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14 February 2010

Romance Language is Romantic

Tag(s): Languages & Culture

February 14th  St Valentine’s Day

On this most romantic of days I want to write about Romance, but literally, the Romantic Languages. I am very proud to be English and love the English language. It has its difficulties but also its simplicities. It is not obsessed with gender; its verb structure is very simple. It is enormously flexible and of course through the hegemony of the British Empire followed by the American superpower it is the language most spoken in the world as a second language.

It has produced some of the finest poetry in literature, if it is possible to judge such things. Its poets have included William Shakespeare in the 16th Century; John Donne and John Milton in the 17th;  John Dryden, Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth in the  18th ; John Keats, Robert Browning and Lords Byron and Tennyson in the 19th ; Rupert Brooke, T.S. Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas in the 20th.

However, there is something about English which is also very prosaic. When we hear the same words or names expressed in a Romantic language it sounds, well, more romantic.

Some examples. The Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores went around naming cities after the saints and other religious events and symbols. Thus San Diego or Santiago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Trinidad, Sao Paolo, but these just translate as Saint James, Saint Francis, City of the Angels, Trinity, Saint Paul and when they do they seem to be diminished. This does not only apply to religious names. Consider Buenos Aires (Good Airs), Rio de Janeiro (River of January), Rio Grande ( Big River) or one of my personal favourites, the fashionable resort in Florida, Boca Raton. This simply means Rat or Mouse Mouth. Among Portuguese examples I guess Porto Alegre would translate as Happy Harbour.

Much of the United States was Spanish before it was acquired by the USA. Fortunately they did not rename the territories so Colorado stayed Colorado rather than become Coloured Red. Florida remained Florida instead of Flowered. Would Las Vegas attract so many million gamblers every year if it had been called The Meadows? And then there are the fantasy places like El Dorado which means The Golden One.

Similar things happen in Opera. I don’t think it is any accident that most of the world’s most popular operas are sung in one of the Romance languages, particularly Italian. And this just does not apply to the Italian composers like Giuseppe Verdi (who presumably if he was English would be Joe Green) but even to the immortal Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who was born and lived most of his life in Austria but whose most sublime operas Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutti and The Marriage of Figaro are sung in Italian.

My wife and I are keen fans of opera and prefer to hear them in the original even if it means straining our eyes at surtitles to follow the story. We were once entertained at the English National Opera which only sings in English. The performance was of Carmen which of course is set in Spain but is sung in French. So a French opera about a Spanish subject was translated into English. Perversely the designer had scrawled offensive graffiti in the Spanish language all over the stage. The words were simply vulgar swear words. If they had also been translated as were the songs then I imagine many in the audience would have walked out. If you want to hear an excellent English version of Carmen then go to Carmen Jones which is a really good musical.

Returning to Don Giovanni who we also know as Don Juan; would we consider him such a great lover if we knew him as Sir John? Similarly would Casanova have such a reputation if we recalled him as Newhouse? And by the same token would one of Hollywood’s most romantic films have endured if English settlers had got to Casablanca before the Spanish and called the town Whitehouse after its architecture.

What about the festivals?  In the Christian tradition Lent, starting this week, is the period running up to Easter when a believer prepares himself through penitence and self –denial. The period lasts forty days representing the time that, according to the Bible, Jesus spent in the wilderness before the beginning of his Public ministry, where he endured temptation by Satan. In the UK the period immediately before Lent is called Shrovetide.

The old names for these days were:

  1. Egg Saturday - Shrove Saturday
  2. Quinquagesima Sunday - Shrove Sunday
    The fiftieth day before Easter
  3. Collop Monday - Shrove Monday
    named after the traditional dish of the day: collops of bacon served with eggs. (A collop is chunk or slice of meat or fat). In addition to providing meat, the collops were also the source of the fat for the following day's Pancakes.
  4. Pancake Day - Shrove Tuesday
    the day on which all fats and cream had to be used up.
  6. Ash Wednesday The first day of Lent.

The word shrove is the past tense of the English verb shrive, which means to obtain absolution for one's sins by way of Confession and doing penance. Thus Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the shriving that English Christians were expected to do prior to receiving absolution immediately before Lent begins. The celebratory aspect of the day is somewhat analogous to the Carnival tradition that continued separately in Catholic countries of Latin Europe.

Carnival means literally “goodbye to meat” as believers would give up eating meat in Lent. Carnivals are celebrated all over Catholic Europe and Latin America and of course are much better known than Shrove Tuesday.

The term "Shrove Tuesday" is no longer widely known in the United States. Because of the increase in many immigrant populations and traditions since the 19th century, and the rise of highly publicized festivals, Mardi Gras has become more familiar as the designation for that day. This literally mans Fat Tuesday. It is difficult to imagine huge numbers of tourists flocking to New Orleans to celebrate Fat Tuesday or to River of January for the annual feast of “Goodbye to Meat.”!

Copyright David C Pearson 2010 All rights reserved

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