5 Feb 2017

Whispers from the past

Some time ago one often used to hear that the people of El Hierro spoke “fifteenth century” Spanish.
I suppose the argument was that since no-one could deny they spoke differently to other Canary islanders and that since El Hierro had been isolated for so many years, the way they spoke was derived from the Spanish of the early colonizers and therefore in some way “superior”. I don’t know how a fifteenth century settler spoke but I do believe there must be something in the claim.

Cloud mist coming up the cliff to the "letime" near Jinama
at more than 1,000 metres above Frontera. To get an idea
look at the posts "First Impressions 1970's" and "First
Impressions 2015".
First of all the islanders’ pronunciation was quite unlike that of speakers from the rest of the islands. Some examples: in the Canaries the “s” usually sounds more like an English “h”, on El Hierro most people pronounced it as an “s” and in some cases, more a question of exaggerated identity I believe, even a powerful “sh”. Among other, perhaps primitive, features were the use by some speakers of stressed “or”, substituted in modern Spanish by the diphthong “uer”, and “u” instead of “o”. For example, “portu” instead of the modern Spanish “puerto” (port). I often thought such speakers’ rich, deep intonation sounded very much like that common in northwestern Spain.

You’ll have noticed I have used here the past tense. This is because it is a rare pleasure to hear this speech today, mainly replaced by an often brazen sort of mid-Atlantic Venezuelan drawl brought back by returning emigrants.

Apart from the accent, there are certain words commonly used the meaning of which suggests an early origin. One of the most surprising is “luego” which here often means “soon, shortly” while in modern Spanish it means the opposite “later” as in “Hasta luego!” (See you later!).  Another word is “jable” a kind of gravelly sand from the French “sable”, perhaps the only word that the first Norman settlers may have bequeathed us. There are also certain words that are clearly of Cuban origin. You very rarely hear on any of the other islands the word “candela” to refer to a forest fire. And “sitio” here may refer to a “homestead”, a self-sufficient extended family home. Another peculiarity, evidently a product of living on what is basically a huge mountain sticking out of the sea, is the way “abajo” (down) often means “towards the sea” rather than that something is “lower” than the speaker. The same happens with “arriba” (up) meaning “away from the sea”. Just like people in England going “up” to London although much of the city is very much lower than they perhaps are.

The beautiful aromatic bush called "Mol".
Except for a huge number of place names, surprisingly few words may date back to pre-Hispanic times. At a guess, I’d say that at least 50% of the island’s place names are aboriginal while there are hardly any native terms for everyday life, something that may reflect on how the language of occupation replaced the vernacular. Of course we have no idea of the meaning of the place names but many of them begin with “Te-” or “Ta-” and coincide with a hill or vantage point. Then there are plant names that are clearly pre-Hispanic, for example, “barrasa” a kind of wild garlick, “garacera” wild rocket and “mol” a wormwood known as “incienso” (incense) on the other islands. El Hierro was recognized to be the island that made most use of edible wild plants so there were likely to have been a good number of pre-Hispanic plant names that were in use long after colonization but are forgotten today.

There are one or two very special words that refer to geographical accidents. The one I like best is “letime” (pron. le-tee-may) which means any piece of flat ground at the top of a cliff. Ideal if you were a proud aboriginal prince contemplating suicide rather than slavery!

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