"It's Menorquí!" a chorus of my 14-year-old students called out to me before the final syllable fell from my lips. I stood there, mouth agape, feeling in equal parts sheepish and confused. "Okay..." I said slowly not certain of how to proceed. It was the most many of them had spoken to me so far during the school year.
As such, I couldn't quite decide whether or not I should consider their correction a success or a faux pas. "Menorquí?"...I repeated as they nodded their heads in agreement. It was only my second month in Minorca, an island in the Spanish Balearic archipelago. And I had unknowingly trespassed unto a rather sensitive topic.
It was an easy trap to fall into, given the subject matter of my lesson. As a language assistant, my official job title, I was meant to engage students in conversation, so that they could practice their English skills with a native speaker.
That day, I had chosen for us to read an article about the most spoken languages in the world. Among those listed were English, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. As luck and immigration patterns in Spain would have it, my classes would generally hold native speakers of at least three of the four languages. I was convinced that I had hit it out of the park.
I asked what I thought was a simple question. "What is a native tongue?" I posed to them. Blank stares. "Okay," I started again. "What is a tongue?" Blank stares. I shot a few desperate glances to the two British students in the room. One was kind enough to produce the answer to my query. "Yes!" I shouted as I pointed to him. They all turned. "This is your tongue. So what does native tongue mean?"
I sighed and tried a different tactic. "My native tongue is...what?" "Iiiingliiiish" someone finally responded. Success at last. "Ok, then. What is your native tongue?" I asked my British accomplice. "English." He told me. "What is your native tongue?" I asked someone else. "Eh-SPAN-ish." He responded. Progress, I thought before turning to a Moroccan student. "And you?" "Spanish...and Arabic," she told me. "Finally!" I said to myself as I continued to around the room.
Feeling cocky now, as I approached the last few students, I stopped asking. And here is where I made my fatal flaw. "Wait." I said, "Nobody speaks Catalá?" Half the class threw up their arms in typical fashion and uttered "¡Por supuesto!" (of course!)
The other half shouted at me: "It's Menorquí!"
The year before, it wouldn't have been possible to make such a mistake. I lived in Madrid, the capital of Spain. Where, unsurprisingly, natives spoke only Castellano or Castilian Spanish. For clarity, Castellano is what we all know as Spanish. But Castellano is hardly the only language spoken in Spain. Not by a long shot.
Nine months of travel had taught me that there were at least four other languages--not dialects--spoken in Spain. Chief among them was Gallego, spoken in Galicia, a Northwestern region of Spain above Portugal. Also Euskara or Basque spoken in the Basque Country, which extends from Northern Spain into Southern France. Catalán which is spoken in Catalonia and, as I learned, the Balearic Islands.
And here is where things get tricky. While Gallego, Castellano, and Catalá, are romance languages--Euskara is not. In fact, it is a language isolate and according to Wikipedia "is the last remaining descendant of one of the pre-Indo-European languages of Western Europe."
Gallego is linguistically closest to Portuguese. And while Castilian Spanish and Catalá, share some words, Catalá is also linguistically closer to Portuguese and Italian than it is to Spanish.
Are you keeping up with me? Good. Because I am about to confuse you again.
In Valencia, a province below Catalonia, Valencian is also spoken. But (come closer) Valencian is technically a dialect of Catalá. It is mostly considered a separate language due to tension between the two provinces. While there are some differences, the two are mutually intelligible. Valencian is a dialect of Catalá, not a separate language. Just don't tell them that.
And this brings us back to Menorquí. By now, you are probably wondering if it is a language or a dialect? Congratulations. You now know how I felt when I received my work schedule; only to find the days of the week unintelligible.
Here's your answer: Menorquí is a dialect of Catalá, not a separate language. And while these distinctions can feel a bit like splitting hairs, that does not mean that they are unimportant.
I realized this about a month later during a Christmas lesson. I asked the students about a Catalonian Christmas tradition I had learned about last year from a student. Again, I was met with blank stares. Finally, one boy broke the silence to tell me "This is not Catalonia."
He was right of course. A quick Wikipedia search informed me that the Balearic Islands were a province in their own right. And despite linguistic similarities between Catalá and Menorquí, and (relative) physical closeness between Minorca and Barcelona my students taught me that the two were not interchangeable.
And while that may seem confusing to many, the people here have already come up with a solution to help us differentiate the two.
It's called Menorquí.