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Language creates our sense of reality (ITWS#19)

The phrase ‘language creates our reality’ resonates powerfully for me. It comes up time and again in leadership and development coaching at all levels and across the diverse range of coachees that I have been fortunate enough to work with. From my perspective as a coach there is the challenge of knowing that the language I use in my enquiries will influence my coachee is some way. My ability to form an effective coaching relationship with my coachee will depend on our ability to form a common understanding of what is important in the conversations we are having. Of course, in this context language covers a whole variety of things: what is being said, how it is being said, how it is being received, the conflict or alignment of words and body language, and so on.

The following story is one that I wrote in 2014 and never intended to share. It is a spot of self-mockery in relation to how we learned Spanish at a time when we fell in love with a particular area of Spain, Las Alpujarras. Much to our surprise we ended up buying a tiny village house there and for both of use it was really important to do our best with the language, and its local interpretation.

The ‘language creates our reality’ phrase has a part to play here to. How can you expect to understand the culture of a different country if you have no grasp of the language at all? It was something that was important to both of us, but we definitely underestimated the challenge we were (and still are) facing!

Sharing this at the end of a series prompted by COVID19 lockdown is appropriate too. We have both desperately missed the peace and tranquility of the campo around our home during the time it has not been possible to visit. For so many years we have recharged our batteries simply by taking in the magnificent views and sucking in lungfuls of fresh mountain air. We have missed the space, peace and isolation. For now, this is a nice memory to share, something that gives us a smile and reminds us of the challenge in even arriving at the correct pronunciation of a single word!

Spanish pronunciation for beginners – how to say Juviles

A yardstick that can be used to measure our understanding of the Alpujarras is one that maps onto our ability to pronounce even the simplest of words. You would think it should be easy as in many regards the vowel sounds used in Spanish are much easier that English. Pronounce ‘a’ as in bat not as in mate; ‘e’ as in bet and not as in feed; ‘i’ as in hit but never as in mite; ‘o’ as in hot but not as in mote; and ‘u’ as in moon but not as in mud. Spanish vowel sounds rarely modify one another. That is to say, they rarely form diphthongs, which until recently I thought were things you would see in an underwear catalogue. For example, there is not going to be a situation, as in English where the word ‘tear’ and be pronounced differently to mean either ripping or crying. Neither will there be the situation where the words tear and tier would have identical pronunciation.

Great news but there is a rub. Every vowel sound is pronounced independently. The linguistic challenge with the monetary unification in mainland Europe had major ramifications. Up to the point of reunification money was all about pesetas which is an easy word to pronounce with the short and separate vowel sounds. All of a sudden, the peseta was no more, and the euro becomes the unit of currency – try saying that using the vowel sounds noted above. It is achievable, but only with some fairly ridiculous facial contortions.

Anyway, back to the point. On our first journey to the La Alpujarra we travelled on paths through the high Alpujarra from Mariena to Trevelez via Yegen, Mecina Bombaron, and Berchules. One place our route did not take us was a town called Juviles. An entry level northern European pronunciation of this would be Jew-viles. This was our start point until we learned of the simplicity of the vowel sounds which led us to believe that a better rendition was Jew-vil-es.

On our second visit to the Alpujarra we discovered the delights of the La Taha, a collection of villages that are on the south facing slopes of the valley above the Rio Trevelez. We stayed in Mecina Fondales (actually two separate villages) in Cortijo Berenjena owned by Simon and Lorraine who were good hosts. We went there twice and on the second visit they came around for a quick drink on our last evening. With an extraordinary commitment they stayed until the last drop our holiday drinks cabinet was consumed, a considerable feat involving a potent combination of beer, wine and spirits. I have a recollection of 1960s songs being sung acapella at around two in the morning which is something that in our experience is reserved for those occasions where Spanish brandy has been the staple of the evening diet.

Prior to this we had explored La Taha widely. Althoug every village was stunning we liked the small town of Busquistar in particular. Without knowing it at the time it was the La Taha experience that probably sowed the seeds of our desire to have a more permanent base there. On this occasion we once again did not get to Juviles. By now we had approached it from both east and west, but never actually entered the village itself.

During our second visit to La Taha we made an effort to get to Juviles. By now we had some more understanding of the language. In particular the need to put an emphasis on the appropriate syllable of each word. This is actually more important than pronunciation when getting yourself understood and, of course, has not direct equivalent in spoken English. The general rules are that (a) any word ending in a vowel or an ‘n’ or ‘s’ has an the emphasis placed on the penultimate syllable (b) a word ending with any other letter would have the emphasis on final syllable and (c) an accent over a letter tells where the emphasis must be if it breaks either of rules (a) and (b) (the accent in Spanish has nothing to do with altering pronunciation). So for example Andalucía is in fact Andalucía and Nieles is actually Nieles. So now we thought that Juviles would be Jew-vi-les. Progress?!

When I say we made an effort to go there it is worth noting that in fact it was only about 6 km from our base in the La Taha as the crow flies but it was more like 40km along mountain roads to actually drive there. No big deal but we were very much into walking everywhere which explained why Juviles has not featured as a priority before. When we did get there it was very much a place to park and to be the point of departure and return of a walk that was to turn out to be one that would have a big influence on our future.

Our route, as usual for the time a very demanding one, saw us go down from Juviles towards one of the mercury mines that were active until the 1950s. They still have the long conduction tunnels and chimneys in which mercury vapour was condensed back to liquid form as part of the process releasing it from its natural ore. The path went steeply down via an area of cliffs called Los Gigantes. On arrival at the first mine we also found the cemetery for the small village of Timar. We both hoped that the co-location of the mines with the cemetery was not significant although extraction of mercury cannot have been the safest job in the world.

