Barbarisms at the gates

The 19th World Festival of Sacred Music opens this weekend in Fès, in Morocco, and ends next Saturday with Patti Smith. True to the festival’s melting-pot spirit, the Godmother of Punk will be preceded by Syria’s Assala Nasri and France’s Aïcha Redouane, just two of the highlights on offer in this beautiful Berber city.

Berbers have been much on my mind. “Berber” is related to the area once called Barbary, that exotic, terrifying land whose raiding corsairs haunted the European imagination. “Barbary” was derived from the Romans, with their acute sense of the Barbarian other; for the Greeks a Barbarian was a non-Greek speaker whose babbling sounded like “bar-bar”. Hence “barbarism”: something from another culture deemed to be undesirably alien.

“I felt like a barbarian among the civilised,” the Peruvian Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, told a Paris audience last week, reminiscing on his youthful experiences in the city. Perhaps his words struck a chord in a country protective of its identity. There has been soul-searching recently over whether French universities should teach courses in English, a piquant topic in a culture already uptight about anglophone barbarismes.

The thought of French academicians fretting over les skateboards and les snackbars has long tickled English-speakers. English is an endearingly mongrel language – although if it really were a mongrel, it would be, I imagine, the colonial kind that crashes unnervingly into other people’s picnics to bring back linguistic goodies.

Next Thursday, Oxford University Press is bringing out a new edition of a famous compilation of such goodies, Hobson-Jobson: The Definitive Glossary of British India. The term “Hobson-Jobson”, meaning “native festal excitement”, originated from a mishearing of the lamentation “ya Hassan, ya Hussain” at the Shia festival, Muharram. A “Hobson-Jobson” is now a term for such assimilations, the window display of this emporium of English in whose dim recesses are piled such loanwords as dungarees, chutney, pyjamas, juggernauts, jodhpurs and much else.

In her introduction, literary historian Kate Teltscher traces the fascination English-language writers have had with Hobson-Jobson, since it was first compiled by Henry Yule and AC Burnell in 1886. An early admirer was Rudyard Kipling (whose own coinages found their way into the 1903 edition) through to Anthony Burgess, Tom Stoppard and Salman Rushdie, who has long savoured “this linguistic kedgeree”.

But earlier generations didn’t always have such warm feelings towards Hobson-Jobsons. In the late 1700s, Teltscher informs me, Indian loan words were seen as “a linguistic equivalent to the corrupt practices of the nabobs – the officials of the East India Company”. Such words were associated with greed, its users as parvenus.

It’s notable that this year’s Fès festival, in hosting the great Flamenco artist Paco de Lucía and the Turkish Mevlevi Ensemble, amply represents the Strait of Gibraltar and Bosphorus. Where most Europeans would see such cultural interchange as positive, the same cannot be said, alas, for linguistic “barbarisms”. There are rising tensions between French and Flemish, and between Russian and Ukrainian speakers. In my neck of the woods, Barcelona, there is a real anxiety among many Catalan speakers that not only will Catalan be contaminated by Spanish but possibly displaced by it altogether.

A while ago, I was in rural Catalonia, when the (half-British, half-Spanish) daughter of a friend pointed at a man abseiling high on a limestone ridge: “Look at that man penjando-ing,” she said, an inventive term formed from penjar, the Catalan to hang, -ando, the Spanish gerund form, and the English, -ing. A terrific, one-word specimen of what can only be called Spatalish.

Many Catalans laugh when I tell them about this coinage. But many don’t. One Catalan newspaper has an admonitory column on “barbarisms”, and purists tweet examples of “barbarisms” to guard against.

All I can say is that I hope a fledgling Catalan writer somewhere – who knows, perhaps the language’s future Nobel laureate? – ignores such strictures. Certain writers will always yearn to transgress. Renaissance Spain was a fanatically purist culture but, either in spite of or because of that, it produced Don Quixote. Cervantes spent five grim years as a prisoner of Barbary slavers, picking up the Mediterranean mish-mash of languages known as “sabir”. Did that later help shape his generous, sweeping, novelistic vision of the world?

I’d like to think so. What is indisputable is the hybrid nature of Flamenco, with its roots deep in the plangent music of Arabs and Berbers. Flamenco even has a Hobson-Jobson – its ay!-ay! probably coming from the Arabic “Ya’ain!” (O Eye!), an interjection that may be in evidence this weekend for those lucky enough to be listening to the unsettling voice of Carmen Linares hanging – or even penjando-ing – on the night air of Fès.

Festival de Fès des Musiques Sacrées du Monde, Morocco, until June 15, ‘Hobson-Jobson’ is published by OUP

Peter Aspden is away

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