When I was studying in Britain, Julio Iglesias was all the rage. Julito, as we besotted Latinas at my halls of residence called him, in raptures and in his native tongue, with sighed ay, ay, ay in assorted tones. The rage was such that, in all of the four years I spent in the country, his were the only non-English words that I ever heard on national radio.
One evening, my other gang, of linguistics students of which I happened to be the only foreigner that day, were doing what students do best in their free time, quaffing beer at the local pub, when Un Canto a Galicia came on. To me, the Canto was a special treat. Julito sings it in Gallego, which fitted in smoothly with the Spanuguese-Portunish that the besotted gang were developing at home in order to achieve successful communication.
The friend sitting next to me at the pub tensed up as the first words were heard, but before I could turn to him to comment on what I took for shared delight, he mumbled: “I hate that guy.” Like that, matter-of-factly. The Earth is round, water freezes at 0º C, and he hates Julio Iglesias. I had to ask him why, and he told me why: “He’s all over the place. And I don’t understand a word he’s saying!”
I would have said Hey!! Hey, but the voice, the delivery, the feeling, the *music*? Do you need to understand words to understand that?!, if two other things hadn’t struck me at the same time. How new it must have been, to my friend, to hear unintelligible words, and how disturbing, to have them imposed on him on national radio. So much for the “universal” language of music. For a second, I forgot that much of it comes complete with lyrics, and that lyrics come in tongues.
The tongues are the issue, and the ways of using them. My friend’s reaction wasn’t all that different from the ones that other recorded voices were found to trigger. Granted, we’re talking about different languages in one case, and about different language varieties in another, but the bad blood towards otherness, with or without intelligible words, flares up as heatedly.
Intelligibility is one of those language-related concepts that everyone talks about and nobody knows what it means. It serves, for example, as a handy (read: ‘futile’) trick to assign inexistent boundaries to languages, which are said to be mutually unintelligible, versus dialects of the “same” language, which are said not to be. On this issue, I refer to Spanportishese, as above. We human beings in fact appear to be the only species for whom unintelligibility is an issue: Russian horses, say, and Brazilian ones seem to have no trouble communicating with one another, as far as we human beings can ascertain.
Intelligibility hinges on what we are familiar with. It is not, in other words, one-size-fits-all. When you’re making yourself understood, in the ways in which you usually make yourself understood to those who you already know will understand you, you’re not making yourself understood. You just happen to be understood, out of humdrum communicative habits. But humdrum things aren’t born humdrum, so this also tells us that if you are indeed intelligible to someone else, and vice versa, that’s because familiarity breeds intelligibility: you and someone else have somehow become mutually intelligible. The key word here is become.
Awareness that we need to become intelligible, and make others behave likewise towards us, comes from exposure to variety and from practice with it, for the purposes that we deem worth the trouble of learning to accommodate to otherness. We all know how to do this, whether with our own small children or with the local vendors of the delights that we covet on our chartered tours to Exotic-Land. Intelligibility is a matter of will, both across and within languages, and from both you and me.
I comforted my friend at the pub by telling him that his language was, like Julito, also all over the place on other national radios, and that if I hadn’t learnt it I would have missed out on two things: on the hearty discussion about foreign languages and foreign behaviours that had by then generalised to the remaining linguists at our table; and on drinking choice English beer in the country of its birth.
Next time, I’ll offer a few other thoughts about intelligibility, among them the belief that s p e a k i n g l o u d a n d c l e a r , like this, is the key to communicative success.
© MCF 2011
Next post: Fluent mumbles and precise vagueness. Saturday 11th June 2011.