Every day in Catalonia brings new chills and thrills in linguistic politics. This article, with its headline on the page pictured above, appears in the most liberal paper of the Madrid constellation. It tells us that the President of Catalonia has requested membership for his country in the international francophone conference. (So far as I know this story appeared in Catalan media, by contrast, only to quote El País.) The report goes on to say many things without making the points that actually seem to be in play. President Mas (whose own education was in French at Barcelona’s Lycée Français — a fact that you might think would come up in this article) drives them crazy in Madrid because of his use of languages — and not just his native language, Catalan, the very sound of which evokes from many Spaniards words like “uncultured,” “ill-mannered,” and even to charges of refusing to “speak Christian.” Of course Artur Mas speaks a refined Catalan, but consistently switches to a courtly Castilian in any situation where that could be seen as the discreet thing to do. But what really makes many Spanish nationalists foam at the mouth is that he speaks French like a native, as well as an absolutely correct English. This means that, in international gatherings, the foreign officials naturally talk directly with him in one of the languages in which he’s comfortable, while proudly monolingual Madrid politicians are sealed off with their translators glorying in what they keep calling “the language of the empire.”

This simple application for association with a peripheral international body is really a brilliant move on Mas’s part to take a minor, perfectly legal act of little importance that exposes very relevant cultural differences between Catalonia and Spain — differences that are alternately denied and reviled in the current polemic from the Madrid government.

One wonders if it is a coincidence that this small development comes, and makes a first-page Madrid headline, during the shock waves that must have been set off on delicate seismographs when Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister of France, came to Barcelona last week and spoke publicly in his own first language, Catalan.

Artur Mas, speaking Catalan:

Speaking Spanish:

Speaking French:

Speaking English:


It is an exceedingly rare thing for Google to let me down — or, put another way, for my skill in wielding Google to let me down. But yesterday I typed the words, “vintner and producer of olive oil,” and I have ever since wondered what you call a person who makes that ancient elixir from the olive. Living in Catalonia, where olives are such a fact of life, words derived from the fruit’s name abound, as I’m sure is the case in all other Mediterranean languages. (Joan Plowright’s married name, after all, means “Lady Olive Tree” in French.*)

In Catalan, an olive tree can be masculine (oliver) or feminine (olivera), but the olive itself is always feminine (oliva). A true indication of the penetration of olives in daily life is the fact that there are no fewer than three adjectives for things pertaining to olives: olivinc, olivós, and olivaci. (Spell check is struggling mightily against me in this post.) The drab green color sometimes known as khaki in English is verd d’oliva on army uniforms in Catalan. You don’t need two words to designate an olive grove; either olivar, oliverar will do.

But I still haven’t found a word for the man or woman who turns the olivers into olives (the plural of oliva in Catalan looking identical to the English plural), and then into the treasured oli d’oliva. Thanks to one of my favorite dictionaries, I know how to hold out the olive branch to someone (either ram or branca d’oliver). But I’m convinced that one of you will tell me a one-word occupational name. I have always assumed that the cognom of one of the most important Catalans in history, Abbot Oliba, might be a clue, but as a I think about it now, the instability and interchangeability of Bs and Vs in Iberian languages probably just makes his name mean olive.

So come on, readers: do for me what Google didn’t do this time!

* Typing that made me curious enough to check, and (thanks, Google) Lord Olivier was indeed of French ancestry.

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