-up of local communities at the turn of the century.

Multilingual communication in the Emmaus network

The network of local groups belonging to the Emmaus movement, currently with more than 400 groups in over 37 nation-states, is very heterogeneous and, as a consequence, multilingual. As a social movement, Emmaus does not have a single language of communication despite the existence of three official languages (adopted in 1971): French, Spanish and English, in order of importance within the movement. The articulation among the different local communities is based on the repetition and appropriation of the story about the founding encounter thanks to translations from the three official languages, which do not have the same value across contexts, and to “mediators” with multilingual repertoires who liase with the broader movement. As in the case of the recent Occupy movement, the common objective rests on discourses and stories that circulate in different linguistic varieties. Communication among local communities and individual members requires a shared language, whose lack can complicate the connections. In addition, the three official languages in Emmaus seem to draw three broad networks within the movement on the basis of a shared language for communication.

For instance, the community that I investigated in Barcelona orients its solidarity mission towards Central and South America, especially through grassroots Christian movements, and looks up to France as the cradle of the movement. Therefore, some old-timers act as “mediators” in French and many adopt a vision that does not make language a problem to communicate, since they resort to “francés macarrónico” [roughly, gibberish French] and “mix” it with Catalan and Castilian Spanish. In assemblies with Emmaus groups from Euskal Herria and Latin America, which are immersed in revitalization movements of indigenous communities, the common language was Spanish. On the other hand, the London community that I also investigated collaborates with other communities in the UK, in addition to some weak links with Northern European ones that have fluent L2 English speakers- which my informants define as “English-friendly” in contraposition to French ones. By and large, multilingualism in London is constructed as a problem to communicate and, during my fieldwork, this community did not have any projects with communities outside the British Isles. Emmaus London constructs its international mission and belonging on the basis of translations from French done by Emmaus UK, the federation of all communities in this nation-state.

In Emmaus Barcelona, only two “companions” can speak English even though some external volunteers and temporary residents (especially migrants) also speak it. Thus, they have not established direct relationships with English-speaking communities or those that have English as a bridging language with the movement.  In spite of this, one of the youngest “companions”, an Amazigh man from Southern Morocco in his thirties, studies English and back in 2012, he wanted to set up an exchange with an Emmaus community in England. Despite the lack of a common language with his Emmaus community of origin, Massin remarks that they share the same principles and objectives as members of the same social movement.

I’m thinking to visit Emmaus London in England for much reasons, in the first, I’m living in a community of Emmaus Barcelona, then I’m sure that they have the same principles and objectives, but each one operate different, in the second, I’m interesting to make relationship with England’s mans to know how is their vision of the life, in the third, i’m looking forwards to learn and practice English language.

New mobilities and multilingualism in social movements

The exchange of “companions” between local communities within the Emmaus network illuminates a new type of international mobility —different from tourism, economic migration, political asylum or academic study — which also requires multilingual repertoires and learning new languages, such as English. At the same time, new migrations in the era of globalization have had an impact on the make-up of local groups belonging to a movement of international solidarity, as this Amazigh “companion” in Barcelona exemplifies as well.

The shared table at Emmaus is a symbol of encounter both in the story about the origins of the movement and in the globalized world in which we live. Multilingualism, and new speakers of Catalan, at the table of Emmaus Barcelona show the generational change and the constant evolution in a postwar social movement.

Note: This note is based upon the doctoral thesis Emmaus as a transnational imagined community: Language, interdiscursivity and stratification in a social movement (2014, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona), available at <http://www.tdx.cat/handle/10803/285359>.

3. Is Catalan spoken on the London Underground?


Maria Carme Junyent
Grup d’Estudi de Llengües Amenaçades, GELA-UB

Recently, Oliver O’Brien, a University College London researcher, published a map of the London Underground showing the languages spoken there: http://oobrien.com/2014/11/tube-tongues-the-ward-edition/. The first edition of the work identified the following languages: French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Lithuanian, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati, Tamil, Cantonese, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, Somali, German, Dutch, Yiddish, Russian, Hindi, Telugu, Nepalese, Korean, Yoruba and Afrikaans; a later version added Swedish, Albanian, Hebrew and Swahili. An article about this web site on http://www.fastcoexist.com/3037778/visualizing/this-map-shows-which-languages-are-most-common-at-every-subway-stop-in-london, mentioned the fact that London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, as around 300 languages are spoken there.