We then went into Timar, a hamlet that felt almost deserted, and took a fantastic path down further to Lobras which was spectacular every step of the way. The walk from Lobras to Nieles was notable because of the fantastic views, firstly back to Timar and then, very occasionally, a sighting of Juviles that for all the world looked like it was hanging in the air above Timar. If you have read Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy you will know of his evocation of other worlds that hung in the sky. Juviles was one such, and the impact is occasionally enhanced when Juviles appears above a cloud hovering on the hillsides immediately above Timar.

The next surprise was rounding a corner to be presented with a full-on view of Nieles, apparently within touching distance but in fact separated from us by a 500 foot drop to the valley floor. The views of the whitewashed villages in this area were somehow more immediate than in the Taha and more spectacular for it.

We both fell in love with the area on that day but did not appreciate the seriousness of the relationship! The beauty of the environment was certainly a powerful influence but there is something of an atmosphere in La Alpujarra that implies tolerance, inclusivity and care for others. Given the history of the country this is going to seem a little naïve, yet it was a sense we both had.

The architecture reflects the Moorish influence of the Muslim rulers of Southern Spain who, in their final days, were confined to the La Alpujarra before eventually being expelled from the country. The architecture of the area is a testament to the Moors and their impact on the communities was noted, and remains celebrated, by the Catholics that replaced them. From the Mezquita in Cordoba, the biggest indoor venue for worship in the world, reflected the Muslim dominance, and the quality of their craftsmanship.

One Spanish king committed the folly of building a full-scale cathedral within the mosque in Cordoba. He did have the good taste to recognise, albeit after the event, that he had defiled a truly remarkable building with his efforts to impose a Christian architecture on it.

More locally to us the church in Castarás has a roof that was built courtesy of techniques developed by the Moors and shared with the less advanced European population of Andalucía.

It is clear that even back at the time of expulsion of the Moors there was an appreciation of the impact they had on the area. There was a requirement, a royal decree that two Moorish families had to remain in each Alpujarran village to ensure that continuity of the irrigation system that they had developed. It might be fanciful to think it but this background in both Muslim and Christian faiths from several centuries ago still has echoes today: definitely in the look of the place and also in the way they live their lives.

Anyway, the walk finished with a return to the village of Timar and a different ascent this time via a beautiful valley under the shadow of a mountain called El Fuerte. We arrived back at Juviles without having the breath to worry about pronunciation of the village name but with memories of a landscape that will remain with us for as long as we can remember.

Having found out about this area we wanted to base ourselves there on our next visit and were fortunate to find Cortijo Chocolate in Nieles, a self-catered farmhouse owned by Jeff and Sallie. This lovely little cottage allowed us to explore the area more thoroughly taking in walks around all the villages we first discovered but also to find Castarás, Notaez, Almejígar and Torvizcon. We found routes back into the Taha valley and into our old favourite Busquistar too. so were much pleased with our new-found base camp. It was probably during this time that we learned two important pronunciations that helped with the correct naming of Juviles. We also realised that we were way off the mark with our pronunciation when we got a bus from Trevelez to Juviles and drew a complete blank for the driver with our, at the time, best rendition of Jew-vi-les.

What we had not known, or failed to apply, was the fact that ‘v’ in Spanish is pronounced as a soft ‘b’. If you find yourself putting your lower teeth to your upper lip when pronouncing a ‘v’ it is going to go badly for you! You can also have a giggle at Spanish visitors as they try and say ‘very’ and achieve ‘berry’ instead. They do not have the mouth machinery to make a ‘v’ sound! So now we have Jew-bi-les.

Next is how to deal with the letter ‘j’ – a challenge in many languages. We were always making the mistake of doing the throat clearing sound necessary to achieve the right sound for the ‘ch’ in loch, or at least the sound that English people do when mocking the Scottish accent! In fact, the Spanish ‘j’ is much softer, like the first syllable of ‘hoover’.

Now we were getting sophisticated with our management of Juviles and could at least make ourselves better understood with Hoo-bi-les. You might wonder how the letter ‘j’ can masquerade as ‘h’. The answer is simple – the letter ‘h’ is almost always silent throughout Spain. I can testify to this after years of being called Dr Inks by my various Spanish and south American tutees.

On our third visit to Cortijo Chocolate we found ourselves walking down the road and both thinking why not look at a place or two. Derryn had always been avid with her internet research and noted the impact of the fiscal crisis in Spain. Without knowing it we both needed a distraction from challenges at work and were lucky enough to be able to have a budget to apply to an overseas challenge. We looked at two places in Nieles and made a fairly low offer on one of them, but still only just within our budget! Our expectation was that it would be rejected. We arrived back in the UK to find our offer accepted. Three months later, after a sale entirely conducted by email, we found ourselves with the keys to a delightful little house and a sense of wondering how exactly this had happened to us!

It was on our first return as property owner that we learned of a final linguistic tic, more local in nature than some of the other difficulties we had encountered. Andalucian’s (a word you will not find in Spain as they do not use the apostrophe ‘s’ to indicate possession) do not pronounce either ‘s’ or ‘d’, particularly irritating in that these are letters that often start or finish words and can be picked our relatively easily by the learner’s ear. And so it is that applying this last piece of intelligence to the proper naming Juviles – it is Hoo-bi-le. Now, as I am sure you have been paying attention you have nearly all the information you need to give a proper rendition of Busquistar. Give it a go!

So, there you have it from Jewviles to Hoo-bi-le, and from holidaymakers to property owners in the same time frame. I remain unsure as to whether this reflects our linguistic ability or our decisiveness. I prefer the latter, yet I fear the former is better illustrated in this parable.

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