The mystery of language: Ali Bacon is disconsolate when words fail her on a trip abroad
|The lovely port of Santander, so much better than a bank|
Last week on a trip to Cantabria, we visited the museum of Altamira where a startling range of Neolithic cave paintings were discovered in the nineteenth century, dating from somewhere around 20,000 to 14,000 BCE. Yes – they are roughly 16,000 years old.
In the ‘new’ (replica) cave, visitors can watch reconstructions of daily life and observe the tools and skills these people are thought to have used in the stone age. But the projected display had no sound-track, and the same thought occurred to myself and a fellow tourist – how did they speak? What language did they have?
Language and communication were in fact pressing concerns on this trip. I used to consider myself a bit of a linguist but it appears I came to Spain and Spanish too late in life to ever feel comfortable with it and have to fall back on a dumb tourist act to get through any holiday, something that grieves me for the duration but which I always forget to do anything about before setting out again.
|Golfing Spanish style - no easier than at home|
This time was no different and 9 holes of golf with a Spanish couple, (golf is a less international language than you might think!) did nothing to bolster my confidence. As we left the golf club a car drew alongside us, the window was rolled down and a map brandished. ‘Excusez moi, nous sommes perdus!’ Never disparage school French. Here was a language I could do something with and I took disproportionate enjoyment from knowing my droite from my gauche.
But my travails with Spanish weren’t quite over. Next day, having consulted the not- very-trusty guide book, we embarked on a short(ish) excursion to the
valley of Soba – or as it turned out the . So far so confused - and so was the sat nav. valley of Ason
|Soba/Ason - not a bad place to get lost|
We stopped at a wayside inn which turned out to double as the local pork butcher. Asking for drinks was just about within my grasp but I was nervous of asking directions. In the end I told him the name of the place we thought we were heading and waved my arms to ask ‘this way?’ (back the way we came) – or ‘that way?’
That way! was the reply, and before long we also had a map, X being where we were, Rameles where we should be heading and along the way a campo di football (international language of sport) and a - something else. I was mystified but Bar-tender/Butcher hurried off and came back with a slightly faded souvenir biscuit tin bearing a view on the front of a dramatic waterfall. Yay – who needs words?
|A bit like Pictionary?|
And, said Bartender, la cascada was right on la carretera – I was getting the hang of it after all.
Now if you are heading to the source of the Ason river, I have to warn you it may be more of a trickle than a cascada, but the road is spectacular and I was only sorry I hadn’t bought the biscuits by way of thanks. Ignore the satnav, by the way and take the first right after Rameles de la Victoria - it’s a circular route. Or you can use the butcher's map!
But it makes you think about the ways we use language, written and spoken, and how hard it is to be without the comfort blanket of everyday discourse. For this article I actually looked up the possible dates for the origins of spoken language, which are of course entirely obscure and linked to all kinds of physical, psychological and sociological developments, but 100,000 years ago seems to be a popular stab in the dark.
So of course the inhabitants of
Altamira did have linguistic communication, although what
it sounded like we’ll never know. I certainly won’t be brushing up on my Proto-Indo-European any time soon.
|Waterfall? It's behind you!!|
Ali Bacon writes historical and contemporary fiction. Find out more at http://alibacon.com