for Daniela Cascella
Last August, in one of his habitual Sunday trips to the flea market my father found an old dictionary of Bable – Bable being the dialect of our region Asturias. Unlike the Basque or the Catalonian, we didn’t have a strong independence movement to help preserve the mountain languages, and by the time I was born most of it was lost. We are getting it back little by little. But how do you recover sounds no one has heard in generations?
Like this: my father started taking pictures of the dictionary, and sending them to me, one page per day. He intends to do this until he runs out of pages, until he runs out of words to recover.
I should have started like this: I apologize for my accent. (I always do)
What I mean is: I apologize for the words you will hear, which will not sound like you know they should. I apologize for the mistakes, for the hesitation, for the stuttering. My tongue was not made to speak English. It was made for a language of wolves.
But still – with the mistakes, with the hesitation, with the stuttering – I want to tell you.
I want to tell you I didn’t watch an American movie until I was fifteen. I watched countless American movies before I was fifteen but they were not really – American, I mean. They were dubbed. People in them spoke in Spanish, a neutral style of Spanish that nobody really speaks. Nobody real, that is. A kind of no-accent accent. Years later I learned the British have a name for it. Not a name, two letters. You call it R.P. Received Pronunciation. Of course there’s nothing neutral about this.
I didn’t know there were accents until I went to college.
As a child visiting my cousins twice a year (summer, Easter). A tiny village in Salamanca, rural Spain, deep Spain. In their accents you learned to tell the difference between rabbits and hares, a place that always gave me the thrill of something a little wild, a little unkempt, where you could see abandoned train tracks on your way to visit a friend. My cousins had accents, the kind that made me remember Easter, the Holy Week processions through the streets of the tiny village, and how terrified I was of those, of the “capuchones”, with their purple shrouds and their pointy, KKK hats, their bleeding feet – it was a symbol of extreme piety, participating in the event, holding a heavy sculpture of the Christ on the Cross, barefoot. I watched my older cousins in their kitchens, at night, afterwards, pulling out shards of glass, sharp stones, from the flesh of their feet.
Years later I discovered the works of experimental filmmaker Jose Val del Omar, who worked during the 1930s, and then spent almost twenty years of silence because of Franco’s dictatorship`- he filmed the Holy Week traditions all over Spain, he filmed intense hallucinated images of wooden Christ on the Cross, he found beauty in these processions, terrifying beauty, and made me see it too. But I’m still terrified by Ecce Homo sculptures, terrified by purple robes, and by the idea of walking on broken glass.
I used to love it there, in that cousin-country, deep Spain. I used to love it there, except in Easter with the broken glass. They had proper summer there. They had heat and real sun.
Where I lived there was never real sun; it was always a little too cold, too damp, and windy.
Always the probability of rain, of precipitation.
That is my accent: The probability of precipitation. That’s my accent. The… precipitation.
What I mean is that I didn’t know I had an accent until college.
I thought I was “neutral”, I thought I was “received pronunciation”. I thought I was – at least in that, at least in one sense, oh please let me have something, anything – normal.
There are countless paintings of women dressed in ordinary black, sewing fishnets at the beach in my accent. By painters whose names you don’t know: Evaristo Valle, Luis Bayón, Nicanor Piñole.
“Whenever you talk to your mom on the phone you end up catching an accent,” my best friend always says.
To catch an accent. Are accents contagious? An illness, a plague? Are they genetic?
In Spanish for a word to “have an accent” means to be set apart from the rest, to have a diacritical mark, to have a mark
to be marked
to have an accent is to be marked
I did not want (more) marks.
The custom in the countryside was and is to mark the separation between fields, between field owned by one person or another, with stones. With stone fences. The problem with that is you can always move the stones. It will take you years and you have to be very careful, very discreet, do it at night, but little by little, stone by stone, you can end up stealing acres of land from your neighbour. And your hands stained, traces of lichen, an accusation like gunpowder residue after a murder.
The problem is you end up leaving gaps, gaps between the stones – that’s how an accent gets lost.
There are so many words in English I don’t know.
I don’t have useful words for accents, for any of their sounds.
But I have them for the things accents are made of.
Cinder, cider, lichen.
(or is it liken? I tried to look the pronunciation up but YouTube didn’t help)
I have words for: I remember standing in my great-grandmother’s kitchen while she made sweet omelette, a poor people’s delicacy made with milk, sugar and stale bread, but I do not have her accent. Hers was a different kind of green.
It’s Christmas last year and we have gone deep into the mountains, my father, my aunts and uncles and me, to eat at a restaurant that only serves two dishes: stuffed artichokes and goat stew. It’s a beautiful region, dark, so cold. A land of wolves, the owner of the restaurant tell us. Wolves and “maquis”, who used to hide around here. Maquis, the Republican guerrillas who went up to the mountains, deep in the mountains, rather than admit defeat at the hands of fascists. Who still fought the fascist for decades after defeat. Here, living among wolves.
There are scarier things in life than wolves.
There are so many words in English I don’t know.
You will hear me mispronounce, you will hear me falter, you will hear me fail.
When I first moved to London I was convinced no one would understand my accent. I was dropped near Victoria Station, Eccleston Bridge, a month in a hostel room in which I didn’t speak to anyone, in which I didn’t know if they’d understand me. I spent the days watching DVDs in my not-so-portable computer.
Carole Lombard, the unlucky 1930s comedian, is saying something in an American film:
(not dubbed, this time, this time she’s speaking English)
She says: “I like big words”.
Well, I like big words, I just don’t know how to pronounce them.
When I moved to London I discovered I had another accent.
Not the born-with-it accent in Spanish. A generic Spanish accent. A generic accent that prompts strangers to tell me “Mallorca is beautiful”, “Barça is my favorite football team”, “I love Almodóvar”. And at least I am and look white, so the usual “you speak English so well” backhanded compliments don’t happen too often.
Or perhaps they don’t happen too often because I don’t. Speak too well, that is.
Cinder, cider. Cider, cinder, mountains and wolves.
My father sends another page of the dictionary to my phone, another recovered word. Today is GAFURA, a word we use for poisonous animals and insects. Another word for “vermin”.
But you cannot hear my accent when I say this.
You cannot hear my Asturian accent when I talk in Spanish under my Spanish accent when I talk in English.
I cannot talk in English.
You will hear me fail:
My tongue was made for wolf-speak and there haven’t been wolves in England for centuries now.
You’ve got seagulls, though. They wake me up every morning before dawn, searching through the rubbish bins next to my bedroom window.
“The seagulls, my love.
The slow, tall seagulls,”
wrote the Asturian poet Ángel González in one of his earlier works. He spoke of putting back together illusions trampled on, systematically broken – we had 40 years of those in my country – and of the freedom of complaining in a soft voice, complaining to yourself at least.
Cinder, cider, seagulls.
When I move to London I discover I still have an accent.
I am not neutral.
I am not RP.
I am not Received Pronunciation.
I am not received.
Lara Alonso Corona was born in a small city in the north of Spain. She completed her Film and TV studies in Madrid before moving to London to study creative fiction. Her fiction has appeared in magazines like Literary Orphans, Whiskey Island and the noir anthology Betty Fedora.