Of course, more than 300 languages are spoken in London. Just like here in Barcelona, where so far we have only identified 280 languages, http://www.gela.cat/doku.php?id=llengues. But returning to the map of the London Underground, there is something rather surprising: It does not show a single endangered language. Needless to say, this was neither the author’s intention, and even if it had been, it would have been difficult to find one. The reason is because endangered languages have this feature in common: they are largely hidden, either for fear of ridicule, marginalisation, repression, or because the likelihood of them being noticed is very slim. The speakers of subordinate languages, threatened or not, behave rather similarly when using these languages in public. Centuries of persecution, marginalisation, humiliation and all kinds of inhumane treatments towards their languages have taught them to use discretion.

We all know that Catalan is spoken on the London Underground, but Catalan does not appear on the list; it probably remained hidden among Spanish speakers in the same way that other languages on this list must hide many more. It is also curious to see that Swahili appears in last place on the list when in fact there are many more Swahili speakers than speakers of Lithuanian, Greek, Dutch, Swedish, Albanian and Hebrew. Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that in reality the “most widely spoken languages ​​on the London Underground” are the most common “official languages”, that is those used because their speakers have the confidence of people who have won the right to use the language or because they are languages that have “already made it” into the mainstream.

The endangered languages study group (Grup d’Estudi de Llengües Amenaçades, GELA) have often wanted to show a map of which languages are spoken in which areas, either in Catalonia or in Barcelona, that is, to show similar information to that in the London Underground map. We have not been nor are we able to do it: such data are not available to us and the census does not reflect the full diversity here. Interviewers often find that many Catalans, who have suffered humiliation or repression through speaking their own language, conceal it and the interviewers have to be very well trained to draw out this information.

When GELA was making an inventory of the languages spoken in Catalonia, the fundamental aim was to reveal the diversity. Beyond the inventory, we wanted to show the value of this diversity, which is so often looked down on, and the search for the languages of Catalonia gave us many pleasant surprises and helped us understand that the mother tongue is not the language of the mother but the language you identify with, according to Dr Tove Skutnabb-Kangas. So, for example, a group of Egyptians told us that their language was not Arabic but Coptic, or an Argentinian girl was said to be speaking Selknam, a language officially considered extinct, and another declared that her language was Hawaiian. We also found people who were not taught the language of their parents or ancestors and while in Barcelona found the opportunity to learn it with people from their countries who were preserving it: there have been people here who recovered Tatar, Mapudungun, Quechua and others. And very often, this desire to recover the ancestral language is provoked by the realisation of the vitality of Catalan.

Mirroring of Catalan is also at the root of the claim made by a Nepalese girl that she was from Tamang or that by a Senegalese boy that he was from Bassari, or by an Indian boy that he was from Sikkim. They saw, through us, that their languages have value. Experience in Catalonia has also enabled them to shake off the prejudices that were transmitted to them. Iranians speaking Azeri, or Russians speaking Bashkir, or Ghanaians speaking Akan have also discovered here that what they speak are languages and not dialects as they were always led to believe. And, conversely, Catalans have also been able to learn that eskimo, jibaro and lapp are derogatory terms and that those groups of peoples speak the languages Inuktitut, Shuar and Sami respectively. These are terms that are being gradually incorporated in our dictionary. We have also discovered that there are Catalans who have Rapanui as their first language, or Maori, or Aka, the language of the Pygmies, or Tlingit, a nearly extinct language of Canada.

If we made a map of our languages, either on the metro, the bus, in schools or on squares and streets, we would find more than forty languages from Cameroon and more or less the same number from Nigeria. We would also find a large number of Creole languages and sign languages coexisting with the Catalan Sign language. Catalonia is also the country of 300 languages. We hope than none of them have been hiding for fear or shame because, official or not, with many or few speakers, all these are languages of Catalan people and all form an indispensable part of our linguistic heritage.

2. From Manitas de Plata to Kendji Girac, the music of Catalan gypsies in France


Eugeni Casanova


“Manitas de Plata”

Ricard Baliardo, known as “Manitas de Plata” (“Little Hands of Silver”), died on 5 November last year in Montpellier. Only on the 25 May he had been strolling round the alleyways of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, where producer Deben Bhattacharya discovered him playing in the street in the early sixties. Critic, film-maker and writer Jean Cocteau launched him on the commercial circuit after hearing the recording. Right up to the end, Manitas remained loyal to the annual gypsy pilgrimage to the Camargue, although in his later years he was confined to a wheelchair, always impeccably dressed in pure white and with his trademark long, equally white hair.

