Charles Durante: Gibraltarian Language and Identity (I)

Charles Durante

Charles Durante on Gibraltarian Language and Identity Part 1 – Read his 3-part series on bilingualism in Gibraltar.

Some years ago, I wrote a piece on the Gibraltarian identity and, I remember, I compared the Gibraltarian to Charlie Chaplin. Some naive readers took umbrage, complaining I was ridiculing the locals, denigrating their status to that of a shuffling, ‘moustachioed’, shabbily-dressed tramp. Of course, this was very wide of the mark.

Gibraltarians compared to Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin

Comic characters are more resilient than tragic ones. By definition, tragic heroes are always brought down a peg or two; they are reviled by their enemies and usually sacrificed because of their hubris or arrogance. Comic characters, however, are difficult to pin down; they are more resourceful, are more self-aware and combative. Ukraine has just voted in a president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is a comedian!

My intention was to see the Gibraltarian as a feisty, friendly and self-reliant person, sandwiched between two giants (Spain and Great Britain), just like Chaplin is surrounded by tough guys whom he discomfits by out-manoeuvring them and finally getting the girl! Briefly, I was praising the Gibraltarian, not disparaging him

A sense of belonging to the same linguistic community; an awareness of forming part of a distinct people with a long chequered history; a sentimental attachment to the Rock; an enhanced self-consciousness as a result of the Evacuation Diaspora and repatriation; a wary attitude towards Spain, sometimes ambivalent, sometimes hostile, especially since the time when the frontier was closed; living in a diverse, pluralistic society, with religious tolerance, social harmony and an absence of ethnic tension-these are some of the characteristics which, to some extent, define the Gibraltarians as a people.

Gibraltar Reach Alcance

This article will explore the idea of identity and how it is linked to language. Language is the great signifier of identity-it encapsulates idioms peculiar to a place, it is used with a particular accent which can serve as a means of assigning people to a specific culture or place; it enshrines the history, evolution and literature of a people.

The moment you open your mouth, you give away your provenance. I was once accused of having an accent. When I pointed out that my interlocutor also had an accent, the lady in question was outraged: she was Canadian and didn’t have an accent!

Teasing out the factors which go towards constituting a people, the elements without which they are only a factitious, ersatz gathering of human beings, is never going to be easy. Two key concepts in sociology can shed some light on the nature of our identity.

Gemeinschaft is the term used to describe a community characterised by relations which are homogeneous, largely based on kinship and organic ties, and which has a moral cohesion founded on religious sentiment and similar mores. Gesellschaft, however, is a loose association, an artificial social arrangement.

This latter term lies behind the more lamentable Spanish jibe that we are not a real people, but a medley of disparate ethnic groups without a common, shared identity. It is obvious that Gibraltar is defined by Gemeinschaft relations.

Charles Durante Gibraltar, Language and Identity
Charles Durante

Gemeinschaft communities are centred mainly on the family. The nuclear family is the repository of moral values, of loving relationships, stability and a living tradition. Sadly, many families break up and both parents and, especially, children suffer. This is when the wider social network of extended family and friends becomes essential and provides much-needed support. I think we can rightly claim to have this safety net in place in Gibraltar.

The Gibraltarian identity is in flux, we are told, and therefore it is unwise to look for one definitive view of what makes us the people we are. However, there have been critical moments in our history when this identity has been honed and shaped so that certain aspects, like those mentioned in the fourth paragraph, have come to the fore.

When our sovereignty has been threatened, we have emphasised our British legacy, our assimilation of democratic values, our belief in free expression, our right to self-determination, and our cultivation and fostering of the English language…

Part II will be available on the 3rd of July – only on Reach-Alcance!

Charles Durante on Gibraltarian Language and Identity Part 1 – Read his 3-part series on bilingualism in Gibraltar.

What do you think?