…so of course the first word that comes to mind is ‘lost’; but that implies a correct
direction, a true North of meaning if only I were facing the right way. The next
word is ‘relic’, closely followed by ‘saint’, and this is not what I want at all. Yet
here is the unbidden image, of ancient Cuthbert removed from Lindisfarne to
Durham, possibly via the ASDA supermarket in Chester-le-Street, possibly via a
shopping trolley. Cuthbert’s courier-monks reported that the body, despite its age
and the arduous journey across Northumbria, remained pure and uncorrupted;
translation without loss. An absolute meaning. Oh, the miraculous impossibility
Recently I watched a film of the late Richard Pryor ‘Live in New Orleans’ on the
telly. He spoke of a visit to Zimbabwe, where he and his friends were asked by
a local, “What language do you speak at home?” “English,” they told him. “Yes,
yes,” said the interlocutor, “everybody speaks English. But what language do you
speak at home?” The Americans were stymied until one of Pryor’s friends replied,
“Well, I guess I speak Jive.” So let me confess that of the six languages of my
parents – Turkish, Greek, Tagalog, Cebuano, Spanish, English – the only one I
can speak is the last. But let me also stake a claim to linguistic diversity, for I am
fluent in English in many forms.
It’s a bit of a conversation-stopper. It goes like this: “Crista.” (Just Crista.
Translation: they can’t pronounce my surname). “That’s an unusual name.
Where’s it from?” (Translation: Ok, no-one these days asks where someone is
from, but you’re not actually English/British are you? Tell me what you really
are). So I tell them the name is Greek, or possibly German. They look confused.
I confess I’m not Greek or German. There will be a pause, until they ask what
manner of creature I am (“What’s your background?” or “Where are your parents
from?”). If they’re looking particularly embarrassed or the pause is very long,
I volunteer the required information. “Filipino! Turkish! (translation: there
is no such thing as a Turkish-Cypriot). How exotic/fascinating/unusual!” Cue
interested look on speaker’s face. “And what language did you speak at home?”
“English.” “Yes, yes. Everybody speaks English. But what language did you
speak at home?” I mumble feebly that it was the only language my parents had
in common. “Oh! Of course,” they say (translation: I must be a moron for not
speaking five other languages.) And it does make me feel, at times, fraudulent:
not only am I an inauthentic Briton, but I’m an inauthentic ethnic too. It’s like
the monks opened up Cuthbert’s casket and admitted that actually, he is starting
to pong a bit.
I do know some words in Tagalog and Turkish but they function as synonyms, a
few extra words in the thesaurus. Beautiful is maganda is guzel. By a very strange
chance, I do know a single word in Dutch: Walloon. However, I don’t quite know
how this translates, if it’s a neutral or derogatory term. Perhaps it’s extremely
offensive and the translator is currently spluttering coffee over the computer
screen. Perhaps it’s completely mundane. But this is how English I am; that all I
can think of is its similarity to Wealhas, the Anglo-Saxon word from which Wales
is derived, and that means, simply, foreigner.
Krijn Peter emails to let me know Walloon isn’t a Dutch word at all. “It is weird,”
he says, “though definitely interesting, for Dutch readers to be confronted with a
word that is Dutch according to the author, but which they do not, or not really,
recognise as such.” But he points out that there is a similar word – Wallonië
– that refers to French-speaking Belgium. And according to his dictionary, an
inhabitant of Wallonië is referred to as ‘Waal’, which derives from Old English
‘wielisc’, meaning strange, foreign… and Welsh.
Feeling rather stupid, I quickly look up the place I came across my one Dutch
word – a memoir in English by a Filipino-Dutch writer – and find the word is
actually ‘allochtoon’. It’s a strange route from that to the Belgians: allochtoon
= foreigner = wealhas/wielisc = Wales + allochtoon = Walloon. I like the
strange symmetry of it, the way the wrong path has still led to a word concerned
with language and identity, where Walloon is somehow a definition of not being
Flemish. I email Krijn Peter with allochtoon; luckily this time it turns out to be