French critics called him “Manitas de Plata, fingers of fire”. His performance in New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1965 made him an international star, selling 93 million records. No flamenco guitarist had ever achieved anything similar and, until Paco de Lucía became famous, he was the undisputed king of the genre on the international scene.

He was given his unusual stage name by the payos (non-gypsies), but to his family and friends he was always known as “Blum” (meaning ‘blond’). What his biographies don’t say about him is that Manitas de Plata was Catalan, a “Catalan gypsy”, like the tens of thousands of members of his community, scattered from Nice to Bordeaux and from Lyon to Saint-Gaudens. He was born in 1921 in Sète in an old green caravan acquired from the Boglione circus troupe, whose name was still emblazoned on the side. His father, Gustave Baliardo (from Gallardo) sold his ass to buy him a guitar when he was six years old, something his mother, Antoinette Farré, reproached him for all his life, as it meant she couldn’t travel for years.

“Blum” was the first Catalan gypsy in France to win fame as a musician, and it’s hardly surprising that latest success story Kendji Girac (his real surname is Maillé, from Malla), sees himself as his heir. Girac became famous in only a few months after winning The Voice on TF1 and he has just released his first album.

Between Manitas and Kendji Girac there have been many others, such as the group Tekameli (‘I love you’ in the Roussillon Caló language) from Perpignan, and El Mario from Nîmes, Blum’s own great-grandson. And of course, the Gipsy Kings, the French music group that performs on more international stages than any other. Three of the group’s founder members are sons of Manitas de Plata, and four are sons of Josep Reyes “the only gypsy in the world to have a square named after him” explains Luis Ruiz, his godson, who grew up with him in the neighbourhood of La Roquette d’Arles. Reyes, whose gypsy name is “Porc”, was Blum’s cousin. For years they played together in the Languedoc and Provence, as well as in New York, and Picasso even claimed that Manitas de Plata was a much greater artist than him.

The Gipsy Kings began as just Los Reyes (The Kings). Jesús Gimenez, a Catalan gypsy from Montauban who knew them, tells how Manitas played live for Queen Elizabeth II, “and the Queen said to him ‘listen, come to my castle and I’ll give you a horse’, and Blum replied in Caló piatsa, nanai, natse! He was sick of horses!”. “They made a lot of money” continues Jesús, “Porc drove around in a Rolls Royce, but they ended up broke; they had an autograph by Picasso and they sold it for peanuts”.

Catalan gypsies in France performed flamenco until Peret gave them the rumba. The Gipsy Kings threw two styles into the pot and pulled out the genre known nowadays as “gipsy”, their very own contribution to international music.


Pablo Reyes, of The Gispsy Kings

One of the leading characters in the story, Pablo Reyes, a founder member of the group, explains while he warms up by a street bonfire in Quai des Platanes, a Catalan gypsy neighbourhood in Arles: “We took a bit of rumba, a bit of flamenco, a bit of tango… and then we mixed it all up. Peret once said in a broadcast interview ‘I created the rumba, but the Gipsy Kings took it all over the world’. For us, Peret is a great man, a great man of rumba”.­

Catalan gypsies began migrating from the Empordà region to the Roussillon and to the Languedoc region in the late 18th century, and have maintained their culture over the years due to the constant influx of relatives from Catalonia and from Perpignan. Pablo tells the story of the community’s music. Before records with Spanish music arrived, in the early fifties “they were singing in Catalan, that they often call “gitano” (Gypsy), I mean. Back then having a party meant singing and hand clapping, that sort of thing”. And when Peret’s records came out, they started including rumba, “he was the one who invented the rumba. If we play rumba, it’s because of him; my father used to sing me songs by Rafael Farina, Manolo Caracol and Pepe Pinto. We used to listen to my father singing gypsy “tientos” and we went off and messed it all about, like Peret did, and made our own music”.

The majority of Catalan gypsy musicians in France sing in Spanish. Pablo explains: “we sing like that because Spanish words are beautiful. We can sing in Catalan or patois, well, goodness me… And we didn’t even know how to speak Spanish, we’d sing it but we couldn’t speak it”.

One of Manitas de Plata’s children, a musician also called Ricard, cracks a smile when I ask why they don’t sing in Catalan, and he improvises a quick tune, or folk song, in Catalan to show me why it wouldn’t work. It is, in fact, the Caló version of the comment made by Antoni de Bofarull to Milà i Fontanals in 1859 after the Jocs Florals restoration ceremony: “we’ve been speaking in Catalan for three hours and nobody laughed”.

