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 valley of Ason. So far so confused - and so was the sat nav. 

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


Enid Richemont said…
English is my mother-tongue, French my adoptive one, and I've always been intrigued by the way I feel like a different person when speaking French. I grew up in South Wales, where I remember people who could switch seamlessly from Welsh to English in the same sentence.
Fran B said…
When I was au-pairing in France many moons ago, I was told I would know when I was really 'getting there' with the language if two things happened: dreaming in French; swearing in French. The second came more quickly (especially at 'les sales gosses') but I did have a couple of dreams towards the end of my 10-week stay where at least some of the characters spoke French. I woke up feeling almost bilingual.
Dennis Hamley said…
I think that you don't really know a language until you can laugh in it. Germans think I am a humourless wretch.
Bill Kirton said…
The blog and the comments are all so reassuring. I taught French at school and university and have spent several years living in France so, a few years back, I was pretty fluent in it. But even then, I never felt fully me. I'm not claiming great things for my spoken English, but I can usually find the words I need without too much reflection. Sometimes, though, in French, there was that frustrating hesitation, the search for 'le mot juste' or the most appropriate colloquialism. Glad to know it's not just me (whoever that is).
AliB said…
Hi Enid. I once worked as a student in Montreux Switzerland and got quite fluent the n French but I agree I felt different and maybe even acted differently (don't ask!)
Fran, Dennis & Bill. My sister once worked as an au pair in a remote French Village and counted in French for some time afterwards. She was telling me recently when she arrived back at a London station she asked for her ticket in French and was waved away 'foreigners over there"! It was the 1960s!
Spanish was my downfall too - I had always thought of it as being similar to Italian until we went to Barcelona and I found it was just similar enough to be confusing, especially when I had to report a stolen purse to a policeman who spoke only very slightly more English than I did Spanish. I've never had to use a phrase-book quite so much.
AliB said…
My problem exactly Cecilia. Italian comes a lot more naturally!

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