By Pete Wolstencroft
Joé chiqillo, tengo que trabajar mucho overtime este weekend. This was my first introduction to the Llanito variety of Spanish as spoken on the streets of Gibraltar. Whilst traditional Castillian Spanish might provide some of the building blocks of Gibraltarian Spanish, much of the scaffolding that holds the structure in place is a lot more exotic.
With a history of attracting people from: Britain, Genoa, Malta and Morocco, it is hardly surprising that the lingua franca of Main Street is a linguistic smorgasbord.
All my colleagues could swear creatively and offensively in Moroccan Arabic, but aside from the obscenities only three other Arabic words were common parlance. (Forgive the transliteration: this is my own personal form of notation.)
Everybody knew that floosh was money (presumably related to being flush when we are in the money) hamsin was five and shokran was thank you. Just about every Moroccan I ever met was tri-lingual, being equally at home with English, Spanish and their native Arabic.
British residents of the Rock largely conformed to national stereotypes, and spoke English to the exclusion of everything else. The odd half-hearted dos cervezas might occasionally be brought out of the broom cupboard for trips to the Costa del Sol, but, by and large, monolingualism was the order of the day.
They must have thought I had supernatural reflexes.
Gibraltarians are bilingual: Spanish – the Llanito variety – being the language of home, and English being the official language. If you speak the more traditional variety of Spanish, Llanito takes a bit of getting used to.
Ahú was a phrase used to get the speaker off the mark, along with the aforementioned joé. Friends and colleagues were referred to as compá or migasho. Anything complicated, technological or new was usually referred to by its English name. Trades too, were, more often than not, rendered in English. This led to such questions as: “¿Dónde tán los fitters? You could always resort to carrying a little bilingual dictionary in your pocket, but they weren’t much good for things like: seagull – pavana, or lazy – gandul.
Amidst the cacophony of the dockyard, shouting would get you nowhere, but a shrill whistle made by sucking air in between the teeth, would cut across any noise and would get the attention of the person you wanted to talk to.
Those Brits who did try out their Spanish usually showed a wilful disregard for accents and any other signposts that would point out the way to correct pronunciation. Spanish Águila beer was wrongly pronounced with the spoken stress on the second syllable. This tendency led to one of the funniest spontaneous remarks I have ever heard.
A well-known watering hole had just replaced one Spanish brand of lager with the Águila brand. A friend of mine walked into the bar and I asked him what he was having. After a quick scan of the pumps he answered: “I think I’ll have an ageela,” to the tune of the well-known Israeli folk song Hava Nagila.
It may have been wrong of me, but for quite a while, I kept the fact that I spoke Spanish to myself. This came in particularly handy during the time that I boxed at the DSA sports club. The coach would often encourage the local lads to go for the gancho, whereupon I would defend myself against the hook that I knew was headed my way. They must have thought I had supernatural reflexes.
Eventually I came out as being (almost) bilingual and from that time it became a point of honour with some of my colleagues to see who could come up with the cleverest ways of using language. A friend of mine once told me he was off to the dockyard store to get a new monkey. When he came back with a pristine set of overalls, the penny finally dropped.
In La Línea, I stood out from the rest of the ex-pat community by virtue of my language skills. In bars, I would always ask for a caña or a tubo, to demonstrate my linguistic chops. But naturally I still made mistakes. During one long bus trip, a chap of mature years was holding forth to all those who would listen. It seemed to me that he was talking about a particular woman. Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me and I asked him which specific woman he was talking about. Cue gales of laughter from all those who heard my question. It turned out he wasn’t talking about just one woman, but all of womankind. Still, you live and learn.