So, the records were responsible for popularising the music now played by Catalan gypsies in France. First came flamenco or flamenco-style tunes. Antonio Heredia, an amateur musician and Spanish gypsy from Montpellier, and his Catalan wife, Paulette Bayardo, both agree with Pablo. They used to go to Spain and bring back records by Rafael Farina, Manolo Caracol and other flamenco performers who were popular in the fifties. Before then they had heard the music from their Spanish neighbours, with whom they shared juergues, or parties. Tonyo Serviole, from Montpellier and a Catalan through and through, born in Perpignan and raised in Barcelona, emphasises the point: “Flamenco is ours”.­  The Catalans started singing songs in the language they heard them performed in, whether they understood the lyrics or not; they sounded cool, it was music made by gypsies and it allowed them to express what they felt. When the rumba appeared, the same thing happened with Peret, El Pescaílla, Chacho del Piano and others…  It was music they adopted as their own. It also reached them in Spanish, leading to this language becoming the norm for songs. ­­

Nadia Gimenez, a friend of Antonio and Paulette, remembers that “old people sang in Catalan, before Peret’s time, when my granddad was young they sang: Munta’m a cavall, munta’m a cavall grossa vaca / ai que sí que sí, ai que no que no, ai la vull per jo”.­ Everyone joins in singing it with her, so it must have been popular.

Then Antonio takes up the song: “Remena, remena, remena…”, although Paulette sings “nena” here, but he sings “el bolero”. And he continues: “Meeè, meeè… el teu pare se’n va al cafè“. And they all join in with the chorus. Gypsies often joke about the lyrics remenar el buleru as bul is bottom in Caló.   

The oldest singer that the Montpellier group of Calés can remember was Sargantana, “who played in a venue at Christmas and all the gypsies would go and watch” explains Paulette. Antonio thinks this was around 1958-1960 and that he performed songs by El Príncipe Gitano (the gypsy prince).

So Kendji, the new kid on the block, is not such a novelty after all. Or maybe he is, as he is from the other end of Occitania; he was born in Bergerac in 1996 and lives in Perigús, a long way from the Languedoc and Provençal region that saw the emergence of the gypsy genre. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t play gypsy music in Spanish, preferring to perform easy  listening numbers in French. What’s new about him is that he openly defends his Catalan identity. He did this by announcing that he would speak the language he shared with prime minister Manuel Valls, and this can be seen clearly in the recently released video clip promoting his album, for which he not only chose Barcelona as the film set, but also opens the video with a conversation in his mother tongue; the profile photo on his Facebook page is an image of the Catalan capital. None of his predecessors had ever done anything like that, but people from the new generation who grew up in Perpignan are doing it, like Col·lectiu Joan Pau Giné, D’ Juerga and Raft, who see themselves as a Catalan movement. The innovativeness lies in the fact that Kendji was born miles away from Catalonia, a place that most of the 2,500 Catalan gypsies living in the Dordogne have never heard of.

1. Once upon a time an explorer came across an old lady, or about the decay and death of a language


Joan A. Argenter

In memory of the last speakers of a language*

I found one old woman who still remembered her native language. I persuaded her to allow me to partake of her knowledge. At first, only with difficulty, she recalled eleven words. I wrote them down, and they struck me as being of the Udehe tongue. Fifty years ago, when she had been a girl of twenty, she had not known a single word of Chinese, but now she had completely lost her sense of nationality, even her own mother-tongue.
(Vladimir K. Arseniev, Dersu the Trapper, London: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd., 1939: 143. [Translation by M. Burr])

The name of Vladimir Arseniev may be unknown to the reader. However, if he or she is a great film lover or happens to be of an age to have seen it, the name of Dersu Uzala may bring to mind the character in a beautiful film by Akira Kurosawa, which was shot in a landscape of great natural beauty: the taiga in the Eastern corner of Siberia.

Arseniev was not a linguist. In fact, he was a military explorer and cartographer who had been ordered to venture deep into the unknown Eastern corner of Siberia to map its geography, its vegetation and its ethnography, as well as to perform geological prospecting. He seemed to have had the ability to handle all kinds of very different people, since he had to deal with different nations along the way and was able to seek help and get it. Dersu Uzala, who belonged to the Nanai or Gold ethnic group, became Arseniev’s guide. He was a solitary nomadic hunter with animist beliefs who knew the taiga very well, as he was used to moving around in the area. This unequal relationship turned into a true friendship: the guide became teacher to the soldier lost in the taiga, and Arseniev invited Dersu to live in his cosy house in Khabarovsk. The superficial comfort of the city overwhelmed Dersu and, in spite of his having lost too much of his sight to survive in the forest, he went back and remained there until he died. This relationship was the topic of one of several books written by Arseniev and the basis for Kurosawa’s movie.

