Penitenziagite

I was in Spain last week, speaking my version of Spanish.

When I was last there, perhaps fifteen years ago, I spoke only Italian, and came away with the foolish impression that Spanish and Italian are pretty much interchangeable languages, since I seemed to get by. But I realise now I was wrong.

There were in fact a couple of occasions when I needed to speak English rather than Italian, in both of which I needed to accomplish a more complex exchange, express something not obvious from the context. In a restaurant, you point at the menu, or in a hotel you mime keys and signing and hold up fingers and nod agreement, and think you are communicating in your target language. Perhaps you are, but not because of anything you are saying, really.

This time was different. I had spent a month or two underpinning my Italian with a few dozen basic Spanish words and a little (a very little) grammar to tie it all together. But the mind, in the stress of a communication in a foreign language, can slide into channels, and I found that every exchange involving more than a request for a beer had me switching rapidly between badly pronounced Spanish (when I thought I had a word), Italian (most often) and English (for colour, I suppose). I was like one of the great sixteenth century Polyglot Bibles, without the authority; or the character in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Savatore, who speaks in a jumble of six languages, interspersing his speech with the antique Latin bowdlerism, penitenziagite. Ron Perlman, who played Salvatore in the film, prepared his dialogue by cutting and pasting from six translations of the book and doing an eenie-meenie word by word, phrase by phrase. That’s pretty much how I got by.

Here is a compilation of Ron Perlman’s Salvatore, appropriately dubbed into Italian:

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