I was walking down Oxford Street in London a few days ago when I suddenly heard the words ring out behind me: Que frio hace no, Charlie? No dihieron ayé en el televishon que hoy no iva ze tanto frio?
Instantly, without a moment’s hesitation, I knew that the person speaking those words had to be a Gibraltarian.
The overstretched dipthongs. The voiceless glottal fricatives. The compressed and syncopated word forms. Only a fellow llanito or llanita could have come up with such a unique linguistic combination!
Overcome with curiosity, I turned around and saw two middle-aged couples, ashen-faced and burdened with shopping bags, all four of them kitted out with an impressive selection of gloves, scarves and woolly hats.
I had never met those good people before, but within moments a vague look of recognition passed between me and one of the husbands, the kind which says “Don’t I know your face from somewhere?”
Back at my hotel room a couple of hours later, I reflected on the incident over a cup of soluble coffee.
One of the accusations, after all, that Spanish nationalists have been throwing at us since Franco’s time is that we are a gente sin identidad propia, a transient population of ‘settlers’ that has little going for them culturally.
But if we suffer from such an identitiary deficit, then how can I recognise a Gibraltarian voice in the middle of a packed Oxford Street? Doesn’t this suggest that there is more to ‘Gibraltarianness’ than what our detractors think?
In a soon-to-be published article on Gibraltarian Literature and Language, the American sociolinguist Dr Amanda Gerke ponders this last question and comes to the conclusion that language and identity are inseparably interwoven, and that our linguistic choices are important tools in the construction of what she terms ‘collective selfhood.’
To quote Dr Gerke herself: ‘When lines of Gibraltarian identity are blurred … and when the voice of Gibraltar seems to be ignored in both the UK and Spain … the people of Gibraltar are left with the only thing they are in control over: language choice. The choices a speaker makes are a conduit for identity-building … and a communal identity is reflected through the language variation itself.’
Call me an optimist if you wish, but the fact that I could recognise a group of fellow llanis, in the middle of Oxford Street and with my back turned to them, suggests that perhaps we aren’t doing too badly when it comes to this ‘identity-building’ business!
M. G. Sanchez has written nine books on Gibraltarian subjects, among them novels, short story collections, books of essays and autobiographical memoirs, all of which are available on Amazon. More information on his writing can be found at www.mgsanchez.net/media or on his Facebook page. He also tweets under the handle @MGSanchez.
Photo by DM Parody