Arseniev was not a linguist, but the quotation by the explorer at the beginning of this paper is a proof that he was aware of a phenomenon already current a hundred years ago —between 1902 and 1907 he undertook explorations in the area, as described in his two books dated 1921 and 1923. This phenomenon is the death of a language, the process of obsolescence in the brains of different generations of speakers that leads to its total oblivion and the consequent destruction of linguistic diversity. It is a problem that is becoming increasingly frequent in the world and whose seriousness was reported by linguists just twenty years ago. It is true that there is something after the death of a language, some remains, probably the eleven words that the old lady remembered, probably a saying that a descendant of hers may know how to repeat without understanding it, probably an incomplete prayer or a verse from a traditional song… Or maybe a handful, a remnant, of words and grammar features of the recessive language in the dominant language (lexical and structural borrowings, place names, etc.). Or perhaps the language will remain silent or dormant, rather than dead forever, until someone recovers its voice once again.

Udehe or Udege is a Manchu-Tungus language, part of the great Altaic family. Was the old lady that Arseniev met the last speaker of Udehe? The truth is that she, who ‘did not know a single word in Chinese fifty years ago’, may be just a ‘rememberer’, one of the inferior categories that linguists use to refer to speakers according to degenerative grades of language attrition. Taking into account the situation in general, she was not the last native speaker of the language. In 2010 there were around 80 speakers in an ethnic group of 1,660 people. Udehe is an almost dead language, like many others that meet the same fate under the pressure of international languages or, in many cases, of stronger neighbouring aboriginal languages.

Going back to Arseniev’s text, if we split it into parts and take a close look at each sentence, we realise how suitable it is for the field research concerning the phenomena that occur in this situation and the meaning of each one of them:

‘I met an old lady who remembered her native language’.

Apart from the design, the first step in field research is to encounter people with the life and linguistic experience that we want to know about and from whom we can obtain data to study.

We are told that the old lady remembered her native language. Knowing a language is not the same as remembering it and even less the same as using and practising it with other speakers. However, as we shall see, her memory of the language is not complete, it is not a passive knowledge of the language, but rather an incomplete one. (Everybody has ‘an incomplete knowledge’ of his or her language and uses it in a limited way, but that has nothing to do with the fact reported here.)

‘I convinced her to share her knowledge with me’.

The second step is persuading the ‘informant’ or ‘language consultant’ —that is how linguists refer to ordinary people who can provide them with linguistic evidence, which is familiar to them, whereas unknown or just inadequately known, at best, to the researcher—. The researcher must gain the confidence of the ‘informant’, as well as that of other community members who also speak the language, with the informant’s help. The researcher must turn speakers into a highly valuable source of information, since they own a knowledge that has become a scarce resource and, moreover, it is information that deserves something in return like, for instance, the expert knowledge of the researcher.

‘With great effort she could only recall eleven words’.

In fact, the old lady who ‘remembered her native language’ did not remember it that well. Someone may have told the explorer that the old lady did know her native language or another foreign language or, in other words, the Udehe language; or, probably everything happened by chance and in a more direct way. Remembering ‘only eleven words’ does not mean remembering a language, although those eleven words were the only ones that the old lady could articulate at that very moment, since her memory may have failed or those may have been the only words that she knew and remembered. She was, therefore, a rememberer. In fact, she could not even be considered a semi-speaker. A semi-speaker is someone who does not speak a language any more, or at least he or she does not speak it really fluently. However, he or she still has an imperfect passive knowledge and a great pragmatic and communicative knowledge of the language: he or she knows how to interpret different ways of saying and verbal genres of his or her community properly (cultural meaning, indirect meaning, etc.). This is quite different from someone who has gained a great deal of grammatical knowledge through formal education but out of context, that is, a person who knows how to speak the language, but does not know the uses and values of the natural communication between native speakers who still use the language ordinarily.

‘I wrote them down, they sounded like Udehe’.

