Lentils and Spinach

On my trip to Catalonia i couldn’t miss the fact that nearly all of the writing on signs there is in Catalan (and in Val d’Aran it’s in Aranese, but that’s a separate story). It’s easy to pick up the basics of Catalan if one knows some French, Italian or Spanish, and i know a little of them all, so I’ve been studying Catalan since. I listened to some music and read some literature in that language, and i’ve been waiting for that great, language-defining sentence. I mean, Catalans love it, ‘cuz it’s their own, and their passion for it is quite infectious, but is there something that will catch my imagination and make me really fall in love with Catalan instead of just adding it to the list of languages which i pretend to know?

I bought four CD’s of Catalan music in Barcelona – Mazoni, Sanjosex, Refree and La Troba Kung-Fú. They are all good, but La Troba Kung-Fú quickly became my “band of the year”. They have a few great catch-phrases on their excellent album; here’s a couple:

“Prou sang pels reis i pels senyors.” – “Stop blood for the kings and for the lords.”

“Calor, calor, que em falta calor, acosta’t una mica per favor.” – “Heat, heat, how I miss heat, get a little closer to me, please”. (You absolutely have to hear the song to get the feeling of it – it’s amazing. There’s an MP3 of “Calor calor” on the website; don’t be ashamed ask me if you can’t get it. If you know the smallest thing about me, then you must agree that if i’m telling that a Latin song is “amazing”, then something must be really special about it. Also note, then “que em” is pronounced as if it was written “cam” and “per” is pronounced as if it was written “par”.)

OK now, but that’s music; music is easier to catch. How about literature?

In addition to a bunch of dictionaries and grammars, i bought two reading books in FNAC Barcelona: Sergi Pàmies’ “Si menges una llimona sense fer ganyotes” (“If You Eat a Lemon Without Making a Grimace”) and Manuel de Pedrolo’s “Mecanoscrit del segon origen” (“Second Origin Typescript”). Pàmies’ book caught my attention in the bookstore because of its funny name, because it was the fourteenth printing since it was first published a year ago (which must mean that it’s popular), and because it was a collection of short stories, which is good for learning a language. I asked a lady who stood nearby what does she think of it; luckily she spoke good English. She told me that it is quite hard and surrealistic and suggested to get the Mecanoscrit.

I read the Mecanoscrit first. According to Wikipedia, this book has been wildly popular among Catalan readers for many years. Indeed, it’s a pretty good book of science fiction and it’s not too hard to read. I enjoyed the plot – except the disappointing ending, and the language was easy enough, but it wasn’t too exciting either.

Hoping to see some more interesting language, i moved to Pàmies. It’s not too surrealistic. It is a bit depressing. It’s funny in some places. Maybe it is funnier for native readers and i just don’t understand it well enough to get the jokes. But it was here, that i finally saw this great sentence, that great language-defining phrase. The story tells about a guy who hates one of his neighbors for some unknown reason:

Si tens preferències de paladar que ni tu mateix t’expliques, i t’estimes més un plat de llenties que no, posem per cas, un d’espinacs, ¿per què no ser igualment arbitrari amb els veïns?

Translation:

If you have taste preferences that even you cannot explain to yourself, and you would like a plate of lentils and not, for example, one of spinach, why then can’t it be equally arbitrary about the neighbors?

3 Responses to “Lentils and Spinach”


  1. 1 Ben 2007-12-29 at 04:50

    Just to introduce myself:
    I’m an American student with a linguistics obsession, and was excited by the Catalan tag.

    Good for you for diving headfirst into Catalan. In Barcelona over the summer, I found myself incredibly frustrated by the language. I speak proficient Spanish, which worked fine in restaurants, shops, etc., but it felt awkward not speaking the “native” language. Also, it seemed odd that all the signs were in Catalan, but on the street it seemed that most people were speaking Castillian. It wasn’t until I got back home and started doing more research on the language that I started appreciating it.

    This is a great blog,
    keep it up!

  2. 2 aharoni 2007-12-29 at 10:30

    According to a couple of books and educational videos on the subject, Barcelona is at the same time the Catalan cultural center and one of the places with the lowest number of actual Catalan speakers. Barcelona has developed very well and attracted many migrants from other parts of Spain and from Latin America.

    As i moved further away from Barcelona towards Lleida and Espot i saw more Catalan flags flying alone without the Spanish flag near them, and i saw less Castilian signs and heard more spoken Catalan.

    And then i heard some nice spoken Catalan in coffee shops in Barcelona, too. One helpful waitress saw that i am having trouble with the menu and explained to me that “llet” is “leche”. And when i bought a bunch of Catalan dictionaries and grammmars in FNAC Barcelona, the guy at the cashier told me the total price in Catalan … i just handed him the credit card :)

  3. 3 Jose 2008-07-03 at 00:41

    Awesome band, La Troba. I just bumped into them on YouTube (also because of my obsession with Catalan and Joan Manuel Serrat) and haven’t been able to stop listening to them. As a Spanish speaker, it’s still no easy matter to pick up the language (although one has a slight advantage). I find, as you say, that having a grasp of Italian (which I studied in college for two years) and a smattering of French (which we all had to study at some point) helps immensely. However, there are still a few Catalan words out there that seems to have no root in any of the other languages (or they are shortened to the point of being unrecognizable). Listen to Endevinalla on the same CD and notice the wordplay with single syllable words (which Catalan abounds with). Serrat does the same thing in his latest album. Like you, I also picked up a Catalan-Castilian dictionary (and grammars) at FNAC Barcelona near Plaça Catalunya.


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