Arseniev was not a linguist but ethnography was not completely unknown to him and it seems that he had some knowledge of the map of languages around that area. He could recognise the language thanks to his previous experience. This information is important since it tells us that he may have found people in other areas whose Udehe language was not so damaged. In fact, his contact with Udehe people was intense and it seems that he knew their language well. And he wrote the eleven words down, he recorded them, as a good ethnographer would have done. Nowadays, there is something called documentary linguistics, a complex sub-discipline that combines data collection with linguistic description and computer science. This sub-discipline deals with the access to knowledge of endangered languages and the documentation of several aspects, such as grammar and lexicon, in the first place, but also the rituals, traditional narratives or verbal art and other ordinary forms of communicative interaction. There are ambitious projects with generous budgets enabling young linguists to perform field research with standardised criteria for the notation, recording and transcription of the data collected. Afterwards, this data is sent to a trustworthy scientific institution where it is stored to be studied in the future, or even to be recovered by the descendants of the last native speakers of languages. It is obvious that this new type of documentary linguistics raises important ethical questions concerning the data ownership, copyright, the wishes of the speakers, who may not want a stranger to ‘take’ their ancestral knowledge, as well as the responsibility of both speakers and researchers. Apart from that, there are also matters relating to technology that cannot be easily predicted, like the ability to transfer the data from a current computer system to a future one, given that technological changes take place at a breakneck speed.

‘Fifty years ago, she didn’t know a single word of Chinese’.

Fifty years ago this person knew and used her inherited language —probably she only used her inherited language. The introduction of an unknown language, spoken by a more powerful expansive nation, had forced her to learn it in order to get used to the new ecological conditions so that she could survive in an environment of submission, diseases and addictions that would have been unknown until that time, like opium and alcohol, as well as poverty. The old lady’s native language was deteriorating more and more as she gained more competence (probably limited) in the new language, which was some variety of Chinese. As time went by, she needed more Chinese words to express herself while she was forgetting more and more Udehe words. If this was something that only affected her, it could be considered as an isolated issue; however, it is likely that the progressive decay of the language until its total oblivion and death would affect the whole nation.

How did it all start? Arseniev himself makes a revealing comment when he writes: “The Kusun River Udeheis employed Chinese labourers to do their farming for them. Their garments are a cross between Chinese and Udehei clothes, and they generally speak Chinese, reverting to their native tongue when exchanging confidences” (269). The “natives” he is referring to were Udehe people. In an ambiguous situation of submission to the Chinese, cultural hybridisation and survival, Udehe gradually became an invisible language and its use diminished. In the past there had been so many Udehe people that, “as Liurl colourfully described it, swans flying from the Samarga River to Olga Bay turned from a brilliant white to slate black owing to all the smoke rising from the Udehei yurts along the way” (269).

‘At that moment she had completely lost everything that belonged to her nation, even the language’.

The old lady had lost the community heritage of her nation, which had been passed down by several generations who changed and shaped it, as well as a unique portion of the human knowledge collected by all those generations.

‘Even the language’… Languages are considered to be something so deeply rooted in human beings that a language is the last thing that we lose and the first that identifies us as cultural (not just biological) beings, born in a social and natural environment and in a unique human group. Languages are the sense of identity of a nation and its members, like the voice for a person. Although the voice declines as the time goes by as a fact of life, a language does not disappear if there are generations that pass it on; it is transformed, but not replaced or lost spontaneously. In fact, no language can be replaced by another, since every single one is a particular categorization of reality, formally codified according to its grammar and vocabulary, and all of them accomplish the various expressive roles speakers need. In addition, languages are a way of expressing awareness of the natural and cultural environment, a knowledge shared by the whole of society.

Vladimir Arseniev left us with a living proof of an ancient and local phenomenon: language shift, or the replacement of one language by another due to a particular correlation of power between human groups. What is new about this phenomenon nowadays is the fact that it is taking place globally at an unprecedented and accelerating pace.

I remember a Korean girl once telling me how people in her country are responsible for taking care of their ancestors from at least three generations ago (the maximum that a person can know in a lifetime) and celebrate them with family meetings, meals, donations and prayers. This may happen in other nations apart from my informant’s. If that is the case, we should ask ourselves the following question: How will the ancestors understand the prayers if they are spoken in a different language than the one they knew, most probably the only one they knew?

[*]A previous version of this text, under the title in Catalan “En memòria dels darrers parlants d’una llengua”, was published in Quaderns-e de l’Institut Català d’Antropologia 19(1): 235-240. The text has been revised, avoiding technical apparatus. I am grateful for permission to reproduce the article. I am also indebted to Miquel Cabal, Arseniev’s translator into Catalan, for his comments and suggestions.
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